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Week 1 of the college football season features several interesting matchups, storylines and new faces stepping into playing time. Athlon gets you ready for the opening Saturday of action with an in-depth look at Week 1.

Top Storylines to Watch for Week 1

1. Two of the weekend’s most intriguing games take place in Atlanta, starting with NC State-Tennessee on Friday night. The Wolfpack are a popular sleeper pick in the ACC, while the Volunteers look to get back on track after a disappointing 5-7 record last season. Even though receiver Da’Rick Rogers was a head case, his departure will impact Tennessee’s offense. Without Rogers, NC State can shift All-American cornerback David Amerson to Hunter, leaving talented, but unproven junior college recruit Cordarrelle Patterson as the Volunteers’ No. 2 receiver. Tennessee’s Tyler Bray and NC State’s Mike Glennon are two of the top 15 quarterbacks in the nation, but whichever offense can establish the run (and some balance) will likely come out on top. The ACC’s needs marquee non-conference wins, and NC State could give the conference one on Friday night.

2. Even with significant personnel losses, Boise State will be in the mix for a BCS bowl in 2012. However, the Broncos have a huge opening week test at Michigan State. The Spartans will be breaking in a new quarterback (Andrew Maxwell), but the defense could be the best in the Big Ten. Michigan State will test Boise State in the trenches, especially on defense where the Broncos are replacing all four starters from last year. The Broncos have never lost an opener under coach Chris Petersen. However, that record will be put to the test against a talented and deep Michigan State roster. Considering the new faces stepping into playing time, could we see Boise State pull out a few trick plays to keep the Spartans on their toes?

3. Saturday’s matchup between Ohio State and Miami (Ohio) should be a one-sided affair. However, it’s a big day in Columbus, as the Buckeyes open up play under new coach Urban Meyer. A postseason ban has left Ohio State with nothing to play for, but this team should contend for the Big Ten’s best overall record. This game will be the first opportunity to see how the Buckeyes’ new spread offense looks and how much quarterback Braxton Miller has improved over the offseason. In addition to Miller’s improvement, Ohio State has a core of young players expected to see significant snaps, while the offensive line was a question mark after spring practice. It’s a long ways away from thinking about 2013. However, if the Buckeyes improve as expected, this team could be in the top five when next year’s preseason polls are released.

4. The second of the ACC-SEC Week 1 clashes in Atlanta features a Clemson team hoping to rebound after a disappointing end to 2011, while Auburn looks to get back on track after an 8-5 record last year. Both teams will be without key players, as Clemson’s Sammy Watkins is facing a two-game suspension, while starting center Reese Dismukes is suspended for Auburn. Even with Watkins suspended, Clemson has plenty of firepower to win this game. However, the key battle to watch will be in the trenches, as Clemson’s offensive line is a question mark, and Auburn’s defensive line could be one of the best in the SEC. Getting pressure on quarterback Tajh Boyd is Auburn’s best chance to win, but Clemson will counter with a quick-strike passing attack. Just like NC State matching up against Tennessee, this game represents an opportunity for Clemson to earn a key win for the ACC.

5. Speaking of conferences and key victories, the Big Ten has an opportunity to earn a huge non-conference win against the SEC on Saturday night. Michigan faces an uphill battle to beat Alabama, but a win by the Wolverines would help bolster the Big Ten’s reputation and place them squarely in the mix as a national title contender. However, the Crimson Tide’s strengths (offensive and defensive lines) are also where Michigan has question marks. Winning the battle in the trenches will be crucial to the Wolverines’ chances at an upset bid.

6. It’s been a long offseason in Happy Valley, so Saturday’s game against Ohio can’t get here fast enough for Penn State. There’s some momentum with a new coaching staff, but the Nittany Lions need to find weapons on offense, while finding a way to slow down Bobcats’ quarterback Tyler Tettleton. New coach Bill O’Brien will have his work cut out for him over the next couple of years, and if the offense struggles to find its footing, Ohio will have a chance to exit Happy Valley with a victory.

7. With Texas being a heavy favorite against Wyoming, it’s hard to glean much from the Longhorns opener. However, this game will be a good opportunity for quarterback David Ash to show he’s clearly the No. 1 quarterback over Case McCoy. Ash doesn’t need to throw 30-40 times every game, but he has to stretch the field and give Texas some balance. If the sophomore can cut down on his mistakes, the Longhorns will push for the Big 12 title. If Ash struggles on Saturday, the door will be open for McCoy to steal snaps away for Week 2.

8. Quarterbacks Making Their First Start

Brett Hundley, UCLA – Hundley shined in his debut against Rice, recording over 300 yards of total offense and four touchdowns. The Owls weren’t exactly the toughest competition, but Hundley looked poised and in control.

Kiehl Frazier, Auburn – Frazier played in all 13 games last season but was recruited to run Gus Malzahn’s up-tempo offense. How will the sophomore transition to a pro-style offense? His first test won’t be easy, as Auburn takes on Clemson Saturday night in Atlanta.

Everett Golson, Notre Dame – Golson has yet to take a snap on the FBS level, but there’s a lot of confidence in him going into Saturday’s game against Navy. The dual-threat quarterback should thrive in Brian Kelly’s offense.

Wes Lunt, Oklahoma State – Repeating as Big 12 champs won’t be easy, but the Cowboys should be in good hands with Lunt under center.

Marcus Mariota, Oregon – The Hawaii native is a perfect fit for Chip Kelly’s offense and should have a monster debut against Arkansas State.

Andrew Maxwell, Michigan State – Not only was Kirk Cousins one of the Big Ten’s top quarterbacks, but he was a valuable leader for this team. Maxwell has very little experience but can lean on a solid rushing attack and offensive line.

Zach Mettenberger, LSU – After watching Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee struggle to stretch the field last season, Mettenberger appears to be the missing piece for LSU’s passing attack.

Josh Nunes, Stanford – Nunes has some of the biggest shoes to fill in college football as he looks to replace Andrew Luck.

Joe Southwick, Boise State – There’s really no way Boise State can replace Kellen Moore in 2012. Southwick will be making his first start this season and drew a tough opener on the road against Michigan State.

David Piland, Houston – Case Keenum is gone, but Houston’s high-powered offense shouldn’t drop too far with Piland at the controls.

Perry Hills, Maryland – With C.J. Brown out for the year due to a torn ACL, Hills (a true freshman) will get the controls to Maryland’s offense. After a disappointing 2-10 season last year, there’s a lot of pressure on the Terrapins to turn things around in 2012.

Bo Wallace, Ole Miss – New Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze coached Wallace at Arkansas State, and the sophomore edged Barry Brunetti for the starting nod this fall.
 

9. 6 Potential Upsets

Ohio at Penn State
It’s a new era at Penn State, but the Nittany Lions lost a handful of key players after the NCAA sanctions were handed down. An offense that struggled to move the ball last season will have some trouble adjusting to a new scheme, especially with the departure of running back Silas Redd. The Bobcats won 10 games last year and bring back quarterback Tyler Tettleton, who threw for 3,302 yards and 28 scores last year.
My pick: Ohio 24-20

Western Michigan at Illinois
Another Big Ten-MAC matchup ranks high on the list of possible upsets for Week 1. The Broncos are led by senior quarterback Alex Carder, but the Fighting Illini will counter with a defense that led the Big Ten in pass defense last season. Keep a close watch on Illinois’ offense. There’s some talent returning, but a new scheme could provide for some headaches early.
My pick: Illinois 27-24

FIU at Duke
The Blue Devils are dealing with a handful of injuries, including a couple to key contributors on defense. FIU nearly knocked off Duke last season, losing 31-27 in early October. The Golden Panthers return 17 starters and should give the Blue Devils all they can handle.
My pick: Duke 31-28

Indiana State at Indiana
The Sycamores were one of the worst teams in FCS play from 2005-2008, winning just one game during that span. Indiana State has improved under coach Trent Miles and could give its in-state rivals trouble on Saturday. The Hoosiers struggled in their first season under coach Kevin Wilson but should be improved in 2012.
My pick: Indiana 34-20

Toledo at Arizona
Expect a lot of points in this Week 1 battle. The Rockets no longer have Eric Page catching passes, but the offense returns two proven quarterbacks and a breakout player at running back in David Fluellen. The Wildcats may need some time to adjust to their new schemes but should find a way to edge Toledo on Saturday.
My pick: Arizona 37-30

NC State vs. Tennessee (Atlanta)
No one would really be surprised if Tennessee lost this game, but the Volunteers are the favorite. Without Da’Rick Rogers, Tennessee needs a big performance from receiver Justin Hunter, who is coming off a torn ACL.
My pick: NC State 31-27
 

10. Notable player absences

Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson – Watkins is the biggest absence for Week 1. The sophomore is suspended for the first two games of the season due to an offseason arrest, and there’s no question he will be missed. Clemson has depth at receiver, but it won’t be easy replacing an All-American.

Ray Graham, RB, Pittsburgh? – Graham hasn’t been officially ruled out, but all signs point to him sitting out the opener. The Panthers have capable backups in Isaac Bennett and Rushel Shell.

Tommy Rees, QB, Notre Dame – Rees is suspended for the first game of the year due to an off-the-field incident in early May. Barring a complete collapse by Everett Golson, Rees may not start again for Notre Dame this season.

Cierre Wood, RB, Notre Dame – Wood is suspended for the first two games, which leaves a gaping hole in the Notre Dame backfield. USC transfer Amir Carlisle is not ready to play, leaving Theo Riddick and George Atkinson III as the top two backs.

Fitzgerald Toussaint, RB, Michigan? – Brady Hoke has not decided whether or not Toussaint will sit out Saturday night’s game against Alabama. If Toussaint does not play, look for Thomas Rawls, Vincent Smith and Justice Hayes to carry the Wolverines’ ground attack.

Georgia suspensions – Cornerback Sanders Commings is suspended for the first two games, but the coaching staff has yet to announce any penalties for linebacker Alec Ogletree and safety Bacarri Rambo for offseason incidents.

James Sims, RB, Kansas – Sims is suspended for the opener due to an off-the-field incident. Tony Pierson will fill in as Kansas’ No. 1 back.

Jeff Scott, RB, Ole Miss – One of the few offensive playmakers for the Rebels will miss the season opener against Central Arkansas due to a back injury.

Seantrel Henderson, OT, Miami – Henderson has been a bust since coming to Miami and will sit out the opener after missing practices in August.
 

11. Three Mystery Teams to Watch in Week 1

1. Florida - Is it Jacoby Brissett or Jeff Driskel at quarterback? Also, do the Gators have any playmakers at wide receiver or running back?

2. Iowa – The Hawkeyes have a new offensive coordinator (Greg Davis) and several new faces in the front four on defense.

3. Miami – The Hurricanes have a lot of youth stepping into key roles on both sides of the ball and there’s a NCAA investigation still hanging over the program. It’s not crazy to think the opener against Boston College could decide whether or not Miami gets to a bowl game.
 

12. First-year coaches who should start off with a bang

1. Urban Meyer, Ohio State (vs. Miami (Ohio)
Buckeyes shouldn’t have much trouble with Miami (Ohio).

2. Paul Chryst, Pittsburgh (vs. Youngstown State)
Look for the Panthers to allow quarterback Tino Sunseri to build some confidence, as he should throw early and often against Youngstown State.

3. Larry Fedora, North Carolina (vs. Elon)
The Tar Heels are ineligible to play for the conference title or in a bowl game, but Fedora’s up-tempo offense should be fun to watch in Chapel Hill in 2012.

4. John L. Smith, Arkansas (vs. Jacksonville State)
After a tumultuous offseason, the Razorbacks will be glad to see the 2012 season begin.

5. Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss (vs. Central Arkansas)
Victories will be tough for the Rebels to find this year, but Freeze should get his tenure in Oxford off to a good start with an easy win over Central Arkansas.


13. Familiar faces, new places

Dayne Crist, QB, Kansas (from Colorado) vs. South Dakota State
Crist is a key piece in the rebuilding efforts at Kansas. The senior knows Charlie Weis’ system and should give the Jayhawks a spark on offense. Kansas has lost 10 consecutive games, but that streak will end on Saturday night with Crist under center.

Garrett Gilbert, QB, SMU (from Texas) vs. Baylor
Gilbert returns to the Big 12 with a non-conference matchup against Baylor. The Bears struggled on defense last season, but the Mustangs could struggle to exploit those question marks with a rebuilt offensive line.

Cody Green, QB, Tulsa (from Nebraska) vs. Iowa State
In a bit of a surprise, Tulsa is a slight favorite against Iowa State on Saturday. Green should be a good fit as G.J. Kinne’s replacement under center and certainly won’t be intimated after playing at Nebraska.

Montel Harris, RB, Temple (from Boston College) vs. Villanova
With Bernard Pierce moving onto the NFL, Harris is the perfect complement to Matt Brown in the backfield. Harris has battled knee injuries the last two seasons and will get a chance to show he is 100 percent on Friday night against the Wildcats.

Ryan Katz, QB, San Diego State (from Oregon State) vs. Washington
Katz struggled last year after a promising 2010 season. If he can get back on track, the Aztecs will test Washington’s defense and new coordinator Justin Wilcox.

Danny O’Brien, QB, Wisconsin (from Maryland) vs. Northern Iowa
The Badgers hope another transfer from the ACC is the answer under center. O’Brien won’t match Russell Wilson’s effectiveness, but he should be a solid option for Wisconsin this season. Expect O’Brien to get off to a good start in the opener against Northern Iowa.

Silas Redd, RB, USC (from Penn State) vs. Hawaii
Redd is the highest-profile name on the list and will play a key role in USC’s run at a national title. The Trojans are heavy favorites against Hawaii, so the junior probably won’t see a heavy workload. However, it will be interesting to see how Redd and Curtis McNeal share carries on Saturday.

Lache Seastrunk, RB, Baylor (from Oregon) vs. SMU
Yes, Robert Griffin will be missed, but the cupboard isn’t bare in Waco. Seastrunk’s big-play ability will help Baylor’s offense overcome the absence of the Heisman Trophy winner. Seastrunk did not play at Oregon but was one of the nation’s top recruits in 2010. SMU’s run defense allowed 118.3 yards per game last season but that will be tested by the Texas native on Sunday.

Jordan Webb, QB, Colorado (from Kansas) vs. Colorado State
Webb edged Texas transfer Connor Wood for the starting job in the fall. In two years as Kansas’ quarterback, he threw for 3,079 yards and 20 touchdowns.


Week 1 Predictions

Alabama 31, Michigan 13
Arizona 37, Toledo 30
Arkansas 52, Jacksonville State 13
Baylor 38, SMU 24
California 31, Nevada 27
Clemson 27, Auburn 24
Colorado 27, Colorado State 20
Duke 31, FIU 28
Florida 37, Bowling Green 17
Florida State 48, Murray State 10
Georgia 49, Buffalo 13
Illinois 27, Western Michigan 24
Indiana 34, Indiana State 20
Iowa 27, Northern Illinois 20
Iowa State 30, Tulsa 27
Kansas 38, South Dakota State 13
Kansas State 45, Missouri State 7
Louisville 27, Kentucky 17
LSU 51, North Texas 10
Maryland 34, William & Mary 14
Miami 24, Boston College 20
Michigan State 27, Boise State 17
Mississippi State 40, Jackson State 10
Missouri 45, SE Louisiana 7
NC State 31, Tennessee 27
Nebraska 38, Southern Miss 13
North Carolina 45, Elon 10
Northwestern 31, Syracuse 27
Ohio 24, Penn State 20
Ohio State 45, Miami (Ohio) 13
Oklahoma 45, UTEP 10
Oklahoma State 55, Savannah State 3
Ole Miss 38, Central Arkansas 10
Oregon 51, Arkansas State 20
Pittsburgh 41, Youngstown State 13
Purdue 41, Eastern Kentucky 10
Rutgers 38, Tulane 13
South Florida 45, Chattanooga 7
Stanford 44, San Jose State 7
Temple 40, Villanova 10
Texas 38, Wyoming 10
Texas Tech 52, Northwestern State 7
USC 55, Hawaii 10
Virginia 38, Richmond 7
Virginia Tech 31, Georgia Tech 24
Wake Forest 38, Liberty 13
Washington 40, San Diego State 17
West Virginia 44, Marshall 20
Wisconsin 45, Northern Iowa 7

by Steven Lassan

@athlonsteven

 

Related College Football Content

ACC Week 1 Previews and Predictions
Big East Week 1 Previews and Predictions

Big Ten Week 1 Previews and Predictions

Big 12 Week 1 Previews and Predictions

Pac-12 Week 1 Previews and Predictions

SEC Week 1 Previews and Predictions

College Football Week 1 Upset Picks

Athlon's 2012 Bowl Projections

Ranking All College Football Teams 1-124

Teaser:
<p> College Football Week 1 Preview: Match-Ups, Upset Picks and Storylines to Watch</p>
Post date: Friday, August 31, 2012 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/michigan-over-alabama-would-be-big-ten%E2%80%99s-best-win-decade
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The Big Ten needs some good news. On the field, Ohio State won the national championship in 2002 and was beaten handily in 2006 and 2007 by SEC teams in the big game. Other than that, the league has not really challenged on college football’s highest level in some time. The B1G has also lost eight of the last nine Rose Bowls in which it played. Meanwhile, the conference that many Big Ten fans loathe — the SEC — has piled up six consecutive national championships by four different schools. Off the field, the recent league landscape has been filled with scandals and coaching changes.

The Michigan Wolverines have a huge opportunity on Saturday night to make a statement that their program and their league are headed back to an elite level. Brady Hoke’s bunch gets a chance to knock off Alabama, an SEC power that has won two of the last three national championships. The Crimson Tide are ranked in the preseason top five despite losing five of the top 35 overall picks in the NFL Draft — Trent Richardson, Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick, Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw. Nick Saban’s crew also lost nose tackle Josh Chapman and defensive back DeQuan Menzie to the NFL, so electric Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson should be able to make plays against an inexperienced Bama group. Mr. Shoelace has accounted for 68 Wolverines touchdowns over the last two years, and he could be a nightmare matchup for the rebuilt Tide defense.

The Michigan defense will face a fairly predictable Alabama offense, although the Tide may have the best O-line in the country. The Wolverines have a solid back seven, including an excellent secondary, but the key to beating the defending champs will be the play of the defensive front. If they can keep the Tide running game in check, Michigan should be able to keep the game close and look to win it late.

The stakes could not be higher with two top 10 traditional powers meeting at Cowboys Stadium with the entire college football nation watching. This is not just another January bowl game, but instead a chance for a B1G team to take down the cream of the crop in the SEC. Michigan’s task of beating the juggernaut Alabama program will be difficult, as Nick Saban and his staff always have the elite talent on their roster ready to play. The Wolverines will not only be playing for themselves, but also for the pride of a conference looking for positives. A UM victory would be a catalyst for the Big Ten on the field, and it would be the league’s top win since the rival Buckeyes won it all in 2002.

--By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
 

Teaser:
<p> Michigan Over Alabama Would Be Big Ten’s Best Win in a Decade</p>
Post date: Friday, August 31, 2012 - 07:00
All taxonomy terms: College Football, News
Path: /news/kent-states-andre-parker-pulls-jim-marshall-fumble-return-against-towson
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Kent State linebacker Andre Parker made the news for all of the wrong reasons on Thursday night. In a game Kent State had clear control of, Parker picked up a muffed punt in the first half and returned it the wrong way. 

It's the first week of the season, so mistakes are going to be made. However, it's hard to understand why Parker never realized he was headed the wrong way.

The ball was technically dead after Parker touched it, but the referees did not blow the whistle, which allowed one of the strangest plays we might see all year to occur.

An underrated part of the video is Parker appears to get up after the run and talk trash to the Towson defenders. 

Needless to say, this is a play Parker would probably like to forget.

Teaser:
<p> Kent State's Andre Parker Pulls a Jim Marshall With Fumble Return Against Towson</p>
Post date: Friday, August 31, 2012 - 07:00
All taxonomy terms: College Football
Path: /college-football/college-football-betting-against-spread-week-1
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Every Friday for entertainment purposes only, I will bring you my top college football picks against the spread. I do not condone, approve or encourage gambling on sports in any way. Playing a $50 Texas Hold 'Em cash game with your buddies every Wednesday's is more about the experience than the net revenue. At least, that is the case for me.

But if you are a fan of football — college or pro — and you don't think gambling has played a huge role in the growth and popularity of the sport, then you are simply being ignorant. And behind closed doors, the powers that be understand the impact betting has had on the game of football.

2012 Record Against The Spread: 0-0

Last night I took the Gamecocks over the Dores, the Gophers over the Rebels and the Cougars of Pullman to pull the upset against the Cougars of Provo. Which means, the only two people with a worse start to the '12 season was Rick Stockstill and Robb Akey. 

Note: All lines are as of date of publication

Boise State (+7.5) at Michigan State (Fri.)
Chris Petersen and the Broncos have been great against BCS conference foes in Week 1. But Oregon, Georgia and Virginia Tech weren't true road games and this season opens against one of the best-coached teams in the Big Ten in East Lansing. This is the best offensive line Mark Dantonio has had since taking over MSU and could have the top defense in the Big Ten. Without Kellen Moore, Doug Martin and a host of elite defensive talents, Boise State will be hard-pressed to rebuild with a quarterback who has never started a game. The line of scrimmage will determine this game and Sparty has the clear advantage in the trenches. Prediction: Michigan State (-7.5)

Miami (-2) at Boston College
This game was a 24-17 grind-it-out victory for Boston College in South Florida last year. And likely one out of every three Hurricanes had already mentally checked out. Mass departures through the draft and dismissals have turned the Canes roster over, and it could eventually work out to be a good thing for The U. Meanwhile, the Eagles have major issues on offense and will struggle to move the ball whatsoever (take the under), so the key becomes Al Golden's freshman-laden offense and their ability to move the football. Miami will win a close game on the road, so laying a pair of points for a team that has a distinct talent advantage — both on the field and on the sidelines — seems like a low-risk proposition. Miami is 7-1 in its last eight trips to Chestnutt Hill. Prediction: Miami (-2)

Miami (Ohio) (+23.5) at Ohio State
Urban Meyer has returned to The Buckeye State with trumpets blaring and it has fans boiling over in anticipation. Star quarterback Braxton Miller fits the spread scheme perfectly and fans can bet that Meyer wants to make a big early statement. Look for the Buckeyes to make a concerted effort to develop the offense as questions loom for this team at many positions. This means the starters could be on the field deep into the game in order to give the coaches a clear picture of the O-Line and receivers. This also means the Bucks could post a big, crooked number. Miami was 4-8 last fall and won't be dramatically different this time around as Athlon has them picked 99th in the nation. The OSU defense will push Michigan State as the best unit in the Big Ten and it will stymie the Redhawks attack, so 31-35 points on offense could easily deliver the cover. Prediction: Ohio State (-23.5)

Auburn (+3) vs. Clemson (Atlanta, Ga.)
The Auburn Tigers have not won a non-conference, road/nuetral site regular-season game since 1997. And it lost to Clemson last fall 38-24 on the road. This game shifts to Atlanta and the focus shifts to the Clemson offensive line and how they will hold up against Auburn's new defense. Under Brian VanGorder and there are some intriuging pieces in the front seven for the SEC Tigers, however, Kiehl Frazier will have to score at least 20 points to win this game. Gene Chizik is dealing with major issues off the field at Auburn and will be without Michael Dyer, Reese Dismukes, DeAngelo Benton and Jovon Robinson for a variety of reasons. Tajh Boyd will make just enough plays to get the ACC a key win over the SEC. Predictions: Clemson (-3)

Tulsa (-1) at Iowa State
The Cyclones aren't a great team, but this is a BCS conference team with back-to-back bowl trips under Paul Rhoads. The offense has questions, but the defense will be solid as two of the top linebackers in the nation return in Jake Knott and A.J. Klein. Tulsa was good against bad teams (8 wins) and really, really bad against good teams (5 losses). The Hurricane got hammered by the three BCS teams it played as well as Houston and BYU. This one will be much closer, but ISU should win at home. Prediction: Iowa State +1

SMU (+10) at Baylor
Gone is Robert Griffin III but Art Briles and his ingenious gameplanning has plenty of toys to play with on offense. Nick Florence takes over at quarterback with plenty of starting experience and a host of talented options in the backfield and receiving corps. This team will score early and often against June Jones' bunch. The key will be can the return of Zach Line bolster the 101st ranked rushing offense from last fall. This is the one area SMU should be able to attack Baylor. Briles knows SMU quarterback Garrett Gilbert from his time at Texas and that should help the gameplan somewhat. Baylor feels like the much better all-around team and they will win with relative ease in a high-scoring affair. Prediction: Baylor (-10)

Others to watch:

Michigan (+13) at Alabama
Kentucky (+13) at Louisville
Ohio (+6) at Penn State

- by Braden Gall

@bradengall

College Football Week 1 Previews and Predictions:

ACC Week 1 Predictions and Preview
Big 12 Week 1 Predictions and Preview
Big East Week 1 Predictions and Preview
Big Ten Week 1 Predictions and Preview
Pac-12 Week 1 Predictions and Preview
SEC Week 1 Predictions and Preview

Teaser:
<p> College Football Betting Against the Spread: Week 1</p>
Post date: Friday, August 31, 2012 - 06:00
Path: /nascar/pennell%E2%80%99s-picks-fantasy-nascar-trends-atlanta
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Coming off another exciting race at Bristol Motor Speedway, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads south to Atlanta Motor Speedway for this weekend's AdvoCare 500. Only two races remain before the Chase for the Cup gets underway in Chicago, and if the past few weeks are any indication of things to come, you better hold on a lot tighter than Tony Stewart holds onto one of his helmets.

Since the series hit the summer stretch in June, there have been 11 different winners in 11 races, dating back to Joey Logano's win at the repaved Pocono Raceway. Last week, it was Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin that broke in the new configuration at Bristol and went to Victory Lane.

Just as the battle for wins each week has heated up, so has the battle to secure a spot in the 12-driver Chase field.

Hamlin's victory was his third of the season, making it a four-way tie for the most win on the seasons with Hamlin, Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski. So far, only four drivers have locked themselves into the Chase: Johnson, Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth. This weekend, eight other drivers could mathematically lock themselves into the field.

While the top 10 is settling things amongst themselves, the fight for the two wild card spots are very much up for grabs. Entering this weekend's race, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch hold the coveted position, but anything can change, as Sunday night's race proved. Among those looking to secure a spot in the Chase through via wild card are Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Marcos Ambrose, Joey Logano and Carl Edwards.

In the meantime, we've seen wild races over the course of the last three weeks. Last-lap drama, helmet throwing, finger pointing, accusations of teams testing the boundaries of the rulebook … you name it, it’s happened.

With a 500-mile race under the lights on the fast, high-banks of the 1.5-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway, the stage is set for yet another dramatic weekend for the Cup Series.

However, look for that streak of 11 different winners to end this week as Jimmie Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the entire No. 48 team look to solidify their spot as the top seed heading into the Chase.

This organization has shown it is once again in championship form, with a win at Indianapolis, a second last week at Bristol, a third at Watkins Glen and a 14th at Pocono. Don’t forget, the 27th-place finish at Michigan is very deceiving as Johnson lost a motor leading in the closing laps.

A three-time winner in Atlanta, Johnson enters the weekend as the fantasy favorite. Already locked into the Chase, Johnson and Knaus are now looking solely for wins. While this group has not been to Victory Lane at AMS since it swept the races in 2007, Johnson was second last year and third in the September 2010 event. Look for him to improve that finishing position by one spot Sunday night and emerge as the Chase favorite heading to Richmond.

While questions arose about when last year's Atlanta event would be run after rain washed out the race until Tuesday, there was no question as to who had the best car when the green flag finally flew. Veteran Jeff Gordon dominated the day, leading seven times for a total of 146 laps en route to his fifth Atlanta win.

Marking the 20th anniversary of his historic first start in the Cup Series, the four-time series champion is on the verge of missing out on this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Currently third in the Chase wild card battle, with one win (Pocono), Gordon is 55 points out of the top 10, but only 16 behind fellow wild carder Kyle Busch. If Gordon can score his second win of the season, it would go a long way towards his quest to make the Chase.

The No. 24 team, led by crew chief Alan Gustafson, has been strong of late, but two poor finishes at Watkins Glen and Michigan have made things much more difficult. Expect Gordon to be a contender throughout Sunday night's race and be there in the end, challenging for the win.

Five Favorites: Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne

This year, veteran Mark Martin has proven that you are only as old as you feel. The 53-year-old is running a limited schedule for Michael Waltrip Racing, but each time he climbs behind the wheel, he’s a threat for the win. Making only 15 starts thus far in 2012, Martin leads the series in poles (four) and has two top 5s and five top 10s.

Over the past few seasons, however, Martin has struggled a bit on the high banks of Atlanta. Since finishing second in the spring 2006 race, he has only two other top--10 finishes and seven finishes outside the top 20 (including three DNFs).

Despite his not-so-stellar record in Atlanta of late, Martin appears renewed at MWR and is this week's undervalued pick of the week.

When looking for another undervalued driver for your fantasy lineup, you might want to consider Richard Petty Motorsports' Aric Almirola. While Almirola has only one start in Atlanta, he sat on the pole earlier this year at Charlotte Motor Speedway, another mile-and-a-half track. The No. 43 team has not set the world on fire this season, but with crew chief Mike Ford now calling the shots they have steadily improved.

Do not expect this team to get up there and battle Johnson, Gordon, et al, for the win, but they could score a solid finish and give you the fantasy points you need as the season winds toward its home stretch.

Five Undervalued Picks: Mark Martin, Aric Almirola, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kevin Harvick, Paul Menard

Have you ever seen a kid trying to eat an ice cream cone when it is about 100 degrees outside? Typically it’s a losing battle. That's where Carl Edwards currently finds himself with only two races left before the Chase field is set.

For the past few weeks, Edwards has been our darkhorse pick of the week. Each week, he has proved why. A sixth at Michigan was a solid finish, but not what the team needed to make the Chase. Last weekend at Bristol, Edwards was out front leading, but made a mistake late in the race, bypassing a fuel stop under caution. The resulting 22nd-place finish was the result when the tank ran dry.

With only two top 5s and 11 top 10s, Edwards has rarely been in contention to win races this season. After losing last year's championship battle to Tony Stewart by virtue of a tiebreaker, the driver of the No. 99 has struggled to bounce back.

Admitting there is a "real sense of urgency" at the moment, Edwards also pointed out earlier in the week there are a lot of talented drivers in a similar situation.

"It’s almost hard to put into words how close the competition is and any loss you have, there are gonna be a ton of people who capitalize on it, and any gain you have it’s really hard to have a real positive gain over the field technically or competitive-wise, points-wise," he said. "I don’t think that it could be any more competitive. Misery likes company and right now we’ve got a little bit of company back there, but I don’t know if it makes me feel any better, but it is good to see that it can happen to anybody.”

Once again, though, Edwards heads to a track where he is very capable of winning. The Roush Fenway Racing driver has three wins, eight top 5s and 10 top 10s on the 1.5-mile track, finishing second in the September 2010 race and fifth last season.

Although his last win cam in 2008, if he and crew chief Chad Norris can put together a strong setup under the car, stay out of trouble both on the track and in the pits, as well as play the strategy right, this could be the weekend Edwards finally gets out and does his signature backflip — and then the wild card battle really gets crazy. If not, you can pretty much write off his Chase hopes for 2012.

Five Darkhorse Picks: Carl Edwards, Landon Cassill, Jamie McMurray, Regan Smith, Danica Patrick


Best Average Finish at Atlanta (Wins/Starts)
Jimmie Johnson — 10.0 (3/20)
Tony Stewart — 11.2 (3/25)
Jeff Gordon — 12.2 (5/38)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 12.8 (1/24)
Matt Kenseth — 12.9 (0/23)
Carl Edwards — 13.6 (3/14)
Greg Biffle — 16.1 (0/17)
Jeff Burton — 16.6 (0/34)
Juan Pablo Montoya — 16.9 (0/9)
Mark Martin — 17.3 (2/51)


by Jay Pennell
Follow Jay on Twitter: @JayWPennell
 

Teaser:
<p> Athlon Sports contributor Jay Pennell looks at fantasy NASCAR favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's AdvoCare 500 from Atlanta Motor Speedway.</p>
Post date: Thursday, August 30, 2012 - 19:14
Path: /golf/deutsche-bank-what-theyre-saying
Body:

Round One of the FedExCup playoffs is in the books, and now we turn our attention to the PGA Tour's unique Friday-Monday event, the Deutsche Bank Championship at TPC Boston, which will wrap up on Labor Day afternoon, weather permitting.

Last week's winner Nick Watney and defending champion Webb Simpson join Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and the usual suspects as players jockey for FedExCup position with an eye on another Cup, the one with the name "Ryder" on it. While the European team is set, U.S. captain Davis Love still has time to make his four at-large selections for the American squad, so Brandt Snedeker, Dustin Johnson and others will be doing their best to impress DL3.

Here's a sample of what players are saying on the eve of the Deutsche Bank:

• Tiger Woods
"It feels good to be back (at TPC Boston). Unfortunately last year I didn't make the Playoffs at all and missed out on four big events. It feels good to at least have played well enough this year to basically secure a spot all the way through to East Lake (site of the Tour Championship). Looking forward to this week.  The golf course is in absolute perfect shape.  I mean, it's awesome right now.  Sure, it'll dry out a little bit come the rest of the week and get a little bit faster and more difficult.

On the perception that he's been inconsistent: "Well, it's just you can't really look at it as real bad going on this year. At the time, most of the year, I was leading the Money List, I was No. 1 in FedExCup points and I won three times, so it's not like it's been that bad.  It's just a couple rounds here and there or it's an up‑and‑down here and there or it's making one putt, which is not good.  So that's a good thing."

On today's longer hitters: "The game has certainly changed.  When I came our here in '96 and '97 I was long, and I averaged 296.  I think there's like 30‑some‑odd guys who are averaging over 300.  So it's a totally different game now.
"You know, the bigger hitters can hit the ball 320 in the air.  I don't really have that.  I can carry it 300, but that's a different gear.  They're taller, they're bigger, and most of the longer guys are 6'3".  When I was coming out here, if you were six foot you were pretty much average height, big height.  Look at Nicklaus, Palmer, Player, Watson, they're all short compared to the big guys now, and they were long hitters at the time for their era.  But these guys are just bigger. I certainly can't carry the ball that far, but I'm still one of the longer ones but not the longest by any stretch of the imagination."

• Rory McIlroy
On majors: "I never grew up chasing records or trying to put a certain number on it.  I've got my second major, and there's going to be a lot of people getting sick of this phrase, but I got my second, and I'm looking for my third.  Hopefully it's not too long before I get my third, and then when I get my third, I want to get my fourth.  That's the way I'm approaching it.  I don't want to put any number on it because if I just throw a random number out there and I don't get to it, I don't want me to be disappointed with a career that's actually very good or everyone else to feel like I haven't lived up to expectations.
"I have no set number.  I'm very happy that I've won two majors, and I want to get that third one.  But whenever it comes, it comes."

On the Ryder Cup: "I think the big thing about the Ryder Cup is you have to be a good team member.  You can't be afraid to voice your opinion.  If you really feel strongly about something in the team room, you've got to stand up and speak.  And then it's just being confident, self‑belief, having a good attitude, because that's what the Ryder Cup is all about.  Match play is about having the right attitude going in and being confident."

• Nick Watney
On whether a win this week would secure a Ryder Cup spot: "Well, if I were to win this week, I guess — I've heard (Love) said he's looking for a hot player, and I would have to classify myself as a hot player if I were to win two tournaments in a row.  I could honestly see a scenario where I win this tournament, and Davis says, well, just based on the year, if Brandt or Dustin played well, I'm taking the two or three guys that are really experienced, and Brandt and Dustin have had a better collective season than this guy.
"Part of me wishes that I knew what I had to do, and part of me is glad that I don't.  I'm excited to play the Deutsche Bank.  I feel like I'm in great position as far as the Playoffs go, and if that call comes, like I said, I will be overjoyed, and if it doesn't, then the first five months of the season cost me."

• Jason Dufner
"You know, I can't wait for the Ryder Cup to finally get here.  There's been a lot of talk about it since I made the team, so it's been an anticipation of the event.  I think as a golfer, for me it's probably one of the biggest events, if not the biggest event to participate in.  Pretty select amount of players, you only get 12 from each side every two years.  So pretty tough team to get on, so it's a huge accomplishment for me. Just everything I've heard about the Ryder Cup has been fantastic and just a great experience overall professionally and personally."

On skipping the Barclays: "You know, the main goal for me is to be in that Tour Championship.  If you're in that Tour Championship, you've got a realistic chance of winning the whole FedExCup.  I didn't pay too much attention to it.  I think somebody said I was sixth, so I guess I moved down a couple spots.  But you'd like to be as high as you can obviously going into that Tour Championship.  But I've got two weeks before that starts.  I had a little bit of a nice luxury of playing so well during the season that I could kind of afford to take a week off."

Teaser:
<p> Players Sound Off On FedExCup, Ryder Cup and More</p>
Post date: Thursday, August 30, 2012 - 16:23
Path: /college-football/college-football-predictions-10-key-games-week-1
Body:

College football kicks of this weekend with a full slate of games. Here's a look at 10 of the top games on the Week 1 schedule.

10 Biggest Games of Week 1

Alabama (-13.5) vs. Michigan (at Arlington)
Denard Robinson, one of the nation’s most dynamic offensive players, will face his stiffest test of the season in Week 1. The Alabama defense will have a new look — only four starters return — but the Crimson Tide will no doubt still rank among the top defenses in college football. Robinson has struggled throwing the ball against elite defenses — he completed 9-of-24 against Michigan State and 9-of-21 against Virginia Tech last season — and Alabama will make the man called Shoelace prove that can he move the ball by throwing it down field. There is one school of thought that says that it’s best to play Alabama early, especially with so many new starters on the defense. That’s probably true, but the Tide defense should be more than ready to slow down the Wolverines.
Alabama 27, Michigan 13

Boise State (+7) at Michigan State (Fri.)
Boise State has won six straight games vs. BCS conference teams, with its last loss coming at Washington, 24­–10, in Week 2 of the 2007 season. Three of those wins have come on the opening weekend of the season — vs. Oregon in 2009, Virginia Tech in ’10 and Georgia in ’11. This year, the Broncos head to East Lansing to face a Michigan State team that has few weaknesses. Much of the focus will be on the first-time starters at quarterback, Joe Southwick for Boise State and Andrew Maxwell for Michigan State, but the key matchups will be on the line of scrimmage. Michigan State will look to attack Boise State’s inexperienced defense — only one full-time starter is back — with a heavy dose of tailback Le’Veon Bell. The 6-2, 244-pound junior will run behind a veteran offensive line that returns four starters. It could be a tough night for the Broncos’ defense.
Michigan State 28, Boise State 14

South Carolina (-6.5) at Vanderbilt (Thu.)
The college football season kicks off Thursday night in Nashville. South Carolina has had some struggles against Vanderbilt over the past five years. The Gamecocks lost twice in that span, in 2007 and ’08, and have averaged only 15.8 points in the five games. Vanderbilt, though, has only averaged 6.7 points in the past three games and has scored only one offensive touchdown in that span. Last year, the Commodores managed a total of 77 yards in a 21­–3 loss in Columbia. Don’t expect such offensive ineptitude from the 2012 Dores, however. This Vanderbilt club features arguably the best collection of skill players the school has had in the past two decades, with all-conference-caliber talent at running back (Zac Stacy) and wide receiver (Jordan Matthews) and a veteran quarterback who has played well in big spots (Jordan Rodgers). The key for Vanderbilt, though, will be on the other side of the ball. The Commodores must slow down All-America tailback Marcus Lattimore, who is playing in his first game since injuring his knee last October vs. Mississippi State. If Lattimore fails to hit the 100-yard mark, Vanderbilt has a legitimate chance to win this game.
South Carolina 28, Vanderbilt 24

Tennessee (-3) vs. NC State (Fri.)
It’s always dangerous to put too much stock in one game, but Tennessee coach Derek Dooley could really use a win to begin his third season in Knoxville. Dooley is 11–14 overall, and only one of the wins (vs. Cincinnati in 2011) came against an FBS team that ended the season with a winning record. Recently, much has been made about the dismissal of All-SEC wide receiver Da’Rick Rogers, but the focus for Tennessee has to be on the running game. Last season, the Vols ranked last in the SEC in rushing and averaged an anemic 2.3 yards per carry vs. conference foes. That simply has to improve. It’s very difficult to beat good teams if you can’t run the ball — no matter how potent you might be in the passing game. NC State, too, is searching for offensive balance after ranking sixth in the ACC in passing and 11th in rushing in 2012. It’s a good bet that the team that runs the ball better will win this game.
Tennessee 34, NC State 27

Clemson (-3) vs. Auburn
Two new high-profile (and highly paid) defensive coordinators will making their debut at the Georgia Dome Saturday night — Brent Venables at Clemson and Brian VanGorder at Auburn. Venables’ arrival at Clemson received more pub nationally (likely because he was taking over a defense that gave up 70 points in its bowl game), but VanGorder was arguably the most important coordinator hire in the nation. The one-time coordinator at Georgia inherits a unit that ranked 11th in the SEC in both scoring defense and total defense and gave up an average of 41.6 points in its five losses. The Tigers, however, have been accumulating some solid talent on defense, especially along the line. Don’t be surprised if this unit is vastly improved in 2012. But also don’t be surprised if the Auburn defense struggles in Week 1, even though Clemson is missing All-America wideout Sammy Watkins. The Tigers still have weapons.
Clemson 30, Auburn 20

Ohio (+5.5) at Penn State
The Bill O’Brien era begins Saturday afternoon at Beaver Stadium when the Nittany Lions host Ohio, one of the top mid-major programs in the nation. Ohio is fresh off a 10-win season and features one of the more underrated quarterbacks in the nation, junior Tyler Tettleton. A true dual-threat, Tettleton threw for 3,202 yards and 28 touchdowns (with only 10 INTs) and added 658 yards on the ground in 2012. In his only game vs. a BCS conference team, he completed 23-of-36 for 339 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions in a 38–26 loss at Rutgers. And keep in mind that the Scarlet Knights ranked ninth in the nation in pass defense last season. Tettleton will have to be at his best against Penn State. The Nittany Lions have some concerns in the secondary, but the front seven should be stout. Ohio will have trouble moving the ball on the ground; if the Bobcats aren’t sharp in the passing game, they will struggle to score points.
Penn State 21, Ohio 13

Notre Dame (-16.5) vs. Navy (at Dublin, Ireland)
Notre Dame won 43 straight vs. Navy from 1964 through 2006 but proceeded to lose three of four from ’07 through ’10. The Irish got back on track last fall, rolling past the Midshipmen with ease, 56–14, in South Bend. The storyline this season — other than the fact that the game is being played in Ireland — is the debut of redshirt freshman Everett Golson at quarterback for Notre Dame. Golson is far from a finished product, but he is an outstanding athlete who has taken care of the ball — a huge focus for the Irish this season — in scrimmages. Notre Dame won’t have tailback Cierre Wood (suspended), but the Irish have plenty of capable ball-carriers. Don’t be surprised if George Atkinson III has a huge day.
Notre Dame 34, Navy 14

Miami (Fla.) (-2) at Boston College
I realize expectations aren’t high at Miami this fall, but it’s got to be a bit alarming that the Hurricanes are only favored by two points over a Boston College team that is picked by most to finish in last place in the ACC Atlantic — even behind Maryland. It’s worth noting that BC beat the Canes 24–17 in Miami in the 2011 season-finale. Still, Miami is the better team, even with its issues at quarterback and on the offensive line. Junior Stephen Morris, who played down the stretch as a true freshman in 2010, beat out Ryan Williams for the starting assignment. Boston College will counter with junior Chase Rettig, who has started the last 20 games. Boston College will be without two of its top skill-position players; projected starters at tailback Rolandan Finch (705 yards in 2012) and wide receiver Bobby Swigert (44 catches, 470 yards) are out with injury.
Miami 24, Boston College 20

Kentucky (+14) at Louisville (Sun.)
Establishing a running game is always important, but it takes on extra meaning in this intra-state rivalry. Consider the following: The team that has won the rushing battle has won the last 13 Kentucky-Louisville games. UK ranked 90th in the nation and 11th in the SEC in rushing last season, but the coaching staff believes the 2012 Cats will be much-improved on the ground thanks to the return of veterans CoShik Williams, Raymond Sanders and Jonathan George. Louisville, too, struggled to run the ball in ’11, ranking 93rd in the nation with a 121.5-yard average. The Cardinals have yet to settle on a feature back, so expect as many as four tailbacks to get touches on Sunday afternoon. Louisville is the popular pick for two main reasons — the Cards have a decided edge at quarterback and are playing at home.
Louisville 30, Kentucky 20

Georgia Tech (+7.5) at Virginia Tech (Mon.)
Georgia Tech is 1–3 against Virginia Tech since Paul Johnson took over in 2008, but the Yellow Jackets have had success moving the ball. They have averaged 378.3 yards in those four games, including 294.0 on the ground. Last year, Georgia Tech had no answer for the Hokies’ offense, allowing 208 yards passing (on only seven completions) and 267 yards rushing en route to a 37–26 loss in Atlanta. With David Wilson now in the NFL, Virginia Tech’s running attack figures to be a work in progress early in the season, but quarterback Logan Thomas is a dangerous weapon who is capable of taking over a game. This is a key early season battle in the Coastal. Conventional wisdom suggests that Virginia Tech should have the edge because the Hokies have had ample time to prepare for the option attack.
Virginia Tech 24, Georgia Tech 17


by Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch on Twitter)

 

Related College Football Content

ACC Week 1 Previews and Predictions
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Big Ten Week 1 Previews and Predictions

Big 12 Week 1 Previews and Predictions

Pac-12 Week 1 Previews and Predictions

SEC Week 1 Previews and Predictions

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Athlon's 2012 Bowl Projections

Ranking All College Football Teams 1-124

Teaser:
<p> College Football Predictions: 10 Key Games in Week 1</p>
Post date: Thursday, August 30, 2012 - 09:14
Path: /college-football/big-ten-week-1-preview-and-predictions
Body:

It has certainly been a tumultuous offseason for the Big Ten. Jim Delany battled Mike Slive in playoff negotiations that completely restructed the way college football determines a national champion. Ohio State, now with Urban Meyer leading the way, and Michigan appear to be entering a golden age in the Buckeyes-Wolverines rivarly. Illinois has hired its own new head coach. And Penn State football will take the field for the first time since Joe Paterno's passing. Needless to say, the first weekend of Big Ten action will have no shortage of plotlines. 

Big Ten's Top 10 Storylines to Watch in Week 1:

1. Penn State football returns to the field
When Ohio and Penn State take the field on Saturday the entire college football world will be watching. It will be the first time PSU will play since the passing of Joe Paterno or the issuing of NCAA sanctions. It will be the first time Bill O'Brien coaches a game at any level. It will be the first time Nittany Lions everywhere will be unified behind its football team. And it might be the highest-rated first quarter of the entire 2012 season. The atmosphere will be surreal, the national anthem will be bizarre and the first time "We Are" echoes through Happy Valley, there won't be a dry eye in the house.  Most importantly, however, the game could be very competitive. Ohio is a preseason favorite in the MAC and Tyler Tettleton is a dynamic presence at quarterback. Penn State will counter with a stingy defense. Look for emotion to play the pivotal role for the Nittany Lions. 

2. Can Michigan carry the Big Ten torch against the defending champs?
The angst directed southward from the Midwest to the Sun Belt region is palpable. The SEC has won six straight titles, Jim Delany and Mike Slive battle regularly off the field for headlines and revenue and the SEC has crushed the Big Ten in recent title bouts. While the Big Ten plays the SEC fairly even in bowl games as a whole, the B1G hasn't broken through in a big game in quite some time. A win over Alabama would be a huge feather in the league's cap should Michigan pull off the monumental upset in Week 1. The Tide has a reworked defense, Michigan has an electric senior quarterback and the game is being played on a fast track in Jerry's Palace. If there ever was a time for a signature win for the conference and/or Michigan, this Saturday is the time. However, Barrett Jones and the monster Crimson Tide offensive line will likely keep the SEC's foot securely on the Big Ten's neck.

3. How good are Michigan State, Andrew Maxwell?
While Michigan and Alabama do battle Saturday night, the marquee national showdown Friday night between Boise State and the Spartans could be the best Big Ten game of Week 1. Both teams are built on physicality, both have elite leaders at head coach and both have to replace the top quarterback in program history. The Broncos have been stellar in season openers against BCS foes, but unlike wins over Oregon, Georgia or Virginia Tech, this game is a true road trip. And Michigan State's defense is no joke. Mark Dantonio will lean heavily on tailback Le'Veon Bell in an effort to ease Andrew Maxwell into the starting role. From all accounts, he is very similar to Kirk Cousins in style, skillset and demeanor. But until the bright lights of a national television broadcast against a top 25 opponent come on, he is still an unknown. A physical performance over Boise State confirms beliefs that this team is a Big Ten championship team. A loss might slide Sparty back into "rebuilding" mode.

4. Urban Meyer returns to the state of Ohio
Meyer was born in Toledo, Ohio, played defensive back at Cincinnati and got his start in coaching at St. Xavier High School in, you guessed it, the state of Ohio. His first college gig was at Ohio State. Now, he triumphantly returns to The Buckeye State with multiple national championships and expectations that border on absurd. Ohio State fans know Meyer is a proven winner and they know their roster is stacked with talent, so no bowl or Big Ten championship sanctions are going to temper the fervor building in Columbus. Sophomore star Braxton Miller fits the new scheme perfectly so 2012 could simply be a really great tailgate party for the 2013 expected romp through the Big Ten. But it all begins with Miami of Ohio this weekend. The first time the former SEC coach witnesses Script Ohio draped in the Scarlet and Gray will undoubtedly be an emotional moment.

5. Key season in Lincoln begins with C-USA Champs
Bo Pelini has won at least nine games in each of his four seasons as the Huskers head coach and was literally seconds from a Big 12 championship in 2009. But he also lost at least four games every year for a team that expects not just conference titles but national championships. His defense has lost its edge since 2009 and a change at the coordinator position to John Papuchis will hopefully reenergize the Black Shirts. And the first weekend will feature an intriguing test against the reigning C-USA champion Southern Miss Golden Eagles. Even without head coach Larry Fedora or star quarterback Austin Davis, the Eagles should be able to score points this fall. Having said that, this USM team should be outmatched by Taylor Martinez. Any sign of struggle could be a dangerous omen for Pelini.

6. Kain Colter era begins with tricky road test
For a program scrapping for its bowl life each season, non-conference games in which Northwestern is favored are huge games. Especially, against fellow BCS conference teams. Syracuse has a hard-nosed coach and veteran quarterback, so the trip to the Carrier Dome won't be easy. But new Wildcat signal caller Kain Colter could be the most talented, most electrifying player on the field. He can run, throw and catch and now has the starting job all to himself. He also has arguably the deepest and most gifted receiving corps in Northwestern history at his disposal. Pat Fitzgerald knows he has to win most "swing games" to make it to the postseason and this one defines the term.

7. Another ACC transfer starts under center for Wisconsin
Everyone knows the story by now. For the second straight season, the Badgers will hang their conference title hopes on a former ACC quarterback who is eligible to play immediately following a spring transfer. The only difference in the two tales is that Danny O'Brien is not Russell Wilson. Wilson has proven to be a special player already earning a starting spot for the Seattle Seahawks. He also set NCAA records, led the Badgers to a Big Ten title and might be the best player to ever play the position in Madison. While O'Brien is in easily the best offensive situation he has even experienced — great OL, elite RB, solid coaching staff — he has cast some doubt over his tenure by allowing Joel Stave to battle for the starting spot deep into camp. Badgers fans are hoping it was just Bret Bielema's way of pushing the former Maryland Terrapin, because the starting quarterback needs to be ready for the Big Ten opener at Nebraska in Week 5.

8. Upset Alert: Kirk Ferentz should be nervous about Week 1
Former Wisconsin assistant Dave Doeren has a quality program rolling at Northern Illinois and if the Iowa Hawkeyes aren't careful, they will leave Chicago with a loss. The Huskies won their final nine games last season, including the MAC championship and the GoDaddy.com Bowl. Losing star quarterback Chandler Harnish hurts the offense in a big way, but Jordan Lynch appears capable of leading NIU. This means Kirk Ferentz will have to find a running game to support his star quarterback James Vandenberg. This offensive line couldn't run the ball or protect the quarterback last fall and needs to improve if the Hawkeyes want to start the season with a win. Quickly developing and rebuilding the defensive front under new coordinator Phil Parker would help as well. This could be a make or break season in Iowa City for Ferentz and a season-opening loss to Northern Illinois would be devastating to Hawkeye faithful.

9. Tim Beckman era begins at Illinois
Many believe in Beckman the coach, despite his questionable recruiting tactics with current Penn State players. He did great things at Toledo, leading the Rockets to a 16-2 MAC record over the last two seasons. His teams posted big numbers on offense and contended for conference crowns. He now has a totally different level of athlete at Illinois after following a guy who was known for his ability to attract talent. This team is a large unknown in the Leaders Division and a big showing against a solid Western Michigan team could be a sign of positive things to come in Champaign.

10. Hoosier State battle a must-win for Kevin Wilson
Wilson's first year in Bloomington wasn't pretty. The Hoosiers won a single game over South Carolina State and posted losses to the Sun Belt (North Texas) and the MAC (Ball State). The offense did show signs of life in Big Ten play as Tre Roberson and Stephen Houston sparked the rushing attack. This meeting with FCS member Indiana State might be the best shot at a win all season for Indiana and it probably doesn't help the Hoosiers' conference that some are already calling for the upset. A loss could cripple the IU season before it even gets started.

Week 1 Big Ten Predictions:

Week 1 Games Braden Gall Mitch Light Steven Lassan David Fox
Minnesota (-8.5) at UNLV Minnesota, 24-10 Minnesota, 31-17 Minnesota, 31-10 Minnesota, 35-14
Boise St (+6) at Michigan St Michigan St, 27-17 Michigan St, 28-14 Michigan St, 27-17 Michigan St, 21-17
Northwestern (-1.5) at Syracuse N'Western, 31-24 N'Western, 28-24 N'Western, 31-27 N'Western, 28-21
Ohio (+6) at Penn State Penn St, 21-13 Penn St, 21-13 Ohio, 24-20 Ohio, 14-10
W. Michigan (+10) at Illinois Illinois, 31-14 W. Michigan, 30-27 Illinois, 27-24 Illinois, 28-17
Miami, OH (+23) at Ohio St Ohio St, 37-10 Ohio St, 41-14 Ohio St, 45-13 Ohio St, 38-10
Iowa (-10) at N. Illinois Iowa, 24-17 Iowa, 30-17 Iowa, 27-20 N. Illinois, 17-14
E. Kentucky (off) at Purdue Purdue, 38-10 Purdue, 41-14 Purdue, 41-10 Purdue, 28-7
S. Miss (+20) at Nebraska Nebraska, 34-14 Nebraska, 34-20 Nebraska, 38-13 Nebraska, 35-10
N. Iowa (off) at Wisconsin Wisconsin, 49-17 Wisconsin, 41-8 Wisconsin, 45-7 Wisconsin, 38-7
Indiana St (off) at Indiana Indiana, 24-20 Indiana, 21-17 Indiana, 34-20 Indiana St, 21-14
Michigan (+13) at Alabama Alabama, 31-17 Alabama, 27-13 Alabama, 31-13 Alabama, 28-24

by Braden Gall

@bradengall

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Teaser:
<p> Big Ten Week 1 Preview and Predictions</p>
Post date: Thursday, August 30, 2012 - 06:10
Path: /college-football/sec-week-1-preview-and-predictions-2012
Body:

The first week of action in the SEC features an interesting slate of games. South Carolina-Vanderbilt open conference play on Thursday night, while Auburn and Alabama have a chance to earn key non-conference victories on Saturday. Tennessee takes on NC State on Friday night, and Kentucky travels to in-state rival Louisville on Sunday. 

SEC's Top Storylines to Watch in Week 1

1. What can Alabama do to slow down Denard Robinson?
Robinson will be the most dangerous offensive player Alabama will face this season. But Michigan’s senior quarterback has struggled throwing the ball against elite defenses — he completed 9-of-24 against Michigan State and 9-of-21 against Virginia Tech last season — and Alabama will make the man called Shoelace prove that can he move the ball by throwing it downfield. I would expect Nick Saban, Kirby Smart & Co. will make it very difficult for Robinson to pick up large chunks of yards on ground. Sure, Robinson will make some plays scrambling out of the pocket, but I’d be surprised if he has much success on designed running plays.

2. Can Tennessee get its ground game going?
Recently, much has been made about the dismissal of All-SEC wide receiver Da’Rick Rogers, but the focus for Tennessee has to be on the running game. Last season, the Vols ranked last in the SEC in rushing and averaged an anemic 2.3 yards per carry vs. conference foes. That simply has to improve. It’s very difficult to beat good teams if you can’t run the ball — no matter how potent you might be in the passing game. There is talent on the offensive line, but the group has underachieved in recent years. New position coach Sam Pittman, formerly of North Carolina, must get his linemen to play with more physicality if the Vols are to show significant improvement in the running game.

3. Kiehl Frazier makes his first start for Auburn
Frazier was hand-picked by former Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn to run Malzahn’s no-huddle attack. Well, Malzahn is now the head coach at Arkansas State, and Scot Loefler — who runs a pro-style offense — is calling the plays at Auburn. Frazier played in every game last year but was used almost exclusively as a runner. He attempted only five passes (completing two) while running the ball 76 times for 327 yards. It will be interesting to see how much Frazier is asked to do Saturday night vs. Clemson at the Georgia Dome.

4. Florida’s quarterback derby
Will Muschamp announced earlier this week that both quarterbacks — Jacoby Brisett and Jeff Driskel — will play Saturday vs. Bowling Green. One will play the first quarter and the other will play in the second quarter. At the half, Muschamp and offensive coordinator Brent Pease will decide who plays the rest of the way. This doesn’t sound promising, but don’t forget that Alabama was in a similar situation last season. AJ McCarron and Philip Sims both played against Kent State in the opener, allowing the staff to get a look at each quarterback in game situations. McCarron was tabbed the starter for Week 2 and went on to enjoy an outstanding season. Could it happen in Gainesville?

5. James Franklin’s right shoulder
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel has assured us that Franklin, his standout junior quarterback, will be completely recovered from surgery on his throwing shoulder in the spring. Franklin has looked good in preseason camp and is said to be making all the throws. Still, he needs to prove he can get it done in a real game, so it’s important that Franklin plays well Saturday night against Southeastern Louisiana. Missouri will no doubt win the game and roll up a ton of yards, but keep an eye on Franklin. If he is truly 100 percent, the Tigers will have an opportunity to knock off Georgia in the program’s first-ever SEC game in Week 2.

6. Kentucky’s rushing yards
How important is it for Kentucky to run the ball well vs. Louisville? Well consider the following: The team that has won the rushing battle has won the last 13 Kentucky-Louisville games. Also, the Wildcats are 8–0 under Joker Phillips when rushing for 200-plus yards. UK ranked 90th in the nation and 11th in the SEC in rushing last season, but the coaching staff believes the 2012 Cats will be much-improved on the ground thanks to the return of veterans CoShik Williams, Raymond Sanders and Jonathan George.

7. Zach Mettenberger’s first start
When he signed with Georgia as a 4-star recruit in 2009, Mettenberger probably didn’t think it would be four years before he would be starting his first game in the FBS ranks. But that is the reality for the 6-5, 230-pound fourth-year junior who arrived at LSU after a stop at Butler (Kan.) Community College. The strong-armed Mettenberger could be the missing link on an offense that struggled to throw the ball against quality competition last season. The Tigers boast one of the nation’s top offensive lines, are loaded at tailback, and feature some quality young weapons at wide receiver. If Mettenberger plays well, this offense will be very difficult to stop.  

8. Georgia starting a true freshman at right tackle
The Bulldogs are the popular pick to repeat in the SEC East, but this still a team with some issues heading into the 2012 season. The biggest concern could be on the offensive line, where Georgia must replace three seniors. This weekend, all eyes will be on John Theus, a true freshman who will get the start at right tackle. There will obviously be more difficult tests down the road, but Buffalo features some decent talent on defense, especially on its front seven. It’s a safe bet that UB defensive coordinator Lou Tepper — yes, the former Illinois head coach is still around — will try to confuse Theus and the Dawgs’ offensive line. 


Week 1 SEC Predictions
 

Week 1 SEC PredictionsDavid FoxBraden GallSteven LassanMitch Light
South Carolina (-8) at VanderbiltSouth Carolina 28-14South Carolina 31-21South Carolina 27-24South Carolina 28-24
Tennessee (-3) vs. NC State (Atlanta)NC State 17-14Tennessee 34-31NC State 31-27Tennessee 34-27
Buffalo at Georgia (-38)Georgia 42-7Georgia 49-10Georgia 49-13Georgia 41-10
Bowling Green at Florida (-29)Florida 28-7Florida 24-0Florida 37-17Florida 31-14
SE Louisiana at MissouriMissouri 42-3Missouri 41-13Missouri 45-7Missouri 51-6
Jacksonville State at ArkansasArkansas 35-7Arkansas 45-7Arkansas 52-13Arkansas 38-14
Clemson (-3) vs. Auburn (Atlanta)Clemson 31-24Clemson 31-27Clemson 27-24Clemson 30-20
North Texas at LSU (-43)LSU 42-10LSU 52-7LSU 51-10LSU 44-14
Central Arkansas at Ole MissOle Miss 24-13Ole Miss 24-7Ole Miss 38-10Ole Miss 30-7
Jackson State at Mississippi StateMississippi State 28-10Mississippi State 35-10Mississippi State 40-10Mississippi State 41-10
Michigan vs. Alabama (-13.5) (Arlington)Alabama 28-21Alabama 31-17Alabama 31-13Alabama 27-13
Kentucky at Louisville (-13)Louisville 31-14Louisville 24-13Louisville 27-17Louisville 30-20


by Mitch Light

@athlonmitch

Related College Football Content

ACC Week 1 Previews and Predictions
Big East Week 1 Previews and Predictions
Big Ten Week 1 Previews and Predictions
Big 12 Week 1 Previews and Predictions
Pac-12 Week 1 Previews and Predictions
College Football Week 1 Upset Picks
Athlon's 2012 Bowl Projections
Ranking All College Football Teams 1-124

Teaser:
<p> SEC Week 1 Preview and Predictions</p>
Post date: Thursday, August 30, 2012 - 06:05
Path: /college-football/acc-week-1-preview-and-predictions-2012
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Most of the 12 teams in the ACC will be playing easy non-conference openers, but two games stand out as marquee matchups. In Atlanta, NC State plays Tennessee, while Clemson matches up against Auburn on Saturday night. Although neither game means anything for the ACC Championship, it's an opportunity for both teams to earn a huge non-conference victory.

ACC's Top Storylines to Watch in Week 1:

1. R-E-S-P-E-C-T
After finishing 9-16 in games against BCS conference opponents last year, the ACC has a chance to earn some national respect with two huge non-conference games in Atlanta. NC State plays Tennessee on Friday night, while Clemson takes on Auburn on Saturday. Outside of these two games, there’s much in the way of marquee non-conference tests for the ACC in Week 1. Most consider the ACC the No. 5 conference in college football and for it to move up the pecking order, its teams need to win non-conference games such as the ones taking place this weekend in Atlanta.

2. ACC Coastal Championship on the line?
With Miami rebuilding and North Carolina ineligible for the Coastal title, the division is essentially a three-team battle between Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Virginia. Considering the Cavaliers have to play both teams on the road, the Hokies and Yellow Jackets have to be considered the favorites to win the Coastal. The winner of this matchup has went on to play for the ACC Championship every year since the conference split into two divisions. The Hokies have won four out of the last five, including a 37-26 contest in Atlanta last season. Having a full offseason to prepare for Georgia Tech’s option attack should give Virginia Tech an edge in this game.

3. Will Clemson’s offense struggle without Sammy Watkins?
An arrest in early May will force Watkins to miss the first two games of the season. As a freshman last year, Watkins was one of the conference’s top players, recording 82 receptions for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns. The good news for Clemson? Quarterback Tajh Boyd is back, while the receiving corps still has plenty of weapons. Junior DeAndre Hopkins is an All-ACC candidate, and sophomore Charone Peak is capable of a breakout season. The biggest question mark for the Tigers’ offense is a line that must replace three starters, especially against a talented and deep Auburn defensive line. Clemson has plenty of skill players to makeup for the loss of Watkins. However, if Auburn’s defensive line spends most of the night in the backfield, Boyd will struggle to find his rhythm, and Clemson will start the year 0-1.

4. How much has Florida State’s offensive line improved?
The biggest question mark facing the Seminoles is an offensive line that struggled mightily last season. The line barely opened up any holes for the rushing attack, as Florida State rushers averaged only 3.3 yards per carry on 437 attempts. EJ Manuel and Clint Trickett were sacked 41 times last season, which ranked 110th nationally. Youth and injuries played a large role in the struggles, but this unit needs to make major strides for Florida State to contend for a national championship. Although Murray State won’t be the toughest challenge in the trenches, this will be an important game for the Seminoles to evaluate their new starting five. Left tackle Cameron Erving switched from defensive in the spring, while right tackle Menelik Watson has never played a snap on the FBS level. The other three starters (Josue Matias, Bryan Stork and Tre’ Jackson) have a combined 12 starts. With a huge ACC test against Clemson on the horizon, Florida State needs the game action against Murray State and Savannah State to find the right mix up front.

5. The first start for Maryland quarterback Perry Hills
After another spring filled with players leaving the team, things appeared to be headed in the right direction for Maryland. The Terrapins had a relatively quiet fall camp, until quarterback C.J. Brown suffered a torn ACL. Brown was the team’s only experienced quarterback, leaving freshmen Perry Hills and Caleb Rowe to battle for the No. 1 spot. Hills edged Rowe in fall camp and will make his first start on Saturday against William & Mary. The Tribe is coming off a losing season (5-6) but should not be taken lightly, especially with Maryland starting a true freshman. This will also be the Terrapins’ first look at how both sides of the ball will respond with new coordinators (Mike Locksley and Brian Stewart). While there is plenty of uncertainty surrounding the freshmen quarterbacks, Locksley and his offensive staff are ready to unleash freshman receiver Stefon Diggs. With a young signal-caller, expect to see Diggs and the running backs lay a huge role in the offense. After a disappointing 2-10 season, there’s a lot of pressure on coach Randy Edsall to produce in 2012 – which won’t be easy with a true freshman starting at quarterback.

6. What to expect out of Boston College and Miami?
Considering these two teams played each other in the 2011 season finale, there should be plenty of familiarity on Saturday. The Hurricanes and Eagles are coming off disappointing 2011 campaigns, and it’s hard to get a read on both teams going into 2012. Boston College is looking for a spark on offense but has been hit hard by injuries in fall camp. The Hurricanes have some promising young talent, but there’s a NCAA investigation hanging over the program and a lot of inexperience on the depth chart. While it may seem crazy to be thinking about bowl eligibility in Week 1, both teams have a tough schedule this year, which makes this game even more important. It’s also important for both teams to get the year started off with a victory, especially after both teams did not finish above .500 in 2011.

7. Larry Fedora’s debut at North Carolina
With a ban on postseason play and a bowl game, the Tar Heels really have nothing to play for in 2012. It’s fair to wonder how motivated this team will be, but the offense could be one of the best in the ACC. New coach Larry Fedora will bring a new spread, up-tempo attack to Chapel Hill, which should score plenty of points. Quarterback Bryn Renner quietly had a good season last year, throwing for 3,086 yards and 26 scores. He will be joined by All-ACC running back Giovani Bernard and the conference’s best offensive line. Elon finished 5-6 last season, so the Tar Heels should have no trouble winning easily on Saturday night. Even though there’s nothing to play for in 2012, if North Carolina is motivated, this team could push for nine wins.

8. Injuries adding up at Duke - faces key non-conference test against FIU
If the Blue Devils want to end a bowl drought that has lasted 17 seasons, Saturday’s game against FIU is a must-win contest. Duke has a non-conference trip to Stanford in Week 2, while playing Florida State and Clemson in crossover games with the Atlantic Division. The Blue Devils will be without 11 scholarship players on Saturday against the Golden Panthers. Projected defensive starters Jamal Bruce (DT), Jordon Byas (S), and Kelby Brown (LB) are huge losses for a defense that allowed 31.2 points a game last year. Even without T.Y. Hilton at receiver, FIU is still a dangerous Week 1 opponent. It’s a long season, but a loss to the Golden Panthers in the opener would be a huge setback to Duke’s chances at a winning record and bowl appearance.

Week 1 ACC Predictions

Week 1 ACC GamesDavid FoxBraden GallSteven LassanMitch Light
Tennessee (-3) vs. NC State (Atlanta)NC State 17-14Tennessee 34-31NC State 31-27Tennessee 34-27
Elon at North CarolinaUNC 35-10UNC 41-13UNC 45-10UNC 33-14
William & Mary at MarylandMaryland 28-10Maryland 24-10Maryland 34-14Maryland 28-13
Richmond at VirginiaVirginia 35-14Virginia 27-13Virginia 38-7Virginia 28-10
Miami (Fla.) (-2) at Boston CollegeMiami 10-7Miami 17-10Miami 24-20Miami 24-20
Murray State at Florida StateFlorida State 42-7Florida State 38-3Florida State 48-10Florida State 44-10
Liberty at Wake ForestWake Forest 35-13Wake Forest 34-10Wake Forest 38-13Wake Forest 31-17
FIU at Duke (-3.5)Duke 28-21Duke 27-24Duke 31-28Duke 28-22
Clemson (-3) vs. Auburn (Atlanta)Clemson 31-24Clemson 31-27Clemson 27-24Clemson 30-20
Ga. Tech at Va. Tech (-7.5)Virginia Tech 28-14Virginia Tech 31-21Virginia Tech 31-24Virginia Tech 24-17


by Steven Lassan

@athlonsteven

Related College Football Content

Big East Week 1 Previews and Predictions
Big Ten Week 1 Previews and Predictions
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Pac-12 Week 1 Previews and Predictions
SEC Week 1 Previews and Predictions
College Football Week 1 Upset Picks
Athlon's 2012 Bowl Projections
Ranking All College Football Teams 1-124

Teaser:
<p> ACC Week 1 Preview and Predictions</p>
Post date: Thursday, August 30, 2012 - 06:01
Path: /college-football/pac-12-week-1-preview-and-predictions
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The Pac-12 is in the best position to challenge the SEC's strangle-hold on college football. Both USC and Oregon are ranked in the top five and have eyes not only on the Pac-12 title, but also the BCS National Championship. The Trojans are the nation's No. 1 team but the Ducks are the three-time defending conference champs. Something has to give. Additionally, this league added four new head coaches that will bring electric new offenses to a conference that already gives defensive coordinators nightmares. While there isn't a marquee showdown in Week 1 like years past, there are still plenty of intriguing match-ups that could be closer than the experts think.

Pac-12's Top 10 Storylines to Watch in Week 1:

1. Lane Kiffin's Quest for a National Championship
The high profile coach has been dealing with maturity questions since leaving Tennessee in unorthodox fashion in 2010. After recruiting and coaching in the face of NCAA sanctions, his 2011 team showed marked improvement after the five-loss debut of two years ago. With Matt Barkley's return to Heritage Hall, Kiffin has all the pieces in place to challenge the SEC's run at national supremacy. A trip to the championship game would begin to validate his brash attitude and coaching style. The Hawaii Warriors and new head coach Norm Chow — who is a former Kiffin co-worker at USC — won't pose much of a threat this weekend, but Barkley's Heisman campaign and Kiffin's quest for a championship begins in primetime on FOX's first-ever network regular-season college football broadcast.

2. The West Coast gets more offensive
The Pac-12 has always been labeled as an offensive-minded conference that fails to play elite defense. While that argument may never have a definitive answer, one thing is certain: The league's four new head coaches will cause plenty of additional headaches for defensive coordinators. Mike Leach, Rich Rodriguez and Todd Graham are widely considered three of the top offensive minds in the game today and all three will begin their tenures this weekend. Leach's air raid, RichRod's zone read option and Graham's spread will do nothing to shift the national perspective that this is an offensive league only. While Jim Mora Jr., may not be thought of on the same level in terms of game-planning as his three new Pac-12 peers, his offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone should do plenty to ignite a recently dormant UCLA offense.

3. What will life be like without Andrew Luck?
The best pro prospect since John Elway has traded in his Cardinal red for Colts blue, leaving David Shaw and Stanford with arguably the biggest void in the nation. Junior Josh Nunes battled with sophomore Brett Nottingham all summer long for the right to fill those big shoes and Shaw named the 6-foot-4, 216-pound Nunes the starter. When he attempts his first throw Friday night against San Jose State it will be his first pass since November 20, 2010, and so some rust should be expected. The Spartans should rollover relatively easily, so it is a perfect chance for Nunes to ease his way into the starting line-up. However, on a team that has gone 23-3 over the last two seasons under Luck's leadership, the pressure to win on The Farm has reached unprecedented levels. Nunes needs to prove quickly that he will be ready for Pac-12 play. USC comes to town in Week 3.

4. Redshirt freshmen set to lead conference contenders
Okay, calling UCLA a conference contender might be a small reach in 2012. Yet, the two teams that met in the inaugural Pac-12 title game will turn their hopes for a return trip over to redshirt freshmen quarterbacks. The Bruins will start Brett Hundley, a 6-foot-4, 225-pound Chandler, Ariz., native, against Rice on the road to open the year. He is charged with stabilizing a position that has been a complete mess for the better part of a decade. Meanwhile, national title hopeful Oregon will unleash Marcus Mariota on the Arkansas State Red Wolves. Mariota is a dynamic 6-foot-4, 195-pound dual-threat who has drawn Dennis Dixon comparisons — and possibly forced Darron Thomas to declare early for the NFL. Both players are highly-touted, upside prospects who enter the starting line-up with loads of expectations. And pressure to win.

5. Fireworks-a-plenty in Provo
Mike Leach, a former BYU undergraduate who learned his craft from famous Cougars LaVell Edwards and Norm Chow, returns to Provo with an offense that could be one of the most dangerous in the nation. Jeff Tuel and a host of talented receivers will give Bronco Mendenhall, who is also the defensive coordinator at BYU, all he can handle. The blue and white Cougars won nine of their final 10 games last fall, but against the top two offenses it faced, Utah and TCU, Mendenhall's defense allowed 92 points in two losses. Washington State will also struggle to stop Riley Nelson and company, but Leach understands this game could decide bowl eligibility at the end of the yeart. Wazzu will keep this one much closer than the two-touchdown spread indicates and just might pull the upset outright.

6. Early barometer for reworked Husky defense
There are a lot of new faces playing for and coaching the Washington defense this fall. Justin Wilcox, Peter Simon and Tosh Lupoi were off-season hires that made national waves for Steve Sarkisian. After allowing 777 total yards of offense and 67 points in the bowl loss to Baylor, Coach Sark knew something had to be done. Six new starters, including uber-recruit Shaq Thompson, will be asked to execute the new staff's scheme in an effort to improve last season's 106th-rated defense. And while San Diego State won't come close to the upset, Wilcox should get a quality gauge of his unit's development against former Pac-12 passer Ryan Katz. The Aztecs are used to being a competitive team and have been strong on offense over the last few years, so Coach Sark should get a solid picture of his defense right out of the gate. A strong showing will lead to optimism heading into a Week 2 trip to LSU. A poor showing against the Oregon State transfer will have Les Miles licking his chops.

7. Is Jeff Tedford's job at stake in Week 1?
The last time Nevada and Cal got together, Colin Kaepernick and the Wolfpack rolled-up 316 yards rushing and 52 points in a home win over the Bears. Two seasons later, Jeff Tedford enters the season needing to win and show improvement to keep the temperature on his coaching seat to a minimum. While Kaepernick is now in the NFL, Chris Ault's pistol system has a new star in quarterback Cody Fajardo – who led the team in rushing and scored 11 touchdowns on the ground last fall as a freshman. Tedford also turned to the ground game down the stretch last fall and Isi Solfele led this team to a bowl after a 3-1 finish to the season. The Golden Bears will once again need the rushing game in order to take pressure off starting quarterback Zach Maynard and a rebuilt, Mychal Kendricks-less defense. 

8. Upset Alert: RichRod's offense better be ready
Rich Rodriguez begins his tenure as the Arizona Wildcats head coach on upset alert against the Toledo Rockets. His offense, led by a senior dual-threat quarterback, five returning starters along the offensive line and a future star in tailback Ka'Deem Carey, will need to be sharp right out of the gate to beat the MAC contender. Toledo averaged over 42 points per game last year on offense, and while wideout Eric Page and coach Tim Beckman are no longer present, the Rockets will still be able to score plenty under new coach Matt Campbell. This should be a high-scoring affair with plenty of big plays, so the Wildcats' Matt Scott will have to play well in the new zone read scheme.

9. Gus Malzahn vs. Chip Kelly, Part II
It wasn't that long ago that Guz Malzahn was standing on the sidelines of the national championship game watching Michael Dyer pirouette his way to a BCS Championship Game MVP award. Chip Kelly was there, too. And there is no chance Kelly has forgotten that night. The Red Wolves of Arkansas State could be in for a long night as Kelly, defensive coordinator Nick Allioti and Kenjon Barner exact their revenge on the former Auburn offensive coordinator. The first half should be entertaining as Mariota and Ryan Aplin go head-to-head, but the second half could be a bloody Red Wolf massacre.

10. Can Utah find a passing game?
The Utes are considered the top challenger to USC in the Pac-12 South this fall. They have one of the league's top defenses and a record-setting tailback in John White. Yet, this team was incredibly one-dimensional last fall once quarterback Jordan Wynn got injured. If Utah and Kyle Whittingham expect to compete with Barkley and Kiffin, a more balanced offense is a must. Wynn won't need to be great against Northern Colorado, but should he play poorly — or as soon as the game gets out of hand — fans should expect a long look at heralded freshman back-up Travis Wilson.

Week 1 Pac-12 Predictions:

Week 1 Pac-12 Games Braden Gall Mitch Light Steven Lassan David Fox
N. Colorado (off) at Utah Utah, 41-7 Utah, 34-10 Utah, 52-3 Utah, 35-10
UCLA (-16) at Rice UCLA, 31-14 UCLA, 37-14 UCLA, 42-17 UCLA, 31-14
Washintgon St (+13) at BYU Wash. St, 31-30 BYU, 31-30 BYU, 38-34 BYU, 24-17
N. Arizona (off) at Arizona St Arizona St, 31-14 Arizona St, 30-14 Arizona St, 45-10 Arizona St, 28-24
San Jose St (+25.5) at Stanford Stanford, 35-7 Stanford, 41-14 Stanford, 44-7 Stanford, 38-10
Nevada (+10.5) at Cal Cal, 30-20 Cal, 30-23 Cal, 31-27 Cal, 28-21
Nicholls St (off) at Oregon St Oregon St, 31-10 Oregon St, 41-14 Oregon St, 41-7 Oregon St, 35-10
Colorado St (+6.5) vs. Colorado* Colorado, 14-13 Colorado, 17-13 Colorado, 27-20 Colorado, 10-7
Hawaii (+38) at USC USC, 49-13 USC, 48-16 USC, 55-10 USC, 56-7
Toledo (+10) at Arizona Arizona, 31-24 Arizona, 37-24 Arizona, 37-30 Toledo, 38-35
San Diego St (+14.5) at Washington Wash., 38-24 Wash., 33-20 Wash., 40-17 Wash., 42-17
Arkansas St (+35.5) at Oregon Oregon, 45-17 Oregon, 54-28 Oregon, 51-20 Oregon, 56-28

* - game played in Denver.

by Braden Gall

@bradengall

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ACC Week 1 Previews and Predictions
Big East Week 1 Previews and Predictions

Big Ten Week 1 Previews and Predictions

Big 12 Week 1 Previews and Predictions

SEC Week 1 Previews and Predictions

College Football Week 1 Upset Picks

Athlon's 2012 Bowl Projections

Ranking All College Football Teams 1-124

Teaser:
<p> Pac-12 Week 1 Preview and Predictions</p>
Post date: Thursday, August 30, 2012 - 06:00
Path: /college-football/big-12-week-1-preview-and-predictions
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It's a relatively quiet opening week in the Big 12. Nine teams will play non-conference games, while TCU has a bye for Week 1. Although there are no conference games, there is some intrigue in Ames, where Tulsa is a road favorite against Iowa State, while Texas hopes to find an answer at quarterback against Wyoming.

Big 12's Top Storylines to Watch in Week 1

1. Can Texas find any clarity at quarterback?
Quarterback play has been an issue at Texas for the last two seasons, and the Longhorns enter 2012 with more uncertainty under center. David Ash finished 2011 as the starter but still needs to prove he can consistently beat teams through the air. He finished with eight picks last season, a number the coaching staff would like to see decrease this season. Ash finished fall practice atop the depth chart, but backup Case McCoy will play in Saturday’s game against Wyoming. With the Big 12’s best defense and a talented trio of running backs, the Longhorns won’t need to throw for 300 yards every game. However, Ash needs to show he can make some plays through the air, while eliminating some of the mistakes he made last year. With games against Wyoming, New Mexico and Ole Miss to start the season, it’s important for Ash to get off to a good start and clearly assume the No. 1 spot on the depth chart.

2. Upset alert at Iowa State?
Under Paul Rhoads, the Cyclones have pulled off their share of upsets, but this team should be on upset alert this Saturday. Iowa State hosts Tulsa, a team that returns 13 starters from an 8-5 season in 2011. The Golden Hurricane also has Nebraska transfer Cody Green starting at quarterback, and his experience will be valuable for a team that won’t be an easy out for Iowa State. Considering the Cyclones’ remaining schedule, it’s important to start the season 1-0. With a matchup against rival Iowa next week and a challenging Big 12 slate, it’s not unreasonable to think this game will have major bowl implications. Another factor for Iowa State to watch will be quarterback play. Steele Jantz edged Jared Barnett for the starting job, and it will be important for him to get off to a good start on Saturday. The Cyclones are a home underdog, which should certainly give Rhoads and this team plenty of motivation.

3. How will Wes Lunt perform in his first start at Oklahoma State?
The schedule couldn’t have worked out better for Oklahoma State. With true freshman Wes Lunt making his first start, the Cowboys should have no trouble scoring points against Savannah State. The Tigers were one of the worst FCS teams last season, ranking 120th in total offense and 117th in total defense. Although it’s tough to learn much from this lopsided affair, this matchup is a good opportunity for Lunt to acclimated to FBS play and get comfortable in game action with a trip to Arizona coming on Sept. 8. Expect an impressive debut for the freshman but the best judge of Lunt’s effectiveness will come on Sept. 29 against Texas.

4. Charlie Weis’ debut at Kansas
The Jayhawks enter Saturday night’s game against South Dakota State tied for the nation’s longest losing streak at 10 games. New coach Charlie Weis was one of the offseason’s most curious hires after struggling at Notre Dame, and he has plenty to prove this year. The Jayhawks can only go up after a disastrous 2011 season and should have plenty of help from a group of transfers, led by quarterback Dayne Crist. Kansas still has issues on defense, but the offense should be solid if Crist can stay healthy. Don’t expect a winning year, but the Jayhawks should get the Weis’ era off to a good start with a victory over the Jackrabbits on Saturday night.

5. Life without Robert Griffin at Baylor
There’s no question Robert Griffin will be missed at Baylor. However, the cupboard is far from bare on offense, especially with Nick Florence taking over under center. The senior started seven games for Griffin in 2009 and has thrown for 1,992 yards in his career. While Florence doesn’t have Griffin’s mobility, he should keep this offense among the best in the Big 12. The Bears are loaded at receiver, return three starters on the line and gain the services of Oregon transfer Lache Seastrunk at running back. Baylor takes on SMU, who will be quarterbacked by former Texas passer Garrett Gilbert. The Bears' defense suffered a setback this week when defensive tackle Kaeron Johnson was lost for the year. Look for the Mustangs to exploit Baylor's rush defense with running back Zach Line. The Bears should win this one, but the defense will be tested.

6. Can Kansas State develop balance on offense?
Quarterback Collin Klein carried the Wildcats’ offense last season, accounting for 40 overall scores and 3,059 yards. Although Klein dealt with various injuries throughout the year, he started all 13 games and led Kansas State to a Cotton Bowl appearance. Keeping the senior quarterback healthy is the Wildcats’ best shot at getting to 10 wins once again. Klein doesn’t need to handle 300 carries in 2012, which is why the offense needs to establish balance and develop more weapons. Running back John Hubert returns after rushing for 970 yards last season, and he should threaten 1,000 once again in 2012. The coaching staff would like to see more big plays from the rushing attack, but Hubert is a reliable option. The Wildcats have a solid group of receivers, but this unit needs to be a bigger part of the offense. Sophomore Tyler Lockett’s 2011 season ended early due to injury, but he could be a breakout playmaker. With a matchup against Missouri State this Saturday, it’s a good time for Kansas State to work on the passing game and save some wear and tear on Klein.

7. Is Oklahoma running back Dominique Whaley 100 percent?
Dominique Whaley’s rise from Langston University to the starting running back at Oklahoma was one of the best storylines last season. However, an ankle injury ended his year early, as he was forced to sit out the final five games of 2011. Despite not playing during that stretch, Whaley finished as Oklahoma’s leading rusher with 627 yards. The Sooners’ offense sputtered without Whaley and receiver Ryan Broyles in the lineup over the final weeks of 2011, but Whaley is on track to play in Saturday’s opener against UTEP. The senior is listed on the top spot on the depth chart, but is he 100 percent? Whaley’s ankle injury was a significant one, and the Sooners brought in talented junior college recruit Damien Williams to compete for playing time. Oklahoma should have its way against the Miners, but the offense needs to get a good look at Whaley and see if he can handle 20-25 carries a week.

8. Will Texas Tech’s defense show signs of improvement?
It’s hard to have a dominating defense in the Big 12, but Texas Tech has to be better than it has the last two years. The Red Raiders have finished 114th nationally in total defense in 2010 and 2011 and enter 2012 with their fourth coordinator in four seasons. It will be hard to glean much from the opener against Northwestern State, especially since it averaged only 21.3 points a game last year. However, the opener will be a good test for Texas Tech’s defense, as it looks to work out the kinks in the new scheme. Junior college recruit Will Smith has shined at middle linebacker all offseason, and this will be his first opportunity to showcase his talent on the FBS level. With Texas State and New Mexico coming up, it’s important for the Red Raiders to build some confidence on defense before Big 12 play begins on Sept. 29.

9. West Virginia shouldn’t overlook Marshall
This is the final game in the scheduled Friends of the Coal Bowl series between West Virginia’s two FBS universities. With the Mountaineers moving to the Big 12 and playing nine conference games, these two teams aren’t scheduled to play anytime in the near future, and West Virginia’s non-conference schedule appears to be full until 2017. The Mountaineers have won all 11 meetings, including last season’s weather-shortened 34-13 game. Marshall is headed back in the right direction under coach Doc Holliday, and the Thundering Herd should not be taken lightly. Marshall’s secondary is a question mark, but the offense could have some success against a West Virginia defense that has a new scheme and must replace a handful of key contributors from last year. The Mountaineers should win this one, but the Thundering Herd will give them their best shot.  

Week 1 Big 12 Predictions
 

Big 12 Week 1 Games David Fox Braden Gall Steven Lassan Mitch Light
Marshall at West Virginia (-24) West Virginia 42-14 West Virginia 45-17 West Virginia 44-20 West Virginia 38-14
Tulsa (-1) at Iowa State Iowa State 28-21 Iowa State 21-20 Iowa State 30-27 Iowa State 33-28
Savannah State at Oklahoma State Oklahoma State 38-10 Oklahoma State 42-10 Oklahoma State 55-3 Oklahoma State 51-6
South Dakota State at Kansas Kansas 21-14 Kansas 21-14 Kansas 38-13 Kansas 37-10
Northwestern State at Texas Tech Texas Tech 31-17 Texas Tech 38-21 Texas Tech 52-7 Texas Tech 48-7
Missouri State at Kansas State Kansas State 35-10 Kansas State 45-10 Kansas State 45-7 Kansas State 41-0
Wyoming at Texas (-30.5) Texas 35-10 Texas 34-7 Texas 38-10 Texas 34-13
Oklahoma (-31) at UTEP Oklahoma 42-7 Oklahoma 49-14 Oklahoma 45-10 Oklahoma 41-14
SMU at Baylor (-10.5) Baylor 28-21 Baylor 28-21 Baylor 38-24 Baylor 38-20


by Steven Lassan

@athlonsteven

Related College Football Content

ACC Week 1 Previews and Predictions
Big East Week 1 Previews and Predictions

Big Ten Week 1 Previews and Predictions

Pac-12 Week 1 Previews and Predictions

SEC Week 1 Previews and Predictions

College Football Week 1 Upset Picks

Athlon's 2012 Bowl Projections

Ranking All College Football Teams 1-124

Teaser:
<p> Big 12 Week 1 Preview and Predictions</p>
Post date: Thursday, August 30, 2012 - 05:55
Path: /college-football/big-east-week-1-preview-and-predictions
Body:

West Virginia’s out. Temple’s in.

The Big East’s constant state of transition begins again this season with more changes to come in 2013. Just as this round of Big East realignment begins with a trick, so does the season for the Big East.

Only seven Big East teams are in play this week with Cincinnati delaying its opener until next week. More Big East teams are playing FCS programs (three) than are playing major conference foes (two). Next week will be more exciting with Pittsburgh-Cincinnati on Thursday, plus three Big East vs. power conference teams among the highlights in Week Two.

For now, most the Big East is working to figure out its personnel in the opening week. Here are the key storylines to watch.

Big East's Top Storylines to Watch in Week 1

1. Is Louisville ready to handle expectations?
Coach Charlie Strong complained last season his team had trouble handling success, which isn’t a surprise for such a young team. The Cardinals are still young in 2012 with 25 freshmen and sophomores on the two-deep depth chart, including nine projected starters. They’re a little more seasoned than a year ago, but will it make a difference this season. Handling success will come later. Handling expectations will come now. Since the 31-24 loss to NC State in the bowl game, Louisville has been a near unanimous pick to win the Big East. Louisville is a two-touchdown favorite at home against a Kentucky team that scored five offensive touchdowns away from Lexington last season. If the Cardinals struggle in the opener, the rest of the Big East will look to pounce.

2. How will Syracuse assemble its offense?
Star left tackle Justin Pugh is out. Leading receiver Alec Lemon was hurt for most of preseason camp. And the Orange have a logjam at running back. Quarterback Ryan Nassib ran hot and cold last season, completing 69.7 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns and one interception in Syracuse’s five wins. Conversely, he completed 58.1 percent of his passes with eight TDs and eight picks in Syracuse’s seven losses. Northwestern isn’t the easiest opener, but the Wildcats ranked 80th in total defense a year ago. USC this is not -- that comes in Week Two.

3. What does the Kyle Flood era look like at Rutgers?
Rutgers’ trip to Tulane is yet another game a Big East team should win in the opening weekend. This road trip will be of interest merely to see someone other than Greg Schiano coaching the Scarlet Knights. Flood was on Schiano’s staff since 2005, the first season in a run of six bowl games in seven years, so Rutgers won’t change overnight. But how will the defense perform without Schiano calling the shots? New defensive coordinator Robb Smith has been on the staff for three years. On offense, will Flood have as quick a hook as Schiano did if newly named starter Gary Nova struggles. Rutgers may have what it takes to win the Big East, but first-time head coach Flood is a notable question mark.

4. Will Ray Graham play for Pittsburgh? If not, what will we see from Rushel Shell?
Graham’s status for the opener against Youngstown State has been questionable, but he’s been healthier late in camp since recovering from the torn ACL that kept him out of the final five games last season. Presumably, Pitt won’t need Graham to defeat the Penguins. Will Paul Chryst hold Graham to keep him healthy for Cincinnati on Sept. 6 and Virginia Tech on Sept. 15, or will he give Graham a chance to test his knee in game action? If Graham is out, backup Isaac Bennett will be the primary back, but it’s also likely Pitt will play highly touted freshman Rushel Shell.

5. Has the Syracuse defense returned to form?
Doug Marrone shook up his defensive staff after the Orange ranked last in the Big East in in total offense and scoring defense last year. Coordinator Scott Shafer is still in charge, though. Shafer led the defense’s turnaround in 2010, when Syracuse ranked seventh nationally in total defense. Syracuse’s personnel should be improved in 2012 with more experience at linebacker and cornerback and more depth and speed overall. The arrival of junior college defensive end Markus Pierce-Brewster has given Syracuse the flexibility to move returning starter Deon Goggins between end and tackle. On the other side of the ball, Northwestern has a new starting quarterback (Kain Colter), but the Wildcats have been one of the Big Ten’s better offensive teams in recent years. Northwestern ranked second in the league in total offense (420.8 yards per game) last season.

6. Will anyone emerge at running back for the Cardinals?
Strong would prefer to have one running back get into a rhythm for Louisville as workhorse Bilal Powell did two seasons ago. That never occurred last year as Dominique Brown, Vic Anderson and Jeremy Wright all topped at least 70 carries. The Cardinals averaged a lackluster 121.5 rushing yards per game with 13 total touchdowns on the ground as a result. This season, Brown and Wright are back in the mix along with junior Senorise Perry. The Cardinals would prefer to see a feature back emerge against Kentucky.

7. What will the running back rotation look like at Temple?
Temple returns to the Big East for the first time since 2004 with a running back seeing the field for the first time since Oct. 1. At Boston College, Montel Harris rushed for 3,735 yards and 27 career touchdowns. He joins a team that has proven it can win games with two running backs and limited contributions in the passing game, but that was in the MAC. Harris will team Matt Brown (914 yards last season) in the Temple backfield, which also includes mobile quarterback Chris Coyer. The opener against Villanova could give us a glimpse at the best run game in the Big East.

Week 1 Big East Predictions

Week 1 Big East Games David Fox Braden Gall Steven Lassan Mitch Light
UMass at UConn UConn 27-10 UConn 27-10 UConn 38-10 UConn 34-10
Villanova at Temple Temple 28-14 Temple 21-13 Temple 40-10 Temple 41-14
N’western at Syracuse N’western 28-21 N’western 31-24 N’western 31-27 N’western 28-24
Youngstown St at Pittsburgh Pitt 35-10 Pitt 38-10 Pitt 41-13 Pitt 38-10
Chattanooga at USF USF 42-14 USF 31-10 USF 45-7 USF 44-10
Rutgers at Tulane Rutgers 35-7 Rutgers 28-3 Rutgers 38-13 Rutgers 31-17
Kentucky at Louisville Louisville 31-14 Louisville 27-13 Louisville 27-17 Louisville 30-20

by David Fox

@davidfox615

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Athlon's 2012 Bowl Projections

Ranking All College Football Teams 1-124

Teaser:
<p> Big East Week 1 Preview and Predictions</p>
Post date: Thursday, August 30, 2012 - 05:43
All taxonomy terms: ACC, College Football, Big Ten, Independents, MAC, Pac 12, SEC, News
Path: /college-football/college-football-week-1-upset-picks
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Week 1 of the college football season officially kicks off on Thursday night, headlined by a SEC showdown between South Carolina and Vanderbilt, while BYU and Washington State close out the night with a shootout in Provo. The favorites can't win every game each week, so it's no surprise one of the most popular discussion points every Saturday is upset picks. Each week on AthlonSports.com, the editors will give an upset pick for the upcoming week of action.

College Football's Week 1 Upset Picks

David Fox (@DavidFox615): Indiana State (off) over Indiana
Indiana State of the Missouri Valley used to be one of the worst teams in Division I football, but the Sycamores have slowly become more competitive -- enough so that they’ve cracked the preseason FCS coaches’ top 25. The Sycamores also return FCS’ leading rusher from last season, Shakir Bell. It seems we see an FCS over a major conference program upset each opening week. This may be it. Indiana improved as last season went along, but the Hoosiers are still in bad shape.

Braden Gall (@BradenGall): Washington State (+13.5) at BYU
The best two (and only two quality) offenses BYU faced last fall, Utah and TCU, dropped a combined 92 points in two easy wins over the Cougars. Mike Leach, who graduated from BYU and studied offense under the great LaVell Edwards, is now leading the way for an offense that boasts all the necessary pieces for his Air Raid attack to instantly succeed. This was the nation's No. 9-rated passing attack last year and Leach could claim the best passing offense in the nation this fall. In primetime on national television in a game that could decide bowl eligibility, Leach will have his Cougs ready to compete against a solid, but not great BYU team. It would likely be the biggest upset of the weekend so it might be a long shot, but don't sleep on Wazzu.

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven): Ohio (+6) at Penn State
2012 begins a new era in Happy Valley, as Bill O’Brien takes over as head coach and the Penn State uniforms will feature the names of the players. While there is some excitement around the new coaching staff and a new look on offense, the Nittany Lions can’t play in a bowl due to NCAA sanctions and lost a handful of players due to transfer. Ohio is a dangerous Week 1 opponent, as it won 10 games and played for the MAC title last season. The Bobcats gave Rutgers all it could handle last year and returns 12 starters from that team, including All-MAC quarterback Tyler Tettleton. Even though the Nittany Lions have a solid defense, there will be some growing pains on offense, which gives Ohio an excellent shot at an upset on Saturday.

Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch): Western Michigan (+9.5) over Illinois
Western Michigan went 1–3 outright vs. teams vs. BCS conferences in 2011, with a win at UConn, a lopsided loss at Michigan (34–10) and close losses at Illinois (23–20) and vs. Purdue (37–32) in the Little Caesers Pizza Bowl. This is a team with a senior quarterback (Alex Carder) and a veteran offensive line that will not be intimidated by playing on the road at a Big Ten school. The big key for Western is finding a way to stop the run; last year, Illinois rolled up 296 yards on the ground in its win over the Broncos. Western Michigan 30, Illinois 27

Mark Ross: NC State (+3) over Tennessee
No one needs an opening win more than embattled Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley, but I just don’t think NC State will oblige him and the Volunteers on Saturday night in the Georgia Dome. On offense, the Vols will lean heavily on the duo of quarterback Tyler Bray and wide receiver Justin Hunter, especially now that All-SEC wideout Da’Rick Rogers is no longer on the roster. However, this strategy plays right into the hands of NC State’s defensive strength. The Wolfpack have one of the best secondaries in the nation led by All-American David Amerson. On offense, NC State has a strong-armed quarterback of its own in senior Mike Glennon, who will lead an attack that’s not near as one-dimensional as UT’s.

Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman): Ohio (+6) over Penn State
This may seem like an anti-Penn State selection because of scandals and roster depletion, but Franks Solich’s Ohio Bobcats are a quality team with a good chance of repeating last season’s 10-win campaign. Despite winning its first bowl game in school history last December, Ohio will still be a hungry team after blowing a 20-point lead in the MAC Championship Game. Quarterback Tyler Tettleton (38 touchdowns accounted for in 2011) is a great fit for the no-huddle attack, and the Bobcats defense should be the best unit Ohio has had during Solich’s tenure. Penn State should still have a quality defense despite the offseason personnel attrition, but I just don’t see where the points are going to be produced. In a surreal setting in Happy Valley, I’ll take the Bobcats over the Nittany Lions, 16-13.

 

Related College Football Content

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SEC Week 1 Previews and Predictions

College Football Week 1 Upset Picks

Athlon's 2012 Bowl Projections

Ranking All College Football Teams 1-124

Teaser:
<p> College Football Week 1 Upset Picks</p>
Post date: Thursday, August 30, 2012 - 05:33
All taxonomy terms: NFC, NFC West, San Francisco 49ers, NFL, News
Path: /nfl/san-francisco-49ers-2012-nfl-team-preview
Body:

Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.

The San Francisco 49ers check in at No. 2.

The 49ers blew their cover last season. They’re not going sneak up on anyone this year after making a stunning run to the NFC title game during coach Jim Harbaugh’s rookie season. The 49ers went 13–3 during the regular season, running away with the NFC West crown and establishing themselves as a defensive powerhouse. They opened the playoffs with a 36–32 victory over the Saints, then pushed the Giants to overtime in the NFC title game before falling 20–17.

Not bad considering that Harbaugh took over a 6–10 team and, thanks to the lockout, didn’t get to coach the 49ers until training camp opened.

Harbaugh set the bar ridiculously high, but no one should be stunned if the 49ers make another run deep into the NFC playoffs in his second season. Almost every starter from last year’s team is back, and the 49ers added some offensive weapons. They signed a trio of free agents — wide receivers Randy Moss and Mario Manningham and running back Brandon Jacobs — then used their top two draft picks on speedy Illinois wideout A.J. Jenkins and explosive Oregon running back LaMichael James.

Offense

Quarterback Alex Smith is coming off a career year, but that didn’t stop the 49ers from making a run at Peyton Manning. Smith ultimately signed a new three-year deal with the 49ers, but their pursuit of Manning made it clear Smith has more to prove before he’s considered the long-term answer. The 49ers have options at the position. They traded up in the second round last year to take Colin Kaepernick. This offseason they signed free agent Josh Johnson, a former Buccaneer who played for Harbaugh at the University of San Diego.

Smith had a career-high passer rating of 90.7 with 17 TD passes and a league-low five interceptions last season. But he posted those numbers running an ultra-conservative, run-dominated offense that ranked 29th in passing and struggled in the red zone and on third down.

The 49ers addressed their lack of talent and depth at wide receiver during the offseason, adding Moss, Manningham and Jenkins, who caught 90 passes as a senior. Moss sat out last season and is 35, but he has 954 catches for 14,858 yards and 153 TDs in his career. If he’s even a shadow of his former self, Moss will give Smith a legitimate deep threat. Manningham, who earned a Super Bowl ring last season with the Giants, gives Smith another big, sure-handed target. The new additions should take attention away from Michael Crabtree (72 catches), who does most of his work on short and intermediate routes, and Vernon Davis (67), who has 35 career TD catches, a franchise record for a tight end.

Harbaugh will have more weapons at wide receiver, but his offense will still revolve around Frank Gore and a power running attack. Gore rushed for 1,211 yards last season, and the 49ers’ rushing attack ranked No. 8 in the league. Gore will run behind a powerful offensive line that returns four of five starters — Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley, left guard Mike Iupati, center Jonathan Goodwin and right tackle Anthony Davis. The 49ers lost starting right guard Adam Snyder to Arizona as a free agent. Alex Boone, a backup tackle last year, Daniel Kilgore and rookie Joe Looney will wage a training camp battle for the starting job. The slippery Kendall Hunter rushed for 473 yards as a rookie and will provide a change-of-pace off the bench behind Gore. James and Jacobs give Harbaugh two more options in the backfield.

Defense

The 49ers return almost everyone from a defense that ranked fourth in total yards allowed and first against the run. That group includes three All-Pro picks — defensive lineman Justin Smith and linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman — as well as free safety Dashon Goldson and cornerback Carlos Rogers, who were Pro Bowl picks. The only likely change in the starting lineup on defense is outside linebacker Aldon Smith, coming off a remarkable 14-sack rookie season, bumping Parys Haralson to a reserve role.

The 49ers’ 3-4 defense proved almost impossible to run against last season under first-year defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, allowing just 77.3 yards per game, and there’s no reason to believe that should change this year, not with Justin Smith, Willis and Bowman tackling everything that moves. Bowman, in just his second NFL season, led the 49ers with 143 tackles. Willis had 97, and the relentless Smith 58, along with 7.5 sacks.

As they did last season, the 49ers will try to stop the run, make opponents one-dimensional, then feast on interceptions and sacks. Last year they had 23 interceptions and 42 sacks. Rogers and Goldson had six interceptions apiece, while cornerback Tarell Brown had four. The 49ers ranked 16th against the pass, in part because opponents often abandoned the run, but also because the secondary was the weakest link on a shutdown defense. Rogers, Brown, Goldson and strong safety Donte Whitner can expect to be tested often.

Specialists

One of GM Trent Baalke’s best offseason decisions last year was the signing of free agent kicker David Akers. Akers and punter Andy Lee both set NFL records while earning All-Pro honors, and those two key weapons return for another season. Akers made an NFL single-season record 44 field goals. Lee averaged an NFL single-season record 44.0 net yards per punt. With the 49ers’ offense often struggling to get into the end zone, Akers was called on repeatedly to salvage three points. Lee, meanwhile, helped the 49ers consistently win the field possession battle.

The 49ers re-signed dangerous return man Ted Ginn Jr. Last year he became the first 49er and 12th player in NFL history to return both a kick and a punt for touchdowns in the same game. The 49ers place a huge emphasis on special teams, and the speedy Ginn gives special teams coordinator Brad Seely’s group a chance to score on every punt or kick.

Final Analysis: 1st in the NFC West

San Francisco, the only NFC West team to finish above .500 last year, is the clear favorite to win the division again, but matching or surpassing its 13–3 regular-season record isn’t likely. The 49ers have a brutal schedule that includes road games at New England, Green Bay, New Orleans and the New York Jets, as well as home games against the defending Super Bowl champion Giants and the up-and-coming Lions. The 49ers open the season against the Packers at Lambeau Field and play three of their first four games on the road.

The 49ers lived on the edge last year during their surprising run, coming from behind in the fourth quarter to win five times during the regular season, plus overcoming two fourth quarter deficits to beat the Saints in the playoffs. They also led the league with a remarkable plus-28 turnover margin. It’s unlikely the 49ers will match those numbers.

The defense is already built to win a Super Bowl. If the offense, with its new weapons, makes significant strides, then the 49ers will have a chance to take that final step.

Related: 2012 San Francisco 49ers Schedule Analysis

Outside The Huddle

Construction Zone
The 49ers under coach Jim Harbaugh consider themselves to be a blue-collar team, and they’ll be all but surrounded by blue-collar construction workers for the next few years. The 49ers broke ground in April on their new $1.2 billion stadium in Santa Clara, just across the street from team headquarters. “We’re a football oasis inside a construction zone,” Harbaugh says. “There are times when I can feel the jackhammer right underneath my desk. So I get to see it (being built) and feel it.” The new stadium is scheduled to open for the start of the 2014 season.

Catching On
Wide receiver A.J. Jenkins, a first-round pick from Illinois, caught 167 passes during his college career, putting his huge hands to good use. “In high school they called me E.T.,” Jenkins says. “Long hands, long fingers.” Jenkins says he could palm a basketball by the time he was 12 or 13 years old.

Football Reunion
Convincing free agent quarterback Josh Johnson to sign with the 49ers this year was hardly a tough sell for Harbaugh, who coached Johnson at the University of San Diego — where Johnson set career records for passing yards (9,699), touchdown passes (113), completions (724) and passing attempts (1,065). This is also a homecoming of sorts for Johnson, who went to high school across the bay from San Francisco at Oakland Tech.

Nowhere To Run
The 49ers went the first 14 games last season without allowing a rushing touchdown, the longest single-season streak to start a season in NFL history. They allowed just three rushing TDs all year, the fewest since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978.

An Award-winning Season
Defensive lineman Justin Smith earned All-Pro honors last season, but that tells only part of the story about the impact he made. Smith captured four of the 49ers’ most coveted team honors — the Len Eshmont Award (for “inspirational and courageous play”), the Hazeltine Iron Man Award (for “most courageous and inspirational defensive player”), the Bill Walsh Award (team MVP) and the Perry/Yonamine Unity Award (for “commitment to promoting unity and giving back to the community”).

Pro Bowl Steak
Linebacker Patrick Willis last season became the first player in 49ers history to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first five NFL seasons. He has had at least 128 tackles every season except 2011 when he missed three games with a hamstring injury.

Football Field Of Dreams
Considering his baseball genes, it’s surprising that third-year wide receiver Kyle Williams wound up in the NFL instead of professional baseball. His father, Kenny Williams, is the long-time general manager of the Chicago White Sox and a former Major League outfielder. His older brother, Kenny Jr., and younger brother, Tyler, are both playing minor league baseball. Kyle Williams was drafted by the White Sox out of high school in the 47th round, but he played football at Arizona State before being drafted by the 49ers in the sixth round in 2010. Kyle, though, did have a family connection to football, too. His father played football at Stanford.

2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:

No. 32: Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31: St. Louis Rams
No. 30: Minnesota Vikings
No. 29: Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Cleveland Browns
No. 27: Miami Dolphins
No. 26: Arizona Cardinals
No. 25: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24: Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23: Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21: Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Carolina Panthers
No. 19: New York Jets
No. 18: Buffalo Bills
No. 17: Tennessee Titans
No. 16: San Diego Chargers
No. 15: Cincinnati Bengals
No. 14: Philadelphia Eagles
No. 13: New Orleans Saints
No. 12: Dallas Cowboys
No. 11: Denver Broncos
No. 10: Detroit Lions
No. 9: Chicago Bears
No. 8: Atlanta Falcons
No. 7: Baltimore Ravens
No. 6: Pittsburgh Steelers
No. 5: New York Giants
No. 4: New England Patriots
No. 3: Houston Texans
No. 2: San Francisco 49ers
No. 1: Fri., August 31

Order your 2012 San Francisco 49ers Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: 2012 San Francisco 49ers Schedule Analysis

Teaser:
<p> San Francisco 49ers 2012 NFL Team Preview</p>
Post date: Thursday, August 30, 2012 - 05:30
Path: /college-football/college-football-betting-against-spread-thursday-night
Body:

I do not condone, approve or encourage gambling on sports in any way. Playing a $50 cash game with your buddies every Wednesday's is more about the experience than the net revenue. At least, that is the case for me.

But if you are a fan of football — college or pro — and you don't think gambling has played a huge role in the growth and popularity of the sport, then you are simply being ignorant. It's the giant gorilla in the room that both the NCAA and NFL has wisely chosen to keep at arm's reach. But make no mistake, behind closed doors, the powers that be understand the impact betting has had on the game of football.

As a member of the sports media for nearly a decade, I have always felt it a conflict of interest to gamble on a sport I have to objectively analyize for a living. (Of course, not having any money to spare makes that decision easy.) However, point spreads are extremely interesting statistics. Tracking a line's movement or how experts in Vegas feel about a game can be a great mearsuring tool as to how the masses perceive any given team or match-up. It gives us a standard to compare all upsets and only adds fuel to great rivalries or marquee showdowns.

So for entertainment purposes, every Friday morning, I will bring you my top college football picks against the spread. And since Thursday night is a special college football extravaganza, I thought I would toss you a few early bones for the night. 

2012 Record Against The Spread: 0-0

Note: All lines are as of date of publication

South Carolina (-6.5) at Vanderbilt
The Commodores bring a lot of confidence into this season after a quality bowl year last fall. But they have major holes to plug on defense and will be facing what could be the nation's top running back in Marcus Lattimore. Carolina is 17-4 all-time against Vandy and has won the last three meetings. And much like those games, the Gamecocks defense could be the story this time around. The Dores have scored one offensive touchdown total in those three losses and has scored 10 total points in the last two meetings. Steve Spurrier's bunch has outscored Vanderbilt 42-10 in the last two meetings. Look for Carolina to take control of the line of scrimmage in the second half on both sides of the ball and spoil West End's party on Thursday night. The line has finally dropped below a touchdown and that is all I need to get on board. Prediction: South Carolina (-6.5)

Washington State (+13) at BYU
There are plenty of storylines in this one. Mike Leach is beginning his tenure in Pullman by playing against his former university where he learned most of his gameplan from LaVell Edwards and Norm Chow. The Cougars of Provo were solid on defense statistically, but played few quality offenses a year ago. TCU and Utah were the top two units they faced last fall and BYU allowed 92 points in the two losses. Leach brings an offense that ranked ninth nationally in passing last fall and returns largely intact before he added his mad scientist system to the party. With a veteran quarterback and deep receiving corps, Leach should have no problem scoring points on Thursday night. The Cougars of Washington State could easily win this game outright, so take the points. Even if the betting public has dropped the line a point. Additionally, take the over. Prediction: Washington State (+13)

Minnesota (-8.5) at UNLV
The Gophers showed marked improvement on the field last season as the year went along. In the final month, the Gophers toppled Iowa and Illinois behind the big-play ability of dual-threat quarterback MarQueis Gray. He rushed for 327 yards and three scores in the final two games of the season, giving fans in the Twin Cities some cautious opitmism about the 2012 season. The Rebels are 4-21 under head coach Bobby Hauck, finished 118th in the nation in scoring defense (40.2 ppg) and 113th in scoring offense (17.3 ppg), return only three starters on defense and are picked to finish ninth in the Mountain West. This line seems way out of whack for a Big Ten team that appears to be improving. Minnesota should win easily. Prediction: Minnesota (-8.5)

- by Braden Gall

@bradengall

College Football Week 1 Previews and Predictions:

Weekend on Tap: Picking the Top 10 Games of Week 1

ACC Week 1 Predictions and Preview
Big 12 Week 1 Predictions and Preview
Big East Week 1 Predictions and Preview
Big Ten Week 1 Predictions and Preview
Pac-12 Week 1 Predictions and Preview
SEC Week 1 Predictions and Preview

Teaser:
<p> College Football Betting Against the Spread: Thursday Night</p>
Post date: Thursday, August 30, 2012 - 05:30
All taxonomy terms: College Football, Fantasy, News
Path: /college-football/college-fantasy-football-week-1-start-or-sit
Body:

The 2012 college football season is finally here!  Thanks to those of you who have returned for another season, and welcome to those of you who have finally found us.  If you are playing college fantasy football for the first time, we’re glad to have you in the fraternity.

Start/Bench—Week 1

Start

Everett Golson, QB-Notre Dame vs Navy
Golson gets to start his career with the easiest opponent on the Irish’s schedule this season.


Derek Carr, QB-Fresno State vs Weber State
The Bulldogs will iron out the wrinkles in their new spread attack before travelling to Eugene, Oregon to take on the Ducks in Week 2.


Wes Lunt, QB-Oklahoma State vs. Savannah State
If Lunt is talented enough to win the starting job, then there shouldn’t be any hesitation starting him in his collegiate debut against Savannah State.


Tim Cornett, RB-UNLV vs Minnesota
Running behind an experienced offensive line, Cornett should shoulder the load while the Rebels break in a freshman quarterback.


Shawne Alston, RB-West Virginia vs Marshall
While questions surround Dustin Garrison’s return, Alston is more than capable of carrying the Mountaineers’ ground game.


Akeem Shavers, RB-Purdue vs Eastern Kentucky
Shavers proved in last year’s Little Ceasars Bowl that he is ready to become the Boilermakers’ primary running back.


John Hubert, RB-Kansas State vs Missouri State
Quarterback Collin Klein will get all of the attention, but Hubert will get more than enough touches in this matchup to be a fantasy factor.
 

Zach Line, RB-SMU at Baylor
Until the Bears’ defense proves they are vastly improved, owners shouldn’t shy away from this C-USA vs. Big XII matchup.


Onterio McCalebb, RB vs Clemson
We know that Clemson’s offense will put points on the board, but have they made enough improvements to a defense that gave up 176 yards rushing per game in 2011?
 

Stefon Diggs, WR-Maryland vs William & Mary
Diggs spurned offers from Florida and Ohio State.  Now, he gets to be Mr. Everything for a Terps team that needs him on the field as much as possible.
 

Dorial Green-Beckham, WR-Missouri vs Southeastern Louisiana
After leading the team in receiving yards in two fall scrimmages, Green-Beckham is ready for his coming-out party.

 

Bench

Joe Southwick, QB-Boise State at Michigan State
This matchup will probably be the Broncos’ toughest test of the season.  Consider holding out Southwick until his Week 3 matchup against Miami, Ohio.
 

Jordan Lynch, QB-Northern Illinois at Iowa
We have heard that Lynch will prove to be a better runner than former Huskies quarterback Chandler Harnish, but we have our doubts against a Big Ten opponent.


Brett Smith, QB-Wyoming at Texas
Smith is one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation, but playing on the road against a unit that ranked 11th in the nation in total defense in 2011 is way too risky.
 

Ryan Aplin, QB-Arkansas St at Oregon
Aplin and the offense should get a lot of possessions, but their inability to put the ball in the end zone makes him a risky fantasy play.
 

Branden Oliver, RB-Buffalo at Georgia
Fantasy owners will hope and pray that their prized fantasy possession survives this matchup without injury.
 

Anthon Samuel, RB-Bowling Green at Florida
See Branden Oliver above.
 

Ray Graham, RB-Pitt vs Youngstown St
It’s never easy to see one of your backs miss out on such a mismatch, but Graham is unlikely to play in what figures to be a tune up for their conference opener next Thursday at Cincinnati.
 

Fitzgerald Toussaint, RB-Michigan vs Alabama
It doesn’t seem likely that Toussaint will miss any game time following his suspension in July after a DUI arrest, but we’ll sit anyone who plays against the Bama D.
 

Orleans Darkwa, RB-Tulane vs Rutgers
Darkwa has been nursing an ankle injury and is questionable to play, so owners would be wise to look for a safer option this week.
 

Nathan Jeffery, RB-UTEP vs Oklahoma
Owners will not get a true gauge of Jeffery’s fantasy potential until the Miners start conference play.
 

Alec Lemon, WR-Syracuse vs Northwestern
The latest reports have Lemon listed as questionable with a leg injury.  Unless his status is upgraded, owners would be wise to find another option for Week 1.

 

The College Fantasy Football Site

by Joe DiSalvo

Follow Joe on twitter (@theCFFsite)

Teaser:
<p> College Fantasy Football Week 1 Start or Sit</p>
Post date: Thursday, August 30, 2012 - 04:47
Path: /nascar/backseat-drivers-fan-council-24
Body:

The changes to Bristol may not have worked quite how track officials imagined, but most members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council liked what they saw there last weekend. Is it enough to get them back to the track? You might find those responses interesting. Also, Fan Council members updated their selection on who they think will get the wild card spots in the final two races before the Chase.


Grade Saturday’s Cup race at Bristol

49.7 percent called it Great
40.6 percent called it Good
7.0 percent called it Fair
2.7 percent called it Poor

What Fan Council members said:
• I LOVED this race. Passing, crashing, sliding, cussing and even helmet throwing!! What's not to love? To me the best part is seeing so many different drivers up front (Vickers, Ambrose, etc.) as well as a lot of favorites. The fact that they all stay so close and race so close makes it very exciting. Enough yellows to keep them even more bunched up … it was just a really fun race to watch. I know the drivers hated the track, but man it was fun to watch!!

• I was opposed to the recent changes at Bristol, but I have to admit, it made for good racing. They struck a good balance of bumping and banging and racing.

• They fixed Bristol for the fans, ruined it for the drivers. LOVE IT!!!

• I was at the race and it exceeded my expectations!

• Finally! An exciting race at Bristol again. Absolutely loved it. The surprise that the top groove was the one that came in and proved fastest; the beating and banging; the emotion; pit, fuel and tire strategy all coming in to play. Seriously, if you didn't like this why are you even watching racing? It had everything.

• Don't like to watch wreckfests! That was AWFUL!

• If you did not think that Bristol was the best race of the year then perhaps you should switch the channel to ESPN3 and watch bowling for your excitement because clearly NASCAR is not for you.

• I was there and loved every minute of it. Not bad considering I left the same race with 150 to go last year.

• The changes Bruton made did exactly what I had hoped they would do. I was hoping for a hybrid between “Old” Bristol and “New” Bristol. The “New-New” Bristol had the side-by-side, rubbing, beating & banging with some tempers flying without the massive 12-car wrecks. No more conveyor belt! That is what we got! Tony throwing his helmet was just a bonus. I miss helmet (or heat shields if you are Ward Burton) throwing, and pointing to a driver you happen to be displeased with. I paid more attention to this race than any other this season! It's BRISTOL BABY!!!

• Not exactly the Bristol of old but pretty close to it! Good racing, lots of action — just out and out fun. Of course, Tony Stewart bringing back the helmet toss certainly didn't hurt and he wasn't the only one showing some temper. Good racing, good fun.


Did the Bristol race make you want to attend a race there more?

54.4 percent said Yes
45.6 percent said No

What Fan Council members said:
• Been a season ticket holder for eight years, but never have I been more excited about renewing!

• 25-year season ticket holder and will never return!

• I gave up my season tickets two years ago, but after (Saturday) night, I will be getting them back.

• I'm still boycotting Bruton Smith's tracks after the I-71 parking lot.

• I've always wanted to go to Bristol's night race and Saturday night made me want to go even more. I will be working on plans to hopefully go next year!

• No, in fact. I was a season ticket holder and will not be renewing my tickets. I can see a demolition derby anytime I want to at the local fairgrounds.

• Used to attend Bristol until my school district decided to change the starting date. Too early in the year to take time off, but I might have to reconsider next year.

• Hearing about all the gouging of the fans on hotel rates will keep me away from this track.

• Absolutely! From the atmosphere during pre-race on through the race, it seems like an exciting and fun place to be. Lord willing, I WILL be there next year.

• I've made the trip to Bristol twice, once for "original Bristol,” once for progressive-banking Bristol. My personal preference was the progressive banking, and since that's now gone and likely not to return, I doubt I'll pay the airfare and outrageous hotel bills to go watch another race there live.


What was the best race at Bristol last weekend?

84.4 percent said the Cup race
11.7 percent said the Nationwide race
3.9 percent said the Truck race

What Fan Council members said:
• The Truck Race was just awful, and the Nationwide race was pretty boring. So the Cup race wins by default.

• I thought all three races were pretty good — even the Truck race where Peters led every lap. More of the racing from the Cup race sticks out in my mind, so that's why I picked the Cup race as the best race of the weekend.

• The Whelen Modified race was the best race at Bristol last week. It was awesome! The battles, the passing, the surprises. It was virtually non-stop action and kept me on the edge of my seat until the end.

• I watched all three races and hands down the Cup race was the best. It was one of the most entertaining races I have seen in a long time. It had everything. Top entertaining moment has to go to Tony and Matt. Think Tony will be nominated for one of his own Stewie Awards this year for throwing his helmet at Matt's car.

• Usually I have to say the Trucks have the better racing of the three series, but this week I will say the Cup racing was the best. The racing was great all night long and never really had a dull moment. I'm usually always checking Twitter during the Cup races, but this race, I didn't want to stop watching the TV. Was really exciting for a change.

• I picked the Nationwide race because Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick had a long battle for the lead ... and maybe I have lower expectations of the Nationwide drivers so the multitude of cautions in that race didn't bother me so much.


Who will make the Chase via wild card?

89.2 percent said Kasey Kahne
47.6 percent said Kyle Busch
34.8 percent said Jeff Gordon
9.8 percent said Carl Edwards
4.7 percent said Ryan Newman
4.4 percent said Marcos Ambrose
1.7 percent said Joey Logano
0.3 percent said Paul Menard

What Fan Council members said:
• I see Gordon and Kahne getting in just for the fact that they are HMS. Hendrick is bringing everything to the table these next two weeks. Everyone else on this list is a long shot in my opinion.

• I'd love for a surprise driver to grab a wild card spot such as Joey Logano or Marcos Ambrose, but I think Kasey and Kyle will hold on to take the wild card spots.

• Kahne is easy to call. Second driver is harder. I really think Kahne will pass Stewart for 10th and Stewart will be 11th. But you didn't give me that choice. So I'm giving it to you.

• Kasey is not only a lock but may well get into the top 10 (on points). Carl's luck cannot keep being this bad can it? Roush has always run well at Atlanta generally and Carl specifically, so I have a feeling he wins Atlanta and outscores Kyle in points over the last two races for the last spot.

• If the trends continue the way they are now, I think Tony Stewart falls out of the top 10 and Kasey Kahne makes the Chase on points. Stewart and Kyle Busch will be the wild cards for the Chase. Hopefully Stewart can focus on his own championship, and his threats don't come to fruition, which could in turn costs Kenseth a shot at a championship.

• I say Kasey and Kyle. I know that Carl Edwards is capable of doing it if he gets one win, but they really haven't been close to being competitive in any race this year.

• Poor strategies in two races recently have cost Carl. He seems to be missing opportunities to move into the top 10 by bad pit calls.

• I picked Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch as of right now but I really think it’s going to be Tony Stewart and Busch getting the wild cards. Kahne is fast right now and Tony isn’t doing as well. Kasey closed the gap from 33 points to 16 (Saturday) with a wrecked racecar. I say he makes the top 10.


The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was founded and is administered by Dustin Long. Fans can join by sending Dustin an email at dustinlong002@gmail.com.

Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.
 

Teaser:
<p> Dustin Long's Backseat Drivers Fan Council talks all-things Bristol and weighs in on which wild card drives will make the NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 29, 2012 - 17:49
All taxonomy terms: Overtime
Path: /college-football/4-replacement-usc-billboards-ucla-fans-might-be-ok
Body:

Poor USC. Their billboard, featuring QB Matt Barkley and the phrase "We Play To Finish," was mysteriously covered over on Tuesday near the UCLA campus. To bring peace to both sides, we put together some replacement USC billboards that the UCLA fans might approve of. 

Teaser:
<p> We think these would do just fine</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 29, 2012 - 16:23
Path: /college-football/countdown-college-football
Body:

Are you as ready for college football to start as we are at Athlon? Our daily countdown will take us right up to kickoff on August 30. Some days our number might represent an All-America player, a great stat or just something fun about the game we all love.

Days Until College Football: 1

We have finally hit No. 1 on our countdown, and our top wish for all of the fans out there is just to enjoy the college football that starts tomorrow. The offseason has been filled with scandal, playoff plans, realignment and player attrition, but now is the time to change the conversation to the actual gridiron. Will USC or Oregon wear the Pac-12 crown? Is LSU or Alabama the top dog in the brutal SEC? Will Michigan ascend back to the top of the Big Ten, or will Nebraska win its first league title since 1999? Can Texas or West Virginia challenge Oklahoma for Big 12 supremacy? How will Texas A&M, Missouri, West Virginia and TCU fare in new conferences?

The answers to all of these compelling questions will play out over the next four months, and we cannot wait for the season to begin. The Heisman race should be very interesting, with USC’s Matt Barkley, Wisconsin’s Montee Ball, South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore, Michigan’s Denard Robinson and West Virginia’s Geno Smith among the top candidates. And the nation is eager to see if a team outside of the SEC can break the stranglehold of six consecutive national championships by America’s toughest conference. Make sure to get out and enjoy the pageantry and fan experience that the college game has to offer.

Football is here!
 


2: There were several elite candidates — USC’s Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, Washington State’s Marquess Wilson, West Virginia’s Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, Cal’s Keenan Allen and Oklahoma’s Kenny Stills — for All-America honors at wide receiver during our preseason vote, and the two top selections share the No. 2. Woods and Watkins are two of the most electric playmakers that the college game has seen in a few years, and football fans should make it a point to see both of them play this season.

Woods had an amazing sophomore campaign for the Trojans in 2011, catching 111 passes for 1,292 yards and 15 touchdowns in just 12 games. He and Lee should form the top pass-catching duo in the nation this year, and that combo along with senior quarterback Matt Barkley are a major factor in USC being projected to win the Pac-12 and national title.

Watkins was an instant hit at Clemson, compiling 82 catches for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns during a stellar freshman season. He also averaged 25.0 yards on 33 kick returns with an additional score. Watkins will have to serve a two-game suspension to start the season, but he and quarterback Tajh Boyd will give the Tigers a solid chance at repeating as ACC champions.
 


3: Nebraska has won at least nine games in each of Bo Pelini’s four seasons in Lincoln, but the Cornhuskers have not claimed a conference championship since 1999. That fact could change this season, as the Huskers have the roster to compete for a Big Ten crown in their second year in the league. The defense must improve greatly from its 2011 performance, and the other key to NU’s success will be the development of No. 3, Taylor Martinez. The athletic quarterback has amassed over 1,800 yards and 21 touchdowns on the ground during the last two seasons, but the Nebraska passing game ranked 104th nationally last year. Martinez has worked extensively on his throwing mechanics this offseason, and he should be more comfortable in the second year of coordinator Tim Beck’s system.

The good news for the Huskers offense is that Martinez and All-Big Ten running back Rex Burkhead (1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2011) form one of the more dynamic rushing duos in the country. If pass catchers Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa and Kyler Reed are more utilized by Martinez, the NU attack can put some serious points on the board this season. On defense, the Huskers must simply be better against the run in 2012 after finishing eighth in the Big Ten last year. New defensive coordinator John Papuchis will look for playmaking up front from tackle Baker Steinkuhler and end Cameron Meredith, while linebacker Will Compton and safety Daimion Stafford will provide senior leadership for the back seven.

The non-conference slate will give Nebraska time to develop its passing game and run defense,
but the next five games — Wisconsin, at Ohio State, at Northwestern, Michigan and at Michigan — will decide the season. The Legends Division competition against the Wolverines and Spartans should be one of the more compelling races in the nation, and the Huskers will look for Martinez to lead them to Indianapolis in December.
 


4: The Big East needs a catalyst on the field to change the league’s national conversation from expansion and departures to football, and Louisville is the top candidate in 2012. The Cardinals have a rising star in coach Charlie Strong, a potential big-time quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater and a defense that is excellent against the run. Louisville is the prohibitive conference favorite, and a 10-win season is not out of the question. But to accomplish that feat, the Cardinals will need to revenge 2011 losses to North Carolina, FIU and Cincinnati. There is also a 4-game losing streak to Pittsburgh that Louisville would love to end this season.

USF has a talented enough roster to win the league, but the Bulls have not had a winning conference record since 2007. Pitt and Rutgers should also have quality teams in 2012, but both programs are adjusting to new coaching staffs. Louisville’s offense should be much improved, with Bridgewater throwing the ball to fellow sophomores Eli Rogers and DeVante Parker. The Cardinals have a solid trio of running backs in Dominique Brown, Jeremy Wright and Senorise Perry, and they will run behind an offensive line with four returning starters.

The defensive front should be a strength for the Cardinals as they look to repeat last season’s No. 10 ranking nationally against the run. The pass defense must get better, and all-league secondary candidates Hakeem Smith and Adrian Bushell will lead the way. Charlie Strong has upped the talent level greatly in his short tenure at Louisville, and he has the Cardinals primed to win the Big East and play in the BCS.
 


5: The Texas Tech Red Raiders missed the postseason last year, the first time that had happened since the 1999 campaign. Tommy Tuberville and staff are felling the pressure to make a bowl game this season, and they must start by improving on defense. New coordinator Art Kaufman is a coaching veteran, but he takes over a defense that ranked dead last in the country against the run and had only 5 interceptions a year ago in the pass-happy Big 12. The defensive line needs to show massive improvement, and the hope is that the tackle rotation of Delvon Simmons, Kerry Hyder, Leon Mackey and Dennell Wesley will give the Raiders a much better push up front. The linebackers were an issue in 2011, but starters Terrance Bullitt, Will Smith, and Sam Eguavoen should be more comfortable in Kaufman’s system.

The strength of the defense is the safety position, where D.J. Johnson and Cody Davis return. If the cornerbacks can develop early, the secondary should improve on last season’s low interception total. On offense, senior quarterback Seth Doege (4,004 yards and 28 touchdowns in 2011) will lead another vaunted Tech passing attack. Eric Ward, Alex Torres and Darrin Moore are back as the top targets, and the Red Raiders have solid running backs as well in Eric Stephens and Kenny Williams. They will run behind an offensive line that returns three starters.

A very manageable September schedule will give the Red Raiders time to develop, but the next five games — Oklahoma, West Virginia, at TCU, at Kansas State and Texas — are as brutal a stretch as you will see in college football. The Texas Tech fan base is very eager to see the team get back to the postseason, and the defense must help lead the way towards that goal.
 


6: Florida—LSU—Florida—Alabama—Auburn—Alabama. You may have noticed that the last 6 national champions have come from the SEC. Since the BCS started in 1998, eight of the 14 national champions are members of America’s toughest conference. And the strength of the league is not just in the fact that the amazing title streak is now at six, it’s that five different schools have won the aforementioned eight championships. So is 2012 the season where the streak ends? Athlon’s prediction is yes, with the USC Trojans projected as the top team in the nation. However LSU and Alabama stand at Nos. 2 and 3 in our poll, with Georgia, South Carolina and Arkansas also rated in the top 13.

This may be a season where each SEC squad has a loss, but it would likely take two major powers going undefeated to prevent the juggernaut league from having a shot at No. 7. Along with USC, the Pac-12 has another title contender in Oregon. Both west coast teams have electric offense and should also be improved enough on defense to compete with the SEC’s best. Oklahoma looks like the class of the Big 12, but both Sooners’ lines will need to develop quickly to run the table. Florida State has the defense to go undefeated in the ACC, but the offense may not have enough firepower. Michigan and Nebraska project as the Big Ten’s best, but both teams will need more consistency to play for it all.

Many gridiron fans around the nation are very eager for the streak to end, while those in SEC country believe No. 7 is inevitable. USC or Oregon may break through and win it all, but it would hardly be a surprise to hear the chants of “SEC, SEC” in January for a seventh consecutive college football campaign.
 


7: The LSU Tigers will look to repeat as SEC Champions and get back to the BCS title game this season. While Les Miles’ team is loaded with talent and depth, it did lose an electric playmaker with the dismissal of No. 7, Tyrann Mathieu. So how will the Tigers fare without the Honey Badger? The LSU defense should still be stout, but Mathieu’s amazing ability to generate game-changing plays will be heavily missed. His 133 tackles (16 for loss) and four interceptions in two seasons were impressive, but it’s the 11 forced fumbles, eight fumble recoveries and four total touchdowns that show his true value on the field. Those turnovers and scores were a huge reason that the Tigers were able to blow out the Pac-12 and Big East champions, as well as 10-win squads in Arkansas and Georgia, in 2011.

John Chavis’ defense should be excellent up front, led by All-America candidates at end in Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo plus Bennie Logan at tackle. Kevin Minter heads up a fast but inexperienced linebackers group, and there are now questions at corner as true freshman Jalen Mills and redshirt freshman Jalen Collins battle for the spot opposite of rising star Tharold Simon. However, Eric Reid is another All-America-level player at safety. On offense, LSU will rely on a stellar line and loaded running backs unit to play its usual brand of smash-mouth football. If new quarterback Zach Mettenberger develops quickly, the Tigers will light up scoreboards.

There’s a good chance that LSU will be favored in every game this season, and the November 3 matchup with Alabama in Death Valley could be one for the ages. If Mettenberger and the back seven play to their potential, the Tigers will be right back in the hunt for a national title.
 


8: It was an offseason of major change for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, with head coach Greg Schiano departing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after 11 seasons in Piscataway. Longtime assistant Kyle Flood will now head the program, and he and the new staff have a solid roster to compete for a Big East crown. The majority of the defense returns from a unit that finished 8th nationally in scoring a year ago. The strength of the defense is its back seven, led by a stellar group of linebackers. Khaseem Greene is an All-America candidate on the outside, and middle backer Steve Beauharnais is an experienced starter. The secondary features veteran corners in Logan Ryan and Brandon Jones, and safety Duron Harmon should compete for all-conference honors.

The defensive front will need to improve against the run while also generating a pass rush, and tackle Scott Vallone is a rock in the middle. If answers can be found at end from the group of Michael Larrow, Ka’Lial Glaud and Jamil Merrell, the defense should be the best in the Big East. On offense, Flood and new coordinator Dave Brock have decided to go with Gary Nova at quarterback. The sophomore signal caller will benefit from a quality set of skill players. The receiving crew, led by led Brandon Coleman, Mark Harrison and Quron Pratt, has plenty of big-play potential. Rutgers has two solid tailbacks in Jawan Jamison (897 rushing yards in 2011) and heralded sophomore Savon Huggins, and they will run behind a line that has plenty of talent despite lacking experience together.

The Scarlet Knights will have an adjustment period to the new staff, and early games against Tulane and Howard will give them time to develop chemistry. September trips to South Florida and Arkansas will be difficult, but the schedule October is very manageable. A season-ending slate of Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Louisville will decide Rutgers’ Big East fate, as Flood looks to win the league title that eluded his predecessor.
 


9: Notre Dame battled the turnover bug for all of the 2011 campaign, from five giveaways in an unlikely season-opening defeat against South Florida to three each in losses to Stanford and Florida State to end the year. In fact, only nine teams in college football turned the ball over more than the Irish did a year ago. It wasn’t all doom and gloom in South Bend with ND compiling eight wins, but it’s obvious where Brian Kelly’s team must improve as a tougher schedule looms in 2012. The focus of that desired improvement will be on the quarterback position, where junior Andrew Hendrix and redshirt freshman Everett Golson are battling to replace suspended incumbent Tommy Rees. Hendrix has game experience, but Golson starred (11-15 passing for 120 yards and two touchdowns) in the spring game.

The new signal caller will benefit from quality running backs Cierre Wood (1,102 yards and nine touchdowns a year ago) and Theo Riddick, an All-America candidate in tight end Tyler Eifert and a veteran offensive line. The Irish will need a playmaker to emerge on the outside from the group of TJ Jones, John Goodman and Robby Toma. On defense, Notre Dame should have a solid front seven. Manti Te’o is an All-American at linebacker, and the defensive line of Kapron Lewis-Moore, Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt is very talented. The secondary is experienced at safety with Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta, but the cornerback position has question marks — especially after the season-ending injury to Lo Wood.

The Notre Dame schedule is very difficult, with Michigan State and Michigan highlighting the September slate. Opponents hardly ever win at Oklahoma, and the season finale in Los Angeles could be against an 11-0 USC squad. If the quarterback(s) can avoid costly turnovers and the secondary develops quickly, the Irish can reach win the eight or nine-win mark in 2012.
 


10: A season after intrepid coach Jim Harbaugh departed for the 49ers, the Stanford Cardinal have the monumental task of trying to replace the NFL’s No. 1 pick in quarterback Andrew Luck. Junior Josh Nunes and sophomore Brett Nottingham are competing for the starting quarterback gig, but they have combined to attempt only 10 passes in their careers. And as difficult as losing Luck will be, the two-time Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year and runner-up for the Heisman Trophy is not the only key departure from last year’s stellar attack. Three other top 42 NFL Draft selections — tight end Coby Fleener and offensive linemen David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin — will also be missed.

Despite the attrition, the Cardinal offense still has solid potential. As good as Luck was in the passing game, Stanford also has a very effective, physical running game led by tailback Stepfan Taylor and a quality line. The senior runner has compiled 2,467 yards and 25 touchdowns on the ground over the last two seasons, and three starters return up front. The new signal caller(s) will have dependable tight ends in Levine Toilolo and Zach Ertz, and sophomore Ty Montgomery could become a star at receiver. On defense, the Cardinal should be excellent in the front seven after finishing third nationally against the run last year. The 3-4 scheme will be led by one of the best linebackers units in the country, and Chase Thomas is an All-America candidate. The secondary will have to replace safeties Delano Howell and Michael Thomas while also trying to improve on last season’s 95th ranking against the pass.

Coach David Shaw and staff have recruited well enough to sustain the program’s recent success. The 2012 schedule is difficult, with the Cardinal hosting USC in week three plus playing road games at Washington, Notre Dame, Cal, Oregon and UCLA. A third consecutive BCS bowl is unlikely, but Stanford has the ability to remain near the top of the Pac-12 pecking order if the passing game and secondary can develop quickly.
 


11: The Florida Gators performed below expectation in Will Muschamp’s first season, finishing with their first losing SEC record since 1986. With UF ranking eighth nationally in total defense and 105th in total offense, it’s pretty clear where improvement is needed. In fact, the Gators only averaged 11 points per game in their six losses a year ago. Muschamp replaced former offensive coordinator Charlie Weis with Brent Pease, who had an amazing run as Boise State’s wide receivers coach and coordinator in 2011. The first question for the 2012 Florida offense is at the quarterback position, where sophomores Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett are in a heated battle to be the starter. Both signal callers, as well as the rest of the offense, will have a significant adjustment to Pease’s offense that involves a ton of pre-snap movement and multiple formations.

While fans and media focus on the QB battle, the key to a successful Gators attack may lie in its ability to run the ball. The one-two punch of senior Mike Gillislee and sophomore Mack Brown will bring a more physical rushing game than UF has seen in years, especially carrying the rock behind a very experienced offensive line. However there are questions at receiver, as the team’s leading returning pass catcher is tight end Jordan Reed (28 reception in 2011). Florida will need Andre Debose to produce on the outside. On defense, the Gators should be stout once again. Tackles Sharrif Floyd and Omar Hunter plus end Dominique Easley will lead a very athletic line. Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins project as all-conference linebackers, and safeties Matt Elam and Josh Evans will head a secondary with vast potential.

The UF schedule will be difficult as usual, and back-to-back September trips to Texas A&M and Tennessee will provide a quality litmus test for Muschamp’s crew. The Gators will face three October opponents (LSU, South Carolina and Georgia) who rank in the preseason top ten, and the regular-season ending game in Tallahassee will be very tough. If the offense shows marked improvement and the defense can avoid the late-game breakdowns of last season, Florida can challenge the Bulldogs and Gamecocks in the SEC East.
 


12: The Iowa Hawkeyes went through a major transition this offseason, with offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe leaving the program and defensive coordinator Norm Parker retiring. Both assistants had been with Kirk Ferentz for over a decade, and now former Texas offensive boss Greg Davis and longtime defensive backs coach Phil Parker (no relation to Norm) will coordinate the Iowa units. The first priority for Davis will be improving a Hawkeyes rushing attack that ranked 12th in the Big Ten last season. That dead-last finish becomes more difficult to fix in 2012 without tailback Marcus Coker (1,384 yards and 15 touchdowns a year ago). Sophomore Damon Bullock and former fullback Brad Rogers will start the season receiving the most carries, but the position could be in flux for a while if a dependable option does not emerge.

The good news for the running game is that Iowa has a dependable senior quarterback in James Vandenberg (3,022 yards and 25 TDs in 2011). However he will have to find a new top target with the departure of Marvin McNutt, the Hawkeyes’ all-time leading receiver. Wideout Keenan Davis had 713 yards and four touchdowns a year ago, and tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz has vast potential. The offensive line will need to develop chemistry after losing three starters, including NFL first-round selection Riley Reiff. On defense, Phil Parker will need to find some answers on an inexperienced line. The back seven could be solid, and cornerback Micah Hyde is an all-conference candidate.

The 2012 campaign will be an important one for Kirk Ferentz, as the fan base would like to see Iowa perform above the expectations of another fourth-place finish in the Legends Division. The league will be challenging, but the Hawkeyes catch a break not playing Ohio State or Wisconsin from the Leaders. If Iowa is going to compete with Michigan, Nebraska and Michigan State, the running attack and defense will have to develop quickly under their new coordinators.
 


13: Virginia Tech had another outstanding season last year, winning 11 games and making a BCS bowl. However there was one major problem for Frank Beamer’s bunch in 2011; Clemson. The Tigers were the only regular-season loss for the Hokies, and Clemson won the ACC Championship Game as well. In those two contests, Virginia Tech only managed to score a total of 13 points. This season, the Hokies return star quarterback Logan Thomas but little other experience on offense. ACC Player of the Year David Wilson and his school-record 1,709 rushing yards have departed, along with four offensive line starters and the top two wide receivers. That fact puts a tremendous burden on Thomas, but he has the ability to carry the Tech attack. Thomas set the single-season school record for total yardage (3,482) and accounted for 30 touchdowns as a sophomore.

The key to the 2012 Virginia Tech season will be how the rest of the offense develops around Thomas. He will have three senior wideouts on the outside, and Marcus Davis (510 yards and five TDs in 2011) could be a star if he fulfills his vast potential. Redshirt freshman Michael Holmes could be the next great Hokies running back, and he will run behind a line that has talent but lacks experience. While the offense gets up to speed, the good news is that Virginia Tech should have an excellent defense with eight starters returning from a unit that ranked No. 7 nationally in points allowed a year ago.

The Hokies project as the favorite in the Coastal Division, but they do draw Clemson and Florida State from the Atlantic. The season-opener against Georgia Tech looms large, but the veteran defense should be up for the challenge. If the offense can grow around Thomas, look for Virginia Tech to win double-digit games for an amazing ninth season in a row.
 


14: Derek Dooley has been in Knoxville for two seasons, and the Tennessee Volunteers have lost an unacceptable 14 games during that span. Not all of the blame should go on the likeable head coach, since the end of the Phil Fulmer era and the Lane Kiffin scorched-earth season left the roster in shambles. Dooley has recruited well, but it’s time for those efforts to start producing wins on the field. The strength of the 2012 Tennessee squad is its passing game, led by junior quarterback Tyler Bray (3,832 yards and 35 touchdown passes in 16 career games) and imposing wideouts Da’Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter. When you add heralded junior college receiver Cordarrelle Patterson into the mix, the Vols could be lethal through the air.

The key to Tennessee becoming a big-time SEC offense will be showing dramatic improvement in the running game (116th in the nation in 2011). Dooley brought in former Vol Jay Graham to coach the backs, and junior Rajion Neal has the early lead as the starter. UT also has a new line coach in Sam Pittman, and he inherits a veteran unit. With highly-touted sophomore “Tiny” Richardson (6’6”, 332) taking over at left tackle, look for better line play from the Vols this season. On defense, there will definitely be an adjustment period to the 3-4 scheme of new coordinator Sal Sunseri. The line has size with newcomers Daniel McCullers (6’6”, 377) and Darrington Sentimore, and the starters at linebacker should be solid with Herman Lathers, Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson leading the way. The secondary gained valuable experience last year, and corner Prentiss Waggner has a nose for turnovers.

The Vols open in Atlanta against a tough NC State team, and the Big Orange fan base is thirsting for a big win. The SEC slate is always challenging — especially with trips to Georgia and South Carolina — but Missouri and Mississippi State replace LSU and Arkansas from last year’s schedule. If the running game improves as expected and Tennessee’s depth on defense is not overly tested, look for the Vols to win at least eight games and return the program to the top tier of the conference.
 


15: The West Virginia Mountaineers are going through a major change in moving from the Big East to the Big 12 this season, but Dana Holgorsen has the offense to make that transition much easier. The former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator has experience in WVU’s new conference, and the All-America trio of quarterback Geno Smith (4,385 yards, 31 touchdown passes) and wideouts Tavon Austin (101 catches, 1,186 yards, eight TD receptions) and Stedman Bailey (1,279 yards, 12 TD catches) could top the list of formidable Big 12 passing attacks. In fact Mountaineers receivers combined for 15 100-yard games last season, almost doubling the previous school record of eight.

While the WVU aerial assault should be excellent, the running game has question marks. Last season’s leading rusher, Dustin Garrison, is still recovering from a December ACL tear. Senior Shawne Alston and sophomore Andrew Buie will carry the load early, and they will run behind an offensive line that returns three starters. On defense, the Mountaineers lost key players in pass rusher Bruce Irvin, linebacker Najee Goode and cornerback Keith Tandy. New coordinators Joe DeForest and Keith Patterson will need to build up a solid front seven, with Terence Garvin topping the linebackers and Jorge Wright and Will Clarke leading the way up front. The veteran secondary should be a strength of the defense, but Darwin Cook and company will be tested thoroughly in their new pass-happy league.

West Virginia has five home games in Big 12 play, and the non-conference schedule is very light. If the defense develops on the line and the run game can show just slight improvement, West Virginia could match last year’s total of 10 wins and challenge Oklahoma and Texas for the Big 12 crown.
 


16: Michigan had an excellent turnaround campaign under Brady Hoke a year ago, winning 11 games including the Sugar Bowl. The next step for the Wolverines is to win the Big Ten for the first time since 2004, and they have the roster to do just that in 2012. The offense will be led by star quarterback Denard Robinson, No. 16, who has been a dual-threat force over the last two seasons. He will be joined by running back Fitzgerald Toussaint (after he returns from suspension) to form a stellar rushing attack in Ann Arbor. The passing game does have question marks, with and inexperienced receivers group and Robinson trying to cut down on interceptions. Senior Roy Roundtree should be UM’s leading wideout this season, but he will miss significant practice time in training camp after having arthroscopic knee surgery.

While Robinson’s weapons get up to speed, the Michigan defense will look for a repeat of last season’s outstanding performance. The Wolverines ranked sixth in the country in scoring defense a year ago, but three of the four line starters must be replaced. Craig Roh returns, but intrepid coordinator Greg Mattison will need the boys up front to gel quickly. The back seven should be a quality group, with Kenny Demens leading the linebackers and an excellent secondary. Three defensive back starters return, and the emerging star of the unit is sophomore cornerback Blake Countess.

The Michigan schedule begins with a major challenge — a neutral site game against defending champion Alabama — and the week four trip to Notre Dame will be tough as well. The end of October slate could decide the Legends Division, with back-to-back contests versus Michigan State and at Nebraska. And of course, the trip to Columbus at the end of the season is always difficult. If the receivers and defensive line can develop consistency, look for Michigan to compete for that long-awaited Big Ten crown.
 


17: The expectations are always high for the Oklahoma Sooners, and that fact only increased when OU’s all-time leading passer Landry Jones decided to return to Norman instead of entering the NFL Draft. Despite the loss of NCAA career receptions leader Ryan Broyles, Jones should have enough weapons to produce another elite aerial attack. Kenny Stills (61 receptions for 849 yards and eight touchdowns) is the leading returning receiver, plus Jaz Reynolds and Trey Franks have been reinstated after off-the-field issues but could face suspensions. However the most intriguing wideout is newcomer is No. 17 Trey Metoyer. The heralded Texas native originally signed as part of the 2011 recruiting class but spent last year at prep school. Metoyer joined the Sooners in January and starred in the spring game with six catches for a team-high 72 yards.

The Oklahoma running game will get a boost with the healthy return of Dominique Whaley, who will team with Roy Finch in a solid backfield. The offensive line projected as a strength with its experience and depth, but the health-related retirement of center Ben Habern and season-ending knee injury to guard Tyler Evans were big blows up front. On defense, Mike Stoops returns to Norman to coordinate a unit with seven starters returning. Pass rushers Frank Alexander and Ronnell Lewis will be missed on the line, and the Sooners will need ends David King and R.J. Washington to fulfill their potential. The back seven should be stout Tom Wort and Corey Nelson leading the linebackers and a secondary that returns four starters, including all-star candidates in safety Tony Jefferson and cornerback Demontre Hurst.

The Sooners project as the favorite in the new-look Big 12, and the schedule is fairly manageable. The September slate will provide time for both lines to develop before the challenge of October battles versus Texas and Notre Dame. The final three games will be difficult as OU travels to West Virginia, hosts Oklahoma State and plays at TCU, but Jones and


18: The 2011 Kansas State season was quite an interesting adventure. The Wildcats won 10 games despite ranking 101st nationally in total offense and 72nd in total defense. In fact, K-State went 7-2 in the Big 12 while being outgained by over 100 yards per game in league play. Two of the main factors that led to those fortunate results were a top 10 ranking in turnover margin and the outstanding running of quarterback Collin Klein (1,141 rush yards and an amazing 27 touchdowns on the ground). The senior signal caller will need to improve as a passer for the same type of results this year, and he’ll have leading receiver Chris Harper back on the outside. However a potential difference maker for the Wildcats offense is sophomore wideout Tyler Lockett, who totaled 18 catches for 246 yards and three scores as a freshman before a season-ending injury in early November. The K-State legacy was also excellent on kickoff returns, averaging 35.2 yards with two touchdowns.

The Kansas State running game has solid options with Klein and tailback John Hubert (970 yards in 2011), but the offensive line must replace three starters from last year’s excellent unit. On defense, The Wildcats have studs on all three levels — All-America candidate Arthur Brown at linebacker, leading sacker Meshak Williams at end and Nigel Malone (seven interceptions a year ago) at cornerback — but must improve as a whole group. That challenge will fall to new coordinator Tom Hayes, who takes over for the effective Chris Cosh. The front seven should have solid depth, but the secondary will be tested early and often in the pass-happy Big 12.

Many around the college football world doubt that Kansas State can repeat last year’s success, but intrepid coach Bill Snyder has a way leading teams past others’ expectations. The non-conference slate is manageable with a depleted Miami bunch coming to Manhattan. However the league schedule has five road games, including tough trips to Oklahoma, West Virginia and TCU. Ten wins may be tough to match in 2012, but Kansas State will be a difficult opponent each week in the Big 12.
 


19: The Mississippi State Bulldogs have never been known for their aerial attack, but they did set a school-record with 19 touchdown passes a year ago despite ranking 94th nationally in pass offense. Tyler Russell tossed eight of those scores, and he will take over as the starting quarterback after sharing duties with Chris Relf the last two seasons. The Bulldogs fan base is hoping that Russell can fulfill the expectations that existed after his stellar career at Meridian High School, and he will have a solid receiving group in seniors Chad Bumphis, Chris Smith and Arceto Clark. MSU lost its top rusher in Vick Ballard (1,189 yards and 10 TDs), but LaDarius Perkins and Nick Griffin should give the Bulldogs capable runners. The question on offense will be the development of an inexperienced offensive line that returns only two starters.

Mississippi State finished 16th in the country in scoring defense last season but had trouble stopping the run. Seven starters return from that unit, but NFL first-round pick Fletcher Cox will be missed. The linebacking group should be active, with senior Cam Lawrence and his 2011 team-high 123 tackles leading the way. The secondary projects as the strength of the defense, and cornerbacks Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield should be one of the top cover tandems in the nation.

The reality for the Bulldogs is that they must get past the 0-12 mark against SEC West foes not named Ole Miss. While it’s obviously tough to make progress in college football’s toughest division, Dan Mullen enters his fourth year in Starkville with the most depth and talent he’s had during his tenure. If Russell and the two lines show marked improvement, Mississippi State can move up the pecking order in the brutal SEC.
 


20: The Oregon Ducks have gone 34-6 in Chip Kelly’s three seasons as head coach, and they have mainly been known for his high-octane offense scoring points at will. However, people may forget that the Ducks finished 12th nationally in scoring defense in 2010 when they played for it all against Auburn. Last year’s unit went through some headaches but gained valuable experience, and the 2012 defense could be coordinator Nick Aliotti’s best group yet. Leading the way will be senior free safety John Boyett, No. 20, who topped Oregon with 108 tackles last season. He’ll be joined by sophomore cornerbacks Terrance Mitchell and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu in a secondary that should be much better against the pass this season. Hybrid end/linebacker Dion Jordan (7.5 sacks in 2011) will lead the pass rush for a front seven that is deep and athletic.

The biggest news with the Ducks offense is the ongoing quarterback competition between sophomore Bryan Bennett and redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota. Either signal caller has big shoes to fill in replacing Darron Thomas, who threw for over 5,000 yards and 63 touchdowns over the last two seasons. Oregon must also deal with the loss of running back LaMichael James (53 rushing TDs in the last three seasons), but senior Kenjon Barner and all-purpose machine De’Anthony Thomas are proven weapons. There are some question marks on the outside, where UO will look for Josh Huff to emerge as a threat. A very capable offensive line returns three starters and should pave the way for another productive Ducks attack.

A light early schedule and a solid defense should give Kelly plenty of time to solve the quarterback puzzle and get the Oregon offense producing at its usual high level. The November 3 matchup at USC could be college football’s game of the year, although most believe the Ducks and Trojans will meet again in the Pac-12 Championship Game — where Kelly’s squad would play for an outstanding fourth-straight conference crown.
 


21: This is an important season for California Golden Bears football, as they move back into a renovated Memorial Stadium and try to scale back up the Pac-12 pecking order. There was significant attrition off last year’s conference-leading defense, but the offense has big-time playmakers. The top weapon is wide receiver Keenan Allen, No. 21, who totaled 98 receptions for 1,343 yards and six touchdowns a year ago. The Bears will need another target to develop in order to prevent double-teams on Allen, and quarterback Zach Maynard must play with the consistency he showed late last season. The running game should be solid with the return of three offensive line starters and stud back Isi Sofele, who produced 1,322 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns in 2011.

The Cal defense has topped the Pac-12 over the last two seasons, but intrepid coordinator Clancy Pendergast must find some new solutions in 2012. The losses from last year’s unit include linebacker Mychal Kendricks, the conference Defensive Player of the Year, top lineman Trevor Guyton and starting safeties Sean Cattouse and D.J. Campbell. Nose tackle Aaron Tipoti is a quality player up front, but the rest of the front seven is fairly inexperienced. The secondary could be a strength with the solid cornerback tandem of Marc Anthony and Steve Williams. On special teams, the Bears must replace an excellent punter in Bryan Anger as well as kicker Giorgio Tavecchio.

The Cal schedule is very challenging, with a September trips to Ohio State plus having to play USC, Utah, Arizona State and UCLA from the South Division. Jeff Tedford has totaled 12 wins over the last two seasons, and the Bears fan base is ready to see the team return to the upper level of the Pac-12. For that to happen, Cal will need continued improvement from Maynard and some new playmakers to emerge on defense.
 


22: Purdue made the postseason last year for the first time since 2007, winning the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in Danny Hope’s third season as head coach. To play past November this season, the Boilermakers must be better on defense. New coordinator Tim Tibesar inherits a unit that finished 82nd against the run last year and only compiled 22 sacks. The good news is that seven starters return, including All-America candidate Kawann Short at tackle. He’ll lead an experienced group up front that should be better at the point of attack this season. Purdue’s leading returning tackler, linebacker Dwayne Beckford, is back on the team after serving a suspension for off-the-field trouble. The Boilermakers have a quality cornerback tandem in junior Ricardo Allen and senior Josh Johnson, and they would benefit greatly from an improved pass rush.

The Purdue offense has plenty of options at quarterback, with senior Caleb TerBush as the starter. Robert Marve and Rob Henry can provide an interesting change of pace for an attack that showed promise a year ago. The skill players should be solid with receivers Antavian Edison and O.J. Ross and running backs Akeem Shavers and Ralph Bolden leading the way. They will need support from a line that has potential but must develop chemistry quickly.

The Boilermakers have a tough game at Notre Dame in week two but should be able to manage the rest of the non-conference slate. The Big Ten schedule is always challenging, but the absence of Michigan State and Nebraska from the Legends Division will help. If the lines can show marked improvement, look for Purdue to make a bowl game for the second-straight season.
 


23: South Carolina set a new school record with 11 wins last season, and the Gamecocks have enough talent and depth to approach that total once again. There were some big personnel losses on defense in NFL first-round selections Melvin Ingram and Stephen Gilmore, but the most difficult void to fill may be the presence of wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. Steve Spurrier’s club does not have many proven wideouts, and Jeffery totaled 23 touchdown catches over his three seasons in Columbia. Ace Sanders can produce at the SEC level, but he is the only returning Gamecock who had over 20 catches in 2011. The focus of Spurrier’s offense in 2012 will be on the running game, especially with the return from injury of All-America tailback Marcus Lattimore. Additionally, quarterback Connor Shaw proved to be a dual-threat after running for 415 yards and eight scores over the final six games of last year.

The South Carolina defense should be a quality group once again, but there was offseason change with new coordinator Lorenzo Ward taking over for new Southern Miss coach Ellis Johnson. Ward inherits a pair of excellent defensive ends in Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor, plus a senior-laden linebackers group led by Shaq Wilson and former safety DeVonte Holloman. The secondary starters should be solid, but depth could be an issue.

The Gamecocks swept the Eastern division last season, but losses to Arkansas and Auburn prevented USC from going to Atlanta in December. Carolina faces the Razorbacks and LSU from the West this year, while Georgia does not play Alabama, LSU or Arkansas. However if Lattimore returns to form and some solutions emerge at receiver, South Carolina will be in the hunt for a second SEC Championship Game appearance in three seasons.
 


24: Coach Jimbo Fisher has the roster to lead Florida State to an ACC title this season. The Seminoles have the proven formula in 2012 of a stout defense and a senior quarterback. Veteran signal caller EJ Manuel has 24 career touchdown passes, but he could easily match that total this year if he plays well. The FSU receiving group should be much improved, with Rashad Greene, Rodney Hood and Willie Haulstead serving as the top FSU targets. The rushing duties will begin with senior Chris Thompson and sophomore Devonta Freeman, but they will be running behind a line that only returns one starter and is lacking experience.

The Florida State defense returns eight starters and has the athleticism and depth to repeat last season’s top five statistical ranking. The offseason loss of senior corner and punt returner Greg Reid will be felt, but there are still plenty of veterans for coordinator Mark Stoops. The line should be excellent, with pass rushers Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner leading the way.
The linebacking unit has solid experience, while the secondary has stars in safety Lamarcus Joyner and cornerback Xavier Rhodes.

The Seminoles won seven of their last eight games to end last year with the defense serving as a catalyst. If the offensive line can develop and Manuel shows consistency, Florida State will favored to win its first ACC crown since 2005.
 


25: Georgia Tech won eight games in 2011 with a young roster, and the Yellow Jackets should challenge Virginia Tech in the Coastal Division this season. Senior quarterback Tevin Washington accounted for 25 touchdowns — 14 on the ground and 11 passing — a year ago, but he must be more consistent in ACC play. Washington led the Yellow Jackets in rushing, but he had zero touchdown passes over the last seven regular-season games. The receiving unit is completely inexperienced after the loss of Stephen Hill to the NFL, as no returning wideout has a single career catch. However, we all know the focus of Paul Johnson’s offense is run, run, and more run. Georgia Tech returns four starters on an offensive line that could be the best of Johnson’s tenure, and veteran backs Orwin Smith and David Sims will join Washington to lead the vaunted spread-option attack.

The Yellow Jackets defense must be better against the run to beat the top opponents on their schedule. Al Groh’s group ranked 66th nationally in run defense last year, and there was a lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks as well. Defensive end Izaan Cross will lead a defensive line looking for playmakers, while the linebackers group should be solid with Jeremiah Attaochu leading the way. The secondary should be a quality group with returning corners Louis Young and Rod Sweeting, plus leading tackler Isaiah Johnson back at safety.

Georgia Tech has a challenging season-opener in Blacksburg, as the Hokies get all summer to prepare for the Jackets’ run game. The Clemson trip will be tough as well, but Florida State is not on the schedule. If the offense plays with more precision and the defense can show marked improvement, Johnson’s club will be an ACC contender.
 


26: Arkansas State enjoyed its best football season at the Division I/FBS level in 2011, going undefeated as Sun Belt champions and winning 10 games. That success led to coach Hugh Freeze moving on to Ole Miss and the SEC, but the Red Wolves found another bright offensive mind from America’s toughest conference in new coach Gus Malzahn. The former Auburn offensive coordinator will inherit an ASU attack with veteran skill players, led by Sun Belt Player of the Year Ryan Aplin. The senior dual-threat quarterback has scored 26 touchdowns in his career, as well as totaling 43 TD passes. Aplin is fourth among active FBS signal callers with 8,734 career yards of total offense, and he should continue to flourish in Malzahn’s fast-paced offense.

Seniors Taylor Stockemer and Josh Jarboe are back as the top receivers, but the Red Wolves will need to find a running back to complement Aplin — last year’s leading rusher. Speedy Frankie Jackson is the top candidate, and he will run behind a line that must replace three starters. On defense, new coordinator John Thompson will be searching for playmakers. ASU ranked 24th nationally in total defense in 2011, but only four starters return. The defense may give up some points this year — especially in September trips to Oregon and Nebraska — but the offense should be able to compensate. Malzahn knows there are good things happening in Jonesboro, and the Aplin-led Red Wolves look like the favorite to repeat in the Sun Belt.
 


27: UCLA football is going through a transition, as former Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks head coach Jim Mora takes over the Bruins program. Former coach Rick Neuheisel made progress in recruiting and was well-liked, but he could never get the offense going on the way to a four-year record of 21-29. In fact, UCLA has only 27 passing touchdowns over the past two seasons — the lowest total in the Pac-12 by far over that span. New offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone will try to change that fact with a fast-paced attack, but he must find a quarterback first. Redshirt freshman Brett Hundley may be the most-talented candidate, and he will compete with seniors Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut for the job. The Bruins have two solid running backs in Johnathan Franklin and Malcolm Jones, but the offensive line needs much improvement and to find some depth.

Mora and new defensive coordinator Lou Spanos will employ multiple schemes with the front seven. The line has a ton of talent, but must be better on the field after the Bruins defense finished 96th in the country against the run last season. Top tacklers Patrick Larimore and Eric Kendricks are back to lead the linebackers group, while the secondary has quality experience — especially in cornerbacks Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester. There are too many playmakers on this side of the ball for the Bruins to repeat a finish of 92nd nationally in scoring defense.

The new staff has many challenges in getting the football culture changed at UCLA, but there is plenty of talent on the roster. Getting back to the postseason would be a solid accomplishment in 2012 for Mora, and then he can work towards the goal of returning the Bruins to the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 1998 season.
 


28: The Washington program is on the rise in the Pac-12, and Steve Sarkisian has the Huskies fan base energized for the first time in a decade. The offense found a star in quarterback Keith Price last year, but the UW defense was awful on its way to ranking 106th nationally. After the humiliating 67–56 Alamo Bowl loss to Baylor and Heisman winner Robert Griffin III, changes were made on the staff. Sarkisian paid a hefty ransom to bring coordinator Justin Wilcox back to the west coast. The former Oregon player and Boise State defensive boss did a solid job at Tennessee, where he took a talent-depleted unit and had them ranked 28th in the country in total defense last season. Wilcox will also have top recruiters/coaches under him in Peter Sirmon and Tosh Lupoi. Can that group turn around the defense in Seattle?

The Huskies have some productive players in linemen Hau'oli Jamora and Josh Shirley, as well as defensive backs Desmond Trufant and Sean Parker. However there is little depth and playmakers are needed badly at linebacker. There will be an infusion of talent with a solid recruiting class, and heralded freshman Shaq Thompson could move into the lineup immediately at safety. The Washington offense, which scored over 33 points per game in 2011, should be excellent with Price throwing to top pass catchers Austin Seferian-Jenkins at tight end and Kasen Williams at receiver. Jesse Callier will try to replace All-Pac-12 rusher Chris Polk, and he will run behind a solid O-line with three starters returning.

The UW defense does have to be a shutdown unit, but it must improve greatly to give the Huskies a shot at challenging Oregon and Stanford in the Pac-12 North. The first half of the schedule is brutal with LSU, Stanford, Oregon and USC, but look for Washington to build momentum late on its way to becoming a perennial conference contender.
 


29: The Georgia Bulldogs will have a great shot to repeat in the SEC East, and the catalyst in Athens will be an experienced and athletic defense. Todd Grantham’s group finished fifth in total defense last season and returns 10 starters. The lead Dawg will be outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, No. 29 — a consensus All-American who led the SEC with 13.5 sacks a year ago. He’ll be joined on the linebackers unit by solid contributors Mike Gilliard and Alec Ogletree, and the line is stout with John Jenkins at nose tackle and Abry Jones at end. The secondary should be excellent, with senior safeties Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams. However there were some off-the-field issues with multiple defenders, and they will be suspended for two to four games.

The offense has a catalyst as well, as junior quarterback Aaron Murray comes off a 2011 campaign when he set a new school single-season record for touchdown passes with 35. His top target should be senior wideout Tavarres King, who led the team with 47 receptions for 705 yards and eight scores last season. Malcolm Mitchell was the Dawgs’ second-leading receiver a year ago, but he may split time between offense and defense in 2012. The UGA running game could be a concern after the dismissal of Isaiah Crowell, unless Ken Malcome or heralded freshmen Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley can emerge. The patchwork line lacks depth, but there is talent in the starting five.

The schedule is friendly — no Alabama, LSU or Arkansas from the West — for a UGA team that has the proven formula of a top defense and stud quarterback. If the Dawgs can survive the early suspensions and develop a rushing attack, they should return to Atlanta this December with a solid chance of winning an SEC crown.
 


30: The Arkansas Razorbacks and their fans have been through quite the offseason. It started out on a positive note when quarterback Tyler Wilson and his 30 career touchdown passes returned to Fayetteville instead of opting for the NFL. However the Razorbacks program would be shocked a few months later with the Bobby Petrino saga, which would lead to the firing of the coach who compiled a 21-5 record over the last two seasons. John L. Smith will coach the Hogs this year, and he announced earlier this week that promising receivers Marquel Wade and Maudrecus Humphrey — plus tight end Andrew Peterson — will not play this fall because of legal issues.

So how will Wilson and the vaunted passing attack fare after the losses of Petrino and three receivers to the NFL? The senior signal caller has two top pass catchers in receiver Cobi Hamilton and tight end Chris Gragg, but there is little other experience on the outside. The offense will be bolstered by the return of running back Knile Davis, who had an incredible 2010 season with 1,322 yards and 13 touchdowns. The offensive line brings three starters back, with All-America candidate Alvin Bailey leading the way.

The Arkansas defense has talent but lost a key player on each level in Jake Bequette, Jerry Franklin and Tramain Thomas. New coordinator Paul Haynes will look for improvement against the run, where the Hogs finished 74th nationally last season. The tackle rotation has depth, but the ends must show consistency. The linebackers group should be solid with Alonzo Highsmith — the Razorbacks’ top defender — and converted end Tenarius Wright, while the secondary has playmakers in safety Eric Bennett and corner Tevin Mitchel. Arkansas should still be a top 10-15 team in 2012, but the offseason turmoil may prevent the Hogs from challenging LSU and Alabama in the brutal SEC West.
 


31: The forecast for the Miami Hurricanes in 2012 looks fairly similar to the 6-6 campaign of last season. With looming NCAA sanctions and a depleted roster, Al Golden is looking for any positives as he and the staff try to develop young talent. Miami will have a new look on offense after losing top playmakers Lamar Miller, Jacory Harris, Tommy Streeter and Travis Benjamin. Stephen Morris and transfer Ryan Williams will battle for the starting quarterback gig, and that competition could last into the season. Junior Allen Hurns is the team’s leading returning pass catcher with 31 receptions a year ago, and he will be joined by Rashawn Scott and Phillip Dorsett on a receivers unit look for a top target to emerge. Mike James will start at running back, and he will run behind an offensive line that returns only two starters.

Despite being porous against the run last season, the Hurricanes ranked 17th nationally in scoring defense. This year’s group has some talent, but there are question marks as well. The defensive line lacks experience, but sophomore end Anthony Chickillo could become a star. Fellow sophomore Denzel Perryman had a solid freshman season with 69 tackles, and he will move to middle linebacker in 2012. Seniors Vaughn Telemaque and Brandon McGee will lead a secondary that needs to force a few more turnovers while also supporting the run.

Al Golden has recruited some big-time talent to ‘The U’, but the Hurricanes will be inexperienced in 2012. The ACC slate will be challenging, plus there are tough non-conference games against Notre Dame, Kansas State and South Florida. It may not be the norm at Miami, but making a bowl game could be considered a quality accomplishment this season.
 


32: The Nevada Wolf Pack will move up in competition this year with the transition to the Mountain West Conference. Hall of Fame coach Chris Ault has led Nevada to bowl games in each of the last seven years on the strength of his run-heavy Pistol offense, but the Wolf Pack finished 32nd in the country in passing offense a year ago — its highest ranking in years. To continue the upward trend with the aerial attack, Ault brought in new offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich from Hawaii. The emphasis on a balanced offense will be enhanced by Cody Fajardo, who took over at quarterback in mid-October last season and his dual-thereat play earned him WAC Freshman of the Year honors. Fajardo will benefit from the return of receiver Brandon Wimberly and tight end Zach Sudfield to the lineup, and he’ll be protected by a solid offensive line with three starters returning. Several running backs will have the opportunity to emerge as the leader, with junior Stefphon Jefferson as the top candidate.

The move to the Mountain West will be challenging for the Nevada defense, which lost some key contributors. Five starters do return, all in the back seven and all seniors. Mike Bradeson takes over at coordinator, and the strength of his defense should be the unit he previously coached — the secondary. The senior-laden group isled by safeties Duke Williams and Marlon Johnson and corner Khalid Wooten. The linebackers unit has quality veterans as well in seniors Albert Rosette and Jeremiah Green. The challenge for Bradeson will be finding playmakers on an inexperienced defensive line.

Nevada should play well in the Mountain West, with Fajardo and the offense as the catalyst. Boise State is still the preseason favorite despite major personnel losses, but the winning tradition that Ault has built in Reno should produce a team that competes with the Broncos for the MWC crown.
 


33: The college football world has not witnessed many seasons like the one Wisconsin running back Montee Ball had in 2011, rushing for 1,923 yards and an astounding 33 touchdowns. He made the Badgers fan base very happy by deciding to return to school rather than enter the 2012 NFL Draft, and the All-America back will now try to lead UW to a third-straight Rose Bowl. There was some serious offseason attrition in Madison with the loss of quarterback Russell Wilson, three quality offensive line starters and heralded offensive coordinator Paul Chryst. However, the program did receive good news with the transfer of talented signal caller Danny O’Brien from Maryland. He will have solid targets in receiver Jared Abbrederis and tight end Jacob Pedersen, plus the line does return All-America candidates in tackle Ricky Wagner and center Travis Frederick.

While the Badgers offense should still score plenty of points, the defense must improve against the run. Six starters are back from a unit that finished 13th nationally in scoring defense, but there were some lapses against teams like Ohio State, Michigan State and Oregon that will need to be corrected. The line should have better depth this year, and the linebackers group is excellent with all-conference players in Chris Borland and Mike Taylor. If the secondary can develop some early consistency, the defense should be a solid group.

Wisconsin seems to have a fairly clear path to the Leaders crown, with a quality roster and the fact that Ohio State and Penn State are ineligible for the postseason. There is a little uncertainty with O’Brien and the defense, but Ball and the other weapons on offense should put the Badgers in a good position to win a third-straight Big Ten title.
 


34: South Florida is still looking for its first Big East title, and the roster is stocked enough for that to happen in 2012. Louisville is the preseason favorite, but the Bulls return a senior quarterback and a veteran defense. The back seven should be particularly strong, with an excellent linebacking group led by No. 34 DeDe Lattimore. The all-conference candidate will be joined by senior backers Mike Lanaris and Sam Barrington on a defense that finished 15th nationally against the run last year. The secondary has quality experience with senior corner Kayvon Webster and senior safety Jon Lejiste leading the way, but they must find a way to not break down on drives late in games — a factor that hurt the Bulls multiple times in 2011. The line has question marks, but junior end Ryne Giddens could be a star.

Most of the attention on offense will go to senior quarterback B.J. Daniels, who is statistically productive but does have lapses in the passing game. He’ll have a quality group of receivers and backs around him, led by wideout Sterling Griffin. The offensive line returns three starters, and they should pave the way for a solid running game that produced over 180 yards a game last season.

Coach Skip Holtz must find a way to reverse the USF pattern of playing well during the non-conference slate but then faltering in Big East play. There is too much talent on the Bulls roster for another 1-7 end to the season. If Holtz can get a little more consistency across the board and finish off games, South Florida can challenge in the Big East.
 


35: Mike Riley, one of the nicest and well-liked coaches in college football, led Oregon State to bowl games in six of the seven seasons from 2003-09. However the Beavers have gone 8-16 over the past two years, including a lackluster 3-9 last season. OSU’s problems during the 2011 campaign stemmed from an inability to run the ball or stop the run on defense. The Beavers finished an anemic 118th in the country in rushing and had to rely on the arm of Sean Mannion to move the ball. The sophomore quarterback could become a big-time Pac-12 player, but he must cut down on interceptions this season. While Mannion has a solid receivers group coming back in Markus Wheaton, Jordan Bishop and Brandin Cooks, he must get some help from the running game. OSU’s leading returning rusher is No. 35 Malcolm Agnew, and he will be joined by Storm Woods and incoming freshman Chris Brown in a backfield looking for a consistent threat.

The Oregon State defense returns eight starters from a group that ranked 101st nationally against the run and last in the Pac-12. Sophomore defensive ends Scott Crichton and Dylan Wynn have potential on the line, but they will need help inside. The back seven has solid experience, led by veterans Feti Unga and Michael Doctor at linebacker and Jordan Poyer at cornerback. Riley’s teams have played solid run defense historically, so the OSU fan base is hoping last year’s performance was just an injury-filled outlier. If the Beavers are not more competitive this season, that same fan base will demand a change in the direction of the program.
 


36: Cincinnati had a rough first season (4-8) under Butch Jones in 2010, but the Bearcats rebounded last season with 10 wins and a share of the Big East title. The UC formula was fairly simple a year ago: run the ball and stop the run on defense. Cincinnati ranked 36th in the country in rushing, led by Big East Offensive Player of the Year Isaiah Pead (1,259 yards and 12 touchdowns) and quarterback Zach Collaros (eight rushing TDs). With those two stars gone, Jones will need to find some new weapons for his running attack. Senior George Winn tallied 219 yards in 2011 and should be the starter this year, but he will be challenged by Jameel Poteat, Ralph David Abernathy IV and Aaron Harris. Quarterback Munchie Legaux can also add to the rushing attack, and he will have veteran targets in Anthony McClung and Kenbrell Thompkins.

The Bearcats defense finished sixth nationally in rushing defense last season, but two key components — tackle Derek Wolfe and middle linebacker JK Schaffer — will be missed greatly. Senior ends Dan Giordano and Walter Stewart will lead a defensive line with solid potential, while Maalik Bomar tops the linebackers group. The UC defense had 16 interceptions last year, but the secondary must cut down on opponents’ passing yardage this season.

Cincinnati still has talent on the roster, but it will be tough to replace second-round NFL draft picks like Pead and Wolfe. Another strong campaign in Jones’ third season would go a long way in making the Bearcats fan base feel confident that UC football can continue to be a top Big East program.
 


37: New Ole Miss boss Hugh Freeze has been a college head coach for 37 games, 25 at NAIA Lambuth and 12 at Arkansas State. That resume might not sound like the usual path for an SEC head coach, but Freeze just may be the solution to what’s needed in Oxford. The Mississippi native won 30 of those 37 games, including a 10-2 season at ASU that resulted in a Sun Belt Championship. His up-tempo offense was a hit in Jonesboro, and points seem to follow the likeable coach wherever he works.

The issue(s) facing Freeze is that he inherited a Rebels team lacking the talent of its SEC brethren, as Ole Miss has lost an astounding 14 league games in a row. Last year’s club finished 116th in scoring offense and 96th in scoring defense, so there is quite a bit of work to be done in Oxford. The 2012 season will be about establishing a new football culture as much as wins and losses, and Freeze seems to be off to a good start with discipline, academic improvement and recruiting. The schedule is brutal in the SEC West, plus the Rebs face Georgia and an improved Vanderbilt program from the East and Texas in a non-conference tilt.

The losing may continue this season at Ole Miss, but Freeze has been excellent at every stop and should get the program moving in the right direction. He has put together a solid staff, but it will take some time to start winning in America’s toughest conference.
 


38: Utah had a quality season in its first Pac-12 campaign, winning eight total games including a bowl victory over Georgia Tech. The catalyst for the Utes was a defense that finished 38th in the country last year, led by the league’s top defensive lineman in Star Lotulelei. The effective unit ranked 19th in the nation and best in the conference in scoring defense, allowing 20.2 points per game. Utah’s top two tacklers from last year — linebackers Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez — must be replaced, but seven starters return for coordinator Kalani Sitake. Lotulelei and the Kruger brothers will lead a solid line, and an experienced secondary should be a major strength.

If the Utes are going to improve on their 4-5 conference record from 2011, the offense will need to find more weapons on offense than just star running back John White. The talented junior college transfer totaled 1,519 yards and 15 touchdowns a year ago, yet Utah finished 80th nationally in rushing. New coordinator Brian Johnson will try to resuscitate the Pac-12’s worst passing attack, with former starter Jordan Wynn probably returning to the quarterback position this fall. The receivers are veterans, but the O-line must replace quality tackles in Tony Bergstrom and John Cullen.

Kyle Whittingham’s crew is not expected to challenge USC in the South, but many believe the Utes can finish second in the division. Avoiding Oregon and Stanford helps with the league schedule, plus the non-conference slate is manageable. If the offense can just become a little more productive, the Utah defense can lead the club to big things in 2012.
 


39: Coach Frank Spaziani has been the head coach at Boston College for 39 games, and he has led to the Eagles to a 20-19 record. After winning an “interim” game in 2006 and then 15 games in his first two seasons at the helm, Spaziani’s Eagles dropped to 4-8 last year and BC missed the postseason for the first time since 1998. Many in the fan base fear the program is headed in the wrong direction, and attendance in Chestnut Hill has dipped to unhealthy levels. Most of the talk regarding Eagles football these days revolves around Spaziani and the “hot seat”, and that chatter increased when multiple assistants decided to take jobs at other schools this offseason.

A 20-19 record may not sound incredibly bad, but you have to examine the recent success of Boston College to understand the feelings of the fan base. Tom O’Brien won 66 games in his last eight seasons at BC, including taking the Eagles to a bowl game each season from 1999-2006. Jeff Jagodzinski then won 20 games in two years before his controversial firing for interviewing for a job with the Jets. If Spaziani is to get the current Eagles turned around, then they will simply have to find a way to score more points. BC finished 112th in the country in both scoring and total offense a year ago.

The 2012 schedule will not make it easy on Spaziani and staff as they try to lead Boston College back to the postseason. The Eagles play non-conference games against Notre Dame and at Northwestern, plus difficult ACC battles with Clemson, Florida State and Georgia Tech Virginia Tech and NC State.
 


40: The Oklahoma defense will have a new boss with a familiar name this season. Former coordinator Brent Venables is now at Clemson, while Bob Stoops welcomes back his brother, Mike, to run the Sooners defense like he did from 1999-2003. Last year’s unit was solid early but fell off in the second half of the season. OU tied for eighth in the nation with 40 sacks last year, and key pass rushers Frank Alexander and Ronnell Lewis are off to the NFL. That duo combined for 32 tackles for loss and 14 sacks a year ago. Stoops will have five seniors in the defensive line rotation with ends David King and R.J. Washington, plus tackles Casey Walker, Stacy McGee and Jamarkus McFarland. Junior college transfer Chaz Nelson should also contribute in getting to opposing quarterbacks.

If the front four plays well, the Sooners should be excellent on defense. A secondary with vast potential returns all four starters, including All-America candidate Tony Jefferson at safety. The linebackers are also good, with Tom Wort in the middle and emerging star Corey Nelson on the outside. Additionally, two top Big 12 quarterbacks who hurt the Sooners last season — Robert Griffin III and Brandon Weeden — have moved on to the next level.

Oklahoma looks like the league favorite and national title contender, and we all expect big things from senior Landry Jones and the Sooners offense. If Stoops can get the defense to play to its talent level, look for OU to return to its usual spot for the last decade-plus — the top of the Big 12.
 


41: Vanderbilt made a bowl game in James Franklin’s first season in Nashville, but the excitement on West End wasn’t just because the Commodores reached the postseason for the fifth time in school history. It was because VU dominated lesser opponents and stood toe-to-toe with the big boys of the SEC. Can Franklin keep the momentum going in 2012? The offense has solid weapons, led by star running back Zac Stacy (1,193 yards, 14 touchdowns) and quarterback Jordan Rodgers. The senior signal caller took over during the second half of last season, and the Vanderbilt offense saw its production increase greatly. Rodgers has a pair of quality targets in Chris Boyd (eight TDs) and Jordan Matthews, who led the team with 41 catches and 778 yards a year ago.

The Commodores return seven starters on defense, but they did lose some high-end talent and leadership with the departures of Casey Hayward, Sean Richardson, Tim Fugger and Chris Marve. The line has plenty of experience and will be led by Walker May at end and Rob Lohr at tackle. The starting linebackers have potential but little depth, while the secondary could be excellent with stud cornerback Trey Wilson topping the unit.

Franklin has raised the expectations at Vanderbilt with the team’s on-the-field performance as well as impressive recruiting results. The 2012 Commodores should make a bowl game for the second straight season (for the first time in school history) and could pull a major upset or two in America’s toughest conference.
 


42: We knew the 2011 season would be challenging for the Auburn Tigers, who had massive personnel attrition from the 2010 BCS Championship team. Gene Chizik’s bunch lost its best offensive (Cam Newton) and defensive (Nick Fairley) player, four offensive line starters, its two best linebackers and top two receivers. The results last year were surprisingly good for a team that was outscored by 42 points on the season, as Auburn finished with eight wins. The inexperienced Tigers did lose badly to some top 25 teams, but they did show major potential with a victory at South Carolina and a Chick-fil-A Bowl win over Virginia.

The 2012 Auburn squad returns 16 starters, although both coordinators changed during the offseason. Former Michigan, Florida and Temple coach Scot Loeffler takes over the Auburn offense, which will have a much more conventional feel than Gus Malzahn’s attack. Kiehl Frazier and Clint Moseley will compete for the starting quarterback gig, and either one will have solid senior weapons at his disposal in receiver Emory Blake, running back Onterio McCalebb and tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen.

Former Falcons and Georgia coordinator Brian VanGorder will lead the Auburn defense, and he is walking into a gold mine of talent. All four defensive line starters return, including All-America candidate Corey Lemonier at end. The back seven should also be solid, led by seniors Daren Bates at linebacker and T’Sharvan Bell at cornerback. There will be an adjustment to the new schemes, but Auburn should move back towards the upper echelon of the SEC West in 2012.
 


43: Northwestern will be striving for a school-record fifth consecutive bowl appearance this season, and quarterback Kain Colter will be the focus of the offense. The dual-threat signal caller filled in for Dan Persa early in 2011 and was also the hero of the Nebraska victory in Lincoln last November. Colter is the Wildcats’ leading returning passer (55-for-82 for 673 yards and six touchdowns) and rusher (135 carries for 654 yards and nine scores). Additionally, the talented junior is Northwestern’s leading returning receiver after compiling 43 catches for 466 yards and three TDs in 2011. Colter may not be catching passes this season, but he should have solid targets in Demetrius Fields, Rashad Lawrence and Tony Jones.

Colter is obviously a dynamic threat on the ground, but NW must get more production from its running backs. The offensive line returns three starters, and that group should be solid if the pass protection improves this year. Coach Pat Fitzgerald and coordinator Mike Hankwitz will need more from their defense that finished 80th in the country in 2011. The linebackers unit has experience, but there are question marks on the line and in the secondary. This group simply has to better all over the field, from stopping the run to getting more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

The Big Ten’s Legends Division is challenging, but the Wildcats play a manageable non-conference schedule and miss Wisconsin and Ohio State from the Leaders. If Colter gets some support and the defense can show improvement, then Northwestern will have a shot at winning its first bowl game since January 1, 1949.
 


44: The Texas Longhorns look primed to return to a double-digit win total in 2012. Mack Brown won nine games in each of his first three seasons (1998-2000) in Austin, and then compiled at least 10 victories per year for almost a decade (2001-09). The bottom fell out in the non-bowl season of 2010, but the Horns rebounded with eight wins last year. A huge reason for the current burnt-orange optimism is a loaded defense led by top pass rusher Jackson Jeffcoat, No. 44, and fellow stellar end Alex Okafor. The pair combined for 35 tackles for loss and 15 sacks a year ago. Texas also has one of the best secondaries in the country, with safety Kenny Vacarro and cornerbacks Quandre Diggs and Carrington Byndom all being candidates for All-America and All-Big 12 honors.

Texas does have to replace leading tacklers Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson at linebacker, but coordinator Manny Diaz has plenty of talent on that unit with Jordan Hicks, Steve Edmond and Demarco Cobbs. The key to hitting the 10-win level once again will be improving a passing game that ranked 86th in the nation in 2011. Sophomore quarterback David Ash will have a chance to do that with an experienced receivers group, led by Mike Davis, Jaxon Shipley and Marquise Goodwin. The running game should be excellent with four offensive line starters returning, plus talented backs in Malcolm Brown (742 yards and five TDs as a freshman), Joe Bergeron (463 yards and five TDs) and heralded freshman Johnathan Gray.

The Texas defense ranked 11th in the country last season even in the pass-happy Big 12. Look for more positive results this year with studs like Jeffcoat, Okafor, Vaccaro and Diggs leading the way. If the Longhorns can find some consistency at signal caller, Mack Brown’s bunch will be right back to competing for league and national crowns.
 


45: Washington State made big news this offseason with the hiring of former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach. The controversial bench boss has a reputation for a wide-open passing offense and saying whatever is on his mind, but he also gets results. Texas Tech had an 84-43 record during his decade in Lubbock, and the Red Raiders made a bowl game in each of those 10 seasons. Last season in Pullman, the Cougars offense finished 45th in the nation in scoring despite having the ninth-rated passing attack. That could be the Leach difference this year — taking the same highly-rated pass offense (with a lacking run game) and getting more points out of it.

Senior Jeff Tuel is back at quarterback after multiple 2011 injuries, and he had an excellent performance in the spring game. His top target will be All-America candidate Marquess Wilson, who compiled 1,388 yards and 12 touchdowns a year ago. The offensive line returns three starters, but they must do a better job of protecting the passer after ranking in the bottom five in the country in sacks allowed per game. The defense will change to a more aggressive 3-4 scheme under new coordinator Mike Breske, and he will benefit from the return of pass rusher Travis Long and a veteran secondary.

Leach has the signal caller and top wideout to build a potent offense in his first season at Washington State. The Cougars have not made a bowl game since 2003, but six wins looks like a solid possibility with a proven coach steering the ship.
 


Editor's Note: After a our Penn State entry, Silas Redd and Rob Bolden have transferred.

46: The Penn State community has been through the worst scandal in school history over the last nine months. The nation was shocked to learn of Jerry Sandusky’s crimes and the subsequent silence by PSU decision makers, including Joe Paterno. The release of the Freeh Report has people talking more about cover-ups and further prosecutions than football, but new coach Bill O’Brien and his football team will try to move forward amid distractions and an awkward atmosphere in Happy Valley.

On the field, the new Penn State staff will be challenged to simply find a way to score more points. The Nittany Lions defense was good enough to lead the team to nine wins a year ago, but PSU only scored 46 points in its four losses. O’Brien will begin with senior Matt McGloin at quarterback, while Rob Bolden or Paul Jones could claim the job as well if the Nittany Lions do not improve on their 96th in the country ranking in passing offense. Any of the trio of signal callers will be helped by the return of top running back Silas Redd, who was very impressive last season on his way to 1,241 yards rushing and seven scores. However there is only one starter back on the offensive line, and the receivers lack a big-time playmaker.

The PSU defense should be a quality group, with tackle Jordan Hill and linebacker Gerald Hodges leading the way. The Nittany Lions will also count on seniors Michael Mauti and Pete Massaro to solidify the front seven, which will be needed with the loss of all four secondary starters. Penn State has a manageable non-conference schedule and avoids both Michigan schools from the Legends Division, but O’Brien and staff may be challenged by off-the-field distractions as much as gridiron issues.
 


47: Baylor fans were witness to a magical season in 2011, as the Bears won 10 games and Robert Griffin III took home the Heisman Trophy. The star quarterback compiled almost 5,000 total yards and accounted for 47 touchdowns a year ago. While Griffin was the brightest star in the country last season, he is not the only playmaker coach Art Briles will have to replace on offense. Star receiver Kendall Wright (1,663 yards and 14 TDs) and lead running back Terrance Ganaway (1,547 yards and 21 TDs) were incredibly productive in 2011, and NFL linemen Philip Blake and Robert Griffin paved the way.

There really is no replacing RG3, but the passing game should be fine. Senior signal caller Nick Florence has some experience, and the starting receiving group of Terrance Williams, Lanear Sampson and Tevin Reese is excellent. Three starters return on the offensive line, and the trio of Jarred Salubi, Glasco Martin and transfer Lache Seastrunk will compete for carries. The Baylor defense struggled last season (116th in the nation), but eight starters are back. The secondary should be a solid group, as Phil Bennett tries to improve a fast and experienced unit.

Baylor may not contend for the Big 12 title or wins 10 games again, but the performance of the 2012 team should show how much the program has grown under Briles. Making a bowl game for a third-straight season (which has never happened in school history) would be a quality accomplishment for the Bears.
 


48: The Missouri Tigers have won 48 games over the last five years, as coach Gary Pinkel has shown the ability to consistently produce winning seasons in Columbia. Mizzou made two Big 12 Championships Games in 2008 and 2009 but lost both. In 2012 the challenge gets much bigger as the Tigers join the SEC, America’s toughest conference. Another major offseason development for Missouri was the shoulder injury to star quarterback James Franklin during spring ball. He had surgery in late March, and Franklin’s presence will be paramount to the Tigers’ success after a sophomore season where he had 3,846 total yards and accounted for 36 touchdowns.

Franklin will have senior T.J. Moe back as his top target, but the rest of the receivers lack significant experience. Missouri did pull off a big-time recruiting coup by inking the nation’s top wideout in Dorial Green-Beckham, and it will be interesting to see how much he can contribute as a true freshman. The offensive line should be solid with three returning starters, plus getting sixth-year tackle Elvis Fisher back on the fold. With top runner Henry Josey expected to miss the season after multiple knee surgeries, the Tigers will count on Kendial Lawrence (566 yards and five TDs in 2011) to carry the rock.

The Missouri defense will be led by senior end Brad Madison, a veteran linebacker group and experienced cornerbacks E.J. Gaines and Kip Edwards. The Tigers have played solid defense over the last few years in the pass-happy Big 12, but they will face a more physical league in the SEC. The 2012 schedule will be tougher for Pinkel’s crew, but he has built a program that will compete in its new conference.
 


49: Virginia Tech has won at least 10 games in every season since 2004, and the Hokies have played in five of the seven ACC Championship Games — winning three. Frank Beamer’s club is always a national contender and looks like the clear favorite in the Coastal Division in 2012. The strength of this year’s squad will be in its eight returning starters on defense, led by all-conference ends James Gayle and J.R. Collins. The dynamic duo combined 13 sacks and 49 quarterback hurries last season, and Virginia Tech led the ACC in getting to opposing signal callers. With stud ends and the Hopkins brothers — Derrick and Antoine — at tackle, the Hokies have one of the best defensive lines in the country.

Senior Bruce Taylor will lead a linebacker group that has talent and experience, but also has had the injury bug. Junior cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Antone Exum are the latest in a long line of excellent secondary members to play in Bud Foster’s defense. This unit will have to carry the team early while the offense looks to replace All-America running back David Wilson, four offensive line starters and its top two receivers. However Virginia Tech has a star in quarterback Logan Thomas, who accounted for 30 touchdowns a year ago.

Some Hokies fans may be frustrated that their team has lost six of its last nine bowl games, but this program is a proven winner under Beamer. On the strength of a shutdown defense and a top signal caller, look for Virginia Tech to be playing for another ACC title in 2012.
 


50: Boise State has had an amazing run over the last decade plus, and current head coach Chris Petersen has posted a phenomenal record of 73-6 in his six seasons at the helm. The overall strength of the program will have to be on display this year, as the Broncos must replace the winningest quarterback in NCAA history (Kellen Moore), NFL first-round picks in defensive end Shea McClellin and running back Doug Martin, All-America offensive tackle Nate Potter, the school record-holder for touchdown catches in a season (Tyler Shoemaker) and top defenders like George Iloka, Tyrone Crawford and Billy Winn. Moore set the all-time college football record with 50 career wins, while ranking second in NCAA history in career touchdown passes and fifth in career passing yardage.

Joe Southwick will get the first chance to succeed Moore as the Boise signal caller, and the junior will have a solid group around him. Senior tailback D.J. Harper (24 career rush TDs) is a proven player, and three starters return on a quality offensive line. Southwick will also have productive targets in receivers Matt Miller (679 yards and nine TDs as a freshman) and Mitch Burroughs, plus tight end Gabe Linehan. The Broncos defense is a larger concern, with only one starter back from last season. However there is talent on this side of the ball with proven tackles Michael Atkinson and Ricky Tjong-A-Tjoe, and senior cornerbacks Jamar Taylor and Jerrell Gavins will lead the secondary.

Boise State has a chance to win another season opener over a big-time opponent in Michigan State on August 31. If the Broncos top the Spartans, the BCS talk in Idaho will resume. This team should win the Mountain West title before moving to the Big East in 2013. Even with the personnel attrition, Petersen has built a perennial Top 25 program that should win double-digit games once again.
 


51: The USC Trojans were named our preseason No. 1 team because of a loaded roster on both sides of the ball. Senior quarterback Matt Barkley will be a Heisman favorite, the receiving duo of Robert Woods and Marqise Lee is probably the best in the country, and the defense has a ton of talent on all three levels. So what could prevent the Trojans from playing for both the Pac-12 and national crowns? Depth looks like the only concern for the SC staff, although a running game that finished 51st in the country could become a potential liability. Tailback Curtis McNeal finished last season on a major roll, compiling 876 yards and six touchdowns in the final eight games. However the depth chart is thin after McNeal, with Tre Madden out for the season, Amir Carlisle’s transfer and the inexperience of D.J. Morgan.

The Trojans do return four starters on the offensive line, so USC should be able to find effective runners to complement McNeal. Plus, the passing attack is lethal enough to score big-time points on its own. Besides the terrific tandem of Woods and Lee, Barkley will also have reliable targets in receiver George Farmer and tight ends Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble. The defense should be improved as well, with All-America candidates T.J. McDonald, Nickell Robey and Dion Bailey leading the way.

The November 3 game against Oregon and a potential rematch with the Ducks in the Pac-12 title game loom large for USC, but the Trojans look like a heavy favorite to win the conference and compete for the national title.
 


52: The Nebraska defense allowed 5.2 yards per play last season, which led to an alarming opponent’s total of 350.7 yards per game. The Cornhuskers powerful running attack was good enough to overcome those totals on the way to nine victories, but the defense will need to show much improvement to compete for the Big Ten crown. The NU defense has also totaled 52 sacks over the last two seasons, as compared to 79 in the 2008 and 2009 campaigns when Ndamukong Suh was making like miserable for opposing quarterbacks.

Carl Pelini is now the head coach at Florida Atlantic, and new defensive coordinator John Papuchis and new line coach Rick Kaczenski will face the challenge of bettering a unit that ranked eighth in the Big Ten in rushing defense (158.5 YPG). There is talent to work with up front, as tackle Baker Steinkuhler and end Cameron Meredith provide experience and senior leadership. Top tackler Lavonte David will be missed, but Will Compton will lead a veteran linebacker group. The secondary also has playmakers in cover corner Andrew Green and safety
Daimion Stafford.

The 2012 Cornhuskers have the ability to win the Legend’s Division and the Big Ten, especially with offensive stars Rex Burkhead and Taylor Martinez. If the defense can improve against the run and put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, Nebraska can reach the goals of its passionate fan base.
 


53: Ravens third-round pick Bernard Pierce was a major factor in the newfound success of Temple football over the last few years. The workhorse tailback ran for over 3,500 yards and 53 touchdowns in the last three seasons, and the 26 wins for the Owls during that time is the most-ever in school history for a three-year period. Al Golden and Steve Addazio have taken the program to a competitive level, but the challenge to sustain winning seasons becomes much more difficult this year with Temple (re)entering the Big East.

Running back Matt Brown (916 yards and six scores in 2011) will take over as the starter, but don’t look for him to tote the rock 273 times like Pierce did a year ago. Dual-threat quarterback Chris Coyer took over at the end of last season, running the ball especially well. Those are the positives for new coordinator Ryan Day, who will have his work cut out developing an inexperienced offensive line and depth at the receiver position. Temple’s defense was excellent last season, allowing the third-fewest points in the country. However, coordinator Chuck Heater will need another excellent effort after the loss of four All-MAC defenders. It may take a couple of years for Temple to be a player in the Big East, but the program and its leadership are as strong as ever.
 


54: NC State finished 54th nationally in both scoring offense and scoring defense a year ago. That sounds fairly average, but Tom O’Brien’s club was able to win eight games and beat North Carolina for a fifth consecutive season. How much better will the Wolfpack be in 2012? The forecast looks bright in Raleigh, with a proven senior quarterback and seven starters returning on both sides of the ball. Mike Glennon threw for over 3,000 yards and 31 touchdowns a year ago, and the running game should be improved with a veteran offensive line and leading rusher James Washington back in the fold. The Wolfpack defense is built on pressure and causing turnovers. NC State had 40 sacks (T-8th nationally) and the second-most takeaways in the country last season on the strength of a nation-leading 27 interceptions.

The key to the 2012 campaign will be consistency on both units. The talented offense produced 37, 56 and 31 points in NC State’s final three games a year ago, but tallied only 0, 13, and 10 points in the three prior games. The defense played well versus top foes like Clemson, Virginia and North Carolina, but struggled badly against Cincinnati, Wake Forest and Florida State. The start of the season will be challenging with a neutral-site contest against Tennessee and a trip to Connecticut, and the Wolfpack have tough trips to Miami, North Carolina and Clemson. The Seminoles and Tigers are the favorites in the ACC’s Atlantic Division, but NC State could shake up the balance of power in the league with a little more consistency across the board.
 


55: Louisville is our preseason favorite in the Big East, with a rising star in sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and a solid defense. Another positive for Charlie Strong’s club is four returning starters on the offensive line, led by No. 55 Mario Benavides. The senior center will help pave the way for what should be a much-improved offense in 2012. Bridgewater showed a ton of potential last season, tossing 14 touchdowns and running for four more scores during his freshman campaign. His top targets should be a trio of fellow sophomores — Eli Rogers, Michaelee Harris and DeVante Parker — who gained valuable experience last season. Junior running back Dominique Brown had the most carries last season, but he will compete with Jeremy Wright, Senorise Perry and Corvin Lamb to be the top Card in 2012.

The Cardinals defense may be young, but Strong and staff have upped the talent level greatly since arriving at Louisville. Last season’s group finished 10th nationally in run defense, but this year’s unit will need to improve against this pass. Louisville has challenging road trips to Pittsburgh and Rutgers and hosts USF and North Carolina, but a double-digit win season looks like a good possibility. If the offense develops as expected, look for the Cardinals to win the Big East and play in the BCS.
 


56: Michigan State set a school-record with 11 wins in 2010, and the Spartans followed that up with the same total a year ago. In fact, MSU is one of only seven BCS teams to win 11 games in each of the last two seasons. The Spartans stingy defense has been the catalyst for the recent success, but another major factor was the steady play of quarterback Kirk Cousins. He tossed 45 touchdown passes over the last two years and was an excellent leader. Michigan State ranked 56th nationally in total offense last season, but Cousins passing combined with the country’s sixth-best defense was enough to win the Big Ten’s Legends Division.

Eight starters return from the Big Ten’s top defense of 2011, and the running game should be improved with top back Le’Veon Bell (948 yards and 13 touchdowns) and four offensive line starters returning. The big focus in August will be on new quarterback Andrew Maxwell. The junior signal caller has the talent to continue MSU’s winning ways, but replacing Cousins’ leadership will not be easy. Additionally, the Spartans also lost top receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin to the NFL. Maxwell does not have to be a star because of MSU’s excellent defense, but his play may determine if Mark Dantonio’s bunch can reach the double-digit win mark once again.
 


57: Kansas made a splash this offseason with the hiring for former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis. After a dramatic end to the Mark Mangino era and two painful seasons under Turner Gill, the Jayhawks and their fans are desperate for any good news. Weis and staff have major work ahead to get KU competitive in the Big 12. As an example, last year’s squad finished 57th nationally in rushing offense. While that does not sound very impressive, it was the only major statistical category where the Jayhawks ranked in the top 90 in the nation. Ouch.

Weis is known for offense, and he started his Kansas tenure by bringing in two talented quarterback transfers — Dayne Crist (Notre Dame) and Jake Heaps (BYU) — as well as signing JUCO signal caller Turner Baty. Crist will start this season while Heaps sits out, and the former Irish QB will have three senior starters returning on the offensive line and three senior wideouts. Leading rusher James Sims is back (although he’ll serve a three-game suspension), and sophomore runners Tony Pierson and Brandon Bourbon have big potential. It may take former Dallas Cowboys coach Dave Campo a while to fix the nation’s worst defense, but the Kansas offense should be much improved in 2012.
 


58: North Carolina is not eligible for a bowl game this season because of NCAA sanctions from the Butch Davis regime. New coach Larry Fedora inherits a quality roster, and the Tar Heels should be among the ACC’s top teams. One main goal for UNC this season will be to beat rival NC State for the first time since 2006. Last year’s loss to the Wolfpack was especially painful, as North Carolina only gained 165 yards in 58 plays and was shut out 13-0. The Tar Heels have traditionally dominated their instate rival, but the current five-game losing streak has been tough on the fan base.

Fedora is known for offense, and his current UNC attack has a ton of potential. Running back Giovani Bernard is an All-America candidate after totaling 1,253 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. Quarterback Bryn Renner tossed a school-record 26 touchdown passes last season, and four starters return on a solid offensive line. The Tar Heels do have to replace Dwight Jones at receiver, but an offense with this much talent should not be blanked in any game. The NC State matchup on October 27 will be the Tar Heels “bowl game” this season, and Fedora could please UNC fans greatly by ending the streak against the Wolfpack.
 


59: The Notre Dame defense tied for 59th in the nation in sacks per game last season. The Irish were looking forward to improving that fact with the development of rising sophomore pass rushers Stephon Tuitt, Aaron Lynch and Ishaq Williams. However ND was dealt a major personnel blow the offseason with the transfer of defensive end Lynch, the team’s leading sacker in 2011, to South Florida. The three-man line should still be very solid with Tuitt, senior end Kapron Lewis-Moore and nose guard Louis Nix III, and the Irish did get their leading tackler back when linebacker Manti Te’o decided to return to South Bend for his senior season.

That group will need to play quality ball in front of a defensive backs unit that lost corners Robert Blanton and Gary Gray, plus top safety Harrison Smith. The reworked secondary would benefit greatly this season if the front seven can get more pressure on opposing signal callers, especially with the Irish facing three of the country’s top quarterbacks in Michigan’s Denard Robinson, Oklahoma’s Landry Jones and USC’s Matt Barkley. Bob Diaco’s defense played solid football last season, but the Te’o-led group will need to improve in forcing turnovers (only 14 takeaways in 2011) and sacks against a challenging 2012 schedule.
 


60: There were two huge moments for Iowa State football in 2011, the 44-41 triple-overtime win against rival Iowa and the 37-31, double-overtime thriller over Oklahoma State on national television. The Cyclones were obviously able to put the ball in the end zone in those two contests, but they struggled reaching paydirt in several other games. Despite ranking 60th in the nation in total offense, ISU only finished 90th in scoring. The biggest culprit for the disparity was the fact that the Cyclones tied for 115th in the nation in red zone efficiency.

New offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham, who replaces the departed Tom Herman (Ohio State), will have a tough decision at quarterback between Steele Jantz and Jared Barnett. Jantz had some early success before being replaced by Barnett in mid-October. The freshman showed his potential with a great performance in the Oky State victory, but then he was replaced by the older Jantz in the Pinstripe Bowl loss. Either quarterback will benefit from a solid 1-2 punch at running back in James White and Jeff Woody, and the offensive line should be a quality group. The deciding factor in the signal caller derby may be red zone proficiency, as the Cyclones offense must be better at taking advantage of its yardage success this season. That factor will be a key for ISU reaching a bowl game for a third time in four seasons under Paul Rhoads.
 


61: The 2011 season was a magical one for Oklahoma State, winning a school-record 12 games and a first-ever Big 12 crown. Obviously the nation’s second-highest scoring offense was the main catalyst for the championship campaign, but an opportunistic defense played a part as well. Although the Cowboys ranked 107th in the country in total yardage allowed, they were 61st in scoring defense. The reason for such a positive gap was OSU’s ability to create turnovers, as the defense compiled a nation-leading 44 takeaways in 2011. In fact, the second-best total in the Big 12 was Baylor with 29.

Can the Cowboys do it again? Even though Mike Gundy’s offense has been successful over the years with multiple quarterbacks, it’s difficult to see the 2012 attack putting up the same numbers as the Brandon Weeden-Justin Blackmon crew of the past two years. Last season, OSU averaged over 545 yards and 48.7 points per game. Eight starters do return to Bill Young’s crew, including the entire linebackers group and All-America candidate Brodrick Brown at cornerback. However, the Cowboys did lose All-Big 12 stalwarts Markelle Martin at safety and Jamie Blatnick at defensive end. If Oklahoma State is going to stay near the top of the conference pecking order, the defense will need to improve overall while still forcing the opponents’ miscues that were so important in 2011.


62: Texas A&M has a new coach and a new league, with Kevin Sumlin leading the Aggies into the challenging SEC. There will also be a new quarterback in College Station, with Ryan Tannehill going to the Dolphins in the top ten of the NFL Draft. Tannehill was a 62% passer last season, which probably does not sound overly impressive. However, it was as accurate a season as the Aggies had seen – along with Stephen McGee’s 2006 campaign – in a decade.

Now the offense belongs to Sumlin and coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, and they will be looking for a very accurate passer. The leading candidate for the A&M signal caller gig is sophomore Jameill Showers, who battled redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel this spring. Either quarterback will be protected by an excellent offensive line, and the Aggies have a big-time running back unit with Christine Michael, Ben Malena and true freshman Trey Williams. With only four starters back on defense, the offense will need to put up big points as the Aggies compete in the loaded SEC West.


63: Former Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas threw 63 touchdown passes over the last two seasons, but then made the ill-fated decision to go to the NFL early and was undrafted. The Ducks will move forward with Bryan Bennett, who was a solid backup in 2011, or redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota, who was better in the Oregon spring game. Obviously the expectations are high for any offense coached by Chip Kelly, and the signal caller decision will be a huge story in August.

Either quarterback will enjoy a solid offensive line and electric weapons in running back Kenjon Barner and all-purpose machine De’Anthony Thomas, but some new receivers will need to emerge on the outside. The defense returns six starters and should be much better than last year’s unit. The Ducks should be favored in every game with the exception of the November 3 road trip to USC. There may be some growing pains with a new quarterback, but look for Oregon to win the Pac-12 North and battle the Trojans for conference supremacy.


64: South Carolina has scored 64 points against Arkansas over the last three years, but the problem is that the Razorbacks have put up 118 and won by double-digits in all three games. The Gamecocks ran the table in the SEC East last season but because of two West losses, they saw Georgia go to Atlanta in December. Once again, Steve Spurrier’s bunch has a tougher league schedule than the Bulldogs. UGA avoids LSU, Alabama and Arkansas for a second straight season, while the Gamecocks must travel to LSU and host the Hogs.

All-America running back Marcus Lattimore will provide a huge boost to the SC offense, and quarterback Connor Shaw was excellent at the end of last season. The defense should be a quality unit once again with ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor, although there were some important losses to the NFL. If the Gamecocks can survive a brutal October slate (Georgia, at LSU at Florida and Tennessee), they will be in the mix to win the East. However, it is doubtful that South Carolina can afford a fourth-consecutive defeat to Arkansas and hope to make it to Atlanta.


65: Urban Meyer compiled 65 wins in 80 games at Florida, but then left Gainesville in controversial fashion. After a year away from the sideline, the polarizing Meyer is the Ohio State boss and is already stirring up Big Ten coaches with his highly-questioned recruiting methods. The Buckeyes are not eligible for the postseason in 2012 because of NCAA violations during the Jim Tressel era, but Meyer’s first club could be the best team in the conference.

The OSU defense will be one of the best in the country, with a nasty line and an excellent secondary. Quarterback Braxton Miller looks like a perfect fit for Meyer’s dual-threat system, and the sophomore could be primed for a monster season if he can find reliable targets on the outside. The Buckeyes will need left tackle Jack Mewhort and tight end Jake Stoneburner to return to scholarship, but the offense should be much improved under Meyer. With a favorable 2012 schedule, it would not be a surprise to see Ohio State reach the double-digit win mark even without the Big Ten Championship or a bowl game. 


66: We’re taking a little liberty with the number today, looking at the unique nature of Illinois’ 6-6 regular-season record in 2011. The Illini became the only team in FBS history to finish the regular season 6-6 after starting the year 6-0. That six-game losing streak sealed the fate of Ron Zook after seven seasons in Champaign. Tim Beckman was hired after a solid three-year run at Toledo, and the new coach has some talent on the roster.

The defense returns seven starters, although national sack leader Whitney Mercilus will be missed. That unit ranked seventh in the nation in total defense and 15th in scoring defense. The key for success in 2012 will be a better offense, a group whose performance mirrored Illinois’ historic collapse last season. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase will have to learn another new system while not having much experience at receiver. Sophomore Donovonn Young looks like an adequate runner, and his emergence could be huge this season. The Leaders Division is a little down, but road trips to Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State and Northwestern will make it a challenging first campaign for Beckman.


67: We like to feature some of the big boys in the trenches on our countdown, and one of the more underrated blockers in the country plays at KentuckyNo. 67 Larry Warford. The powerful guard will be a top candidate this season for All-SEC and even All-America honors. Unfortunately, Warford’s name is not better known because of UK’s struggles on offense. In fact, the Wildcats only scored 22 touchdowns in 2011. Only three teams in the country — Akron, Florida Atlantic and New Mexico — had fewer visits to the end zone.

Warford is one of three starters returning on the Kentucky offense, and that unit will need to be vastly improved to get Joker Phillips off the hot seat in Lexington. The Wildcats have suffered 14 losses over the last two seasons under the former UK player, and he took over a program that had won 30 games in Rich Brooks’ final four seasons. Sophomore quarterback Max Smith played well late last season and in the spring, and he will have some veteran skill players in the huddle. Warford and center Matt Smith will lead an offensive line that will be challenged weekly in the brutal SEC.
 


68: Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson has accounted for 68 touchdowns over the last two seasons. The speedy signal caller followed his breakout sophomore campaign (18 TD passes, 14 TD runs) in 2010 with better scoring totals (20 TD passes, 16 TD runs) in 2011 despite having to change offensive systems. His play, along with a much-improved defense, was a catalyst for 11 wins and a Sugar Bowl victory for the Wolverines.

So what can we expect from the electric Robinson as a senior, besides a Heisman campaign? He calmed any fears last season in regards to executing the Al Borges offense, upping his scoring plays and leading the nation with a 15.3-yard average per pass completion. With the emergence of Fitzgerald Toussaint at tailback last year, Robinson was able to run a little less, take fewer hits and still produce more touchdowns. Look for more of the same this season, when Michigan returns to being a favorite in the Big Ten.
 


69: The Backyard Brawl between West Virginia and Pittsburgh has been played for 69 straight years, but conference realignment has caused the rivalry to cease in 2012. The Mountaineers are headed to the Big 12, while the Panthers will compete in the Big East for one more year before joining the Atlantic Coast Conference. The two schools seem interested in revisiting the game that has happened 104 times, but the new league schedules could be problematic. When Pitt joins the ACC, it will play a nine-game conference slate. That fact plus the Panthers’ rivalry with Notre Dame could mean little room for the Mountaineers.

Hopefully games like West Virginia-Pitt, Missouri-Kansas and Texas-Texas A&M will not permanently end because of the conference musical chairs we’ve seen over the last few years, but that could be the case. The SEC and ACC have several rivalry clashes (Florida-Florida State, South Carolina-Clemson, Georgia-Georgia Tech) at the end of the season, so it is possible for a school like Pitt to still play WVU. With all of the playoff and league restructuring, let’s hope that college football’s power brokers remember that one of the game’s biggest identities is its regional rivalries.
 


70: Clemson had a successful 2011 season, winning 10 games and its first ACC title since 1991. Unfortunately the number that seems to stick out from last year is 70, the numbers of points allowed by the Tigers in their Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia. That 70-33 drubbing in Miami led to defensive coordinator Kevin Steele’s ouster and the hiring of former Oklahoma defensive boss Brent Venables. Will things improve in 2012? Brandon Thompson, Andre Branch and Coty Sensabaugh were drafted into the NFL, and tackles Rennie Moore and Tyler Shatley will be missed as well.

The Tigers do have some solid talent on defense, but there is a ton of work to be done on a unit that allowed 29.3 points per game a year ago. Top tackler Rashard Hall and Jonathan Meeks return at safety and should lead a veteran back seven, while Malliciah Goodman will be the only upperclassman on an inexperienced defensive line. Venables does not need to produce a dominate defensive unit, just one that can give Clemson’s powerful offense a chance to win games. The trio of Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins and Andre Ellington should light up the scoreboard in 2012, and the Tigers improvement on defense will likely decide if they can repeat as ACC champion.
 


71: LSU had the perfect season in 2011, until facing the one January rematch the Tigers could not win. Les Miles’ crew will be right back in the championship hunt this season with the same physical run game and elite defense that produced wins over Alabama, Oregon, West Virginia, Georgia and Arkansas a year ago. The lone question mark in Baton Rouge remains the passing game, and much of the offseason attention has gone to new quarterback Zach Mettenberger. However, LSU also has to replace 71 receptions by top wideout Rueben Randle and tight end Deangelo Peterson. Sophomore Odell Beckham showed that he is ready for SEC defenses last year, catching 41 passes for 475 yards and two touchdowns during an impressive debut campaign. But who else will step up for the Tigers?

Senior Russell Shepard caught 33 passes in 2010 but faded last year with only 14 receptions. A bounce-back 2012 season by Shepard will help Mettenberger and the offense greatly. Jarvis Landry was a highly-decorated recruit in 2011, and he caught four passes in limited duty. Juniors Kadron Boone and James Wright will provide depth, and true freshman Avery Johnson from Florida could also sneak into the mix. At tight end, senior Chase Clement has nine career receptions while sophomore Travis Dickson has one.

Obviously the Tigers offense is focused on pounding the rock, with four tailbacks who each scored at least seven touchdowns in 2011. But if Mettenberger and the receivers can add just a little more production than last year’s squad, LSU will be the heavy favorite to repeat as SEC champion and play for the national title once again.
 


72: The Florida State defense struggled early in ACC play last year, as the Seminoles lost consecutive 35-30 games at Clemson and Wake Forest. However Mark Stoops’ crew would only allow 72 points in the final six league games, turning around FSU’s season and setting the table for major accomplishments in 2012. Nine starters return on the Noles defense, and there is quality depth because of the recruiting efforts of Jimbo Fisher and staff. The defensive line is loaded with veterans, including a superb pass-rushing tandem in ends Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner. Leading tackler Nigel Bradham must be replaced at linebacker, but FSU should have three upperclassmen starting for that group. The secondary, like the D-line, is one of the best units in the country. Xavier Rhodes and Greg Reid are a stellar pair of cornerbacks, and junior safety Lamarcus Joyner is an emerging star.

The Florida State offense has potential with senior quarterback EJ Manuel and some quality young playmakers, but the offensive line will need to improve greatly. The Noles defense will be the catalyst if the 2012 team is going to reach its goal of winning the ACC. From the middle of October through the bowl win against Notre Dame, Mark Stoops’ bunch did not allow 20 or more points in any game. Look for more of the same this season, as the Seminoles defense — along with Manuel and excellent special teams — carries the program back into the nation’s top 10.
 


73: Much of our countdown features offensive skill players and top defenders, but we also need to highlight the big boys up front. The Washington offensive line, led by No. 73 center Drew Schaefer and his 30 consecutive starts, could be the key to quarterback Keith Price remaining at an elite production level while finding new weapons. Price emerged as a star last year, throwing for 3,063 yards and 33 touchdowns against 11 interceptions. However, the Huskies lost All-Pac-12 running back Chris Polk (1,488 yards and 12 touchdowns) and their two leading receivers in Jermaine Kearse (699 yards, 7 TDs) and Devin Aguilar (611 yards, 6 TDs) from last season’s attack that averaged over 33 points per game.

While that is some significant attrition, the cupboard is not bare around Price. Jesse Callier averaged 5.5 yards per carry in backup duty in 2011, so he and sophomore Bishop Stanley will look to replace Polk’s production. UW has a pair of sophomores, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and receiver Kasen Williams, who were very productive in both scoring six touchdowns as freshmen.

It may take a year for Steve Sarkisian’s new all-star defensive staff – coordinator Justin Wilcox and position coaches Peter Sirmon and Tosh Lupoi – to repair a unit that gave up a school-record 467 points last season. It’s difficult to see the Huskies surpassing Oregon in 2012, but catching Stanford and fending off Cal for the second spot in the Pac-12 North would be a solid achievement. With Schaefer and fellow returning starters Erik Kohler and Colin Tanigawa clearing the way, Washington has a good shot to continue its climb up the conference food chain.
 


74: Pittsburgh finished 74th nationally in rushing offense last season, but look for that to change in 2012. The main culprit for the running struggles a year ago was the ACL injury to star back Ray Graham, whose season ended in the Panthers eighth game against UConn. There were key offensive line injuries as well, but Graham may be the best player in the Big East when healthy. The senior back from New Jersey ran for 893 yards and nine touchdowns in Pitt’s first six games of 2011.

Another major offseason addition was new head coach Paul Chryst. His offenses at Wisconsin were extremely productive, and the Badgers consistently ran the ball as well as any program in the country. If Graham needs time to work back in, Pitt should have solid depth at running back to go with an experienced line. Isaac Bennett ran the rock well in the spring, and top incoming recruit Rushel Shell set a national prep record with 39 consecutive 100-yard games. The improved running attack will help quarterback Tino Sunseri immensely, after a junior season plagued interceptions and a ton of sacks.

Pitt has many questions on defense – especially in the front seven – and has to adjust to another new staff, but the Panthers offense should be an effective group in Chryst’s first season.
 


75: The Alabama defense allowed only 75 plays of 10 or more yards last season in leading the Crimson Tide to a National Championship. In fact that total was by far the lowest in the country, as South Carolina was second with 122. But now Nick Saban and Kirby Smart must adjust to life without four defenders — Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick, Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw — who were taken in the first 35 overall picks in the NFL Draft. Additionally, nose tackle Josh Chapman and defensive back DeQuan Menzie were selected in the fifth round. That’s a ton of attrition from the unanimous No. 1 defense nationally in 2011.

So for all of those thinking the Tide will subside in 2012, think again. Saban and staff have recruited at an elite level over the past few years, so the Bama defense may lack some experience but it will not lack talent. There are senior leaders on each level, with Damion Square and Jesse Williams on the line, Nico Johnson at linebacker and Robert Lester in the secondary. Sophomores backers Trey DePriest and Adrian Hubbard have the potential to be stars, and cover corner Dee Milliner is special as well. With elite talent and superb coaching, the Alabama defense will not take long to get back to the top of college football.
 

Teaser:
<p> Countdown to College Football</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 29, 2012 - 08:22
All taxonomy terms: College Football
Path: /college-football/2012-bcs-national-championship-predictions
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No. 1 USC Trojans vs. No. 2 LSU Tigers.

It's the official Athlon Sports magazine prediction for the 2012 BCS National Championship showdown. Nine college football junkies sat in a room at the end of April arguing, scrapping, clawing and sometimes throwing things at each other in an effort to finalize the 2012 championship game match-up. In the end, the USC Trojans emerged as the company's pick to hoist the famed crystal ball at season's end. 

For the record, Athlon has picked two of the last four national champs correctly. We went against the norm and tabbed Florida in 2008 while picking Alabama to be the 2011 national champions was far less risky. In 2009, Athlon went back to the Gator well and picked Tim Tebow's squad once again, yet came up one game short of the title game. In 2010, the magazine pegged Alabama as a repeat champ but clearly picked the wrong team from the Yellowhammer State. (If you can prove you picked Auburn in 2010 with hard evidence, we will give you all the credit you deserve.) The 2007 USC Trojans were the last non-SEC team projected to win the whole thing — and let's be honest, 2007 was the most bizarre and unpredictable season in the last 15 years of play. Ohio State and LSU were third and seventh in the standings respectively the week before the final BCS release. Missouri and West Virginia fans were left wondering "what if?" while a two-loss LSU team claimed the national title.

That is what makes college football the greatest sport on the planet. But Athlon is digging deeper as the season is set to begin Thursday night. There have been suspensions, dismissals, injuries, coaching moves and more since the magazine went to press, so we asked our editors to offer their individual predictions for the 2012 BCS National Championship Game:

Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch): LSU vs. USC
Our magazine picked USC and LSU as the top two teams back in the spring, and I see no reason to change my prediction now that the season is about to begin. Sure, LSU took a hit when Tyrann Mathieu was kicked off the team, but this is still an elite team that is ultra talented on both lines of scrimmage. USC’s already potent offense added a nice piece in the summer when former All-Big Ten running back Silas Redd left Penn State to play his final season in L.A. The Trojans’ defense isn’t quite as stout as some of the other national championship contenders, but it’s far from a weakness. As long as the D remains relatively healthy, USC should be able to outscore every team on its schedule. BCS Champion: USC 28, LSU 21

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven): Alabama vs. USC
There’s not really one dominant team this season, so we could have a surprise team or two playing for the national championship. However, it’s hard to pick against a team from the SEC and USC. Alabama and LSU should be the top two teams from the SEC, and I like the Crimson Tide to edge the Tigers for the SEC West title. I like Georgia to win the East, but Alabama should win the matchup in Atlanta. USC’s depth is a major concern, but the offense is the best in college football, and the defense just needs to make timely stops. The Trojans may slip once during the regular season and beating Oregon (potentially) twice won’t be easy. However, USC is motivated after being on probation for the last two years, and a matchup between the Trojans and the SEC would be one of the most intriguing national championships in recent memory. Stopping Alabama’s rushing attack will be tough, but I think the Trojans find a way to edge the Crimson Tide for the national championship this season. BCS Champion: USC 27, Alabama 24

Braden Gall (@BradenGall): Oregon vs. Alabama
Here is how I see it playing out: USC and Bama enter Championship weekend unbeaten and poised to meet in the title game. Bama beats Georgia or South Carolina to finish 13-0 and clinch a trip to Miami Gardens. However, Oregon's defense and growth at quarterback will make their second trip south to Los Angeles more productive than their first. Not to mention with each passing week, the Men of Troy's depth issues are more and more likely to become a factor. With a 12-1 record and fourth-straight Pac-12 title, the pollsters will force the Ducks above an 11-1 LSU team — whose only loss will come at home at the hands of the Crimson Tide. There will be an overwhelming push from fans and national media against a second rematch with the exact same teams that will have met three times in 14 months. And this time, after knocking off the No. 1 team in the nation, I have no issue with the Ducks getting their crack at the SEC champions. Although, the outcome won't be much different. BCS Champion: Alabama 24, Oregon 20

Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman): LSU vs. USC
I had USC and LSU projected in the BCS Championship Game earlier this summer and still see those two powers as the best teams for the 2012 season. The Trojans possess college football’s top quarterback Matt Barkley, as well as the nation’s best pass catching unit with Robert Woods, Marqise Lee, George Farmer and tight ends Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble. With the addition of Penn State transfer Silas Redd at running back, the USC offense should be lethal. The only question on defense is the line, but there is enough young talent there to complement a loaded back seven. Defending SEC champion LSU will be stacked once again, but the Tigers will have a tougher road in getting to the national title tilt. I definitely see an SEC vs. Pac-12 matchup in the big game, with Oregon and Alabama challenging the Trojans and Tigers. But in the end, I’ll take Matt Barkley and the USC offense break the SEC’s streak of six consecutive national crowns. BCS Champion: USC 27, LSU 23

Charlie Miller (@AthlonCharlie): Oklahoma vs. USC
The reign of SEC national championships will soon come to and end. Is the SEC no longer the premier conference? I didn't say that. The SEC is still dominant, but Alabama, LSU, Arkansas, South Carolina and Georgia will trip over each other just enough to leave the door open for one of the "minor" conferences to slip in. Oklahoma will be there lurking, as the Big 12 champion, to earn the right to play USC for the national championship. With Landry Jones returning, Oklahoma is the most skilled and toughest team in the Big 12. But the Sooners' fun will end there. Defensively, OU will not be able to keep up with the potent attack of the Trojans. Quarterback Matt Barkley has a corps of receivers that may rival some NFL teams. BCS Champion: USC 37, Oklahoma 27

David Fox (@DavidFox615): South Carolina vs. Oregon
I’m having trouble picking between Alabama and LSU in the SEC West. I love the defenses for both schools, but I could see the inexperience in Tuscaloosa and the big-play absence of Tyrann Mathieu catching up to the Tide and Tigers at some point this season. That’s why I’m going out on a limb and picking South Carolina in the SEC. This is a team that reached unprecedented heights the last two seasons despite the drama surrounding Stephen Garcia at quarterback. Now that situation is stabilized under Connor Shaw. In all the attention Alabama and LSU received for their D, South Carolina’s defense was overlooked. And in the Pac-12, I’m swayed back to picking Oregon. USC’s depth, especially on the defensive line, remains a liability -- and it plays right into Oregon’s hands. Sure, it’s a risk to pick a team with a redshirt freshman quarterback, but it sounds like Marcus Mariota isn’t just a place holder or an average rookie quarterback. He’s potentially the best run-pass threat Oregon has had since Dennis Dixon in 2007, and without a marquee non-conference game to start the season, he’ll have time to grow into his role. BCS Champion: Oregon 28, South Carolina 21

Rob Doster (@AthlonDoster): Virginia Tech vs. Oregon
It seems foolish to leave the SEC out the discussion after Alabama earned the league’s sixth straight BCS championship this past January. But all of the teams at the top of most rankings have significant questions — at least significant enough to open the door for a surprise or two. The Hokies make their living on defense, and this year’s unit might be the best in ace coordinator Bud Foster’s tenure. Frank Beamer will make the special teams a priority once again after a few uncharacteristic breakdowns recently, and the offense features a Heisman candidate at quarterback in Logan Thomas. Throw in a weak conference, and you have the ingredients for a championship run. In the title game, they’ll collide with an Oregon Ducks team that once again boasts breathtaking talent at the skill positions and will essentially be playing a one-game schedule (a Nov. 3 tilt with USC). Two years after letting Cam Newton and Auburn off the hook, Chip Kelly and company will close the deal this time. BCS Champion: Oregon 31, Virginia Tech 24

Mark Ross, Athlon Sports: LSU vs. USC
Matt Barkley and the rest of the Trojans were kept out of the BCS bowls last season because of NCAA penalties. There's nothing holding them back this season, including the high-powered Oregon Ducks, who the Men of Troy will defeat in a high-scoring Pac-12 title game to earn a spot in the national championship tilt. There they will meet fellow undefeated LSU, who like the Trojans is also seeking some redemption after a embarrassing no-show in last season's BCS Championship game against SEC West rival Alabama. This season, the Tigers will put an end to the Crimson Tide's repeat hopes by beating them in the regular season and go on to defeat Georgia in the SEC title game to get another shot at that crystal football. Unfortunately, for the second straight season a quarterback dashes Les Miles and company's title dreams as Barkley leads the Trojans to victory to cap off a storybook senior season. BCS Champion: USC 27, LSU 17

Nathan Rush, Athlon Sports: LSU vs. USC
There will be a Hollywood ending for senior quarterback Matt Barkley and the Trojans, who will emerge from the dark shadows of NCAA sanctions into the glimmering light of BCS national championship crystal. Coach Lane Kiffin's team has too much firepower — with Barkley throwing the ball to gamebreakers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, and handing the rock off to Curtis McNeal and Penn State transfer Silas Redd. If Monte Kiffin's defense can hold strong against Oregon on Nov. 3, USC should be able to run the table. On the other side, LSU and Alabama will once again battle for SEC West supremacy. While the Tide attempt to find their sea legs with a new wave of talent, the Tigers return too many hungry veterans to be denied. Coach Les Miles' club will make a repeat trip to the BCS title game, where the Bayou Bengals will once again fall short. BCS Champion: USC 34, LSU 24

Interesting Factoids:

- A Pac-12 team was picked to play in the BCS title game by all nine editors.
- USC was picked by six editors to claim the BCS championship. The most of any team by far.
- Only one editor, Braden Gall, picked the SEC to win its seventh straight national title.
- Only two predictions didn't feature an SEC-Pac-12 match-up (Big 12 vs. Pac-12, ACC vs. Pac-12).
- LSU was picked to play in the title game by four editors. All four picked the Tigers to lose.
- Six editors picked the SEC to lose in the BCS title game. Something that has never happened in the BCS era.
- Eight of the nine editors picked the Pac-12 champion to win the national championship.

Teaser:
<p> 2012 BCS National Championship Predictions</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 29, 2012 - 07:00
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Path: /nfl/houston-texans-2012-nfl-team-preview
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Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.

The Houston Texans check in at No. 3.

The Texans have finally grown up. In the years prior to 2011, the franchise made small, incremental improvements from season-to-season but never fully got away from the two-steps-forward, one-step-back (or vice versa) routine. There was talent. There was potential. But the results never quite followed.

Until last season.

In 2011, potential was finally realized. The Texans went from pretenders to contenders, even as they suffered injury to key player after key player — Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson and Mario Williams among them. They prided themselves on their “next man up” philosophy and it served them well, all the way to the AFC Divisional Playoffs, where they fought tooth-and-nail with a third-string quarterback (T.J. Yates) in tow. So in 2012, it will be about the Texans taking the next step — to become a Super Bowl contender for the first time in the franchise’s history. 

Offense

After missing the last six regular-season games and both playoff games after undergoing foot surgery, Schaub says he’ll be 100 percent by the start of training camp. Schaub threw for more than 9,000 yards and 53 touchdowns in 2009 and ’10, playing all 16 games in both seasons. If he can play all 16 this year, the Texans will be bona fide Super Bowl contenders.

Houston returns the NFL’s top rushing tandem, Arian Foster and Ben Tate. Foster is coming off of back-to-back seasons of 1,200-plus yards and 10-plus touchdowns, while Tate rushed for 942 yards last season.

At receiver, the question remains if Johnson can play a full season — something he has failed to do in the last two years and in three of the past five. Last season, he played just seven games while battling a hamstring injury. The Texans’ offense proved that it can be productive without him, but it is clearly more dangerous with the two-time All-Pro in the lineup. Johnson and No. 2 receiver Kevin Walter aren’t getting any younger — both will be 31 when the season starts. After the Texans released Jacoby Jones, the No. 3 receiver spot is now up for grabs; expect rookies DeVier Posey and Keshawn Martin as well as Lestar Jean to battle for that spot. Posey has plenty of ability and was able to post two 800-yards seasons despite playing mostly in a run-oriented offense at Ohio State. Martin has plenty of speed and might be the fastest receiver on the roster. Jean had an impressive training camp and preseason as a rookie last year before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. His route-running ability and knack for making acrobatic catches will make him hard to beat.

Tight end Owen Daniels should continue to be a reliable threat in the middle of the field. He’ll be joined by Garrett Graham, who will step in the place of former No. 2 tight end Joel Dreessen, who left via free agency for Denver.

The offensive line requires some rebuilding on the right side as the Texans cut tackle Eric Winston and lost guard Mike Brisiel to free agency. The left side is intact with tackle Duane Brown, guard Wade Smith and center Chris Myers all returning. Dererk Newton has been tabbed as Winston's replacement at right tackle, while Antoine Caldwell is in line to take Brisiel’s spot. Neither is a proven commodity as a starter. Rashad Butler and third-round pick Brandon Brooks provide depth on the line.

Defense

What a difference a year — and a new coordinator — made for Houston in 2011. In the Texans’ first year under Wade Phillips, the defense improved from 30th in the NFL in 2010 to second last year. Against the pass, the Texans went from worst in the league to third.

So what’s in store for Year 2 under Phillips? Expect the hits to keep on coming.

While the Texans waved goodbye to Williams — the former No. 1 overall pick who signed with Buffalo as a free agent — the loss may not be as significant as one would imagine. Williams is a premier pass-rusher, but the Texans accomplished much of their defensive success in 2011 with him on the sideline. He played just five games because of a torn pectoral muscle. Rookie Brooks Reed filled in for Williams admirably, picking up six sacks.

The Texans return their top four pass-rushers from a year ago — outside linebackers Connor Barwin (11.5 sacks) and Reed as well as ends Antonio Smith (6.5) and J.J. Watt (5.5). And being added to the mix is first-round pick Whitney Mercilus, who led the nation with 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles for Illinois in 2011.

Inside linebacker Brian Cushing, who was the team’s MVP last year, remains a stalwart in the middle of the Texans’ D, a high-energy player who sets the tone for the rest of the unit. The Texans did lose a locker room leader in the form of inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans, who was traded to Philadelphia. Darryl Sharpton split time with Ryans and showed the ability to make plays, but he isn’t the same caliber of leader. The Texans signed Bradie James, who played for Phillips in Dallas and has extensive experience in his 3-4 defense, as a free agent.

With the exception of cornerback Jason Allen’s departure via free agency, the secondary returns virtually intact. Pro Bowler Johnathan Joseph leads the way after a terrific first season with Houston. Kareem Jackson showed improvement in 2011 after a nightmarish rookie season, but he has to show that he can defend deep passes against quality receivers if the Texans are going to limit big plays. Danieal Manning returns to quarterback the defense at free safety.

Specialists

The Texans spent a fifth-round draft pick on Texas A&M placekicker and Houston-area product Randy Bullock to replace Neil Rackers. Bullock won the 2011 Lou Groza Award as the nation’s top collegiate kicker. Unfortunately a groin injury suffefed during training camp put an end to Bullock's first NFL season before it even got started, leaving veteran Shayne Graham in the placekicking role, at least for now. Free agent signee Donnie Jones will start out the year as the team’s punter since incumbent Brett Hartmann violated the league’s substance abuse policy and will be suspended for the first three games. Manning will once again handle kick return duties, but the punt return job is wide open after the team cut Jones. 

Final Analysis: 1st in the AFC South

After years of unrealized potential, the Texans finally showed last year that they can be the bully and win big games, even in dire circumstances. There are question marks in key spots on offense, particularly on the offensive line, but chances are the Texans will still be explosive on that side of the ball as long as Schaub and Foster remain healthy.

Defensively, there’s no reason to believe the pass rush can’t be as good or better in Year 2 under Phillips. The front seven is full of young, energetic guys, but the loss of Ryans means a new leader will need to step up (off the field more than on).

Bottom line: This is still the best team in an underwhelming AFC South. The Texans should be looking at a second consecutive divisional title and perhaps a run to the AFC title game — or, if things break right, maybe even New Orleans.

Related: 2012 Houston Texans Schedule Analysis

Outside The Huddle

The Milkman
J.J. Watt’s productive rookie season not only won over a lot of Texans fans, but his teammates as well. Linebacker Connor Barwin took to his Twitter account in the days after the team’s wild card win over Cincinnati (in which Watt had an interception return for a touchdown) and gave Watt a new nickname: The Milkman. “JJ Watt’s new nickname is ‘The Milk Man’ ....because he always delivers! (and he’s white).” Barwin wasn’t done, following with the tweet: “He also really likes milk...he even orders it at restaurants.”

Pizza Boy
They may call Watt “The Milkman” now, but there was once a time where they called him “Pizza boy.” Watt was a tight end at Central Michigan before transferring to Wisconsin. He walked-on at UW and spent a summer as a Pizza Hut delivery man to offset the costs of losing his scholarship. He eventually earned a scholarship once he proved his worth to head coach Bret Bielema and became one of the top defensive linemen in the country before the Texans drafted him in 2011.

Relentless Rush
The Texans set a team record last year with 44 sacks, which ranked sixth-best in the league. The Texans should hover around that mark or even exceed it this year with most of their pass-rushers returning and the addition of rookie Whitney Mercilus.

No ‘Hard Knocks’
The team was offered a chance to appear on the HBO series “Hard Knocks” during its training camp but passed. Head coach Gary Kubiak is the private type when it comes to the team, thus there will be no cameras in the locker room or coaches’ offices at Reliant Stadium this fall.

On The Nose
Defensive tackle Shaun Cody became a hit with fans with his “On the Nose” show that appeared on the Texans’ web site last season. Cody, who is quick-witted and self-deprecating, filmed episodes that included a guest appearance from defensive end Antonio Smith dressed in full ninja attire (Smith’s sack dance is called the ‘Ninja Assassin’) and owner Bob McNair. Cody’s a comedian off the field but has been solid for the Texans on it as the nose tackle in their 3-4 alignment.

Beefing Up
Earl Mitchell, who split time with Shaun Cody at nose tackle last year, put on 21 pounds in the offseason to get up to 301 after playing at 287 in 2011. He has transformed his body quite a bit since being a 250-pound tight end in high school before switching to the defensive line at the University of Arizona.

Cushing’s Cuisine
Who has the strangest pregame ritual? According to defensive end Antonio Smith, it’s linebacker Brian Cushing. In a live chat with fans this offseason, Smith said Cushing eats grass before games. “When we’re on the field in warm-ups, he grabs a chunk of grass, chews it and spits it out.” 

2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:

No. 32: Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31: St. Louis Rams
No. 30: Minnesota Vikings
No. 29: Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Cleveland Browns
No. 27: Miami Dolphins
No. 26: Arizona Cardinals
No. 25: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24: Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23: Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21: Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Carolina Panthers
No. 19: New York Jets
No. 18: Buffalo Bills
No. 17: Tennessee Titans
No. 16: San Diego Chargers
No. 15: Cincinnati Bengals
No. 14: Philadelphia Eagles
No. 13: New Orleans Saints
No. 12: Dallas Cowboys
No. 11: Denver Broncos
No. 10: Detroit Lions
No. 9: Chicago Bears
No. 8: Atlanta Falcons
No. 7: Baltimore Ravens
No. 6: Pittsburgh Steelers
No. 5: New York Giants
No. 4: New England Patriots
No. 3: Houston Texans
No. 2: Thur., August 30

Order your 2012 Houston Texans Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: 2012 Houston Texans Schedule Analysis

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Post date: Wednesday, August 29, 2012 - 07:00
Path: /college-football/college-footballs-top-50-players-2012
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The 2012 college football season kicks off on Thursday night, and it's time to rank the top 50 players for the upcoming year. USC's Matt Barkley made a surprising decision to return to USC for his senior season and should be the nation's No. 1 player. Barkley isn't the only quarterback in the top 10, as West Virginia's Geno Smith checks in at No. 5. The SEC owns the most players in the top 10 (four), including No. 2 overall Barrett Jones. 

College Football's Top 50 Players for 2012

1. Matt Barkley, QB, USC
After throwing 17 touchdowns and just two interceptions over his final four games in 2011, the consensus was Barkley was gone to the NFL. Instead, he surprised a lot of folks with his decision to return for one more shot at a national title and has USC poised to play for the championship in January. Barkley enters 2012 with 9,054 yards and 80 touchdowns and is Athlon’s first-team All-American quarterback for 2012. The senior ranks third in school history with 9,013 career yards, and his 80 touchdown passes are fifth in Pac-12 history. The only missing pieces on Barkley’s resume? A Pac-12 title, national championship and Heisman. All three are certainly within reach in 2012.

2. Barrett Jones, C, Alabama
Three years, three different positions. That’s how valuable Jones has been to Alabama’s offensive line during his career in Tuscaloosa. The Tennessee native started the first 25 games of his career at right guard and shifted to left tackle last season. He earned first-team All-SEC honors in each of the last two years and will slide inside to man the center spot with the departure of William Vlachos. Jones is the nation’s most versatile offensive lineman and the defending Outland Trophy winner should be one of college football’s top performers in 2012.

3. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina 
It is hard to argue that any one player in the nation has more upside than this 6-foot-6, 260-pound freak of nature. As only a freshman, Clowney posted 8.0 sacks and forced five fumbles. He earned Defensive Freshman of the Year honors in the SEC and claimed a spot on the Freshman All-American team after his 36-tackle, 11.5-tackles for a loss debut season. The only thing keeping the star defensive end from being the top player in the league is his mental grasp of the game. He is still an underclassmen and still has some maturing to do before he becomes the most dominate defensive player in the nation. It may not take too long, however.

4. Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina
Before his season ending knee injury on Oct. 15, Lattimore was a Heisman frontrunner. The week before the injury, Lattimore was sixth in the nation in rushing with 129.8 yards per game. Lattimore’s health will be one of the major storylines in the SEC. If he’s fully healthy, the Gamecocks could make a run at their first SEC championship. Although Montee Ball's production has outweighed Lattimore so far in his career, the South Carolina back is the nation's most talented all-around back.

5. Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia
After throwing for 4,385 yards and 31 touchdowns in his first year working in Dana Holgorsen’s spread attack, Smith is primed for an even bigger 2012 season. He finished 2011 by throwing for 407 yards and six touchdowns in the 70-33 rout over Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Smith tied or set 21 career, season or game school records last year and earned first-team All-Big East honors. With one of the nation’s top receiving corps returning, the senior quarterback should be in for an even bigger statistical season. The Big 12 is known for its offense, and West Virginia should fit in well in 2012, especially with Smith more comfortable in the second year of Holgorsen’s offense.

6. Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah
When the guys who are trying to block you officially vote you as the best defensive lineman in the league, it’s pretty hard to argue. Lotulelei earned such an honor last year when he was given the Morris Trophy, the award given to the best D-Lineman in the Pac-12 as voted on by starting offensive linemen. His 6-foot-4, 320-pound frame has NFL written all over it, as Utah hopes its Star in the middle can lead what was the league’s top scoring defense last year. The senior from South Jordan, Utah is a first-team All-American and looks to build on his 9.0 tackles for a loss and 44 total tackles.

7. Robert Woods, WR, USC
One half of USC’s impressive receiver duo, Woods was one of eight players in the country to catch more than 100 passes -- and he was the only one to do so in 12 games thanks to USC’s bowl ban. Woods will get his chance to play in the postseason after accounting for 176 catches for 2,084 yards and 21 touchdowns (15 last season) in his first two years at USC.

8. Sam Montgomery, DE, LSU
The powerful defensive end was named first-team All-SEC last season, and the junior will be one of the top players in the country this year. Montgomery made 49 tackles (with 13.5 for loss) in 2011 and led the Tigers with nine sacks. The South Carolina native is the latest in a long line of stellar LSU defensive lineman. He will combine with fellow pass rusher Barkevious Mingo to form one of the best defensive end tandems in the country in 2012.

9. Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin
Ball emerged as one of the elite tailbacks in his junior season at Wisconsin, leading the nation with 1,923 rushing yards and an astounding 33 rushing touchdowns. His 39 total TDs last year tied the NCAA record originally set by Barry Sanders in 1988. Ball has rushed for at least 100 yards in 16 of the last 20 games dating back to November 2011. Don’t be surprised if Ball is on the podium in New York in early December accepting the Heisman Trophy.

10. Manti Te'o, LB, Notre Dame
In a bit of a surprise, Te’o turned down the NFL Draft for his senior year at Notre Dame. The Irish defensive staff certainly isn’t complaining, as Te’o’s play is deserving of the accolades and hype that is thrown his direction. He has posted back-to-back seasons of at least 100 tackles and has 28.5 career tackles for a loss. Te’o was a finalist for the Lott Trophy and Butkus Award last season and earned second-team All-American honors by the Associated Press. The senior is one of the top defensive players in the nation and should close out his career with another season of at least 100 tackles.

11. Jarvis Jones, LB, Georgia
This pass-rushing outside linebacker was sensational in his first season with the Bulldogs. He led the SEC with 13.5 sacks on his way to consensus All-American honors. Jones totaled 70 tackles last season, with a conference-leading 19.5 of them behind the line of scrimmage. He also added two forced fumbles and two pass breakups for a Georgia defense that ranked No. 5 in the country a year ago. Look for Jones and the Bulldogs defense to wreak more havoc on opponents in 2012.

12. Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
Despite his two-game suspension to start 2012, Watkins checks in as Athlon’s No. 1 player in the ACC. High expectations surrounded Watkins from the moment he arrived on campus, and he quickly emerged as Clemson’s top target, catching 82 passes for 1,219 yards and 12 scores. The Florida native was also a dangerous weapon on special teams, averaging 25 yards per kickoff return and taking one back for a touchdown in the win over Maryland. Although Watkins could have trouble matching last season’s totals, expect the sophomore to finish as a first-team All-American.

13. Ricky Wagner, OT, Wisconsin
Entering his third season in the starting lineup, Wagner will anchor what should be the best offensive line in the Big Ten from the all-important left tackle spot. A 6-6, 322-pound fifth-year senior from West Allis, Wis., Wagner arrived in Madison as a walk-on tight end but has made a successive transition to the offensive line. He started at right tackle in 2010 but made the move to the left side last fall to replace former All-American Gabe Carimi. 

14. Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M 
Not too many players step into a BCS conference and start all 13 games as a true freshman. Joeckel did just that back in 2010 before earning first-team All-Big 12 honors last fall. The 6-foot-6, 310-pound bookend has played in all 26 possible career games and helped lead an O-Line that finished fourth nationally in sacks allowed per game last fall (0.69). The Aggies will experience growing pains shifting into the SEC, but the Joeckel-led offensive line shouldn’t be an issue.

15. John Simon, DE, Ohio State
Simon is the key player on a veteran Ohio State defensive line, ranked by Athlon as the best in the Big Ten. This wrecking ball is as difficult as anyone in the country to block from the outside. He’s improved each year, topping out at 16 tackles for a loss, seven sacks and three pass deflections last season. Urban Meyer’s background is on offense, but he has a knack for utilizing great pass rushers like Carlos Dunlap, Derrick Harvey and Jarvis Moss at Florida.

16. Jackson Jeffcoat, DE, Texas
Few players ever enter the college ranks ready to play like Jeffcoat was. Obviously, his long-standing NFL legacy helps, as his fundamental understanding of the game is superior to most players his age. His 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame helps too. Jeffcoat started all 13 games as a sophomore, earning second-team All-Big 12 honors after recording 54 total tackles, 16.5 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks. With another stellar season on the 40 Acres, JJ-44 will likely take his talents to the next level.

17. David Amerson, CB, NC State
At 6-foot-3, 194 pounds, Amerson has uncommon size for a cornerback. He also put up uncommon results last season. His 13 interceptions last season were an ACC record and one short of the FBS record held by Washington’s Al Worley. Amerson had four multi-interception games last season and returned two picks for touchdowns. Hard to believe, but Amerson did not have any interceptions in his first season in 2010.

18. Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan
The man they call Shoelace has been one of the most dynamic playmakers in college football over the past two seasons. Robinson has struggled at times with consistency in the passing game, but he led the nation last year by averaging 15.3 yards per completion and ranked fourth in the Big Ten in passing efficiency. Robinson does his best work on the ground, however; he has rushed for 3,229 yards on a 5.9-yard average in his three years in Ann Arbor.

19. Rex Burkhead, RB, Nebraska
Burkhead thrived in his first full season as Nebraska’s No. 1 back, rushing for 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns. He averaged 106 yards per game in Big Ten play and earned first-team all-conference honors last season. Although quarterback Taylor Martinez should get better as a passer in 2012, the Cornhuskers will lean heavily on Burkhead to win games. The senior is capable of recording 300 overall carries and will also be a factor in the passing game, as evidenced by his 21 receptions last year. Burkhead is a sleeper candidate to watch in the Heisman race and should be one of the Big Ten’s top offensive players this season.

20. Alex Hurst, OT, LSU
The 6-foot-6, 340-pound senior right tackle was a force last season in paving the way for the powerful LSU running game. Three different Tigers running backs reached the 500-yard mark last season, and LSU compiled 35 touchdowns on the ground. Hurst was recognized as first-team All-SEC by the league’s coaches in 2011, and he will be a top All-America candidate this season. Hurst and Chris Faulk should form the best tackle duo in the country in 2012.

21. Chris Faulk, OT, LSU 
After redshirting in 2009, the big left tackle from Slidell, La., worked his way into a starting spot by the end of his freshman season. Despite dealing with a severe ankle sprain against Mississippi State, Faulk still started 13 of the 14 games en route to the BCS national championship game. He earned second-team All-SEC honors while protecting the blindside of both Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson. Behind Faulk and company, LSU finished second in the run-heavy SEC in rushing offense at 202.6 yards per game.

22. Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia
It’s a close call for the No. 1 quarterback spot in the SEC. Murray and Tyler Wilson are both deserving, but with Arkansas losing coach Bobby Petrino and receivers Joe Adams and Jarius Wright, the edge goes to the Bulldogs’ signal-caller. Through Murray’s first two years in Athens, he has thrown for 6,198 yards and 59 touchdowns. His interception total increased last year (8 as a freshman, 14 as a sophomore), which will be one area the coaching staff wants to see him improve in 2012. The Bulldogs have to replace a couple of key offensive line starters, and receiver Malcolm Mitchell may spend the majority of the first part of the year at cornerback. There are concerns about Murray, but we think he will end up with first-team All-SEC honors at the end of 2012.

23. Tyler Wilson, QB, Arkansas
Wilson successfully stepped into Ryan Mallett’s shoes as Arkansas’ starting quarterback last season, carrying on the Razorbacks’ best run of passers in program history. Wilson’s 3,638 yards was the second-highest total in school history as he became the program’s first All-SEC first-team quarterback. After the sudden coaching change, Wilson also was a stabilizing presence on the roster. He and Mallett are the only two quarterbacks to pass for 3,000 yards in school history.

24. Keenan Allen, WR, California
Few players in the nation have as much raw physical talent and skill as Allen possesses. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound stud from Greensboro, N.C., flashed first-round NFL talent as only a sophomore last year by catching 82 passes for 1,343 yards and six touchdowns. He is the half-brother of quarterback Zach Maynard and clearly has an unspoken rapport with Cal signal caller. Look for this to be Allen’s final year in a Golden Bear uniform.

25. Joseph Randle, RB, Oklahoma State
With Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon playing on Sundays now, Randle will have to carry the offense. He rushed for 1,216 yards and 24 scores, while catching 43 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns last year. Randle earned second-team All-Big 12 honors in 2011 and is an Athlon Sports first-team All-Big 12 selection for 2012. With freshman Wes Lunt taking over under center, defenses will be gearing up to stop Randle, but the junior back’s all-around ability makes him one of the top 10 players in the Big 12 for 2012.

26. De'Anthony Thomas, RB, Oregon
Even at Oregon, where speed and explosiveness runs aplenty, Thomas found a way to stand out as a freshman. The 5-foot-9, 173-pound running back from Los Angeles averaged a 16-yard gain every time he touched the ball. That was half a yard more than any other Ducks’ regular and twice as much as either LaMichael James or Kenjon Barner. Thomas scored 18 total touchdowns as a rookie (nine rushing, seven receiving, two on kickoff returns).

27. Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia
At 5-foot-9 and 174 pounds, Austin isn’t your prototypical wide receiver. Don’t be fooled though, the Baltimore native is one of college football’s top playmakers and will give Big 12 defenses plenty of headaches in 2012. He led the team with 101 receptions, ranked second with 1,186 yards, while catching eight touchdowns and taking two returns for a score on special teams. Austin closed out 2011 on a high note, catching 12 passes for 123 yards and four touchdowns in the Orange Bowl victory over Clemson. The senior is one of college football’s top all-purpose threats and should top 100 receptions once again in 2012.

28. William Gholston, DE, Michigan State
Entering his junior season, Gholston appears to be only scratching the surface of his potential. The Michigan State coaching staff wasted no time in getting the Detroit native involved as a freshman, as Gholston played in 10 games and recorded 13 stops. In his first year as a starter in 2011, he recorded 70 tackles, five sacks and 16 tackles for a loss last season. Gholston earned second-team All-Big Ten honors last season and should be in the mix to earn All-American honors in 2012. Without Jerel Worthy plugging the middle, opposing offensive lines will devote more attention to Gholston’s side. Despite a few more double teams coming in his direction, the junior is poised to have his best overall season, which could be his last in East Lansing with NFL scouts already raving about his potential.

29. Marquess Wilson, WR, Washington State
Most Pac-12 fans are familiar with Wilson but expect to see him become a household name nationally after 2012. With Mike Leach’s pass-first attack coming to Pullman, the Cougars should be one of the top offenses in the nation. Wilson has recorded back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and caught 18 touchdown passes over the last two years. His best performance came against San Diego State in 2011, grabbing six passes for 236 yards and two touchdowns. With Robert Woods, Marqise Lee and Keenan Allen returning, it will be a battle to get first-team all-conference honors. However, there’s no question Wilson will have the stats to get in the mix for first-team All-Pac-12 and All-American honors.

30. Marqise Lee, WR, USC
With Robert Woods posting a record-setting season on the other side, it was easy to overlook Lee’s performance in 2011. As a true freshman, he finished with 73 receptions for 1,143 yards and 11 touchdowns last year. Lee came on strong over the second half of the season, catching at least seven passes in each of the final five games. Woods is still USC’s No. 1 receiver, but Lee will see plenty of passes in his direction. Expect the sophomore to surpass last season’s totals, while pushing for All-American honors.

31. Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State
While LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu will grab headlines for being one of the nation’s top playmakers at cornerbacks, Banks is quietly the SEC’s No. 1 coverman. He started all 13 games last season and earned first-team All-SEC honors, while recording 71 tackles and three forced fumbles. Banks is already drawing significant interest from the NFL, especially with his 6-foot-2 frame. The Mississippi native is an Athlon Sports first-team All-American for 2012.

32. T.J. McDonald, S, USC
The USC legacy — his father Tim was a two-time All-American at USC from 1983-1986 — is a powerful hitter at the back end of the No. 1 team in the nation. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound senior has 23 career starts, 163 career tackles and six career interceptions. The Fresno (Calif.) Edison product is an Athlon Sports All-American and Thorpe Award candidate heading into his final season.

33. Eric Reid, S, LSU
The hard-hitting safety became a force during his sophomore season, tying for the team lead in tackles (76) with cornerback Tyrann Mathieu. Reid also forced two fumbles, had two interceptions and recovered a fumble last season for John Chavis’ stellar defense. Reid was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week after an excellent performance in LSU’s 9-6 victory at Alabama during the regular season. His critical fourth-quarter interception in that game was a top play of the 2011 campaign.

34. Corey Lemonier, DE, Auburn
As only a sophomore, the former top 100 recruit realized his potential by leading the Tigers with 9.5 sacks. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound rush end finished his second season on The Plains with 47 total tackles, 13.5 tackles for a loss and 15 QB hurries. He was the lone star on a defense that struggled mightily a year ago, but could emerge as an All-American superstar now that new coordinator Brian VanGorder is running the ship. Look for him to build around the future NFL draftee from Hialeah, Fla.

35. Barkevious Mingo, DE, LSU 
As a sophomore on an undefeated team, Mingo finished second on the team in sacks (8.0) and led the team in tackles for a loss (15.0). While he may not be as complete a player as his defensive end counterpart Montgomery, Mingo might possess more explosiveness off the edge. He is long at 6-foot-5 and 240 pound and can get up the field with great quickness. He has first-round NFL potential and should only build upon his second-team All-SEC performance of 2011.

36. Tony Jefferson, S, Oklahoma
Few players exhibit as much raw athletic ability as the 5-foot-11, 200-pound safety. After playing a hybrid safety position which required much more time in the box, Jefferson has moved to his natural position of free safety. He will be allowed to flow all over the field and make plays now that Mike Stoops and Tim Kish are calling the plays. Jefferson has loads of talent supporting him, so the Sooners should be vastly improved in the secondary this fall.

37. Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
Lewan, a 6-8, 302-pound junior, has started 22 games over the past two seasons at left tackle. A second-team All-Big Ten pick last season (by the coaches), Lewan will be asked to be the leader of the Wolverines’ offensive line following the graduation of Rimington Award-winning center David Molk.

38. Collin Klein, QB, Kansas State
Klein emerged from obscurity last season to account for 40 total touchdowns, leading the Wildcats to 10-3 season and the Cotton Bowl. Kansas State’s emotional leader, Klein rushed for 27 touchdowns, tying the Division I record held by Navy’s Ricky Dobbs, and became the first Big 12 quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards since Missouri’s Brad Smith in 2005. The Wildcats also learned they could rely more on his arm as the season went along.

39. Alex Okafor, DE, Texas
Jackson Jeffcoat’s partner in crime hails from an Austin suburb called Pflugerville. “Big Oak” has played in 39 games in his Longhorn career and is coming off his best season. The 6-foot-4, 265 pound end set career highs in tackles (56), tackles for a loss (14.0) and sacks (7.0) to go with 14 quarterback hurries. He earned AFCA All-American honors and was a unanimous first-team All-Big 12 selection. Okafor and Jeffcoat might form the best defensive end duo in the nation this fall.

40. Shayne Skov, LB, Stanford
The senior from Piedmont, Calif., has had an up and down career at Stanford. He has NFL potential, a savvy on-the-field toughness that has helped the Cardinal develop into a West Coast power. He has also dealt with major injuries on more than one occasion and an off-the-field issue. The DUI will cost him one game with a suspension this fall, but should he stay healthy, the 6-foot-3, 242-pounder could be an All-American this fall.

41. Knile Davis, RB, Arkansas
Expectations are high for Davis to return to the lineup at full speed after missing the 2011 season with a broken ankle. In 2010, Davis emerged over the final seven games of the season to rush for 1,028 yards and 12 touchdowns during that span. The Hogs’ will look forward to his power, speed and vision to return to the lineup after Arkansas ranked ninth in the SEC in rushing last season.

42. Khaled Holmes, C, USC
With Matt Kalil moving onto the NFL, it’s up to Holmes to become the leader for USC’s offensive line. That shouldn’t be a problem for the California native, as he has started in each of the last two years and earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors last season. Holmes made a seamless transition from guard to center in 2011 and should be one of the top linemen in college football this year. 

43. Travis Frederick, C, Wisconsin
After starting most of last season at left guard, Frederick slides over to center to replace Peter Konz, a second-round pick by the Falcons in the 2012 NFL Draft. Frederick is not entirely new to the position, however; he started two games at center in ’11 — vs. Penn State on Nov. 26 and the Big Ten Championship Game vs. Michigan State. A 6-4, 328-pound junior, Frederick earned second-team All-Big Ten honors last fall. 

44. D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama
Fluker has started 21 games in his first two years in Tuscaloosa but is on the verge of a breakout year. The Alabama native was a key cog in the Crimson Tide’s rushing attack, allowing backs to average 5.5 yards per carry and record 34 scores on the ground. At 6-foot-6 and 335 pounds, Fluker has the strength to dominate on the right side of the line and continues to improve as a pass blocker. Look for the junior tackle to push for first-team All-SEC honors this season.

45. Gerald Hodges, LB, Penn State
The exodus of quality players at Penn State has just begun, but so far the Nittany Lions’ star linebacker is staying put. An outside linebacker, Hodges led Penn State with 106 tackles last season as the defense ranked 20th nationally in yards allowed per game (323.9). When the dust settles with the roster at Penn State, Hodges, who also had 10 tackles for a loss last season, might be one of the few in contention for All-Big Ten honors or more.
 
46. Arthur Brown, LB, Kansas State
A highly regarded recruit when he signed with Miami in 2008, he struggled to earn regular playing time before he transferred to Kansas State. Back in his home state, Brown anchored the Kansas State linebacker group. He finished with 101 tackles and 9.5 tackles for a loss, using his speed to help K-State finish 37th nationally in rush defense. 
 
47. Nickell Robey, CB, USC
An All-State second-team baseball player and district long jump champion, Robey faced no mystery of where he’d fit at USC. The junior has started every game in the secondary since he arrived on campus. Robey will make a bid at All-America status after recording 63 tackles, nine pass breakups and two interceptions last season (including one returned for a touchdown in the triple-overtime loss to Stanford).

48. Kawann Short, DT, Purdue
With his combination of size and athleticism, Short is drawing attention from NFL scouts and is expected to be a first-round pick in 2013. The East Chicago native has started all three seasons at Purdue and is coming off his best year, recording 54 stops, 17 tackles for a loss and 6.5 sacks. Improving the run defense is one of the top priorities for coach Danny Hope this season, but Short’s return to West Lafayette should help the Boilermakers improve on last year’s statistics (9th in the Big Ten in rushing defense). Short was named Purdue’s team defensive MVP last season and is an Athlon second-team All-American for 2012. 

49. Johnathan Hankins, DT, Ohio State
Hankins is developing into the next great defensive lineman to come out of the Ohio State program. In his first year as a starter last fall, the Michigan native recorded 67 total tackles, including 14 for a loss and three sacks. The large but nimble Hankins has slimmed down to 317 pounds for his junior season. “Hank is now a little less of an immovable object and more of an unstoppable force,” says Ohio State center Corey Linsley. 

50. Chase Thomas, LB, Stanford
The outside linebacker from Marietta, Ga., became an instant playmaker on on the Stanford defense the last three seasons, recording 46 tackles for a loss during that span. He led the Pac-12 last season with 2.1 tackles behind the line last season while forcing five fumbles. With Shayne Skov back, he and Thomas could be one of the nation’s best linebacker tandems.
 

 

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Teaser:
<p> College Football's Top 50 Players for 2012</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 29, 2012 - 06:49
Path: /college-football/college-footballs-top-15-breakout-players-2012
Body:

Every year, college football fans are introduced to a handful of players that become household names by the end of the season. Predicting which players will breakout any year is never an easy task. 

Defining what is a breakout player is nearly impossible. Everyone has a different perspective on how players are viewed around the conference and nationally. Athlon's list of breakout players for 2012 tries to take into account which names will be known nationally by the end of season. 

College Football's Top 15 Breakout Players for 2012

Stephone Anthony, LB, ClemsonAnthony was a big-time recruit and didn’t disappoint for Clemson’s defense last season. As a true freshman, he played in all 13 games and recorded 32 tackles for a loss and two sacks. The Tigers suffered some key losses on the defensive line, which will force even more pressure on Anthony and the linebacking corps to stuff the run. The sophomore is having a solid fall camp and will start at middle linebacker in 2012. 

Ka’Deem Carey, RB, Arizona – It’s a loaded year for running backs in the Pac-12, but Carey could finish near the top of the Pac-12 in rushing yards. Arizona returns all five starters on the offensive line, and new coach Rich Rodriguez is implementing his spread attack, which has produced big rushing totals at West Virginia and Michigan. Carey rushed for 425 yards and six touchdowns last season, while also catching 15 passes for 203 yards and two scores. With a full complement of carries (200 or more), look for Carey to easily surpass 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Blake Countess, CB, Michigan One of the biggest reasons for Michigan’s improvement on defense last season was the play of the secondary. The Wolverines allowed 261.9 passing yards per game in 2010 but gave up only 190.5 yards per contest in 2011. Countess was a key factor in the defense as a true freshman, starting the last six games and recording 44 tackles, one force fumble and six passes defended. With another offseason to learn under coordinator Greg Mattison, expect Countess to push for All-Big Ten honors and emerge as one of Michigan’s top defenders.

Trey DePriest/Adrian Hubbard/Xzavier Dickson, LB, Alabama – Rather than single out one of these three sophomores, we are highlighting the entire trio as breakout candidates. DePriest, Hubbard and Dickson will be part of Alabama’s rebuilding effort on defense, as the Crimson Tide must replace Donta Hightower, Courtney Upshaw and Jerrell Harris at linebacker. DePriest had the best statistical season last year, recording 25 tackles in 13 games. If Alabama’s defense wants to finish No. 1 in the nation once again, it needs a big year from this sophomore linebacking trio.

Steve Edmond, LB, Texas Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho were one of the best linebacker duos in college football last season, so there’s no question they will be missed. However, Texas is never short on talent, and Edmond looks like a future star in the Big 12. He played in 12 games and recorded 16 stops last season, while also forcing one fumble. Edmond ranked as one of the top 100 prospects in the 2011 signing class by most recruiting services and is slated to start at middle linebacker in 2012. At 6-foot-3 and 255 pounds, the sophomore has the size and strength to help immediately against the run.

C.J. Fiedorowicz, TE, Iowa With injuries taking its toll on the running backs and the return of quarterback James Vandenberg, the Hawkeyes will likely lean more on the pass in 2012. Keenan Davis is set as the team’s No. 1 receiver, but Fiedorowicz is expected to be featured prominently under new coordinator Greg Davis. In his first two years in Des Moines, Fiedorowicz has 16 receptions for 167 yards and three touchdowns. Considering the Hawkeyes plan to throw the ball more in 2012, it would not be a shock to see Fiedorowicz surpass 16 receptions after the first four games.

Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State - If college football fans weren’t familiar with Jernigan after his standout freshman season, it might be time to get acquainted. He quickly emerged as Florida State’s top defensive tackle, recording 30 stops and six tackles for a loss. Jernigan is already garnering plenty of attention this preseason, as he was named to the Outland Trophy watchlist and is an Athlon Sports third-team All-ACC selection. With another offseason to work in the weight room and with coordinator Mark Stoops, look for Jernigan to build off his impressive debut season.  

Wes Lunt, QB, Oklahoma State Lunt has some of the biggest shoes to fill in the Big 12. Brandon Weeden led Oklahoma State to a Big 12 championship last season and threw for 9,260 yards and 75 touchdowns during his career in Stillwater. Lunt enrolled in time to participate in spring practice and impressed the coaching staff enough to earn the No. 1 spot over J.W. Walsh and Clint Chelf. Asking Lunt to repeat Weeden’s success as a true freshman is nearly impossible, but Oklahoma State has a track record of developing good quarterbacks, and the offense can lean on running back Joseph Randle. Don’t expect Lunt to contend for All-American honors, but the Cowboys shouldn’t suffer much of a drop in production with the freshman at the controls.

Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon Even though Mariota has no game experience, he should keep Oregon’s offense among the nation’s best in 2012. The Hawaii native turned in a strong performance in the spring, finishing with 202 passing yards and 106 yards on the ground in the final scrimmage. Mariota held off Bryan Bennett once again in the fall and was named the team’s starter for the opener against Arkansas State. The Ducks have had a successful run of quarterbacks (Dennis Dixon, Jeremiah Masoli, Darron Thomas) and Mariota should continue that streak in 2012. 

Gabe Marks, WR, Washington State It’s no secret Mike Leach wants to throw the ball, and the Cougars are perfectly equipped to become one of college football’s top passing teams. Quarterback Jeff Tuel and receiver Marquess Wilson are two underrated players on a national level, while Marks has emerged as a solid No. 2 in fall practices. The true freshman is expected to join Marquess Wilson as a starter at one of the outside receiver spots. Even with Wilson expected to dominate the receptions, there should be plenty of passes coming in Marks’ direction. 

Trey Metoyer, WR, Oklahoma Finding weapons for quarterback Landry Jones is the biggest fall priority for the Sooners’ offense. Kenny Stills is one of the Big 12’s top receivers, but after that is where the question marks begin. Metoyer did not qualify last season and attended Hargrave Academy in preparation for 2012. He was one of the top receivers in the 2011 recruiting class and did not disappoint in spring practice, catching six passes for 72 yards in the Red-White game. Although Ryan Broyles will be missed, Metoyer’s emergence should ease concerns about the Oklahoma receiving corps.

Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri – Richardson’s path to Missouri took a slight detour, as he spent two years at the College of the Sequoias, before making his first appearance at Missouri last season. Richardson made a huge impact in his first year in Columbia, recording 37 stops, three sacks, eight tackles for a loss and one forced fumble. A shoulder injury sidelined him in the spring but all signs point to a return to full strength in the fall. With another offseason under his belt, look for Richardson to pickup his performance even more in 2012.

Shaq Thompson, S, Washington – If Washington wants to have any shot at competing for the Pac-12 North title, the defense has to show major improvement from 2011. Although the Huskies probably aren’t ready to lean on their defense to win games, this unit should be much better in 2012. New coordinator Justin Wilcox is an improvement over Nick Holt, and Thompson’s arrival gives Washington a difference maker in the secondary. He ranked as the No. 6 overall recruit in the 2012 Athlon Consensus 100 and will be expected to start from the opening snap.

Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame - With Aaron Lynch’s decision to transfer, Tuitt will have to take on a bigger role on the defensive line in 2012. As a freshman in 2011, Tuitt played in nine games and recorded 30 tackles and two sacks. He needed some time to transition from high school to college, but Tuitt was one of the defensive line’s top players at the end of the year, registering 26 of his 30 tackles over the final six games. The sophomore will is expected to start on the outside in 2012 and will be one of the team’s top pass-rush threats on the line. Notre Dame will miss Lynch, but Tuitt’s development could help the Irish own one of the nation’s top 10 defensive lines. 

George Uko, DT, USC – With the departures of Christian Tupou and DaJohn Harris at tackle, the interior of the line is a big concern for coordinator Monte Kiffin. Uko was a top 100 recruit coming out of high school and was a key member of the line rotation in 2011. He recorded 18 tackles and two starts, while also earning 1.5 sacks. Uko is expected to step in the starting lineup and will be a key cog in USC’s rush defense in 2012.
 

by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

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Teaser:
<p> College Football's Top 15 Breakout Players for 2012</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 29, 2012 - 06:33
Path: /nfl/which-rookie-nfl-qb-will-win-most-games-2012
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Athlon Sports will preview the upcoming 2012 NFL season with in-depth roundtable debates with our editors and other experts from around the world of football.

Q: Which NFL rookie starting quarterback will win the most games in 2012?

Keith Myers, 12thManRising.com:
It may be a bit of a surprise, but I'd guess that Russell Wilson and the Seahawks end the season with the most wins of those teams with rookie QBs. The Seahawks are just built in a way that will allow them to win in spite of the rookie growing pains. That team is built around its defense and ability to run the football. It won’t need Wilson to put up huge numbers in order for it to win. I fully expect the Seahawks to push for a playoff spot, even with a rookie under center. 

Braden Gall (@BradenGall):
The smart money should be on Russell Wilson in Seattle or Robert Griffin III in Washington. Those are the best two teams surrounding any of the five rookie quarterbacks. However, ownership in D.C. makes me hesitant to pick the Redskins to accomplish anything and Wilson, for all of his amazing talents, is still a 5-foot-10 quarterback. Miami and Ryan Tannehill will easily be the worst of the bunch. But I am going to go out on a limb and say Andrew Luck and the Colts. He is a virtual carbon copy of Aaron Rodgers — in size, skillset, college town — and has a much better team around him than most are giving the Colts credit for. There are veterans in place and he plays in a division that is considered one of the weakest in the NFL. He is a once-in-a-lifetime prospect and was the No. 1 overall pick for a reason. If this team can somehow get to seven wins, Luck could have the best record of any starter.

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven):
I think Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck will be the best rookie quarterback, but I think Seattle’s Russell Wilson will finish with the most victories. Yes, it’s the preseason, but it’s hard to ignore how Wilson has performed. In three games, the rookie has thrown for 464 yards and five touchdowns, while adding 150 yards and one score on the ground. With a solid defense and Marshawn Lynch leading the way on the ground, the Seahawks won’t have to ask Wilson to win games. Also, with a weak division (St. Louis and Arizona), Seattle has a chance to sneak into the postseason. The competition will get tougher in the regular season, but Wilson should have the Seahawks in contention for a wild card spot in the NFC this year.

Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman):
I think Andrew Luck will be the top performer in the rookie quarterback class, but Russell Wilson should end up with the most wins because of what is around him. The Seahawks have been a decent club over the last two years, unlike the other teams with rookie signal callers who all stunk last season. Seattle has a quality runner in Marshawn Lynch (seventh in the NFL with 1,204 yards in 2011), as well as a defense that finished in the top 10 in both yards and points per game last season. The Colts should be much better in 2012 with a coaching staff that will finally emphasize getting tougher in the run game and on defense. Indy and Seattle should finish in the six- to eight-win range, with a slight edge to the Seahawks and Wilson.

Rob Doster (@AthlonDoster):
My pick is the one guy on this list who doesn’t pass the “look test.” At 5-11, Russell Wilson is not anyone’s idea of an NFL prototype at the QB position, but he possesses some of the best intangibles (hunger, desire, leadership, moxie) in the game, and he’s inheriting the best situation of any rookie quarterback. The Seahawks won seven games last season and are only 19 months removed from a home playoff win. If his receivers play up to their potential — I’m looking at you, Golden Tate — Wilson can continue to defy critics and odds and win as many as eight games this season.

Mark Ross, Athlon Sports:
As of last week my answer would have been Robert Griffin III because of a stronger supporting cast, including defense, around him. However, that was until Seattle head coach Pete Carroll decided to shake things up and name Russell Wilson his starting quarterback. The Seahawks have a productive running game and a young and continually improving defense, but what will ultimately push Wilson ahead of RGIII in the win column this season is divisional play. The 'Hawks play in the NFC West, which is home to one legitimate Super Bowl contender, San Francisco, and two bonafide "pretenders" in Arizona and St. Louis. The 'Skins reside in the NFC East, home to the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants as well as Dallas and Philadelphia, two teams that could very well end up in the Super Bowl this season. Advantage Wilson and it's not even close. The difference in divisional competition alone is enough for me to project Wilson with more wins than RGIII or any other rookie starting quarterback this season.

Teaser:
<p> Which Rookie NFL QB Will Win the Most Games in 2012?</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 29, 2012 - 06:30

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