Articles By Steven Lassan

Path: /college-football/very-early-2012-acc-predictions
Body:

By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

Very Early 2012 ACC Predictions

Atlantic Division

1. Florida State

Key Returnees: QB EJ Manuel, RB Devonta Freeman, WR Rashad Greene, WR Rodney Smith, DE Brandon Jenkins, DE Bjoern Werner, DT Everett Dawkins, DT Timmy Jernigan, LB Christian Jones, CB Xavier Rhodes, CB Greg Reid, FS Lamarcus Joyner, K Dustin Hopkins

Key Losses: WR Bert Reed, LT Zebrie Sanders, LB Nigel Bradham, CB Mike Harris, P Shawn Powell

The question facing the Seminoles every offseason seems to the same: Is Florida State back? We won’t know until next December if the Seminoles are truly a contender for the national title, but on paper, this group has the pieces to finish among the top 5-10 teams in the nation.

Quarterback EJ Manuel had his moments in his first year as the starter, but a shoulder injury suffered in the third game of the season seemed to stall the offense’s development. Manuel has plenty of young weapons at receiver to throw to, but Florida State’s offensive outlook rests solely on its line. The Seminoles had several underclassmen see valuable playing time up front, but this will be a question mark all season long. Largely due to the struggles of the offensive line, the rushing attack never really got going in 2011. If the line play stabilizes, Devonta Freeman and James Wilder should find more running lanes in 2012.

Mark Stoops was reportedly courted by Auburn for its defensive coordinator position, but chose to stay in Tallahassee for another year. That’s great news for a Florida State defense that should be among the best in college football next year. The Seminoles bring back a plethora of talented linemen, including ends Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner. Nigel Bradham must be replaced at linebacker, but Christian Jones, Vince Williams and Jeff Luc are ready to step up. The secondary figures to be near the top of the ACC once again, especially with Xavier Rhodes and Greg Reid returning at cornerback.

2. Clemson

Key Returnees: QB Tajh Boyd, RB Andre Ellington, WR Sammy Watkins, WR DeAndre Hopkins, C Dalton Freeman, LB Corico Hawkins, LB Jonathan Willard, S Rashard Hall, S Xavier Brewer

Key Losses: TE Dwayne Allen, LT Phillip Price, RT Landon Walker, DE Andre Branch, DT Brandon Thompson, DT Rennie Moore, CB Coty Sensabaugh

Coming off a 6-7 season, there was plenty of doubt about Clemson in 2011. The Tigers were picked by most to finish in the second tier of the ACC Atlantic, but all of the pieces fell in the right place. Hiring Chad Morris as offensive coordinator turned out to be one of the best coaching moves of the offseason, while the Tigers crushed Virginia Tech 38-10 to make their first BCS bowl appearance.

Morris’ offense was a smash hit in Death Valley last season and most of the key pieces return for 2012. Quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins will be one of the top pass-catch combinations in college football, while running back Andre Ellington should rush for 1,000 yards. The biggest question mark facing Clemson’s offense will be the line, where three new starters will step in. If the Tigers successfully replace tackles Phillip Price and Landon Walker, the offense shouldn’t miss a beat in 2012.

After giving up 70 points to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl, defensive coordinator Kevin Steele was shown the door. And in his place comes former Oklahoma assistant Brent Venables - a home run hire as Clemson's new defensive coordinator. The Tigers finished the season ranked 70th or worse in rush, total and scoring defense and generated only 1.7 sacks per game. Not only will the defense have a new coordinator, but must replace three key starters on the line, including All-ACC selections in Brandon Thompson and Andre Branch. The Tigers have recruited well, but the defense may be a year away from showing much improvement in the stat column.

3. NC State

Key Returnees: QB Mike Glennon, RB Mustafa Greene, RB James Washington, WR Tobais Palmer, LT R.J. Mattes, C Camden Wentz, CB David Amerson, S Brandan Bishop, S Earl Wolff

Key Losses: WR T.J. Graham, TE George Bryan, DT J.R. Sweezy, DT Markus Kuhn, LB Audie Cole, LB Terrell Manning

Last offseason wasn’t exactly quiet in Raleigh, but after closing with wins in four out of their final five games, coach Tom O’Brien should be feeling good about his team going into 2012.

Breaking up with quarterback Russell Wilson wasn’t easy, but Mike Glennon quietly turned in a solid season. The junior threw for 3,054 yards and 31 touchdowns, while tossing 12 interceptions and adding one score on the ground. Glennon will only get better with another offseason to work with the coaching staff, but the Wolfpack has to replace key receivers T.J. Graham and Jay Smith and tight end George Bryan. Running back should be a position of strength, as James Washington returns after rushing for 897 yards and Mustafa Greene is back after missing all of 2011 due to injury. With four starters returning, the Wolfpack offensive line should be able to cut down on the amount of sacks this group allowed in 2011 (34).

Keeping Jon Tenuta on the defensive staff was a huge coup for O’Brien, especially after finishing fourth in the ACC in total defense in 2011. However, the Wolfpack suffered some key losses from this group, especially in the front seven. Tackles Markus Kuhn and J.R. Sweezy and linebackers Dwayne Maddox, Audie Cole and Terrell Manning are all gone. While the front seven will be a question mark, the secondary is a strength, especially with cornerback David Amerson returning.

4. Wake Forest

Key Returnees: QB Tanner Price, RB Josh Harris, WR Michael Campanaro, NG Nikita Whitlock, LB Mike Olson, CB Merrill Noel

Key Losses: RB Brandon Pendergrass, WR Chris Givens, LG Joe Looney, DE Tristan Dorty, LB Kyle Wilber, SS Cyhl Quarles, S Josh Bush

The Demon Deacons started 5-2, but cooled off in the second half of the year to finish with a 6-7 record. Although that tally isn’t overwhelmingly impressive to some, the record represented a solid year of improvement for coach Jim Grobe. Wake Forest won only three games in 2010 with a core composed mostly of young players, which was a valuable learning experience for the team in 2011 and once again for 2012.

Quarterback Tanner Price emerged as one of the top passers in the ACC last year, throwing for 3,017 yards, 20 touchdowns and only six interceptions. Price returns in 2012, but will have to find a new go-to target with receiver Chris Givens moving onto the NFL. Michael Campanaro figures to be Price’s new favorite target after catching 73 passes for 833 yards last year. Running back Josh Harris was limited due to a hamstring injury in 2011, but could threaten 1,000 yards with 150-175 carries in 2012. Expect the offensive line to get plenty of attention in the spring, as the Demon Deacons have to replace four starters, including tackle Dennis Godfrey and All-ACC guard Joe Looney.

Seven starters return on defense for Wake Forest next season, but this unit ranked eighth or worse in the ACC in rushing, total, scoring and pass defense last year. There aren’t a ton of significant losses for 2012, but replacing All-ACC safety Josh Bush won’t be easy. With the returning group of players, Wake Forest figures to make some improvement on defense in 2012. The Demon Deacons would benefit from more of a pass rush, as they finished 115th nationally in 2011.

5. Boston College

Key Returnees: QB Chase Rettig, RB Montel Harris, WR Colin Larmond, DT Kaleb Ramsey, DT Dominic Appiah, LB Kevin Pierre-Louis, LB Steele Divitto, CB Al Louis-Jean

Key Losses: C Mark Spinney, DE Max Holloway, LB Luke Kuechly, CB Donnie Fletcher

The Eagles are coming off their first losing season since 1998. After starting off 1-6, the team showed some progress, winning three of their final five games to finish with a 4-8 record. Coach Frank Spaziani enters 2012 on the hot seat and some new faces on the coaching staff. Spaziani hired former Kent State coach Doug Martin to coordinate the offense, while former Ohio State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman will work with the offensive line.

Spaziani hopes Martin can find some answers for offense that was one of the worst in the ACC last year. Quarterback Chase Rettig tossed 12 touchdowns, but completed only 53.6 percent of his throws. Rettig needs more help from his receiving corps, as the offense would benefit from more big plays in 2012. Montel Harris has rushed for 3,735 yards and 27 scores in his career and was granted an extra year of eligibility after missing most of 2011 due to a knee injury. While getting Harris back will help the ground attack, Boston College also needs more help from its offensive line.

The defense was respectable last year, as the Eagles finished 43rd nationally in scoring defense and allowed 17 or fewer points in each of their final three games. However, this group suffered some key losses, including Butkus Award winner Luke Kuechly. Look for Kevin Pierre-Louis to emerge as the leader in the linebacking corps and should challenge for all-conference honors. The defensive line gained some extra help over the winter when tackle Kaleb Ramsey was granted an additional year of eligibility.

The Eagles aren’t ready to challenge for the division title, but the pieces are in place to contend for a bowl bid. Improving the offense is priority No. 1 this offseason for Spaziani and if this unit struggles in 2012, Boston College will likely be looking for a new head coach by December.

6. Maryland

Key Returnees: QB C.J. Brown, WR Kevin Dorsey, DT Joe Vellano, LB Kenny Tate, LB Demetrius Hartsfield, CB Dexter McDougle, S Eric Franklin

Key Losses: RB Davin Meggett, WR Quintin McCree, RT R.J. Dill, CB Cameron Chism

Only one word seems to correctly summarize coach Randy Edsall’s first year at Maryland: Disaster. Coming off a 9-4 season, the Terrapins appeared to have the pieces in place to contend for a finish among the top three in the ACC Atlantic. Instead, Maryland hit rock bottom, finishing with just two victories and going winless in conference play. The 2-10 debacle prompted changes on the coaching staff, including new offensive and defensive coordinators.

After turning in a terrific freshman campaign, quarterback Danny O’Brien was one of the most disappointing players in the ACC last year. O’Brien decided to transfer, leaving C.J. Brown as Maryland's No. 1 quarterback for spring practice. Running back Davin Meggett has finished his eligibility in College Park, leaving Justus Pickett and incoming freshman Albert Reid and Wes Brown to compete for carries. Tackle R.J. Dill decided to transfer to Rutgers for his senior year, leaving a void on the right side of the line.

There were few positives for the Terrapins on defense last season, finishing last in the ACC in rushing, total and scoring defense. New coordinator Brian Stewart is moving this defense to a 3-4 look, and there is some solid returning personnel in place for this transition. Linebacker/safety Kenny Tate was injured early in the year, but should be in contention for All-ACC honors in 2012. Defensive tackle Joe Vellano is coming off a terrific season, but the Terrapins need to figure out if he can anchor the middle of the 3-4 look or if he is better suited for the outside.

There’s nowhere to go but up for Maryland next season. However, there are plenty of concerns and question marks facing this squad. 

Coastal

1. Virginia Tech

Key Returnees: QB Logan Thomas, WR Marcus Davis, WR D.J. Coles, DE James Gayle, DE J.R. Collins, DT Derrick Hopkins, LB Bruce Taylor, LB Tariq Edwards, CB Kyle Fuller, S Antone Exum

Key Losses: RB David Wilson, WR Jarrett Boykin, WR Danny Coale, LT Andrew Lanier, LG Greg Nosal, RG Jaymes Brooks, RT Blake DeChristopher, CB Jayron Hosley, FS Eddie Whitley

The Hokies have claimed back-to-back ACC Coastal titles and despite some heavy losses, will enter 2012 as the favorite once again. With the rest of the division facing a lot of uncertainty, Virginia Tech could be the only team from the Coastal to be ranked in preseason top 25 polls.

With running back David Wilson and four starters departing on the offensive line, it’s up to quarterback Logan Thomas to carry the Virginia Tech offense in 2012. The junior made big progress as a passer as the season progressed, but will be throwing to a revamped receiving corps next season. Replacing Wilson won’t be easy, especially with a cast of running backs with very little experience in place. Tony Gregory has the most carries (39) of returning running backs, but averaged only 3.3 yards per touch. Don’t be surprised if freshmen play a key role in the Hokies’ backfield next season.

While the offense will be undergoing some renovations, the defense could be among the best in college football. The line is stacked with proven commodities, including likely All-ACC selections in end James Gayle and J.R. Collins, while tackle Derrick Hopkins looks to build off his 2011 campaign (50 tackles, 3 sacks). Linebackers Bruce Taylor and Jeron Gouveia-Winslow missed time due to injuries, but will anchor a solid group in 2012. Losing cornerback Jayron Hosley and safety Eddie Whitley is a big blow, but Antone Exum and Kyle Fuller is a good starting point for the secondary for next season.

2. Georgia Tech

Key Returnees: QB Tevin Washington, RB David Sims, RB Orwin Smith, OG Omoregie Uzzi, LB Julian Burnett, LB Jeremiah Attaochu, CB Rod Sweeting, CB Louis Young, S Isaiah Johnson

Key Losses: WR Stephen Hill, DE Jason Peters, DT Logan Walls, LB Steven Sylvester, S Rashaad Reid

What a difference a year makes. Coming into 2011, Georgia Tech was coming off a disappointing 6-7 season and coach Paul Johnson’s option attack was being questioned once again. Instead of continuing to slide back to mediocrity, the Yellow Jackets responded with a 6-0 start and finished with an 8-5 record. Although Georgia Tech had a late-season slide, it is poised to be a contender for the ACC Coastal title in 2012.

Quarterback Tevin Washington led the team with 987 rushing yards and 14 scores, but will face spring competition from Synjyn Days for the No. 1 spot. Washington needs to be more consistent as a passer, but the offense suffered a tough blow when receiver Stephen Hill left early for the NFL Draft. The Yellow Jackets lack a go-to back, but David Sims and Orwin Smith combined for 1,313 yards and 18 scores in 2011. Four starters are back on the offensive line, including All-American candidate Omoregie Uzzi at right guard.

Adapting to the 3-4 scheme wasn’t an overnight process, but the Yellow Jackets are making progress. Linebackers Jeremiah Attaochu, Quayshawn Nealy and Julian Burnett will be one of the top trios in the ACC next season. Finding an anchor at defensive tackle is key for any 3-4 defense and the Yellow Jackets have to replace Logan Walls in the middle next year. T.J. Barnes has the necessary size, but has not started for a full season. The secondary finished second in the ACC in pass defense in 2011 and returns four starters for 2012. If coordinator Al Groh can sort out the defensive line in spring practice, this defense should take another step forward in 2012. 

3. Virginia

Key Returnees: QB Michael Rocco, RB Perry Jones, RB Kevin Parks, WR Tim Smith, LT Oday Aboushi, DT Will Hill, LB Steve Greer, LB LaRoy Reynolds, CB Demetrious Nicholson

Key Losses: WR Kris Burd, LG Austin Pasztor, C Anthony Mihota, DE Cam Johnson, DT Matt Conrath, CB Chase Minnifield, S Rodney McLeod, S Corey Mosley

The Cavaliers were one of the biggest surprises in the ACC, going from 4-8 in 2010 to 8-5 in 2011. Coach Mike London claimed the conference’s coach of the year honors for the turnaround and leading the Cavaliers to their first postseason trip since the 2007 season. The future is bright for Virginia and another eight-win season should be within reach in 2012.

The offense had its share of ups and downs but finished No. 4 in the ACC with an average of 399.8 yards per game. Quarterback Michael Rocco had only one touchdown pass through the first four games, but finished with 12 over his next nine. He tossed 12 interceptions, which is something London and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor want to see him cut in 2012. The bread and butter of the Virginia offense is the one-two punch of Perry Jones and Kevin Parks at running back. The duo combined for 1,624 yards and 14 scores in 2011 and will lead the offense once again in 2012. The offensive line played a key role in the rushing attack’s success and loses two key players next year – guard Austin Pasztor and center Anthony Mihota.

The Cavaliers improved statistically against the run and in overall points allowed this season, but must replace some key contributors in 2012. The defensive line loses three starters, including tackle Matt Conrath and end Cam Johnson. The linebacking corps should be a strength, as Steve Greer and LaRoy Reynolds could contend for all-conference honors. Losing Chase Minnifield is a huge blow for the Virginia secondary, but freshman Demetrious Nicholson started all 13 games in 2011 and is a future star. Rodney McLeod and Corey Mosley will form a solid combination at safety next season.

4. North Carolina

Key Returnees: QB Bryn Renner, RB Giovani Bernard, WR Erik Highsmith, LT James Hurst, LG Jonathan Cooper, DE Kareem Martin, DT Sylvester Williams, LB Kevin Reddick, FS Tre Boston

Key Losses: WR Dwight Jones, DE Quinton Coples, DE Donte Paige-Moss, DT Tydreke Powell, LB Zach Brown, CB Charles Brown

The cupboard wasn’t left completely bare for new coach Larry Fedora. After a successful stint at Southern Miss, Fedora takes over a Tar Heel squad that finished 7-6 after starting 5-1. North Carolina has won at least seven games in each of the last four years, but has failed to contend for the Coastal title.

Fedora’s specialty is on offense and will have some talented personnel to work with next season in Chapel Hill. Quarterback Bryn Renner is back after throwing for 3,086 yards and 26 scores. Renner is more of a dropback passer, but Fedora has run a spread offense at his previous stops. Although Renner may not be a perfect fit, expect Fedora to mold his offense around his strengths. Running back Giovani Bernard is another solid building block, returning to Chapel Hill after a strong freshman season. Bernard led the team with 1,253 yards and 13 rushing scores, while catching 45 passes for 362 yards and one touchdown. All five starters on the offensive line will return in 2012, making this group one of the best in the ACC.

With a handful of key departures on defense, the offense will have to carry the Tar Heels in 2012. The Tar Heels must replace two starters on the line, including end Quinton Coples and tackle Tydreke Powell. Linebacker Zach Brown will be missed, but Kevin Reddick and Darius Lipford return. The secondary will be under the microscope next season, as the Tar Heels ranked 10th in the ACC in pass defense in 2011. Making matters worse in the defensive backfield is the departure of safety Jonathan Smith and cornerback Charles Brown. 

5. Miami

Key Returnees: WR Allen Hurns, OT Seantrel Henderson, DE Anthony Chickillo, DT Darius Smith, LB Denzel Perryman, LB Jimmy Gaines, S Vaughn Telemaque, S Ray-Ray Armstrong

Key Losses: QB Jacory Harris, RB Lamar Miller, C Tyler Horn, OG Brandon Washington, DE Olivier Vernon, DT Micanor Regis, LB Sean Spence, S JoJo Nicolas

Al Golden is the right coach for the job in Miami, but he is about to embark on a difficult road the next few seasons in Coral Gables. The Hurricanes are waiting for any penalties regarding a recent NCAA investigation, which could result in the loss of scholarships. Miami sat out the 2011 postseason hoping to avoid any future bowl ban as a result of the investigation, but it is unclear if the NCAA will prevent the Hurricanes from playing in a bowl game in 2012.

Even if you put aside the NCAA concerns, the Hurricanes enter spring practice with a handful of question marks. Quarterback Jacory Harris has finished his eligibility, leaving Stephen Morris, Memphis transfer Ryan Williams and incoming freshmen Preston Dewey and Gary Crow to compete for the job. Morris has the edge in experience, so it would be a surprise if he didn’t start the first game of the year. Losing running back Lamar Miller to the NFL was a huge blow to the offense, but the Hurricanes have some experience returning, including Mike James and Eduardo Clements. Incoming freshman Duke Johnson could also compete for playing time. Tommy Streeter and Travis Benjamin are gone in the receiving corps, which leaves Allen Hurns and tight end Clive Watford as the go-to weapons for the new quarterback. The offensive line also enters spring practice with issues, as Brandon Washington, Harland Gunn and Tyler Horn all depart.

Considering the offense will need a lot of work, the defense figures to be the strength. End Anthony Chickillo and linebacker Denzel Perryman are ready to build off strong freshmen seasons, while the secondary is a strength with safeties Vaughn Telemaque and Ray-Ray Armstrong returning. Replacing Sean Spence at middle linebacker will be one of the top priorities for defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio. 

6. Duke

Key Returnees: QB Sean Renfree, RB Juwan Thompson, WR Conner Vernon, WR Brandon Braxton, LB Kelby Brown, CB Ross Cockrell, S Walt Canty

Key Losses: WR Donovan Varner, TE Cooper Helfet, LT Kyle Hill, NG Charlie Hatcher, S Matt Daniels

Progress has been slow to come by at Duke under coach David Cutcliffe. The Blue Devils won nine games in Cutcliffe’s first two years, but have claimed only six over the last two seasons. It’s not easy to win at Duke, but the team has yet to make the jump most expected to see under Cutcliffe. There’s some promising talent returning to Durham in 2012, but it’s hard to see a finish outside of the cellar in the ACC Coastal.

If Duke wants to make any improvement in the win column, the rushing attack (seemingly a problem every year) has to take a step forward in 2012. The Blue Devils averaged only 94.1 rushing yards per game in 2011, putting too much pressure on quarterback Sean Renfree to win games. The senior quarterback threw for 14 scores and 2,891 yards last year, but also tossed 11 picks. Renfree has a good group of receivers to throw to, as Conner Vernon, Brandon Braxton and Jamison Crowder return. The offensive line returns mostly intact, but has to replace valuable tackle Kyle Hill.

Just like the rushing attack, the defense has been an issue for a handful of years in Durham. The Blue Devils ranked 11th or worse in the ACC in rushing, total, scoring and pass defense last season. Unfortunately for the defensive staff, the going won’t get any easier with the departure of safety Matt Daniels and nose guard Charlie Hatcher. There’s enough returning players to expect improvement, but each level of the defense has concerns heading into 2012.

2012 ACC Championship Game: Florida State vs. Virginia Tech

The Hokies should have their offensive line question marks sorted out by December, but Florida State's defense will likely be the difference in this game. Of course, it's only January, so all predictions are subject to change when Athlon updates the picks for the 2012 preseason annuals. 

Related 2012 Content:

Very Early Big Ten 2012 Preseason Predictions
Very Early Big East 2012 Preseason Predictions

Very Early Big 12 2012 Preseason Predictions

2012 Heisman Trophy Candidates

Very Early Preseason 2012 College Football Top 25

Athlon Roundtable: Who are the BCS National Title Contenders in 2012?

What To Expect from the Crimson Tide in 2012?

What To Expect from the LSU Tigers in 2012?

2012 SEC Schedule Analysis

Three Teams on the Rise in 2012

Three Teams Sliding Back in 2012

Top Non-Conference Games to Watch in 2012

Teaser:
<p> Athlon releases its very early predictions for the ACC for 2012.&nbsp;</p>
Post date: Thursday, January 19, 2012 - 06:03
Path: /college-football/very-early-2012-pac-12-predictions
Body:

By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on twitter) and Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)

Very Early 2012 Pac-12 Predictions

Pac-12 North

1. Oregon Ducks (4 home, 5 road conference games)

Key Returnees:
RB Kenjon Barner, RB/WR DeAnthony Thomas, WR Josh Huff, DL Dion Jordan, DL Taylor Hart, LB Michael Clay, LB Kiko Alonso, DB John Boyett, DB Avery Patterson, K Alejandrio Maldonado, P Jackson Rice

Key Losses: QB Darron Thomas, RB LaMichael James, WR Lavasier Tuinei, TE David Paulson, OL Mark Asper, DL Terrell Turner, LB Josh Kaddu, LB Dewitt Stuckey, CB Cliff Harris, S Eddie Pleasant

Darron Thomas’ strange decision to leave school early creates a void at the most important position on the field. Most believe that Brian Bennett is capable, but until the bright lights are on, he has to be considered a relative unknown. Replacing 71 touchdowns and a 23-3 record at quarterback doesn’t happen over night. With Kenjon Barner, DeAnthony Thomas and Josh Huff to help, however, he shouldn’t have to shoulder the entire offensive load. Chip Kelly’s offense won’t be as dynamic as it has been the last two seasons, but should still be plenty potent to win the North.

Defensively this team should be better. Oregon finished 67th nationally in total defense and 52nd in scoring defense, but there is solid talent returning to all three levels of the defense as only six total players depart from the defensive two-deep.

The schedule also sets-up for a hot start for with an easy non-conference schedule and five of the first six at Autzen Stadium, including North contender Washington. The schedule gets interesting in the second half with trips to Arizona State, Cal and Oregon State for the Civil War. However, the Game of the Century in the Pac-12, and possibly nationally, will be when Oregon heads to L.A. to battle USC on November 3. If Oregon wants to win its fourth-straight Pac-12 title, it will need to beat USC at least once, if not twice next fall.

2. Washington Huskies (4 home, 5 road)

Key Returnees: QB Keith Price, RB Jesse Callier, WR Kasen Williams, WR James Johnson, TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, DL Josh Shirley, DL Andrew Hudson, DL Hau’oli Jamora, LB Princton Fuimaono, LB John Timu, S Sean Parker, CB Desmond Trufant, DB Justin Glenn

Key Losses: RB Chris Polk, WR Jermaine Kearse, WR Devin Aguilar, OL Senio Kelemete, DT Alamada Ta’amu, LB Cort Dennison

Steve Sarkisian didn’t liked what he saw from his defense in 2011. Anyone who watched the 777-yard, 67-point debacle in the Alamo Bowl to Baylor understood that. So he made sweeping changes that not only improved his staff but sent ripples down the West Coast. He hired Justin Wilcox to coach the defense and gave him two rising stars to work with in linebackers coach Peter Sirmon and line coach Tosh Lupoi (from Cal) — both of whom are considered elite recruiters. There is a lot of work that has to be done on that side of the ball if the Huskies expect to remove Oregon from the top of the North Division.

Sarkisian also hired Cal’s Eric Kiesau as his new offensive coordinator and QB coach. And he will have a good one to work with as Keith Price is back under center for the second year in a row. Losing Chris Polk will hurt the ground game but there is loads of talent left for Price in the form of Kasen Williams and Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Three starters should be back along the offensive line as well.

The schedule basically begins with what could be deemed the toughest non-conference game any preseason Top 25 will play when Washington heads to LSU in Week 2. Additionally, the Huskies have to face what should be the best three teams from the South: USC and Utah at home and at Arizona. It also has to battle Oregon and Cal on the road as well. Washington is making strides and is clearly committed to becoming a top-10 program. But with a brutal schedule and defense that needed a major facelift, Washington is likely still one year away.

3. California Golden Bears (5 home, 4 road)

Key Returnees: QB Zach Maynard, RB Isi Sofele, RB C.J. Anderson, WR Keenan Allen, OL Matt Summers-Gavin, DL Aaron Tipoti, LB David Wilkerson, LB Cecil Whiteside, LB Chris McCain, DB Josh Hill

Key Losses: WR Marvin Jones, TE Anthony Miller, OL Mitchell Schwartz, OL Justin Cheadle, DE Trevor Guyton, DL Ernest Owusu, LB Mychal Kendricks, LB D.J. Holt, DB D.J. Campbell, S Sean Cattouse, K Giorgio Tavecchio, P Bryan Anger

This fall will be a huge year for Jeff Tedford in Berkeley — despite being the school’s all-time winningest coach and being responsible for eight of Cal’s 21 bowl appearances (and five of its 10 wins). His job hasn’t gotten any easier over the past week as North rival Washington has stolen two of its star coaches in Tosh Lupoi and Eric Kiesau. Filling those holes will be key heading into National Signing Day 2012.

Offensively, this team needs quarterback Zach Maynard to become more efficient and having half-brother Keenan Allen back to catch passes will go a long way to that end. Tailbacks Isi Sofele and C.J. Anderson should be able to take some pressure off the inconsistent passer as well. Plugging holes along the offensive line will be the key to Tedford’s offense.

Defensively, this was the top unit in the Pac-12, but has big voids left by all-conference performers Mychal Kendricks and Trevor Guyton. Kendricks was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and other honorable mention candidates D.J. Campbell, Sean Cattouse and D.J. Holt will need to be replaced as well. There is plenty of talent in the linebacking corps and Tedford has recruited well over the last few years.

The schedule will be bittersweet for Cal fans. Trips to Ohio State, USC and Utah will be very challenging, but the Golden Bears’ top contenders from the North — Oregon, Washington and Stanford — will all have to visit Tightwad Hill.

4. Stanford Cardinal (4 road, 5 home)

Key Returnees: RB Stepfan Taylor, RB Tyler Gaffney, RB Anthony Wilkerson, WR Ty Montgomery, WR/PR Drew Terrell, TE Zach Ertz, TE Levine Toilolo, OL Cameron Fleming, OL David Yankey, DL Ben Gardner, LB Shayne Skov, LB Jarek Lancaster, LB A.J. Tarpley, LB Trent Murphy, K Jordan Williamson

Key Losses: QB Andrew Luck, WR Chris Owusu, WR Griff Whalen, TE Coby Fleener, OL Jonathan Martin, OL David DeCastro, DL Matthew Masifilo, LB Chase Thomas, S Delano Howell, DB Michael Thomas

In year one A.L. (After Luck) and year two A.H., David Shaw will have his work cut out for him. The North appears to be getting stronger and the top four players on his offense are departing, including the best player in the nation. Finding a replacement that can even attempt to fill the void left by Andrew Luck will be virtually impossible. There is a solid stable of backs and tight ends still to work with, but the offensive line will have to continue to develop young talents like Cameron Fleming and David Yankey.

The return of linebacker Shayne Skov should help ease Stanford into the post-Luck era. Skov is an absolute stud and will be the heart of this defense in 2012. In fact, this linebacking corps could be on the league’s best and will have to make up for losses along the line and in the secondary.

Stanford does have to face two of the top three from the south, but gets USC and Arizona at home. However, the those are the only favors the schedules affords as the Cardinal will have to visit Notre Dame as well as the top three North contenders Oregon, Cal and Washington.

5. Washington State Cougars (5 home, 4 road)

Key Returnees: QB Jeff Tuel, QB Connor Halliday, RB Ricky Galvin, RB Carl Winston, RB/PR Leon Brooks, WR Marquess Wilson, OL John Fullington, DL Travis Long, LB C.J. Mizell, LB Sekopi Kaufusi, DB Deone Bucannon, DB Tyree Toomer, DB Casey Locker, DB Damante Horton, K Andrew Furney

Key Losses: QB Marshall Lobbestael, WR Jared Karstetter, WR Isiah Barton, OL David Gonzalez, OL B.J. Guerra, DL Brandon Rankin, LB Alex Hoffman-Ellis, P Dan Wagner

Fans have to be excited about the Mike Leach era beginning in Pullman. And they won’t have to wait long for fireworks as the pieces are in place for Leach to build an incredible offense in year one. Quarterback, running back and receiver should be well-stocked for Leach’s spread attack. Facing BYU in Week 1 on the road will set the tempo for a team that is craving postseason play. If Wazzu can return from Provo with a win, it could easily start 4-0.

There is a lot of experience returning to the defense, but major improvements will have to be made to a unit that ranked 82nd nationally in total defense and 95th in scoring defense. Should this unit show growth and toughness, the Cougars could easily be bowling in 2012.

A 4-2 record is reasonable heading into the Week 7 bye week. Therefore, late season road trips to Stanford, Utah and Arizona State packaged around home games with UCLA and Washington will likely determine if the Cougs can reach a bowl for the first time in nearly a decade. Either way, with Leach in town, this team will once again be a blast to watch push for the postseason.

6. Oregon State Beavers (5 home, 4 road)

Key Returnees: QB Sean Mannion, RB Malcolm Agnew, RB Jovan Stevenson, RB Terron Ward, RB Jordan Jenkins, WR Markus Wheaton, WR Jordan Bishop, WR Brandin Cooks, DL Scott Crichton, DL Dylan Wynn, DL Rusty Fernando, LB Feti Unga, LB Michael Doctor, LB Rueben Robinson, DB Anthony Watkins, DB Jordan Poyer, K Trevor Romaine

Key Losses: WR James Rodgers, TE Joe Halahuni, OL Grant Johnson, CB Brandon Hardin, DB Cameron Collins, S Lance Mitchell, P Johnny Hekker

Mike Riley is coming off arguably his worst season in Corvallis. The good news is he found a quarterback in sophomore-to-be Sean Mannion. The freshman posted 3,328 yards last fall and will have a plethora of young, talented running backs behind him in the backfield. Wideouts Markus Wheaton, Jordan Bishop and Brandin Cooks give him plenty of depth at wideout as well. Filling holes along the line will be the key to offensive improvement.

The defense returns plenty of names with loads of playing time. However, many of those names were responsible for the Pac-12 worst rush defense and 84th total defense nationally. Riley will have to improve on his 30.1 points allowed per game if he expects to return to a bowl game.

And the schedule isn’t offering him any favors. Two non-conference games against Big Ten power Wisconsin at home and a road trip to BYU make it difficult to see a postseason trip for the Beavers. The conference road slate includes Washington, Stanford, Arizona and UCLA with Utah, Oregon, Cal, Arizona State and Wazzu visiting Corvallis.

Pac-12 South

1. USC Trojans (4 home, 5 road)

Key Returnees: QB Matt Barkley, RB Curtis McNeal, WR Robert Woods, WR Marqise Lee, TE Randall Telfer, C Khaled Holmes, DE Wes Horton, LB Dion Bailey, LB Hayes Pullard, CB Nickell Robey, S T.J. McDonald

Key Losses: LT Matt Kalil, DE Nick Perry, DT Christian Tupou, DT DaJohn Harris

2012 represents an interesting point for USC football. The Trojans are finished with their two-year postseason ban, but are about to embark on the reduction of 30 scholarships over the next three seasons. Although the scholarship losses are huge for 2013 and 2014, it won’t slow the Trojans down in 2012.

Coach Lane Kiffin got an early Christmas present when quarterback Matt Barkley decided to return for another year in Los Angeles over the NFL. The senior will be one of the frontrunners to win the 2012 Heisman Trophy and is expected to have the Trojans in the mix for the national title. Barkley has plenty of weapons to choose from on offense, as Marqise Lee and Robert Woods are two of the best receivers in college football. Sophomore tight end Randall Telfer is also an up-and-coming threat for the USC passing attack. The Trojans have to be concerned about the depth behind starting running back Curtis McNeal, particularly after Amir Carlisle’s decision to transfer to Notre Dame. The offensive line brings back four starters, but losing Matt Kalil to the NFL was a huge loss.

The Trojans struggled mightily on defense in Lane Kiffin’s first year (2010), but showed progress in 2011. The defense ranked 18th against the run and ranked third in the Pac-12 by allowing 23.6 points a game. Although this unit made some improvement last year, there are concerns heading into 2012. End Nick Perry decided to bolt for the NFL, while DaJohn Harris and Christian Tupou have finished their eligibility. Replacing three key contributors up front is going to be coordinator Monte Kiffin’s biggest task in spring practice. The freshman linebacker trio of Dion Bailey, Lamar Dawson and Hayes Pullard should be among the best in the Pac-12 next year. The secondary ranked near the bottom of the Pac-12, but returns all four starters in 2012, including All-American safety T.J. McDonald.

2. Utah Utes (4 home, 5 road)

Key Returnees: QB Jordan Wynn, RB John White, WR DeVonte Christopher, C Tevita Stevens, DT Star Lotuleiei, LB Trevor Reilly, CB Ryan Lacy, FS Eric Rowe, SS Brian Blechen

Key Losses: LT John Cullen, RT Tony Bergstrom, DE Derrick Shelby, LB Matt Martinez, LB Chaz Walker, CB Conroy Black

Despite losing quarterback Jordan Wynn to a shoulder injury early in the year, the Utes nearly won the Pac-12 South Division and a trip to Eugene to play in the conference title game. Considering Utah nearly won the South with a backup quarterback, coach Kyle Whittingham deserves a ton of credit for the 8-5 record and a Sun Bowl victory over Georgia Tech. The Utes’ coaching staff suffered a blow this offseason, as offensive coordinator Norm Chow became the head coach at Hawaii.

Wynn is expected to return for spring practice, which is good news for a Utah offense that needs a full year from him. Wynn was averaging only 181.8 passing yards per game before his injury, but he is an upgrade over backup Jon Hays. The receiving corps should be a strength for Utah next season, as DeVonte Christopher is back after catching 42 passes in 2011, while Josh Gordon is eligible after transferring from Baylor. The heart and soul of the Utes’ offense is 5-foot-8 running back and workhorse John White. The former JUCO transfer carried the offense in 2011, rushing for 1,519 yards and 15 touchdowns on 316 attempts. The offensive line returns three starters, but losing tackles John Cullen and Tony Bergstrom is a big blow for this group.

The Utes led the Pac-12 in scoring defense in 2011, allowing only 20.2 points a game and return most of their core for 2012. Nose tackle Star Lotulelei dominated opposing offensive lines on his way to earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2011 and will anchor the defense in 2012. The Utes need to replace Derrick Shelby’s production at end, but will have one of the top defensive lines in the Pac-12. Matt Martinez and Chaz Walker depart at linebacker, but Trevor Reilly could be one of the top breakout players in the conference next year. The secondary loses cornerback Conroy Black, but returns promising safeties Eric Rowe and Brian Blechen. 

3. Arizona Wildcats (5 home, 4 road)

Key Returnees: QB Matt Scott, RB Ka’Deem Carey, WR Dan Buckner, C Kyle Quinn, LB Jake Fischer, CB Shaquille Richardson, DB Tra’Mayne Bondurant, S Adam Hall

Key Losses: QB Nick Foles, RB Keola Antolin, WR Juron Criner, WR David Douglas, LB Derek Earls, LB Paul Vassallo, CB Trevin Wade, S Robert Golden

USC and Utah seem to be the clear No. 1 and No. 2 teams returning in the conference for 2012, but ranking the rest of the division is anyone’s guess at this point. The early nod goes to the Wildcats, who scored one of the top coaching hires in former Michigan and West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez.

Moving from a pass-first offense to more of a spread-rush attack will be an interesting transition for Arizona, but the cupboard isn’t completely bare. In order for Rodriguez’s offense to click, the Wildcats a big year from quarterback Matt Scott. After redshirting in 2011, this is Scott’s team for 2012. Running back Ka’Deem Carey had a solid freshman year and will become the go-to guy in the rushing attack. All five starters are back on the offensive line, but this group will be the under the microscope with the scheme changes.

If hiring Rodriguez was a grand slam, then pulling defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel away from West Virginia was a home run. Casteel will be bringing a 3-3-5 scheme to Arizona, which should fit well with the returning personnel in 2012. The Wildcats’ secondary loses cornerback Trevin Wade and safety Robert Golden, but regain the services of Adam Hall and cornerback Jonathan McKnight, who missed all or nearly all of 2011 due to injury. Two starting linebackers depart, but Arizona landed Akron transfer Brian Wagner and Jake Fischer is back from injury, which should prevent any drop-off in play from this group.

4. UCLA Bruins (5 home, 4 road)

Key Returnees: QB Kevin Prince, RB Johnathan Franklin, WR Shaq Evans, TE Joseph Fauria, DE Datone Jones, LB Patrick Larimore, LB Eric Kendricks, CB Andrew Abbott, CB Aaron Hester, S Tevin McDonald

Key Losses: RB Derrick Coleman, WR Nelson Rosario, C Kai Maiava, LB Sean Westgate

Change is in the air at UCLA. Despite claiming the Pac-12 South crown, a 6-6 regular season record cost coach Rick Neuheisel his job. The Bruins made a run at some big names, but ultimately ended up hiring former NFL head coach Jim Mora. Although Mora hasn’t coached in college since 1984, he pieced together a terrific staff, including ace recruiter Adrian Klemm and former Arizona State offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone.

The cupboard isn’t bare for Mora, but how well the Bruins adapt to the new coaching staff remains to be seen. Quarterback Kevin Prince has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career and will face competition from talented redshirt freshman Brett Hundley and senior Richard Brehaut this spring. Even if UCLA gets improved quarterback play, the rushing attack should be the strength of this team, as Johnathan Franklin and Malcolm Jones are back. Replacing receiver Nelson Rosario and developing the line will be the top priority for the offensive staff this spring.

Mora’s background is on defense, but it will be interesting to see how his NFL mentality works against the spread offenses in the Pac-12. The Bruins struggled on defense in 2011, ranking eighth or worse in the Pac-12 in scoring, rush and total defense. The good news for Mora and defensive coordinator Lou Spanos is nearly everyone returns. Expect the defensive line to get a lot of attention in spring practice, as the Bruins registered only 14 sacks in 2011.  

There’s a lot to like about UCLA next season, but there’s also a lot of uncertainty. The Bruins figure to be the biggest wild card in 2012 Pac-12 predictions this summer. 

5. Arizona State Sun Devils (4 home, 5 road)

Key Returnees: RB Cameron Marshall, WR Jamal Miles, DE Junior Onyeali, DE Davon Coleman, LB Brandon Magee, CB Osahon Irabor, CB Deveron Carr

Key Losses: QB Brock Osweiler, WR Gerell Robinson, WR Aaron Pflugrad, C Garth Gerhart, DE Jamaar Jarrett, DT Bo Moos, LB Colin Parker, LB Shelly Lyons, LB Vontaze Burfict, FS Clint Floyd, SS Eddie Elder

With a 6-2 record going into November, all signs seemed to point toward the Sun Devils clinching the Pac-12 South and earning a spot in the conference title game. What a difference a month can make. Instead of capitalizing on the opportunity, Arizona State lost its last four regular season games and was crushed 56-24 by Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl. The collapse cost coach Dennis Erickson his job, with Todd Graham coming over from Pittsburgh to replace him.

Graham wants to run an up-tempo offense, but was dealt a blow when quarterback Brock Osweiler declared for the NFL Draft. Sophomores Taylor Kelly and Mike Bercovici and redshirt freshman Michael Eubank will battle to replace Osweiler this spring. With an untested quarterback stepping in, expect the Sun Devils to lean heavily on running back Cameron Marshall next season. The backfield will also get a boost with the return of Deantre Lewis, who missed all of 2011 due to injury. Although the Sun Devils have one of the Pac-12’s top running back combinations, the offense line returns only two starters.

Just like the offense, the defense is going to be dealing with some significant personnel losses in 2012. The defensive line must replace key contributors Jamaar Jarrett and Bo Moos, while Vontaze Burfict, Oliver Aaron, Colin Parker and Shelly Lyons all depart at linebacker. Brandon Magee missed 2011 due to injury and figures to step in as one of the leaders in the linebacking corps for 2012. The secondary was hit hard by injuries last year, but could be the strength of this unit next season.

6. Colorado Buffaloes (5 home, 4 road)

Key Returnees: WR Paul Richardson, LT David Bakhtiari, DE Will Pericak, DE Chidera Uzo-Diribe, LB Doug Rippy, LB Jon Major, CB Greg Henderson, S Ray Polk

Key Losses: QB Tyler Hansen, RB Rodney Stewart, WR Toney Clemons, OG Ryan Miller, OG Ethan Adkins, DL/LB Josh Hartigan

Jon Embree knew he had a lot of work to do when he took over this job and 2012 is likely to be another struggle in the win column for the Buffaloes. Colorado closed out 2011 by winning two out of its final three games, including a 17-14 victory over Utah, which knocked the Utes out of the Pac-12 title game.

Although Embree and his staff did a good job keeping the Buffaloes on track despite a 1-9 start, the bigger test will start in 2012. The offense will be replacing its best two players in quarterback Tyler Hansen and running back Rodney Stewart. Nick Hirschman was expected to push Texas transfer Connor Wood for the starting quarterback job this offseason, but he will miss spring practice due to a foot injury. Replacing Stewart looks to be a wide-open battle, as Tony Jones, Josh Ford and Malcolm Creer all received carries in 2011. Left tackle David Bakhtiari could be one of the top linemen in the Pac-12 next year, but the line has to replace guards Ethan Adkins and Ryan Miller. Paul Richardson should be one of the top receivers in the Pac-12 next year, but needs Hirschman or Wood to quickly settle into the starting role.

The Buffaloes finished 2011 ranked 100th or worse in total and scoring defense, while ranking eighth in the Pac-12 against the pass. Needless to say, this side of the ball has some work to do in 2012. There are pieces to build around, especially in the front seven, where Will Pericak and Chidera Uzo-Diribe will anchor the defensive line. Linebackers Doug Rippy and Jon Major could contend for all-conference honors next season. The secondary will return mostly intact, which includes the return of Greg Henderson, a freshman who started 12 games.

2012 Pac-12 Championship Game: USC vs. Oregon

Washington's offseason coaching staff moves have helped to close the gap on Oregon, but the Ducks are still the team to beat in the North next season. USC and Oregon will meet during the regular season in Los Angeles and should meet a second time in the Coliseum for the conference title game. Expect this to be a high-scoring affair, but the Trojans get the early edge, especially with a potential trip to the national title on the line. 

Related 2012 Content:

Very Early Big Ten 2012 Preseason Predictions
Very Early Big East 2012 Preseason Predictions

Very Early Big 12 2012 Preseason Predictions

2012 Heisman Trophy Candidates

Very Early Preseason 2012 College Football Top 25

Athlon Roundtable: Who are the BCS National Title Contenders in 2012?

What To Expect from the Crimson Tide in 2012?

What To Expect from the LSU Tigers in 2012?

2012 SEC Schedule Analysis

Three Teams on the Rise in 2012

Three Teams Sliding Back in 2012

Top Non-Conference Games to Watch in 2012

Teaser:
<p> Athlon releases its very early predictions for the Pac-12 for 2012.&nbsp;</p>
Post date: Thursday, January 19, 2012 - 06:00
All taxonomy terms: AFC, AFC South, Indianapolis Colts, News
Path: /news/11-candidates-replace-jim-caldwell-colts-coach
Body:

by Mark Ross

Regardless of whether either Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck or both will be on the Indianapolis Colts’ roster next season, this much is clear — the head coach won’t be Jim Caldwell. Caldwell was fired earlier today, joining former Colts vice chairman Bill Polian and his son, Chris, who was general manager, as a casualty of a disastrous 2-14 season.

Overall, Caldwell was 26-22 in three seasons as the Colts’ head coach, taking over the reigns when Tony Dungy retired in January 2009, but a winning record and 10 years with the team wasn’t enough to save his job. Owner Jim Irsay hired Ryan Grigson to be the new general manager last week, and just as may be the case at quarterback, the Colts will be under new leadership next season.

So just who will be calling the shots for the Colts next year? Here are some names to consider:

Pete Carmichael, New Orleans Saints offensive coordinator — long-time assistant coach with offensive pedigree, Carmichael’s spent the last six seasons working with Drew Brees. That alone makes him a solid candidate to either direct Manning’s comeback attempt or tutor the Colts’ next franchise quarterback, presumably Luck.

Clyde Christensen, Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator — with the departure of Caldwell, who began his tenure with the Colts as quarterbacks coach in 2002, Christensen is one of the longest tenured coaches remaining on staff and the one who knows the offense the best. With the questions surrounding the quarterback position, Irsay could turn to Christensen for continuity, or he could be looking to wipe the slate clean and go in a completely different direction.

Tom Clements, Green Bay Packers quarterbacks coach — like Carmichael, Clements has spent the past six seasons working with two elite quarterbacks of his own, first Brett Favre and currently, Aaron Rodgers. Clements also spent two seasons (2004-05) as the Bills’ offensive coordinator, so the “jump” to head coach wouldn’t be that much of a stretch.

Bill Cowher, current CBS Sports commentator — Cowher’s name has been mentioned with other openings and every time he has publicly stated he’s content in his current working situation. Still, until he shuts the door completely, you have to at least throw his name out there, don’t you?

Jack Del Rio, former Jacksonville Jaguars head coach — Del Rio is certainly familiar with the division and the Colts’ roster, and if anything, he would bring a lot more “personality” to the sideline than Caldwell ever displayed.

Tony Dungy, current NBC Sports commentator — I know, I know – been there, done that. But if you’re Irsay, don’t you at least have to reach out to Dungy to see if there’s any interest in a second tour of duty? I don’t think Colts fans would mind if he did.

Jon Gruden, ESPN “Monday Night Football” analyst — like Cowher, Gruden has expressed in the past he’s happy in his current situation. However, “Chucky” also has professed in the past his respect and admiration for Manning, and to a degree, Luck, so would this be the opportunity to lure him back to the sidelines?

Hue Jackson, former Oakland Raiders head coach — offensive-minded and highly respected, many think Jackson got a raw deal in Oakland. Would Irsay be willing to give him a second chance?

Mike McCoy, Denver Broncos offensive coordinator — one of the hot names in the NFL coaching search circles these days thanks to his work with Tim Tebow. How curious is Irsay in seeing what McCoy could do with Manning and/or Luck, both of which are more “polished” passers.

Marty Mornhinweg, offensive coordinator Philadelphia Eagles — former Lions head coach, Mornhinweg also has ties to new Colts GM Grigson, who came from the Eagles organization. Could second time be the charm?

Jim Tressel, Indianapolis Colts consultant — Tressel may seem like the longest shot on the list, but with Irsay calling the shots, I don’t think you can rule it out. He has head coaching experience, albeit on the college level, but really it comes down to one thing. Who doesn’t want to see the sweater vest (Ditka anyone?) return to the NFL? 

Teaser:
<p> Regardless of whether either Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck or both will be on the Indianapolis Colts’ roster next season, this much is clear — the head coach won’t be Jim Caldwell. Caldwell was fired earlier today, joining former Colts vice chairman Bill Polian and his son, Chris, who was general manager, as a casualty of a disastrous 2-14 season</p>
Post date: Tuesday, January 17, 2012 - 14:37
Path: /college-football/very-early-2012-big-12-predictions
Body:

By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

Very Early 2012 Big 12 Predictions

1. Oklahoma

Key Returnees: QB Landry Jones, RB Roy Finch, FB Trey Millard, RB Dominique Whaley, WR Kenny Stills, LG Gabe Ikard, RG Tyler Evans, LB Corey Nelson, LB Tom Wort, CB Demontre Hurst, S/LB Tony Jefferson, K Michael Hunnicutt

Key Losses: WR Ryan Broyles, LT Donald Stephenson, DE Frank Alexander, DE Ronnell Lewis, LB Travis Lewis, CB Jamell Fleming

The Sooners began 2011 as one of the favorites to win the national title, but closed with losses in two out of their final four games and instead of playing in a BCS bowl, they finished with a trip to the Insight Bowl against Iowa. Although Oklahoma was a disappointment last season, this team still looks like the favorite to win the Big 12 in 2012.

When receiver Ryan Broyles went down with a season-ending knee injury against Texas A&M, Oklahoma’s offense and quarterback Landry Jones was never the same. Jones threw only one touchdown pass in his final four games, while tossing six interceptions. With more time to prepare for life without Broyles, the Sooners should have more answers on offense. Kenny Stills will become the go-to target after catching 61 passes for 849 yards and eight touchdowns in 2011. However, the Sooners need more production from Jaz Reynolds, Kameel Jackson and Trey Franks next year. Trey Metoyer did not qualify as a freshman last year, but is a name to watch in the receiving corps. The offense will benefit from a full year from running back Dominique Whaley, along with four starters returning on one of the top offensive lines in college football.

Oklahoma led the Big 12 in scoring defense, but had its share of struggles last year. Coach Bob Stoops hopes he can rectify some of the question marks in the secondaryby adding his brother Mike Stoops from Arizona to the defensive staff. In addition to shoring up some of the issues from the defensive backfield, the Sooners have to replace ends Frank Alexander and Ronnell Lewis, who combined for 14 sacks in 2011. Although the linebacker corps will miss Travis Lewis’ leadership, Corey Nelson and Tom Wort should both challenge for All-Big 12 honors in 2012.  

2. Texas

Key Returnees: QB David Ash, RB Malcolm Brown, WR Jaxon Shipley, RG Mason Walters, DE Alex Okafor, DE Jackson Jeffcoat, LB Jordan Hicks, CB Carrington Byndom, CB Quandre Diggs, DB Kenny Vaccaro

Key Losses: RB/RS Fozzy Whittaker, LG David Snow, DT Kheeston Randall, LB Keenan Robinson, LB Emmanuel Acho, S Blake Gideon

Are the Longhorns back? There’s enough talent to contend for the Big 12 title, but whether or not it is ready to win the conference crown is uncertain. After finishing 5-7 in 2010, Texas made steady improvement to finish 8-5 with a Holiday Bowl win over California in 2011. While the Longhorns have a ways to go, there’s enough talent to expect another one or two victory jump next season.

David Ash wrestled control of the starting quarterback spot away from Case McCoy in the Holiday Bowl, but needs to continue to improve for the Longhorns to challenge Oklahoma for the conference title. Even with better quarterback play, the offense will continue to lean on the rushing attack. Malcolm Brown, Joe Bergeron and incoming freshman Johnathan Gray will form one of top running back trios in the Big 12 next season. The offensive line must replace only one starter, with guard Mason Walters - honorable mention All-Big 12 lineman in 2011 - anchoring the group.

In Manny Diaz’s first season as the coordinator, Texas finished No. 1 in the Big 12 in rushing, total and pass defense. And this group could be even better in 2012, especially with Jackson Jeffcoat, Jordan Hicks, Quandre Diggs and Carrington Byndom going through another offseason. Replacing linebackers Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho will be the biggest question mark for this unit.

3. West Virginia

Key Returnees: QB Geno Smith, RB Dustin Garrison, WR Tavon Austin, WR Stedman Bailey, C Joe Madsen, NT Jorge Wright, LB Jewone Snow, CB Pat Miller, S Terence Garvin, S Darwin Cook

Key Losses: LT Don Barclay, DE Bruce Irvin, DT Julian Miller, LB Najee Goode, CB Keith Tandy, S Eain Smith

Where will the Mountaineers play next season? That’s the big question surrounding the Big East and Big 12 early 2012 predictions. With West Virginia’s 2012 conference home up in the air, Athlon will include the team in both articles (Big 12 and Big East) until the court case is sorted out.

If the Mountaineers are in the Big East, they will be the preseason favorite once again. Quarterback Geno Smith and one of the nation’s top receiving corps will anchor a high-scoring offense. The biggest question mark facing West Virginia’s offense next year will be the offensive line, which loses tackle Don Barclay and struggled to open up rushing lanes in 2011.

West Virginia’s defense was dealt a huge blow when defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel decided to join Rich Rodriguez at Arizona. Casteel was one of the nation’s most underrated defensive minds and will be missed next year in Morgantown. Replacing defensive linemen Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller will be the top priority for coach Dana Holgorsen and the new defensive coordinator, but overall, this unit should suffer much of a drop-off next season.

4.  TCU

Key Returnees: QB Casey Pachall, RB Ed Wesley, RB Matthew Tucker, RB Waymon James, WR Josh Boyce, WR Skye Dawson, RG Blaize Foltz, DE Stansly Maponga, DT D.J. Yendrey, LB Tanner Brock, LB Kenny Cain, CB Jason Verrett

Key Losses: LT Jeff Olson, OG Kyle Dooley, LB Tank Carder, CB/KR Greg McCoy, S Tekerrein Cuba, S Johnny Fobbs, K Ross Evans

The Horned Frogs could be a rude newcomer to the Big 12 party next season. Despite having only six returning starters in 2011, TCU finished 11-2 and won the Mountain West title in its final year in the conference. Moving to the Big 12 is definitely a step up in competition, but TCU is more than ready for the challenge, and could be a surprise contender for the conference crown next year.

Quarterback Casey Pachall was terrific in his first year as the starter, finishing with 2,921 yards and 25 touchdowns to only seven picks. Pachall has plenty of weapons to choose from in the passing game, and Josh Boyce or Skye Dawson could contend for All-Big 12 honors next year. Running backs Ed Wesley, Waymon James and Matthew Tucker combined for 2,303 yards in 2011 and all three will return in 2012. Losing Jeff Olson and Kyle Dooley on the left side of the offensive line is a setback, but center James Fry and guard Blaize Foltz is a good duo to build around.

Defense is coach Gary Patterson’s specialty and this unit should be stout in 2012. End Stansly Maponga recorded 8.5 sacks in 2011 and will be one of the Big 12’s top pass rushers next season. Linebacker Tank Carder will be tough to replace, but the defense gets a boost from the return of Tanner Brock, who missed nearly all of 2011 due to injury. The secondary is the biggest question mark on this unit, as three starters need to be replaced after finishing 60th nationally against the pass. 

5. Kansas State

Key Returnees: QB Collin Klein, RB John Hubert, WR Chris Harper, WR Tyler Lockett, C B.J. Finney, DE Meshak Williams, LB Arthur Brown, LB Tre Walker, CB Nigel Malone, S Ty Zimmerman

Key Losses: LT Zach Hanson, RG Colten Freeze, RT Clyde Aufner, DE Jordan Voelker, NT Ray Kibble, LB Emmanuel Lamur, CB David Garrett, S Tysyn Hartman

The Wildcats were one of college football’s biggest surprises in 2011. After being picked near the bottom of the conference in the preseason, Kansas State finished with a 10-3 record and second place in the Big 12 standings. The Wildcats won’t sneak up on anyone next season, but there’s a lot to like about this team in 2012.

Quarterback Collin Klein carried the offense, averaging 235 total yards per game, while reaching the endzone 40 times. The senior will be one of the top quarterbacks in the Big 12 next season, but the rest of the offense needs to step up around him. Running back John Hubert returns after rushing for 970 yards and three scores in 2011, while the receiving corps should be a strength with the return of Chris Harper, Tyler Lockett and Tramaine Thompson. The offensive line was one of the best in the conference in 2011, but must replace three starters, including All-Big 12 selections in Clyde Aufner and Zach Hanson.

The defense was a major question mark going into this year, but the Wildcats showed progress on this side of the ball, finishing 72nd in total defense and 68th in points allowed. Miami transfer Arthur Brown earned Big 12 Newcomer of the Year honors after leading the team with 101 tackles and picking up two sacks and one interception. Brown will anchor the defense next season, while end Meshak Williams is back after leading the team with seven sacks. Replacing nose tackle Ray Kibble and cornerback David Garrett will be the top priority for the defensive staff in spring practice.

6. Oklahoma State

Key Returnees: RB Joseph Randle, WR Tracy Moore, WR Josh Stewart, RG Lane Taylor, DT Nigel Nicholas, LB Alex Elkins, LB Shaun Lewis, LB Caleb Lavey, CB Brodrick Brown, K/P Quinn Sharp

Key Losses: QB Brandon Weeden, WR Justin Blackmon, WR Hubert Anyiam, WR Josh Cooper, LT Levy Adcock, LG Nick Martinez, C Grant Garner, DE Jamie Blatnick, DE Richetti Jones, LB James Thomas, S Markelle Martin

With quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon departing, it’s hard to see the Cowboys replicating the 2011 win total (11) and Fiesta Bowl victory over Stanford. However, Oklahoma State isn’t going to completely fall off the map, as it should be a contender for a spot in many preseason top 25 lists.

The battle to replace Weeden is wide open, with Clint Chelf expected to have the inside track. However J.W. Walsh and incoming freshman Wes Lunt will have a shot to unseat Chelf in spring practice. With Blackmon and Cooper departing in the receiving corps, the Cowboys will need Josh Stewart and Tracy Moore to become the go-to threats in the passing game. Running backs Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith should get more work in 2012, but the offensive line must replace three starters, including All-American tackle Levy Adcock.

The Cowboys gave up a lot of yards on defense (456.8 per game), but made up for that by forcing 44 turnovers. Coordinator Bill Young will have some key holes to fill in the preseason, especially on the line where Oklahoma State must replace ends Jamie Blatnick and Richetti Jones. The duo combined for 12 sacks in 2011. The linebacking corps will be a strength with Alex Elkins, Caleb Lavey and Shaun Lewis returning. The Cowboys ranked 107th nationally in pass defense, but allowed only 15 touchdowns and picked off 24 passes. The secondary will miss safety Markelle Martin's punishing hits, but three starters return to this group in 2012.  

7. Texas Tech

Key Returnees: QB Seth Doege, RB Eric Stephens, WR Alex Torres, WR Darrin Moore, WR Eric Ward, LT LaAdrian Waddle, DT Kerry Hyder, LB Daniel Cobb, S Terrance Bullitt, S Cody Davis, S D.J. Johnson

Key Losses: WR Tramain Swindall, LG Lonnie Edwards, C Justin Keown, DE Scott Smith

After an 8-5 season and a top 25 recruiting class, all signs pointed to another big year for the Red Raiders in 2011. Not so fast. After pulling one of the top upsets of the season against Oklahoma, Texas Tech lost its final five games to finish with its first losing season (5-7) since 1992.

There’s a lot to like about the Red Raiders in 2012, starting with an offense that averaged 33.8 points a game in 2011. Quarterback Seth Doege threw for 4,004 yards and 28 scores this season and should be better with another offseason of work under his belt. The receiving corps is solid and will benefit from a full season from Darrin Moore. Running back Eric Stephens suffered a season-ending knee injury in early October and still finished as the team’s leading rusher. Assuming Stephens returns to full strength, it will be a significant boost to an offense that ranked as the worst rushing team in the Big 12.

While the offense has never been a question in Lubbock for the last decade, the defense always seems to be struggling to find the right answers. The Red Raiders didn't have many positives on defense last season, ranking last in the Big 12 in rush defense and ninth in scoring defense in 2011. Chad Glasgow was canned as the team’s coordinator after one season, allowing coach Tommy Tuberville to bring aboard Art Kaufman – an old friend from his days at Ole Miss – as the Red Raiders’ new defensive coordinator. The good news for Texas Tech? Nearly everyone is back on defense. The bad news? The defense was awful last year and may not be much better in 2012.  

8. Baylor

Key Returnees: RB Jarred Salubi, WR Terrance Williams, WR Tevin Reese, LT Cyril Richardson, LG Cameron Kaufhold, DE Tevin Elliott, LB Rodney Chadwick, LB/NB Ahmad Dixon, CB K.J. Morton, S Mike Hicks, S Sam Holl

Key Losses: QB Robert Griffin, RB Terrance Ganaway, WR Kendall Wright, C Philip Blake, RG Robert T. Griffin, NT Nicolas Jean-Baptiste, LB Elliot Coffey

Without quarterback Robert Griffin and running back Terrance Ganaway gone, there’s no question Baylor is going to take a step back next season. However, these Bears aren’t going to slip back to being a doormat in the Big 12. Coach Art Briles has recruited well, and the Bears landed a key transfer in running back Lache Seastrunk that will be able to contribute next season.

All eyes will be on the quarterback battle in the spring, with the likely frontrunner being Nick Florence. The senior isn’t short on experience, starting seven games in 2009 when Griffin was sidelined with a knee injury, but does not add much to the offense as a runner. Florence is expected to be pushed for playing time by Bryce Petty. Losing receiver Kendall Wright is a big blow for the passing game, but Terrance Williams, Tevin Reese and Lanear Sampson combined to catch 152 passes in 2011. Cyril Richardson, Cameron Kaufhold and Ivory Wade return to form a solid trio to build on the offensive line.

With the offense expected to take a step back in 2012, the defense needs to show progress. Coordinator Phil Bennett had a rough first season at Baylor, with the Bears finishing 116th nationally in total defense. Although the Bears took their lumps on this side of the ball, eight starters are back in 2012, including linebacker/defensive back Ahmad Dixon and safety Sam Holl. 

9. Iowa State

Key Returnees: QB Jared Barnett, QB Steele Jantz, RB James White, WR Josh Lenz, DT Jake McDonough, LB A.J. Klein, LB Jake Knott, CB Jeremy Reeves, FS Jacques Washington

Key Losses: LT Kelechi Osemele, RG Hayworth Hicks, DE Jake Lattimer, DE Patrick Neal, LB Matt Tau’fo’ou, CB Leonard Johnson, SS Ter’Ran Benton

No matter where you slot the Cyclones in the preseason picks, it always seems like you need to move them up a spot or two because of coach Paul Rhoads. In three years in Ames, Iowa State has recorded an 18-20 record with two bowl experiences. The Big 12 isn’t getting any easier, but the Cyclones will be a threat once again to finish with six or seven wins, along with making another bowl trip.

Steele Jantz and Jared Barnett both received playing time at quarterback for Iowa State in 2011 and will battle for the starting spot in the spring. Both players had their moments, but neither separated themselves as the clear No. 1 passer. Improved quarterback play could be the difference between a 5-7 or 7-5 season in 2012. Running back James White rushed for 743 yards and eight touchdowns, while garnering honorable mention All-Big 12 honors in 2011. Darius Reynolds departs after leading the team with 43 receptions, but Josh Lenz, Aaron Horne and Albert Gary all caught over 20 passes this season. Left tackle Kelechi Osemele was one of the nation’s most underrated linemen the last few seasons and will be missed.

The Cyclones ranked sixth in the Big 12 in total defense and third in pass defense, and this unit figures to be solid in 2012. Jake Knott and A.J. Klein form one of the top linebacker combinations in the nation, while Jeremy Reeves and Jacques Washington are a good starting point to build in the secondary. The defensive line loses three starters, and coordinator Wally Burnham must find a replacement for cornerback Leonard Johnson.

10. Kansas

Key Returnees: RB James Sims, WR D.J. Beshears, WR JaCorey Shepherd, RG Duane Zlatnik, RT Tanner Hawkinson, DE/LB Toben Opurum, LB Darius Willis, LB Tunde Bakare, SS Bradley McDougald

Key Losses: RB Darrian Miller, TE Tim Biere, OG Jeremiah Hatch, LT Jeff Spikes, LB Steven Johnson, CB Isiah Barfield, S Keeston Terry

Turner Gill brought a lot of hope to Kansas after turning around Buffalo, but he was fired after compiling a 5-19 record in just two seasons. The Jayhawks raised plenty of eyebrows around the nation with their hire of former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis was hired as Gill's replacement. Weis is a solid offensive mind, but compiled a 35-27 record in five seasons at Notre Dame, with 19 of those victories coming in the first two years.

Weis’ offensive insight will be put to the test immediately. The Jayhawks ranked last in the Big 12 in scoring and total offense and managed just 167.4 yards per game through the air. One of Weis’ biggest recruits this year was landing Notre Dame transfer Dayne Crist, who is eligible to play immediately. Crist is an upgrade over former starting quarterback Jordan Webb, but won’t be enough to turn Kansas into a Big 12 title contender. The rushing attack was a bright spot last season and James Sims is back after rushing for 727 yards and nine scores.

Struggling to move the ball through the air wasn’t Kansas’ biggest issue last season. The defense was historically bad, finishing 120th (last) nationally in scoring and total defense, while ranking 117th against the run. Weis hired longtime NFL assistant Dave Campo to coordinate his defense, but he hasn’t coached in college since 1988. The Jayhawks do have some nice pieces returning on defense, including end/linebacker Toben Opurum, safety Bradley McDougald and linebacker Darius Willis.

Related 2012 Content:

2012 Very Early Big East Predictions

2012 Heisman Trophy Candidates
Very Early Preseason 2012 College Football Top 25

Athlon Roundtable: Who are the BCS National Title Contenders in 2012?

What To Expect from the Crimson Tide in 2012?

What To Expect from the LSU Tigers in 2012?

2012 SEC Schedule Analysis

Three Teams on the Rise in 2012

Three Teams Sliding Back in 2012

Top Non-Conference Games to Watch in 2012

Teaser:
<p> Athlon continues its countdown to spring practice with a look at the very early Big 12 predictions for 2012.&nbsp;</p>
Post date: Tuesday, January 17, 2012 - 07:52
Path: /college-football/very-early-2012-big-east-predictions
Body:

By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

(Published January 16th, 2012)

Very Early 2012 Big East Predictions

1. West Virginia

Key Returnees: QB Geno Smith, RB Dustin Garrison, WR Tavon Austin, WR Stedman Bailey, C Joe Madsen, NT Jorge Wright, LB Jewone Snow, CB Pat Miller, S Terence Garvin, S Darwin Cook

Key Losses: LT Don Barclay, DE Bruce Irvin, DT Julian Miller, LB Najee Goode, CB Keith Tandy, S Eain Smith

Where will the Mountaineers play next season? That’s the big question surrounding the Big East and Big 12 early 2012 predictions. With West Virginia’s 2012 conference home up in the air, Athlon will include the Mountaineers in both articles (Big 12 and Big East) until the court case is sorted out.

If the Mountaineers are in the Big East, they will be the preseason favorite once again. Quarterback Geno Smith and one of the nation’s top receiving corps will anchor a high-scoring offense. The biggest question mark facing West Virginia’s offense next year will be the offensive line, which loses tackle Don Barclay and struggled to open up rushing lanes in 2011. Running back Dustin Garrison suffered a significant knee injury in Orange Bowl practices, leaving his status for spring practice as uncertain. 

West Virginia’s defense was dealt a huge blow when defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel decided to join Rich Rodriguez at Arizona. Casteel was one of the nation’s most underrated defensive minds and will be missed next year in Morgantown. Replacing defensive linemen Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller will be the top priority for coach Dana Holgorsen and the new defensive coordinator, but overall, this unit should suffer much of a drop-off next season.

2. Louisville

Key Returnees: QB Teddy Bridgewater, C Mario Benavides, DE B.J. Dubose, DT Roy Philon, LB Preston Brown, CB Adrian Bushell, S Hakeem Smith, S Calvin Pryor

Key Losses: RB Victor Anderson, WR Josh Bellamy, TE Josh Chichester, DE Greg Scruggs, LB Dexter Heyman

The Cardinals had some heavy losses to replace coming into 2011, but even with several young players stepping into key roles, they shared the Big East title with West Virginia and Cincinnati. Coach Charlie Strong is bringing in another solid recruiting class, which will only add to the talent coming back to Louisville in 2012.

Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater took his lumps (12 interceptions) this season, but finished with 2,129 yards and 14 passing scores. Bridgewater will be one of the top passers in the Big East next year, especially if a young group of receivers continues to improve. The offensive line has to be better next year, but will benefit from a full year from center Mario Benavides, who missed the first three games of 2011 due to knee surgery. The rushing attack ranked 93rd nationally, and must show improvement if the Cardinals want to win the conference in 2012. 

Strong’s background on defense has helped Louisville rank 18th nationally in points allowed in each of the last two seasons. And the 2012 defense could be even better, especially with cornerback Adrian Bushell and safety Hakeem Smith returning. The Cardinals also have a handful of promising freshmen and sophomores on the depth chart that will be ready for an increased role next year.

3. Rutgers

Key Returnees: RB Jawan Jamison, WR Mark Harrison, WR Quron Pratt, RT Kaleb Johnson, DT Scott Vallone, LB Khaseem Greene, LB Steve Beauharnais, CB Logan Ryan, SS Duron Harmon

Key Losses: WR Mohamed Sanu, LG Desmond Wynn, RG Art Forst, DE Manny Abreu, DT Justin Francis, FS David Rowe

Coming off a 4-8 record, the Scarlet Knights were picked near the bottom of the Big East in most 2011 preseason polls. However, coach Greg Schiano turned things around, leading Rutgers to its fifth season of at least eight wins in the last six years. Quarterbacks Chas Dodd and Gary Nova finished 2011 with very little clarity as to who will be the starter when spring practice begins. The passing game was dealt a blow when receiver Mohamed Sanu declared for the NFL Draft. Running back Jawan Jamison had a solid freshman campaign, posting 897 yards and nine touchdowns. Jamison, Jeremy Deering and Savon Huggins will lead the rushing attack next year, which will likely be the focal point of the offense with uncertainty involving the passing attack. The offensive line showed some improvement from 2010, but still needs work going into next year.

Rutgers led the Big East in total, scoring and pass defense this season, and the defense should be near the top of the conference in 2012. Losing Manny Abreu and Justin Francis is a blow to the defensive line, but tackle Scott Vallone will be one of the top linemen in the Big East next year. Linebacker Khaseem Greene suffered an ankle injury in the Pinstripe Bowl win over Iowa State and may miss a portion of spring practice. Even if Greene is limited in the spring, it shouldn’t affect his availability for the 2012 season. All four starters are back in the secondary, including All-Big East returnees in safety Duron Harmon and cornerback Logan Ryan.

4. South Florida

Key Returnees: QB B.J. Daniels, WR Sterling Griffin, DE Ryne Giddins, LB DeDe Lattmore, LB Mike Lanaris, LB Sam Barrington, CB Kayvon Webster, S Jon Lejiste

Key Losses: RB Darrell Scott, LG Jeremiah Warren, C Chaz Hine, DT Keith McCaskill, CB Quenton Washington, S Jerrell Young

The Bulls appeared to be a contender for the Big East crown through the first month of the season, posting a 4-0 record with a win over Notre Dame in the opener. However, South Florida failed to capitalize off that early momentum, losing seven out of its last eight games to miss the postseason for the first time since 2004.

Problems on both sides of the ball contributed to the 5-7 record, but South Florida isn’t too far off contending for a Big East title. Six of the seven losses were by 10 points or less, including three that were decided by a field goal. Quarterback B.J. Daniels is back next season and threw for a career-high 2,604 yards in 2011. Running back Darrell Scott decided to bolt for the NFL, but Demetris Murray returns after rushing for 503 yards in 2011. The receiving corps will get a boost from a full year from Sterling Griffin, who missed four games due to an ankle injury in late October.

Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder departed for Texas A&M, but the defense figures to be one of the best in the Big East next year. Defensive end Ryne Giddins returns after registering 5.5 sacks and picking up second-team All-Big East honors in 2011. All three starters return in the linebacking corps, including promising sophomore DeDe Lattimore. Two starters must be replaced in the secondary, but strong safety Jon Lejiste and cornerback Kayvon Webster are solid building blocks for the new coordinator.

5. Cincinnati

Key Returnees: QB Munchie Legaux, WR Kenbrell Thompkins, WR Anthony McClung, DE Walter Stewart, DE Dan Giordano, LB Maalik Bomar, CB Cameron Cheatham, SS Drew Frey

Key Losses: QB Zach Collaros, RB Isaiah Pead, WR DJ Woods, LT Alex Hoffman, OG Randy Martinez, DT Derek Wolfe, DT John Hughes, LB JK Schaffer, FS Wesley Richardson

Cincinnati’s Butch Jones earned the Big East’s 2011 Coach of the Year honor and he will certainly have his work cut out for him in 2012. The Bearcats will be replacing several key contributors, but don’t expect this team to slip too far in the standings.

Quarterback Zach Collaros and running back Isaiah Pead have finished their eligibility, leaving a gaping hole in the backfield. Quarterback Munchie Legaux started three games this year, but needs work as a passer. George Winn, Jameel Poteat and Ralph David Abernathy IV will all likely see carries as the Bearcats attempt to replace Pead’s production. Three starters depart on the offensive line, including All-Big East selections in guard Randy Martinez and tackle Alex Hoffman. Although Cincinnati suffered some key losses on offense, if Legaux shows improvement as a passer, this offense should remain in the top half of the Big East.

A big reason for Cincinnati’s turnaround from 4-8 in 2010 to co-Big East champs was the play of the defense. The Bearcats finished second nationally with 3.5 sacks per game and forced 33 turnovers. This unit suffers some key losses, but there is enough returning to expect similar production next year. Ends Dan Giordano and Walter Stewart combined for 11 sacks this season and will anchor the line in 2012. Replacing linebacker JK Schaffer and tackle Derek Wolfe will be the toughest assignment for the defensive staff.

6. Pittsburgh

Key Returnees: QB Tino Sunseri, RB Ray Graham, WR Devin Street, WR Mike Shanahan, DE Aaron Donald, CB K’Waun Williams, S Jared Holley, S Andrew Taglianetti

Key Losses: RG Lucas Nix, DE Brandon Lindsey, DT Chas Alecxih, LB Max Gruder, CB Antwuan Reed

Todd Graham came to Pittsburgh with many promises, including the installation of a high-octane offense. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, Graham never really fulfilled the promises from his opening press conference and decided to bolt for Arizona State after one year. Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst was picked as Pittsburgh’s next coach and one that the administration hopes can stick around and provide some much-needed stability.

Chryst’s specialty is on offense, which is where the Panthers need a lot of work in 2012. Quarterback Tino Sunseri had a mediocre 2011 season, throwing 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Although Sunseri’s play wasn’t great, he didn’t have a lot of help from an offensive line that allowed 64 sacks. Running back Ray Graham also suffered a season-ending knee injury in late October, which was another setback for an offense looking for playmakers. Sunseri and Graham both return for 2012, along with receivers Devin Street and Mike Shanahan. Chryst’s pro-style offense should be a better fit for Sunseri and the offensive line, but whether or not that translates to wins remains to be seen.

Pittsburgh finished 2011 ranked 35th nationally in total defense, but must replace a handful of key contributors. The Panthers lose linemen Chas Alecxih and Myles Caragein, while linebacker Brandon Lindsey also departs. With three starters returning, the secondary should be improved, but this unit will have more pressure on its shoulders, especially with the defense losing some of its top pass rushers.

The Panthers aren’t short on talent, but adapting to their third coach in three seasons won’t be an easy transition. Considering what’s coming back and the coaching situation, Pittsburgh will be the toughest team to peg in the Big East preseason predictions.

7. Syracuse

Key Returnees: QB Ryan Nassib, WR Alec Lemon, OT Justin Pugh, LB Marquis Spruill, LB Dan Vaughan, LB Dyshawn Davis, SS Shamarko Thomas

Key Losses: RB Antwon Bailey, WR Van Chew, TE Nick Provo, RG Andrew Tiller, DE Chandler Jones

After posting eight wins and a Pinstripe Bowl victory over Kansas State, Syracuse seemed poised to contend for the Big East title in 2011. Instead of taking another step forward under coach Doug Marrone, the Orange slid back to the cellar of the Big East with a disappointing 5-7 record.

If Syracuse wants to get back to a bowl game in 2012, there will be several question marks to answer in preseason practices. Quarterback Ryan Nassib is a good building block on offense, but the team loses running back Antwon Bailey and All-Big East guard Andrew Tiller.

The Orange ranked last in the Big East in total and scoring defense, while finishing sixth in rush and pass defense. Although this unit will have a handful of returning starters, the departure of end Chandler Jones to the NFL Draft is a significant loss. Marquis Spruill, Dyshawn Davis and Dan Vaughan form a solid trio at linebacker, while the secondary figures to be improved with nearly everyone coming back. Developing a pass rush and shoring up the run defense is going to be critical to Syracuse’s defensive success in 2012.

8. Connecticut

Key Returnees: RB Lyle McCombs, TE Ryan Griffin, DE Jesse Joseph, DE Trevardo Williams, LB Sio Moore, LB Jory Johnson, LB Yawin Smallwood, CB Dwayne Gratz, CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson, S Jerome Junior, S Byron Jones

Key Losses: WR Kashif Moore, WR Isiah Moore, LT Mike Ryan, C Moe Petrus, DT Kendall Reyes, DT Twyon Martin, K Dave Teggart

After posting four consecutive seasons of at least eight wins, Connecticut suffered its first losing since 2006 last year. If the Huskies want to get back into the postseason or the top half of the Big East standings, getting improved quarterback play is a must. Johnny McEntee finished with 2,110 yards and 12 passing scores, but missed a lot of throws. Coach Paul Pasqualoni is attempting to fix this area by recruiting JUCO prospect Chandler Whitmer and freshman Casey Cochran. The rushing attack will remain strong with Lyle McCombs returning, and the receiving corps will get a boost from Clemson transfer Bryce McNeal.

Defense has been a strength in recent years for the Huskies and this group should remain solid in 2012. Replacing tackles Kendall Reyes and Twyon Martin will be priority No. 1 for coordinator Don Brown, but the linebacking corps should be among the best in the Big East, while a healthy year from Blidi Wreh-Wilson at cornerback should boost the pass defense.

Considering the Huskies could struggle to score points, losing All-Big East kicker Dave Teggart is a big blow to the special teams.

Related 2012 Content:

2012 Heisman Trophy Candidates

Very Early Preseason 2012 College Football Top 25

Athlon Roundtable: Who are the BCS National Title Contenders in 2012?

What To Expect from the Crimson Tide in 2012?

What To Expect from the LSU Tigers in 2012?

2012 SEC Schedule Analysis

Three Teams on the Rise in 2012

Three Teams Sliding Back in 2012

Top Non-Conference Games to Watch in 2012

Teaser:
<p> Athlon releases its very early predictions for the Big East Conference for 2012.&nbsp;</p>
Post date: Monday, January 16, 2012 - 07:06
All taxonomy terms: ACC, College Football, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac 12, SEC, Big East
Path: /college-football/college-football-2012-who-are-early-favorites
Body:

It's never too early to start thinking about 2012. Alabama claimed its second national title in three years by dominating LSU 21-0 on Monday night, and both teams are expected to be back in the national title mix next season. 

Athlon's official preseason top 25 won't come out until May, but here's a very early top 25 for 2012.

Who are the early favorites to win college football's national title in 2012?

Braden Gall (@BradenGall
Depending on a large group of redshirt sophomore defenders for LSU returning or turning pro, it will be hard not to pick the Bayou Bengals atop the standings in the preseason. The USC Trojans will also make a strong case for the top slot with Matt Barkley, T.J. McDonald and a host of elite pass catchers returning. However the Trojans will likely have to get past another national contender and preseason top five team, Oregon, in the Pac-12 title game. The winner of the Pac-12 should land in the BCS title game.

I will put Georgia in the mix as one of my darkhorses. The Bulldogs' schedule sets up nicely without Alabama, LSU or Arkansas in SEC play and they return largely intact with another stellar incoming freshman class. Since the SEC will, of course, win its seventh straight national title, the best team in the league yet win a BCS title could sneak its way down to South Beach. It might just be the Dawgs turn in 2012. Also, keep an eye on Michigan as a sleeper as well. They should be the favorite in the Legends and will face a subpar Wisconsin, Illinois or Penn State in the Big Ten title game.

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
The big question going into 2012 is whether or not anyone can stop the SEC from winning its seventh national title in a row. Considering the conference’s recent run of success and what LSU has coming back next year, it’s a safe bet that one team from the SEC will make it into the national championship game. The Tigers turned in an awful performance against Alabama, but have one of the top returning cores for 2012. The offense has to settle on a quarterback, but the rushing attack and offensive line will be among the best in college football. USC figures to be the top challenger to the SEC champ, as the Trojans are off their two-year bowl ban, and quarterback Matt Barkley decided to return for his senior year. With a reduction in scholarships, depth could ban issue for USC, especially on the interior of the line. I think the Trojans and Tigers have to be considered the top two early favorites, but Oregon could sneak into the mix if it wins the Pac-12 over USC. Regardless of whether or not it is in the Big 12, I like West Virginia as a potential national title darkhorse. Also, Arkansas hosts both LSU and Alabama, which will give the Razorbacks a chance to be a player in the SEC West title mix. 

Mark Ross
My early favorites for next year’s BCS Championship match up are whoever wins the SEC and Pac-12 conferences. In the SEC, I am giving the slightest of edges to Georgia over Alabama because of the Crimson Tide’s expected losses on both sides of the ball. In the Pac-12, I think it will be a fight to the bitter end between Oregon and USC, but the Trojans get the nod here because of Matt Barkley and the motivation that comes from watching the postseason from the sidelines this season.

Other teams that will probably enter the conversation at some point, if not until the very end are Oklahoma, thanks to Landry Jones’ return, from the Big 12 and Michigan in the Big Ten. Michigan will get the chance to make an early statement as the Wolverines open the 2012 season against Alabama. LSU can’t be forgotten either, as the Tigers will get a chance to exact some revenge against Alabama next year and that could be enough to keep the Crimson Tide from getting a shot to defend their national title.

A dark horse team I like is Arkansas in a crowded SEC West. The Razorbacks should have plenty of offense to compete with the rest; they just need the defense to rise to the occasion when it counts.  I also think both teams that played in this year’s Orange Bowl – West Virginia and Clemson – could surprise. We still don’t know what conference (Big East or Big 12) the Mountaineers will be playing in next year, but regardless they have enough weapons to make plenty of noise, just ask Clemson.

The Tigers won’t lack for offensive firepower either, it’s just a matter of establishing a defensive identity and, for the first time under Dabo Swinney, finally putting it all together on a consistent basis.  Clemson also has to travel to Tallahassee to face Florida State next year in a game that could very well determine the ACC’s BCS representative. The Seminoles are similar to Clemson in that they could be in the national title hunt all season provided they are able to get the most out of the talent they have on their roster come game day.

Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
Is it possible to have a BCS Championship Game without an SEC club? The conference with six straight national titles seems like a lock each season, but that amazing run may end in 2012. LSU, Georgia and Alabama will suffer some roster attrition, with the Tigers looking like the early favorite to repeat as league champion. Many people would tab the SEC champ and the Matt Barkley-led USC Trojans as the early favorites, but I think Oregon and Oklahoma will be right there as well. The Ducks had to rebuild the defense this season, and that unit should be much-improved in ’12. Senior signal caller Darron Thomas is back with Kenjon Barner and DeAnthony Thomas, plus UO will not face a tough non-conference opener. Oklahoma should be loaded on offense with Landry Jones throwing to Kenny Stills and Jaz Reynolds, and the defense will be tough despite losing Frank Alexander and Travis Lewis. The Sooners will be the favorite in the Big 12 and will have a chance to score BCS points when they host Notre Dame. While the aforementioned SEC trio and USC will be formidable, I think UO and OU will have great shots to play for a title.
 

Teaser:
<p> Athlon's editors take a very early look at 2012 and who could be the favorite to win the national title next season.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, January 11, 2012 - 07:37
All taxonomy terms: Alabama Crimson Tide, College Football, SEC
Path: /college-football/alabama-football-what-expect-2012
Body:

By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

After falling short in the first meeting against LSU, Alabama left no doubt in New Orleans. The Crimson Tide dominated the Tigers to win their second national title in three seasons. After winning the 2009 title, Alabama followed it up with a 10-3 record. Will the Crimson Tide follow up another championship with a three-loss record or a national title? The pieces are in place for another run, but Alabama will have some key losses to replace.

Key players coming back: QB AJ McCarron, RB Eddie Lacy, RB Dee Hart, OL Barrett Jones, OG Chance Warmack, RT D.J. Fluker, DE Damion Square, LB Nico Johnson, LB C.J. Mosley, LB Trey DePriest, CB Dee Milliner, S Vinnie Sunseri

Seniors departing: WR Marquis Maze, OG Alfred McCullough, C William Vlachos, NG Josh Chapman, LB Courtney Upshaw, CB DeQuan Menzie, S Mark Barron

Could Leave Early for NFL Draft: RB Trent Richardson, DE Jesse Williams, LB Dont’a Hightower, CB Dre Kirkpatrick, S Robert Lester

Top Incoming Recruits

DB Eddie Williams – (AC100 No. 12)
DB Landon Collins
(AC100 No. 20)
WR Chris Black
(AC100 No. 27)
DB Geno Smith (AC100 No. 42)
RB T.J. Yeldon
(AC100 No. 61)

Offense Preview for 2012

Running back Trent Richardson has likely played his last game for Alabama, but it’s not all bad news for the offense. Backup Eddie Lacy averaged 7.5 yards per touch on 84 carries this year and will take on a bigger role in the backfield if Richardson departs for the NFL. Jalston Fowler also returns, while talented freshman Dee Hart will be healthy after suffering a torn ACL last summer. Although Lacy, Fowler and Hart won’t individually match Richardson’s rushing totals, the trio should generate plenty of production at running back. 

Quarterback AJ McCarron had a solid debut season as the starter, and the experience from starting all 13 games this year should make him a better player in 2012. However, he will have a new coordinator, as Jim McElwain is leaving to be the head coach at Colorado State. McCarron will have to work with a revamped group of receivers, as Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks have finished their eligibility. Tight end Brad Smelley has also played his last down in an Alabama uniform. Expect Kenny Bell, DeAndrew White and tight end Michael Williams to emerge as the top veteran targets next year. With Richardson all but certain to turn pro, McCarron will be expected to carry more of the offensive workload next year. 

The offensive line returns three starters, including likely 2012 All-American Barrett Jones. With William Vlachos departing, Alabama may move Jones to center in spring practice. Right tackle D.J. Fluker and left guard Chance Warmack also return and both should contend for All-SEC honors.

Defense Preview for 2012

Replacing a handful of key starters from one of the top defenses in college football won’t be an easy task for coach Nick Saban and coordinator Kirby Smart. However, with another elite recruiting class stepping onto campus, don’t expect a huge drop in production next year.

In any 3-4 defense, much of the success starts with the nose guard and with the linebacking corps. And that’s where the Crimson Tide will be breaking in new starters next year. Nose guard Jose Chapman has finished his eligibility and there’s no clear backup on the roster. End Jesse Williams saw some snaps in the middle this season, but may enter the NFL Draft.

With Dont’a Hightower expected to leave for the NFL, Alabama could be breaking in three new starters in the linebacking corps. Seniors Jerrell Harris and Courtney Upshaw have played their final game, with Upshaw the bigger loss. Nico Johnson finished fourth on the team in tackles and will be counted on to provide leadership as a senior next year. The linebacking corps isn’t short on upcoming talent, as Trey DePriest, Adrian Hubbard, C.J. Mosley, Tana Patrick and Xzavier Dickson were all highly-regarded recruits.

The secondary will also field some heavy losses, as it will likely have three new starters next year. Cornerback DeQuan Menzie and safety Mark Barron will depart, while cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick is expected to enter the NFL Draft. Safety Robert Lester will be expected to anchor the secondary next season, while Dee Milliner and John Fulton step into bigger roles at cornerback. Vinnie Sunseri had a solid freshman year and will be counted upon even more in 2012.

2012 Schedule Breakdown

With the SEC moving to 14 teams next year, the conference schedule isn’t going to get any easier. Alabama kicks off SEC play at Arkansas and also has road trips against Missouri, Tennessee and LSU next year. The Crimson Tide will host Texas A&M, Auburn, Mississippi State and Ole Miss in conference play in 2012.

With LSU and Alabama expected to be the top two teams in the SEC West, the division could be decided on Nov. 3 when they meet in Baton Rouge. The conference opener against Arkansas on Sept. 15 won’t be easy either.

Alabama opens the season with a neutral site matchup (Cowboys Stadium) against Michigan. The Wolverines are expected to be a top 15 team next season, but the Crimson Tide should be favored to win. The rest of the non-conference schedule is very manageable, with Western Kentucky, FAU and Western Carolina all visiting Tuscaloosa.

Can Alabama Play for the National Title Next Year?

Despite the key losses, the Crimson Tide will be among the top five teams and one of the preseason picks to win the national title next season. Nick Saban continues to bring in and develop elite talent in Tuscaloosa, which will ensure this team won’t slip too far. AJ McCarron’s development at quarterback should help soften the blow of Trent Richardson departing for the NFL Draft, while the offensive line remains in good shape. The defense will have a handful of new faces, but shouldn’t suffer a complete collapse.

Although the personnel losses are crucial, the schedule has some landmines that could deter another run at the national title. The Crimson Tide will have to go on the road to face two likely top 10 teams – Arkansas and LSU – and open the season with a dangerous Michigan team.

Although Alabama survived a loss to LSU to play for the national title in 2011, the loser of next year's game might not get the same opportunity.

Teaser:
<p> After claiming its second national championship under coach Nick Saban, what can we expect from Alabama in 2012?</p>
Post date: Tuesday, January 10, 2012 - 11:52
All taxonomy terms: College Football, LSU Tigers, SEC
Path: /college-football/lsu-football-what-expect-2012
Body:

By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

The Tigers were the best team in the regular season, but couldn't deliver with the national title on the line. LSU was thoroughly dominated by Alabama 21-0 in the championship, but all is not lost for coach Les Miles. With a solid core of talent returning on both sides of the ball, LSU could begin 2012 as the No. 1 team in the preseason poll. 

Key players coming back: RB Spencer Ware, RB Michael Ford, RB Kenny Hilliard, WR Russell Shepard, WR Odell Beckham, LT Chris Faulk, RT Alex Hurst, DE Sam Montgomery, DE Barkevious Mingo, DT Bennie Logan, DT Michael Brockers, LB Kevin Minter, CB Tyrann Mathieu, CB Tharold Simon, S Eric Reid, K Drew Alleman, P Brad Wing

Seniors departing: QB Jordan Jefferson, QB Jarrett Lee, OG Will Blackwell, TE Deangelo Peterson, LB Ryan Baker, CB Ron Brooks, S Brandon Taylor

Could Leave Early for NFL Draft: WR Rueben Randle, CB Morris Claiborne

Top Incoming Recruits:

QB Gunner Kiel (AC100 No. 14)
WR Avery Johnson (AC100 No. 67)
DE Danielle Hunter
LB Lamar Louis
WR Travin Dural
OL Derek Edinburgh
DE Ronnie Fiest
DB Dwayne Thomas

Offense Preview for 2012

There will always be bumps in the road when going through a quarterback transition. However, LSU’s new signal-caller in 2012 is stepping into a good situation. Led by Spencer Ware, Michael Ford and Kenny Hilliard, the Tigers own one of the top running back stables in the nation. LSU likely won’t have a 1,000-yard rusher in 2012 due to the split carries, but production won’t be an issue.

The offensive line was among the best in college football in 2011 and won’t miss a beat next year. Four starters return, including All-SEC tackle Alex Hurst. Guard Josh Dworaczyk missed all of 2011 due to a knee injury, but is expected to step back into a starting role next season.

Considering what LSU has returning in the trenches and at running back, the quarterback won’t need to do much. Zach Mettenberger is ready for his chance at the starting job, but he could be pushed by incoming freshman Gunner Kiel – the No. 2 ranked quarterback in the Athlon Consensus 100. Mettenberger has a big arm, but is largely untested, throwing only 11 passes in his career. He should be an upgrade over Jordan Jefferson in terms of overall passing ability, but the Tigers could lose No. 1 receiver Rueben Randle to the NFL Draft. If Randle departs, Odell Beckham and Russell Shepard will become a bigger factor in the passing attack.

Defense Preview for 2012

With Alabama losing several key players, LSU should own the top defense in college football next year.

Much of the success for LSU’s defense starts with the defensive line. The Tigers have a nice blend of All-American talent with promising depth. Ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo will form one of the top pass-rush combinations in college football. Bennie Logan and Michael Brockers anchor the interior of the line, but Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson will see plenty of snaps.

The linebacking corps will lose Stefoin Francois and Ryan Baker, but Kevin Minter returns to lead the way in the middle. Tahj Jones, Luke Muncie and Lamin Barrow all saw limited action in 2011, but will be pressed into a bigger role next season. Reloading the linebacking corps is arguably one of the easiest tasks for a defensive coordinator, so despite the losses, this isn’t a major issue for LSU in 2012.

Throw out a 463-yard passing performance by West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith, and LSU allowed only 141.9 yards through the air during the regular season. Cornerback Morris Claiborne is expected to declare for the NFL Draft, but the Tigers’ aren’t without depth in the secondary. Tyrann Mathieu was a Heisman finalist and is one of college football’s top gamechangers on defense. Safety Eric Reid made several key plays during the 2011 season and will challenge for All-SEC honors next year. Brandon Taylor departs at strong safety, but Craig Loston was another highly-touted prospect and has been waiting for his turn. LSU will miss Claiborne’s shutdown ability at cornerback, but Tharold Simon could be one of the top breakout players in 2012.

2012 Schedule Breakdown

With Alabama and LSU expected to be neck-and-neck for the SEC West race, the division title could come down to their meeting on Nov. 3. The Tigers knocked off the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa this year, and Alabama has to visit Baton Rouge in 2012. LSU must hit the road for conference games against Auburn, Florida, Texas A&M and Arkansas, while in addition to Alabama, South Carolina, Mississippi State and Ole Miss visit Tiger Stadium.

The non-conference portion of the schedule is very manageable. LSU hosts North Texas, Washington, Idaho and Towson next year. The Huskies will bring a dangerous offense to Baton Rouge, but the defense needs to show major improvement to challenge LSU.

The Tigers could stumble at Auburn or Florida, but they should enter the final month of the regular season with an 8-0 record. However, LSU must play Alabama and Arkansas in November, which makes the last month of the season a make-or-break portion of the schedule.

Can LSU Play for the National Title Next Year?

Here’s a scary thought for the SEC: LSU could be even better next year. The Tigers have some losses, but nothing that should deter another run at a spot in the national title game. Getting Mettenberger or Kiel comfortable under center early will be crucial, but the schedule breaks well for the Tigers. Washington will be a good test for LSU in Week 2, but Mettenberger won’t travel on the road until Sept. 22 against a suspect Auburn defense.

Expect the Tigers to use the same formula as it has done under Les Miles once again in 2012: Defense and running the football. LSU will have one of the deepest backfields in college football next year, and a defense that will suffocate opposing offenses. A road date against Arkansas and a Nov. 3 clash against Alabama will likely make-or-break the LSU’s national title hopes. However, the early returns suggest this team will begin 2012 as the favorite to win it all.

Teaser:
<p> LSU was unable to follow up a terrific regular season with a national title win over Alabama. However, the Tigers will be back in 2012.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, January 10, 2012 - 11:49
Path: /college-football/alabama-shuts-out-lsu-take-bcs-championship
Body:

By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

The Alabama-LSU rematch resembled the first meeting in some ways, but not on the scoreboard. The Crimson Tide turned in a dominating 21-0 performance, earning their second national title in the last three seasons.

The Tigers squeaked by the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa in early November, but never had a chance in the rematch. Alabama’s suffocating defense held LSU to only 92 yards and just five first downs. The Tigers were never able to get their rushing game on track, which put the pressure squarely on quarterback Jordan Jefferson to win the game. Jefferson completed 11 of his 17 throws, but managed only 53 yards. He was also held to 15 yards on the ground. The LSU offensive gameplan never really tested the Alabama secondary deep, and Jefferson struggled to get comfortable in the pocket due to the pass rush. Despite Jefferson’s poor play, backup Jarrett Lee never got into the game. Lee is the better passer, but struggled in the first meeting between these two teams.

While LSU watched its offense sputter all night, the Crimson Tide had an impressive showing. With the Tigers planning to stop running back Trent Richardson, there was a lot of pressure on Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron to respond. The sophomore was fearless and poised against one of the top defenses in college football, finishing with 234 yards and no interceptions. Richardson finished with 96 yards, with 34 coming on the game’s only touchdown in the fourth quarter.

The SEC has claimed six national titles in a row, with the last three coming from the state of Alabama. The Crimson Tide claimed the national title after the 2009 and 2011 seasons, while Auburn won the championship in 2010. Alabama coach Nick Saban is the first coach in the BCS era to win three national titles. With the win over LSU on Monday night, the Crimson Tide are now tied with Florida and LSU for the most national titles in the BCS era.

Player of the Game: Alabama QB AJ McCarron

In the lengthy buildup to the national championship, not many predicted McCarron would be the most valuable player, but he certainly earned this award on Monday night. The sophomore threw for 199 yards and an interception in the first matchup between these two teams, but looked more comfortable this time around. McCarron played under control, throwing for 233 yards and completing 67.6 percent of his throws. Although LSU owns one of the top defenses in college football, McCarron never looked rattled and his performance was the difference for Alabama in the national title game.

Defensive Player of the Game: Alabama LB Courtney Upshaw

The Crimson Tide defense left no doubt that it was the best in college football after the national title game. Upshaw has been a leader for this defense over the last few years and capped his career with a strong performance against the Tigers. The senior registered seven tackles and one sack, along with wrecking havoc on LSU’s option plays.

Unfortunate Injuries for Alabama

Receiver Marquis Maze suffered an ankle injury in the first matchup between these two teams and was bitten by the injury bug once again. Maze suffered a hamstring injury in the first quarter after a 49-yard punt return and did not return to the game. Maze was expected to be a key cog in the receiving corps, but Kevin Norwood, Darius Hanks and tight end Brad Smelley stepped up in his absence.

Linebacker C.J. Mosley forced Alabama’s first turnover of the game, picking off a Jordan Jefferson pass in the third quarter. Mosley was carted off with a hip injury and did not return to the game. He is expected to be one of the top contributors in the linebacking corps next year, so his health for spring practice will be worth monitoring.

Biggest Surprise

How about Alabama’s special teams? After missing three kicks and having one blocked in the first meeting, this unit was arguably the difference in the game. Kicker Jeremy Shelley nailed five of seven attempts, including a long of 44 yards. Punter Cody Mandell punted once, but didn’t give dynamic LSU return man Tyrann Mathieu much of a chance to add anything on the return. Marquis Maze also chipped in a 49-yard punt return in the first quarter, which setup Shelley’s first field goal of the game.

Unsung Hero

With Marquis Maze sidelined with a hamstring injury, Kevin Norwood, Darius Hanks and tight end Brad Smelley emerged as key targets for quarterback AJ McCarron. Norwood led the team with 78 receiving yards (on four receptions), while Smelley and Hanks combined for 12 catches. Coming into Monday night’s game, Norwood had only seven receptions on the year. Losing Maze was a big blow to Alabama’s offense, but this unsung group of players prevented any drop in production from the receiving corps.

Turning Point

Considering how dominant Alabama was, there was no clear turning point from Monday night’s game. However, the opening possessions for both teams set the tone for the rest of the game. LSU’s offense went three and out, while Alabama drove from its seven-yard line to the 46. Although the Crimson Tide had to punt, the defense stuffed the Tigers on three plays once again, which prompted a Brad Wing punt and Maze’s 49-yard return.

The Final Nail in the Coffin

Despite controlling the tempo and a huge edge in yardage, Alabama went into halftime up only 9-0. However, the Crimson Tide began the second half with a six-play drive that ended with a Jeremy Shelley 35-yard field goal, which boosted the lead to 12-0. Both teams exchanged punts on their next two possessions, but Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley delivered the final nail in LSU’s national title hopes with eight minutes to go in the third quarter. The sophomore intercepted an awful underhand pass attempt by Jefferson, which effectively ended any momentum and hope the Tigers had of coming back.

A Touchdown!

If you like offense, both games between Alabama and LSU weren’t for you. Of the 36 points scored in the first two meetings, 29 came on field goals. The only touchdown scored came from running back Trent Richardson late in the fourth quarter of Monday night’s game. There’s no question Alabama’s defense was outstanding, but LSU didn’t help itself with an awful gameplan on Monday night.

What Now

After demolishing LSU 21-0, Alabama is clearly the No. 1 team in the nation and will take the trophy back to Tuscaloosa. There was some talk of a split national championship, but both the Associated Press and USA Today poll ranked Alabama No. 1 following Monday night’s game. The Tigers finished No. 2 in both polls, with Oklahoma State ranked No. 3.

Looking ahead to 2012, both Alabama and LSU are expected to be among the top five teams in the nation. The Crimson Tide will suffer some key losses on defense, and running back Trent Richardson is expected to declare for the NFL Draft. The Tigers return more pieces, but have to get more production from their passing attack. USC’s two-year bowl ban is over, and the Trojans will be a significant player for the national title.

One of the backdrops to the title game was chatter surrounding the BCS and upcoming changes for this system. The conference commissioners will meet over the next few months to discuss implementing a new BCS format when the current contract expires after the 2013 season. Don’t expect a 16-team playoff, but a plus-one format could be coming. No system is perfect, but it appears college football’s postseason format will see some significant changes. 

Teaser:
<p> Alabama dominated LSU to claim its second national title in three seasons.&nbsp;</p>
Post date: Tuesday, January 10, 2012 - 09:05
Path: /news/clemsons-orange-bowl-defeat-disappointing-season
Body:

by Josh Kipnis

Michigan players were rocking shirts that read “Pour some Sugar on me.”  After their victory in LA, the Oregon Ducks “Rose to power.”  Oklahoma State proclaimed to Stanford fans that the Fiesta Bowl was “Nacho Victory.”

West Virginia asked Clemson, “Orange you glad we won?”

On Wednesday night, the West Virginia Mountaineers crushed the Clemson Tigers, 70-33 (Trust me, it’s not a typo).  As I watched the game, I kept staring at the bottom of the screen.  “70-33” just doesn’t look normal on a scoreboard, in any sport.  Even in basketball, the average points Clemson allows per game is less than 70.

The game was expected to be an offensive shootout, but no one could have predicted a score of this magnitude.  “Never could we imagine we’d put up seventy points,” WVU quarterback Geno Smith said after the game.  Seventy is the highest total a team has ever scored in an NCAA bowl game.

The Mountaineers didn’t just put a slight tear in the record books, they threw them all in the shredder. West Virginia broke nine different bowl game records.

On a night when seventy points are scored, it is tough to pinpoint only one star.  As WVU Coach Dana Holgorsen put it, “you score seventy points by being good on all three sides of the ball.”  In the star-filled galaxy of the Orange Bowl, Geno Smith was, however, the biggest and brightest—the North Star, if you will.

Smith went 31 of 42 with 401 yards, 6 passing TDs, and 1 rushing TD (tying records for TD passes, total TDs, and points scored).  Tavon Austin was on the receiving end of four of those touchdowns, tying the record for TD catches in a bowl game.  Safety Darwin Cook also shined in the sky, returning a fumble 99 yards.

Clemson led 17-14 at the end of the first quarter, but the Tigers lost all ability to pounce on their opponents in the second.

The pivotal moment in the game was Cook’s fumble recovery.  The 99-yard play gave the Mountaineers a 28-17 lead in the 2nd quarter.  “It was a pretty big moment,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney.  “They hadn’t really stopped us [before that].  That was huge.  Then it snowballed quickly.”  Clemson was outscored 35-3 in the second, breaking the previous record for number of points allowed in one quarter of a bowl game.

West Virginia scored three times in the final 2:29 of the first half.  Heading into the locker room, the score was 49-20 (most points by a team in a half and most combined points in a half). 

The halftime entertainment featured “the fat lady” singing.

Last season, the Clemson defense ranked thirteenth in the country, allowing 18.77 points per game.  To coach Swinney, it must’ve felt like ages ago.  “We’re a better team than we played tonight,” he said after the embarrassment.  “Just too many mistakes.  But we’ll be back.”

But should they even be allowed back?  ACC teams are 2-13 all-time in BCS bowl games; that is last among automatic-qualifying conferences.  This year, Virginia Tech received an at-large bid to the Sugar Bowl, falling to Michigan 23-20 in overtime.

Clemson’s loss was brutal.  At times, I honestly cringed while watching the game.  And so as the Mountaineers drenched their coach with Gatorade and put on those championship t-shirts, I only wish I could’ve been on the sidelines to hand Dabo Swinney another shirt—“Orange you glad this is over?”

Teaser:
<p> West Virginia trounced Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Another disappointing finish for the Tigers.</p>
Post date: Monday, January 9, 2012 - 10:19
Path: /college-football/bcs-championship-preview-and-predictions-lsu-vs-alabama
Body:

By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

BCS National Championship
Alabama (11-1) vs. LSU (13-0)

Date: Jan. 9 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Location: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, La.


Related: LSU, Alabama Starting Offenses As Recruits
Related: LSU, Alabama Starting Defenses As Recruits

For the first time in BCS history, two teams from the same conference will play for the national title. While there was plenty of anti-rematch chatter, Alabama and LSU are the two best teams in college football. Consider this: LSU navigated one of the nation’s most difficult schedules, and Alabama lost to the Tigers by a field goal in the first matchup in early November. So if LSU is ranked No. 1 and the Crimson Tide’s only loss came to the Tigers, it’s fair to say these teams are 1A and 1B.

There’s no question these two offenses aren’t among the best in college football, but the first meeting was controlled by the defenses. Will we see the same outcome on Jan. 9? Alabama outgained LSU 295 to 239, but four missed field goals and two costly turnovers hurt the Crimson Tide's chances at victory. While the Tigers may not have done anything overwhelmingly special in that game, they did a good job of capitalizing on Alabama’s mistakes and made timely plays on offense.

The first meeting between these two teams may not have supplied the offensive fireworks some were looking hoping to see, but the defenses are two of – if not the best – in college football. Alabama leads the nation in scoring, total, rushing and pass defense. LSU isn’t far behind, ranking second nationally in total and scoring defense.

Alabama’s only blemish on the season was the 9-6 loss to LSU, while the Tigers finished as the only undefeated team in college football. 

LSU has claimed the last two meetings in this series, including a 24-21 win in Baton Rouge last year. Alabama posted back-to-back wins in 2008 and 2009, but the Tigers have won seven out of the last nine overall meetings.

WHEN ALABAMA HAS THE BALL:

In the first matchup, LSU did a good job of holding running back Trent Richardson in check. He managed only 89 yards on 23 attempts, but did catch five passes for 80 yards. The Tigers can expect to see a lot more from Richardson this time around. Expect the junior to get around 30 overall touches, including some opportunities on special teams. When Richardson needs a rest, Eddie Lacy will step in and he averaged 7.5 yards per carry this year.

While everything in the Alabama offense flows around Richardson, don’t overlook quarterback AJ McCarron. The sophomore completed 16 of 28 throws for 199 yards in the first meeting. While McCarron’s numbers weren’t awful against LSU earlier this year, he threw a costly interception. The Crimson Tide offense needs McCarron to be efficient and take some of the pressure off of the rushing attack. McCarron doesn't have to throw for 300 yards, but he has to hit some passes early to prevent the Tigers from loading up against Richardson. 

Alabama doesn’t have a deep corps of receivers, but Marquis Maze is one of the SEC’s most underrated receivers. He caught 56 passes for 627 yards and one score this year. Tight ends Michael Williams and Brad Smelley will be important contributors for McCarron, as the two players combined for 41 receptions in the regular season. Darius Hanks and Kenny Bell will also contribute in the receiving corps, while Richardson figures to see a handful of catches out of the backfield.

The battle in the trenches will feature one of the best offensive lines in college football (Alabama), against one of the top defensive fronts (LSU). The Crimson Tide’s offensive line allowed only 15 sacks this season, while leading the way for running backs to average 5.6 yards per carry. Center William Vlachos and tackle Barrett Jones earned first-team All-SEC honors. The Tigers will counter will a deep and speedy defensive line. End Sam Montgomery collected nine sacks and first-team All-SEC honors, while fellow end Barkevious Mingo registered eight sacks and 13.5 tackles for a loss this year.

Winning the battle in the trenches is going to be crucial for both team’s chances for a victory. The Crimson Tide needs to establish control to open up lanes for Richardson and keep the pressure off of McCarron. If the Tigers gain control, Richardson will have trouble finding running room. In the first matchup, Montgomery recorded two sacks and it’s crucial for Alabama to keep him away from McCarron.

Expect LSU to focus in on stopping Richardson once again, while forcing the Crimson Tide to take to the air to win the game. The Tigers own one of the top defensive backfields in the nation, led by Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu. Although McCarron has been careful with the ball this year (5 INTs), one mistake in this game will be costly.

WHEN LSU HAS THE BALL:

The Tigers have a clear identity on offense, and they need to win the battle in the trenches in order to claim the national title.

LSU ranks 17th nationally in rushing offense, averaging 215.2 yards per game. In the first meeting, Alabama held the Tigers to 148 yards on 41 attempts. A handful of running backs will see time, but Michael Ford and Spencer Ware figure to get the bulk of the work. Ford led the team with 755 yards on 123 attempts, while Ware led with eight rushing scores. Alfred Blue (539 yards) and Kenny Hilliard (320) will also see touches.

A wildcard to watch on the ground will be quarterback Jordan Jefferson. He managed 43 yards in the first meeting between these two teams, and his ability to get yards on the ground when passing plays break down will be crucial for LSU’s chances at victory.

While the Tigers want to lean on the run, they have to generate something from the passing attack. Jefferson missed four games due to suspension, but only finished with 684 passing yards and six scores. Jarrett Lee also saw extensive time under center, throwing for 1,306 yards and 14 touchdowns. Lee is the better passer, but Jefferson’s rushing ability could be more valuable in this game, especially since he mustered 43 yards on the ground in the first meeting between these two teams.

The Tigers have only two players with more than 30 catches this year, with Rueben Randle leading the team with 904 receiving yards on 50 catches. Odell Beckham, Russell Shepard and tight end DeAngelo Peterson will also figure into the mix in the receiving corps, but it won’t be an easy battle against Alabama’s secondary. The Crimson Tide has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete only 48.3 percent of their throws this year. Opposing offenses have also managed only six passing scores in 2011.

Expect Alabama’s defense to load up the box and force LSU to win this game through the air. The Tigers need to keep the Crimson Tide off balance with throws on first and second down, which will help prevent third and long situations. If Alabama can hold the Tigers in check on the ground, it should be in good position to win this game. The Crimson Tide allowed the Tigers to average 3.6 yards per rush in the first meeting, and the battle in the trenches will only get tougher this time around.

Special Teams

This area was Alabama’s trouble spot in the first meeting. Cade Foster made only one of four attempts, while Jeremy Shelley connected on one of two attempts. All of the missed/blocked field goals came from at least 44 yards out, so these aren’t chip shots Alabama was missing. Shelley has been more reliable this year, nailing 16 of 20 attempts, while Foster has hit on only 2 of 9.

Punter Cody Mandell had a so-so year, averaging 38.9 yards per punt. The Crimson Tide coverage units have been solid, allowing only 50 punt return yards on 10 attempts.

Trent Richardson was used sparingly on kickoff returns this season, but could see more opportunities in this area on Jan. 9. Marquis Maze averaged 12.4 yards on punt returns and 28.5 yards per kickoff return this season. Expect him to be Alabama’s top option on special teams against LSU.

LSU had an advantage in this department in the first meeting and should have an edge in the rematch. Kicker Drew Alleman hit 16 of 18 attempts this season and earned second-team All-SEC honors. Punter Brad Wing averaged 44.1 yards per punt and placed 23 of those inside of the 20. Wing also earned second-team All-SEC honors this season.

LSU has been strong on returns all year. Tyrann Mathieu is averaging 16.2 yards per punt return and has scored twice this season. Morris Claiborne leads the way on kickoff returns, averaging 26.1 yards per return this year. Claiborne also scored on a 99-yard return against West Virginia.

Athlon’s Staff Predictions

When the clock strikes zero and the confetti falls on Jan. 9, the SEC will claim its sixth consecutive national championship.

With a tight game expected, turnovers and special teams are going to play a huge role in deciding the outcome. The turnover margin was even in the first matchup, but there was a clear edge on special teams.

After a long layoff from the last regular season game, both defenses will control the tempo early on. It will also be interesting to see what new wrinkles both teams have worked into the playbook for this game.

Surprisingly, Athlon’s editors all agree on which team will hoist the national title trophy on Jan. 9 in New Orleans – and it’s not the team that won the first meeting on Nov. 5 in Tuscaloosa.

Braden Gall

Alabama 20, LSU 17
MVP: AJ McCarron, QB

Charlie Miller

Alabama 17, LSU 12
MVP: Trent Richardson, RB

Steven Lassan

Alabama 20, LSU 17
MVP: Trent Richardson, RB

Mitch Light

Alabama 20, LSU 17
MVP: Trent Richardson, RB

Mark Ross

Alabama 23, LSU 17
MVP: Courtney Upshaw, LB

Patrick Snow

Alabama 17, LSU 13
MVP: Trent Richardson, RB



Related: LSU, Alabama Starting Offenses As Recruits
Related: LSU, Alabama Starting Defenses As Recruits

Teaser:
<p> Athlon previews and predicts the 2012 BCS National Championship between LSU and Alabama.</p>
Post date: Friday, January 6, 2012 - 08:10
Path: /college-football/godaddycom-bowl-preview-northern-illinois-vs-arkansas-state
Body:

by Mark Ross

GoDaddy.com Bowl
Arkansas State (10-2) vs. Northern Illinois (10-3)
Date: Jan. 8 at 9 p.m. ET
Location: Ladd Peebles Stadium, Mobile, Ala.

The second-to-last bowl on the 35-game slate may be completely overshadowed by the BCS Championship Game, which will take place the following night, but the GoDaddy.com Bowl in Mobile features one thing the Alabama vs. LSU tilt in nearby New Orleans doesn’t — a matchup of conference champions.

Sun Belt champion Arkansas State has already posted the most wins in a season since 1986, and back then the Red Wolves were playing in Division I-AA, which is now known as the FCS level. The Red Wolves are the first team in the Sun Belt’s 11-year history to win 10 regular-season games. This will be their first bowl game since 2005 and they come into this game with a nine-game winning streak.

Mid-American Conference (MAC) champion Northern Illinois is making its fourth straight bowl appearance and has won 10 or more games in consecutive seasons. The Huskies defeated Fresno State 40-17 in last year’s Humanitarian Bowl for their school-record 11th win. They have a chance to tie that mark if they defeat Arkansas State, which would represent their ninth straight victory.

Both schools won their respective conference titles under the direction of first-year head coaches, Hugh Freeze for Arkansas State and Dave Doeren for Northern Illinois. However, only Doeren will be coaching in his first bowl game, as Freeze was named the new head coach of Ole Miss on Dec. 5.

Arkansas State tabbed former Auburn offensive coordinator, as well as former Springdale (Ark.) High School head coach and Arkansas offensive coordinator, Gus Malzahn to be its new head coach. Interim head coach David Gunn will lead the Red Wolves in the bowl game and stay on as an assistant under Malzahn in 2012.

Both teams feature potent offenses that are averaging more than 33 points per game led by dual-threat quarterbacks who are among the top 10 in the nation in total offense. Arkansas State’s defense is statistically better across the board, but other than Virginia Tech, the Red Wolves have yet to face an offense like Northern Illinois’.

Each team had a shot earlier in the season against a ranked opponent that played in a BCS bowl and each came up short. Arkansas State held its own against the Hokies, who lost in the Sugar Bowl to Michigan, losing 26-7 in Blacksburg, Va., while Northern Illinois hosted head coach Doeren’s previous employer, Wisconsin, and got trounced by the Badgers, who fell in the Rose Bowl to Oregon, 49-7.

WHEN ARKANSAS STATE HAS THE BALL:

For Arkansas State, the offense begins and pretty much ends with quarterback Ryan Aplin. The junior was named Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year after compiling a school-record 3,840 total yards of offense, which also represents the second-most in conference history. Aplin comes into this game ranked 10th in the nation in total offense, averaging 320.0 yards per game.

Aplin has completed a school-record 274 passes for 3,235 yards with 18 touchdowns. He has completed 66 percent of his passes so far and thrown 13 interceptions.

Besides his passing numbers, Aplin also is the team’s leading rusher with 605 yards and nine touchdowns. Seven different Red Wolves have carried the ball at least 16 times this season and scored a rushing touchdown.

After Aplin, the second-most carries have gone to senior Derek Lawson, who has 459 yards and three touchdowns. Freshman Frankie Jackson has contributed six rushing touchdowns to the Red Wolves’ ground attack.

Dwayne Frampton is Aplin’s clear-cut No. 1 target, leading the team with 90 catches, 1,125 yards and six touchdowns. The senior was named first team All-Sun Belt and also returns punts.

Besides Frampton, the Red Wolves have juniors Josh Jarboe and Taylor Stockemer, who have combined for 89 receptions, 1,278 yards and eight touchdowns. Jarboe was named to the All-Sun Belt second team and Stockemer tied Frampton with six touchdown catches. All told, 18 different Red Wolves, including Aplin, have caught at least one pass this season.

Arkansas State averages 33.5 points per game and has scored 30 or more in its last six games. During this steak, Aplin has averaged 336.2 yards of total offense, In the Red Wolves’ two losses, to Illinois to open the season and to Virginia Tech, Aplin averaged just 267.5 yards of total offense.

Northern Illinois’ defense comes into this game surrendering an average of 417.9 yards and 31.1 points per game. The Huskies will need to do a better job across the board defensively if they hope to limit Aplin and the rest of the Red Wolves.

WHEN NORTHERN ILLINOIS HAS THE BALL:

While Arkasas State has Aplin, Northern Illinois has its own dangerous, record-setting dual-threat quarterback in Chandler Harnish. The senior was named the MAC’s top player after leading the Huskies to their second-ever conference championship and first since 1983 by directing the largest comeback in school history. Harnish and Northern Illinois came back from 20-0 deficit in the third quarter to defeat Ohio 23-20 in the MAC Championship Game.

Harnsih, who already holds 23 school single-season and career passing and total offense records, is 19-5 as the Huskies’ starter the past two seasons. He currently ranks eighth in the nation in total offense, averaging 332.6 yards per game.

Harnish has rushed for nearly 1,400 yards this season, averaging 7.5 yards per carry in the process. His 106.3 yards per game ranks him No. 18 in the nation in rushing. He has four games with 150 rushing yards or more, including two where he rushed for 200 yards or more.

Harnish is just as dangerous with his arm, as he has thrown for 2,942 yards with 26 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He is ranked as the 13th-most efficient passer in the nation and combined with his 11 rushing touchdowns; he has been responsible for a total of 37 touchdowns this season.

Harnish needs just 14 yards rushing in the bowl game to become only the third quarterback in FBS history to rush for 3,000 yards and pass for 8,000 in a career. To this point, Harnish has 2,986 rushing yards and 8,670 passing yards. He’s also been responsible for a total of 90 touchdowns (66 passing, 24 rushing) to this point.

As a team, Northern Illinois is averaging 247.6 yards rushing per game, which ranks the Huskies ninth in the nation, and an impressive 5.7 yards per carry. After Harnish, the Huskies’ top rusher is senior Jasmin Hopkins, who could be a 1,000-yard rusher in his own right. Hopkins enters the bowl game needing just 68 more yards to reach the mark and he leads the team with 16 total touchdowns.

Harnish likes to spread the ball around to his receivers as 16 different Huskies have caught at least one pass and 10 have scored. The team’s leading receiver is Nathan Palmer, who is tops in receptions (46), yards (683) and touchdowns (7). The senior was named the MVP of the MAC Championship Game after scoring two touchdowns and amassing 132 all-purpose yards in the Huskies’ comeback win.

Northern Illinois’ offensive line is an experienced group, consisting of four seniors and a junior. The line features two first team All-MAC performers in senior center Scott Wedige and senior left tackle Trevor Olson. Olson has started 52 consecutive games and has yet to allow a sack this season.

The line is a big reason why the Huskies rank among the top 10 in the nation in total offense (10th with 481.8 yards per game), rushing (ninth) and fewest sacks allowed (fifth with just nine total through 13 games).

The Huskies’ offensive line will need to maintain its consistent play in the bowl game as it will be facing an Arkansas State defense that ranks 17th in the nation in sacks with 2.7 per game. Leading the way for the Red Wolves is senior defensive lineman Brandon Joiner, who was named Sun Belt Conference Defensive Player of the Year after racking up 12 sacks, the fifth-highest total in the country. Joiner also has 15.5 tackles for loss this season as the Red Wolves average more than seven stops behind the line per game, which ranks them 12th overall.

Arkansas State’s defense ranks among the top 20 in the nation in total defense (20th), scoring defense (15th), rush defense (15th) and pass efficiency defense (17th). Illinois and Virginia Tech are the only two teams that had more than 400 total yards of offense against the Red Wolves, and Northern Illinois is certainly capable of doing that much and more. It will be interesting to see if Joiner and fellow seniors linebacker Demario Davis and defensive backs Darryl Feemster and Kelcie McCray, who all made first team All-Sun Belt, will be able to contain Harnish and the Huskies.

Special Teams

With two high-powered offenses in tow, neither team needs to rely that heavily on their respective return units, and the statistics support this. Northern Illinois has three return touchdowns, including two on kickoffs by Tommylee Lewis, while Arkansas State ranks 102nd out of 120 teams in FBS in kickoff returns.

Northern Illinois’ Mathew Sims has already set a school-record with 116 points this season, with more than half of that damage coming via PAT (59 of 61). Sims, a first team All-MAC selection, has been pretty accurate on his field goals, making 19 of 24, but he is just 3 of 6 from 40 yards and beyond.

Arkansas State employs somewhat of a committee when it comes to its placekicking duties. Brian Davis has handled all of the PATs and is 16 of 21 in field goal attempts, while Bobby Zalud is 6 of 11, with all of his attempts coming from 40 yards and out.

Prediction

In the GoDaddy.com Bowl’s 12-year history (first named the Mobile Alabama Bowl and then GMAC Bowl prior to changing name to GoDaddy.com Bowl last year), the winning team has scored at least 28 points. Considering both Arkansas State and Northern Illinois come in averaging more than 33 points per game, there’s a chance this one could look a lot like the 2001 game that saw Marshall beat East Carolina 64-61 in double overtime.

Whether that happens or not, will depend primarily on one thing, how Arkansas State’s defense, which is ranked among the top 20 in the nation in several categories, handles Northern Illinois’ high-powered offense. The Red Wolves’ offense should do plenty of damage of its own against the Huskies’ susceptible defense.

However, as was mentioned earlier, Arkansas State, outside of Virginia Tech, hasn’t faced an offense like Northern Illinois’, and in the end the experienced Huskies’ offense led by their record-setting dual-threat quarterback Harnish and a veteran offensive line, will prove to be more than the Red Wolves can handle.

This is a good time for Arkansas State football, with a Sun Belt championship under its belt and native son Malzahn ready to assume the reigns, but this season will end on a losing note as Harnish and the Huskies’ senior class will end their careers with one final victory.

Northern Illinois 38, Arkansas State 34

Teaser:
<p> Athlon previews the 2012 GoDaddy.com Bowl: Northern Illinois vs. Arkansas State.</p>
Post date: Friday, January 6, 2012 - 06:30
Path: /college-football/bbva-compass-bowl-preview-pittsburgh-vs-smu
Body:

by Rob Doster

BBVA Compass Bowl
SMU (7-5) vs. Pittsburgh (6-6)

Date: Jan. 7 at 1 p.m. ET
Location: Legion Field, Birmingham, Ala.

 
The Panthers, who played in the Compass Bowl following the 2010 season as well, make the return trip to Birmingham to face June Jones' pass-oriented Mustangs. Pitt was a few breaks away from a 10-win season but instead is coming off a roller coaster ride that saw the Panthers fail to post back-to-back wins after Week 2 and included heartbreaking losses to Iowa and Notre Dame in nonconference action and Cincinnati and West Virginia in Big East play. And now, they're arriving without a head coach, as Todd Graham took the job at Arizona State (a message he relayed to his team via text). Nevertheless, the only season of the Graham era did produce some highlights, including a 21–14 win over Big East co-champ Louisville and a season-ending 33–20 win over Syracuse that clinched bowl eligibility. 

The Mustangs are bowling for the third consecutive season, but they limp into Birmingham having lost four of six, three of them by significant margins. In particular, SMU struggled against C-USA's upper echelon, losing to Southern Miss, Houston and Tulsa by an average score of 34–6. The Mustangs did post a signature win — a 40–33 overtime victory over TCU — so it would be foolish to discount their chances.   
 
WHEN PITTSBURGH HAS THE BALL:

Quarterback Tino Sunseri regressed a bit during his junior season, as his TD-to-interception ratio fell from 16-9 to 10-10. The Panthers suffered a devastating loss with a knee injury to running back Ray Graham in a win over Connecticut, putting extra pressure on Sunseri and the passing game; Graham had rushed for 964 yards in eight games, an average of 120.5 yards per game. The Mustangs boast a more-than-respectable defense, although they had trouble producing turnovers, with only five interceptions all season. 
 
WHEN SMU HAS THE BALL:

The key for the Mustangs: Protect the football. Jones' crew ranked dead last in the nation in turnover margin (-1.42) thanks to 31 giveaways, including an alarming 19 interceptions. The Mustangs live and die on the arm of quarterback J.J. McDermott, who had four 300-yard outings, including a 349-yard, four-touchdown masterpiece against TCU. McDermott also had four games with multiple interceptions, and the Mustangs were 1–3 in those games. Pitt was vulnerable against the pass, ranking 71st in the nation at 233.3 ypg, so expect the Mustangs to throw early and often. 
 
Special Teams

Not much to see here. Neither team has an especially reliable kicker, nor does either cause much heartburn in the return game. SMU's Richard Crawford does rank ninth nationally in punt return average (12.67) but he did most of his damage with a 141-yard performance against UCF. 
 
Prediction
 
Both teams could use a boost of momentum heading into the offseason, but Todd Graham's messy departure has left a cloud over the Pittsburgh program. Expect the Mustangs to muster enough offense to outscore the Panthers. 

SMU 28, Pittsburgh 24

Teaser:
<p> Athlon previews the 2012 BBVA Compass Bowl: Pittsburgh vs. SMU.</p>
Post date: Thursday, January 5, 2012 - 05:34
Path: /college-football/college-football-2012-three-teams-decline
Body:

By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

It's never too early to start thinking about next season, and Athlon kicked off our lookahead to 2012 with a very, very early top 25. Of course, a lot is going to change between now and when our official preseason poll is released in May, but we are taking an early glimpse of how things could look.

What teams will struggle to match its 2011 win total in 2012? Here are three candidates:

Boise State – 2012 will be the Broncos’ final year in the Mountain West, before making the move to the Big East in 2013. Boise State should be picked as the preseason conference favorite, but it’s unlikely it will finish in the BCS top 10 at the end of the year. Quarterback Kellen Moore departs after a fantastic career, leaving big shoes to fill under center. Joe Southwick, Grant Hedrick, Jimmy Laughrea and incoming freshman Nick Patti will battle to replace Moore in spring practice. Running back Doug Martin also departs, but D.J. Harper is expected to get another year of eligibility after two season-ending knee injuries. The offensive line loses three seniors, including valuable left tackle Nate Potter. The defense is also hit hard by senior departures, as linemen Tyrone Crawford, Billy Winn, Chase Baker, Shea McClellin and Jarrell Root are all out of eligibility. Although the backups up front have some experience, it’s still a lot to replace. Linebackers Byron Hout and Aaron Tevis, along with defensive backs George Iloka and Cedric Febis are also out of eligibility. Although Boise State still deserves a spot in the preseason top 25, it’s going to be very difficult to repeat another top 10 finish in the BCS. Expect the Broncos to take a step back in 2012, before jumping back into the top 10-15 in 2013.

Oklahoma State – With quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon departing, it’s going to be very difficult for the Cowboys to repeat as Big 12 champs. In addition to replacing one of the nation’s top pass-catch duos, Oklahoma State’s offense will lose All-American tackle Levy Adock and two other starters on the offensive line. The defense returns mostly intact, but ends Jamie Blatnick and Richetti Jones must be replaced, along with safety Markelle Martin. Oklahoma State’s 11 regular season wins in 2011 was its first double-digit victory total since posting 10 in 1988. The Big 12 won't get any easier next season, as Texas is expected to improve, while TCU and West Virginia are joining the conference. Coach Mike Gundy has raised the bar in Stillwater, but even though the program is in a much better position to handle the departures, the Cowboys will still take a step back in 2012.

Stanford – Just like Oklahoma State, Stanford is in a better position than it was five years ago to soften the blow of some of the defections. However, losing quarterback Andrew Luck is enough for this team to slip out of most preseason top 25 lists. The Cardinal will likely have an open competition for the job, with sophomore Brett Nottingham the early leader going into spring practice. Whichever quarterback wins the job will have to break in some new receiving targets, as tight end Coby Fleener and receiver Chris Owusu are out of eligibility. Also, the offensive line will need some work, as guard David DeCastro and tackle Jonathan Martin have declared for the NFL Draft. The secondary will have to be revamped, but linebacker Shayne Skov will give the defense a boost with his return from a knee injury.

Teaser:
<p> Athlon takes a look at three teams that could struggle to match its 2011 win total in 2012.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, January 4, 2012 - 07:53
Path: /college-football/cotton-bowl-preview-kansas-state-vs-arkansas
Body:

by Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman on Twitter)

Cotton Bowl  
Kansas State vs. Arkansas
Date:
Jan. 6, 8:00 PM ET 
Location: Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas

This game looks to be the most anticipated non-BCS contest of the postseason, and it quickly sold out Cowboys Stadium after the pairing of Top 10 teams was announced. Arkansas and Kansas State both went 10-2 this season, with the Razorbacks relying on a high-octane passing attack and the Wildcats riding a solid ground game and excellent turnover margin to double-digit wins. Arkansas plays in the brutal SEC West, and the two best teams in the country — Alabama and LSU — gave the Hogs their only two losses. Both of Kansas State’s defeats were also to quality teams — Oklahoma and Oklahoma State — in a rugged Big 12 schedule.

Arkansas missed the postseason in 2008, coach Bobby Petrino’s first season in Fayetteville. However the Razorbacks have rebounded with three straight January bowls, including last year’s BCS appearance in the Sugar Bowl. The former Southwest Conference member will be making its 12th Cotton Bowl appearance. K-State did not get to a bowl from 2007-09, but the Wildcats returned to the postseason last year in the Pinstripe Bowl. Bill Snyder has the rescued the program for a second time, and he will receive many Coach of the Year honors for this season’s performance. This will be the 14th bowl in KSU history, and Snyder has been the coach for 13 of those postseason games.

WHEN KANSAS STATE HAS THE BALL:

Junior quarterback Collin Klein had a breakout season in Manhattan, running for over 1,000 yards and scoring an amazing 26 touchdowns on the ground. He played wide receiver as a freshman and received some backup duty at quarterback as a sophomore. Klein became the starter this season and threw for 1,745 and 12 touchdowns along with his rushing accomplishments. Running back John Hubert added 933 yards and three scores on the ground this season. The Wildcats rushing duo accounted for 481 of the team’s 566 carries in 2011.

K-State’s leading receiver is Chris Harper, who finished with 39 catches for 536 yards and five touchdowns this season. Sophomore Tramaine Thompson was second on the team with 281 receiving yards and will serve as Wildcats’ return man. Unfortunately, productive freshman Tyler Lockett (nephew of K-State great, Aaron) was lost for the season with a lacerated kidney in the Oklahoma State game.

Arkansas struggled in rushing defense, ranking 80th in the country. Senior linebacker Jerry Franklin led the Hogs in tackles for a fourth-straight season. He totaled 93 stops this year along with 10 tackles for loss. Safety Tramain Thomas was second on the team with 87 tackles and also added five interceptions. The Arkansas defensive line must play well in this game to give Franklin and Thomas a chance to get stops against a solid K-State running game.

WHEN ARKANSAS HAS THE BALL:

Arkansas gunslinger Tyler Wilson does his damage through the air, throwing for over 3,400 yards and 22 scores this season. The junior signal caller did a solid job in his first year as a starter, and he did not have the benefit of star tailback Knile Davis running the ball. Davis had over 1,300 yards in 2010 but missed this season with a severe ankle injury. There have been rumors that he could return for the Cotton Bowl, but Davis would lose a year of eligibility in that case.

The Hogs have a highly productive receiving group, and the leader in 2011 was Jarius Wright. The senior wideout had 63 catches for 1,029 yards and 11 scores. Senior Joe Adams (630 yards) and junior Cobi Hamilton (516 yards) are also solid targets, while tight end Chris Gragg had a productive season with 40 catches for 492 yards and two scores. Arkansas used a committee approach to the running the ball with Davis out. Dennis Johnson led the way with 637 yards and three touchdowns, but Ronnie Wingo Jr. and short-yardage back Broderick Green will also get carries.

The Kansas State gave up plenty of yards this season in the high-scoring Big 12. The Wildcats did not get much pressure opposing quarterbacks, which contributed to allowing over 267 passing yards per game. Linebacker Arthur Brown blossomed after transferring (Miami) back to his home state, leading the team with 95 stops this year. Cornerback Nigel Malone also had an excellent season with 57 tackles and a Big 12-leading seven interceptions. K-State will need to cause some turnovers to slow down the Razorbacks’ attack.

Special Teams

Both teams are fairly solid in this critical area. Arkansas arguably has the best punt returner in the nation in Adams, who averaged a nation-leading 16.2 yards on 16 returns and took three to the end zone. The Hogs will split kick returns between Johnson and Marquel Wade, both of whom averaged over 25 yards per kick return and scored once this season. Punter Dylan Breeding averaged a stellar 45.2 yards on 49 punts, including putting 14 of them inside the 20-yard line. Sophomore kicker Zach Hocker was 18-for-24 on field goals with a long of 50 yards.

Kansas State had a top returner in the aforementioned Lockett, who averaged a whopping 35.2 yards on 16 kick returns with two touchdowns before his injury. Thompson should handle both sets of returns in this game, and he had a solid average of 13.2 yards on just nine punt returns. Junior kicker Anthony Cantele had a quality season, going 17-for-22 on field goals with a long of 54 yards. Junior Ryan Doerr averaged 40.5 yards on 59 punts, with 13 placed inside the 20-yard line.

Prediction

It will be fun to watch the Arkansas aerial wizardry against Mr. Klein and K-State’s efficient rushing attack. There will be plenty of points scored as Jerry Jones watches his alma mater at Cowboys Stadium. The key to this game will be turnovers, a factor that the Wildcats have relied on heavily this year.

Wilson threw the ball over 400 times this year, but he had only six interceptions. Kansas State will challenge the Arkansas defense with Klein starring in the game, but I’ll take Wilson to lead the Razorbacks to an exciting Cotton Bowl victory.

Arkansas 37, Kansas State 31

Teaser:
<p> Athlon previews the 2012 Cotton Bowl: Kansas State vs. Arkansas.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, January 4, 2012 - 07:22
Path: /college-football/orange-bowl-preview-clemson-vs-west-virginia
Body:

By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

Orange Bowl
Clemson (10-3) vs. West Virginia (9-3)
Date: Jan. 4 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Location: Sun Life Stadium, Miami, Fla.

The ACC and Big East are often criticized for being the two worst BCS conferences, but the 2012 Orange Bowl should be a showcase for two of the top offenses in college football.

It’s been an up and down year for Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. Coming off a 6-7 record in 2010, not much was expected from the Tigers in 2011, especially with a new offensive scheme implemented. However, all of the new pieces seemed to fit and the Tigers began the year 8-0 and emerged as a threat to play for the national title. Despite the hot start, Clemson dropped three of their next four games, before rebounding to dismantle Virginia Tech 38-10 in the ACC Championship.

Although Swinney has led Clemson to two ACC title game appearances under his watch, offensive coordinator Chad Morris deserves much of the credit for the success of this team in 2011. The offense finished 10th in the ACC in scoring last season, but showed dramatic improvement this year, averaging 33.6 points a game and ranking 29th nationally by averaging 440.6 yards per game.

This is Clemson’s first appearance in a BCS bowl since this system’s inception in 1998. The Tigers have three previous trips to the Orange Bowl, with the last coming in 1982 against Nebraska.

West Virginia had some offseason turmoil, as Bill Stewart was forced out in early June, prompting Dana Holgorsen to become head coach a year earlier than expected. Although the coaching transition resulted in a few uneasy moments while the situation was sorted out, most expected this would have little impact on the 2011 season. And that’s exactly how it played out. Holgorsen’s arrival helped to ignite a struggling offense, while defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel navigated some key departures to keep this defense among the best in the Big East.

Although there’s a battle in the courtroom still to play out, this appears to be West Virginia’s last season in the Big East. And if this is indeed its finale in the conference, the Mountaineers will be going out on top. After losing to Syracuse and Louisville, West Virginia’s Big East title hopes looked bleak in early November. However, a win over Cincinnati on Nov. 12 and a loss by Louisville on that same weekend vaulted the Mountaineers back into conference title contention.

The Mountaineers have claimed a share of the Big East title in three out of the last five seasons. This is West Virginia’s first appearance in the Orange Bowl and its first BCS bowl trip since the 2008 Fiesta Bowl.

These two teams have met only once, with Clemson claiming a 27-7 victory in the 1989 Gator Bowl.

WHEN CLEMSON HAS THE BALL:

In addition to hiring Morris, the emergence of quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins has helped to ignite this offense. The Tigers scored 30 or more points in nine games this season and led the ACC with 284.8 passing yards per game.

In his first season as the starter, Boyd threw for 3,578 yards and 31 touchdowns, which prompted his selection as the ACC’s first-team all-conference quarterback. He finished with 186 yards and five scores on the ground, but Morris would like to get a little more production from him in that department.

Watkins has emerged as one of the top receivers in college football, catching 77 passes for 1,153 yards and 11 scores. He has chipped in 229 yards on the ground, while also averaging 26.3 yards per kickoff return. Watkins is one of the nation’s most dangerous players with the ball in his hand, and Clemson will look to get him 10-15 touches in this game.

There’s no shortage of weapons outside of Watkins, as DeAndre Hopkins caught 62 passes and tight end Dwayne Allen also chipped in 48 catches, with eight going for scores. Running back Andre Ellington is another dangerous weapon, rushing for 1,062 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. Mike Bellamy is the team’s top backup rusher, but he is suspended for this game, leaving Clemson with very little depth behind Ellington.

West Virginia’s defense had to break in seven new starters coming into this season, but finished 27th nationally in total defense and 31st in pass defense. The Mountaineers struggled to stop the run, finishing 51st nationally with 140.8 yards per game allowed.

West Virginia’ secondary was already under fire with Boyd and Watkins, but was dealt another blow when safety Terence Garvin was ruled out of this game due to knee surgery. He finished third on the team with 72 tackles, while adding two interceptions and recording 3.5 sacks. The Mountaineers allowed only 199.6 passing yards a game during the regular season, but that will be tested without Garvin as they try to stop Clemson’s offense. 

Coordinator Jeff Casteel did a good job keeping West Virginia’s defense among the best in the Big East this year, but it will be put to the test with the question marks in the secondary. The Mountaineers have to get pressure on Boyd and not allow him to hit big plays to Watkins, Allen or Hopkins. West Virginia’s defense allowed 2.3 sacks per game, and Clemson’s offensive line allowed 2.3 a contest. Considering the Tigers’ have struggled to protect Boyd at times, the Mountaineers need to get pressure and disrupt the timing of Clemson’s offense. If West Virginia struggles to get after Boyd, it could be a long evening for the defense with the playmakers on the other sideline.

WHEN WEST VIRGINIA HAS THE BALL:

The transition to Holgorsen’s offense hasn’t been a smooth one for the Mountaineers – but it hasn’t been a debacle either. West Virginia finished seventh nationally in passing offense, but ranked 100th in rushing offense.

Quarterback Geno Smith makes West Virginia’s offense go, throwing for 3,978 yards and 25 touchdowns this year. The junior attempted 483 passes and tossed only seven picks. Smith does not like to run, but can make a few plays with his legs if needed.

Smith has no shortage of talented receivers, starting with Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin. Bailey led the team with 1,197 yards and 11 receiving scores, while Austin paced the team with 89 receptions. Ivan McCartney, Devon Brown and Tyler Urban are also solid options in the receiving corps.

Clemson’s secondary ranks 38th nationally in pass defense and has allowed 20 passing scores this year. However, the Tigers rank 56th nationally in pass efficiency defense. There’s no question Smith and his receivers are going to get their yards. However, Clemson cannot afford to let West Virginia’s passing offense consistently hit big plays downfield.

Perhaps the biggest key to slowing down West Virginia for the Tigers is winning the battle in the trenches. Clemson end Andre Branch collected 10.5 sacks in the regular season and will be one of the players to watch in this game. The Mountaineers allowed 2.2 sacks per game and if they cannot protect Smith, Clemson’s defense will take the upper hand.

In addition to struggling to protect Smith, West Virginia’s offensive line had its share of troubles opening up holes for the rushing attack. The Mountaineers shook up the front five late in the year and it’s uncertain who will start in the Orange Bowl. Regardless of which players get the call to start, this group will be under fire.

Although it isn’t crucial for this team to rush for 200 yards every game, the Mountaineers have to get some production on the ground. Dustin Garrison led the way with 742 yards, and Shawne Alston chipped in 339 yards and 10 touchdowns. Garrison suffered a knee injury in practice and won't be able to play against Clemson. Look for Alston and freshman Andrew Buie to shoulder the workload at running back.

Special Teams

This unit has been an adventure at times for West Virginia. Mike Molinari and Corey Smith have traded the punting job throughout the year, with Smith gaining the upper hand at the end of the season. Kicker Tyler Bitancurt has connected on 16 of 22 attempts, including 3 of 4 from beyond 40 yards.

Austin is one of the top return men in college football, averaging 26.5 yards per kick return and 14.1 on punt returns. He has scored twice on kickoffs this season.

Clemson can match West Virginia on returns, as Watkins averaged 26.3 yards per kickoff return.

Kicker Chandler Catanzaro connected on 20 of 25 attempts for Clemson, while punter Dawson Zimmerman averaged 38.2 yards per punt.

Prediction

With two high-flying offenses, this matchup has the potential to be one of the highest-scoring games of the 2011-2012 bowl season. However, with the long layoff, it may take a quarter for both offenses to find their rhythm.

Both teams will have their moment, but Clemson’s defensive line will be able to disrupt West Virginia’s offensive timing and get after Smith in all four quarters. The Tigers also have more balance on offense, which is eventually the deciding factor.

Clemson 34, West Virginia 27

Teaser:
<p> Athlon previews the 2012 Orange Bowl: West Virginia vs. Clemson.&nbsp;</p>
Post date: Tuesday, January 3, 2012 - 07:34
Path: /college-football/college-football-2012-three-teams-rise
Body:

By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

It's never too early to start thinking about next season, and Athlon kicked off our lookahead to 2012 with a very, very early top 25. Of course, a lot is going to change between now and when our official preseason poll is released in May, but we are taking an early glimpse of how things could look.

What teams will surpass its 2011 win total in 2012? Here are three candidates:

Ohio StateAfter a disappointing 6-6 regular season record in 2011, expect the Buckeyes to jump back into 10-win territory in 2012. Most importantly, Ohio State is not expected to have any suspensions impact the offense like it did this season. However, the Buckeyes were hit with a one-year bowl ban, so this team will be ineligible to compete for the Big Ten title. Quarterback Braxton Miller should shine in new coach Urban Meyer’s spread offense, especially with a group of young receivers getting better next year. The Buckeyes will have three key losses on the offensive line – tackles Mike Adams and J.B. Shugarts, along with center Mike Brewster – but Miller’s mobility should help ease the concerns about this group. Ohio State had an uncharacteristic season on defense, finishing sixth in total and scoring in the Big Ten. Defensive lineman John Simon could enter the NFL Draft, and the secondary will lose Tyler Moeller, but the rest of the defense is expected to return intact. With a lot of new faces seeing time this year, Ohio State’s defense should finish near the top of the Big Ten in 2012. Meyer is a proven winner and is putting together a terrific recruiting class in a short amount of time. With Wisconsin losing quarterback Russell Wilson and the ongoing uncertainty at Penn State, expect Ohio State to begin the year as the favorites in the Big Ten Leaders Division - without a chance to play in the conference title game. 

TexasThere’s been much speculation about coach Mack Brown’s future in Austin, but all indications point to his return on the sidelines in Austin for 2012. And there’s a lot of reasons for Texas to be optimistic next season. The Longhorns made a two-win improvement from 2010 this season and a similar jump isn’t out of the question. Coordinator Bryan Harsin was brought in from Boise to jumpstart the offense, but the Longhorns finished eighth in the Big 12 in scoring. Quarterback play was an issue all year, but Case McCoy and David Ash should be better with another offseason to work with the offense. However, Texas would probably be better off by settling on one quarterback and developing the scheme around him. Expect the Longhorns to focus on the run next season, especially with four starters coming back on the offensive line, along with running backs Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron. The backfield will also get a boost with incoming freshman Jonathan Gray – ranked as the No. 7 prospect in the Athlon Consensus 100. The defense loses tackle Kheeston Randall and linebackers Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho, but should remain one of the best units in the Big 12. There’s a lot of pressure on Mack Brown to win next season and the pieces are in place to expect nine wins.

Washington The Huskies have made steady progress under coach Steve Sarkisian, posting back-to-back seven-win seasons. And the future looks bright for 2012. Quarterback Keith Price was solid in his first year as the starter, throwing for 2,625 yards and 29 scores, while tossing 11 picks. Price battled injuries most of the year and a full offseason to heal should allow him to be 100 percent next season. He should have no shortage of weapons in the receiving corps, as Kasen Williams and James Johnson are proven targets, and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins could contend for All-American honors next season. Running back Chris Polk declared for the NFL Draft, which leaves Jesse Callier and Bishop Sankey to battle for the No. 1 role in the backfield. The Huskies also have to replace the left side of their offensive line. The defense has been a sore spot under Sarkisian, and coordinator Nick Holt was canned following an after the Alamo Bowl loss to Baylor. If Washington wants to push Oregon for the Pac-12 North title next year, the defense has to improve. The line will lose end Everrette Thompson and tackle Alameda Ta’amu, while linebacker Cort Dennison and cornerback Quinton Richardson also depart. Even with Polk departing, the Huskies should be picked second in the Pac-12 North and could start the year in many preseason top 25 lists. 

Teaser:
<p> Athlon takes a look at three teams that could surpass its 2011 win total in 2012.&nbsp;</p>
Post date: Tuesday, January 3, 2012 - 07:22
Path: /college-football/sugar-bowl-preview-virginia-tech-vs-michigan
Body:

by Mark Ross

Allstate Sugar Bowl
Michigan (10-2) vs. Virginia Tech (11-2)
Date: Jan. 3 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Location: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, La.

Michigan and Virginia Tech seem to have a lot in common. Not only do they have similar statistics when it comes to offensive and defensive production, both teams have dual-threat quarterbacks, 1,000-yard running backs, didn’t win their respective conferences and don’t deserve to be in a BCS bowl.

While the first four claims are fact, it’s the last one that’s purely opinion, and it’s an opinion that seems to be shared by the majority of college football fans and pundits alike.

Surprise is probably the best word to use in describing the reaction after Sugar Bowl officials picked No. 13 Michigan and No. 11 Virginia Tech for its Jan. 3 match up. In the process, these same officials not only bypassed two teams — No. 7 Boise State and No. 8 Kansas State — that were ranked higher in the BCS standings, but also a Michigan State team that defeated the Wolverines earlier this season and was the runner-up to Rose Bowl-bound Wisconsin in the Big Ten.

Regardless of your opinion of the BCS system and its flaws, this much is clear — Sugar Bowl officials wanted Michigan and Virginia Tech and that’s what they got. Now it’s up to both of these teams to seize the chance on the big stage and prove to the fans and pundits that the Sugar Bowl made the right choice.

For one, Michigan is more than happy to return to a BCS bowl for the first time since the 2007 Rose Bowl. The program is enjoying a revival under first-year head coach Brady Hoke, who led the Wolverines to double-digit wins for the first time since 2006.

That may not seem like a big deal to most programs, but this is Michigan we are talking about, who has the most wins (894) in college football history and had made a bowl game 33 straight years before going 3-9 in 2008 under Rich Rodriguez.

Michigan did get back to a bowl last year, its first in three seasons, but got thoroughly outplayed and embarrassed by Mississippi State in a 52-14 Gator Bowl debacle. So besides showing the nation that the football program is back among the elite, the Wolverines also want nothing more than to make last year’s poor bowl performance a distant memory.

Virginia Tech may have more than 200 less wins than Michigan, but as far as recent history goes, the Hokies arguably have more claim as one of the sport’s elite programs than the Wolverines. Virginia Tech currently has the third-longest bowl steak in the nation at 19 straight postseason appearances and has won 10 or more games eight straight seasons.

Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer has the most wins among FBS active head coaches with 250. He’s just 8-10 in bowl games, however, with a 1-4 record in BCS bowls, including last year’s 40-12 disappointing showing against Stanford in the Orange Bowl.

Virginia Tech made it to the ACC Championship Game once again this year, but fell to Clemson, 38-10, to deny the Hokies a fourth ACC title in five seasons. Clemson is the only team to defeat Virginia Tech this season, as the Tigers also beat the Hokies 23-3 in Blacksburg, Va., back on Oct. 1.

This will be the first-ever meeting between these two schools.

WHEN MICHIGAN HAS THE BALL:

The little engine that makes Michigan’s offense go is dual-threat quarterback Denard Robinson. The junior, affectionately known as “Shoelace,” has kept opposing defenses in knots the past two seasons with both his legs and arm.

Robinson is averaging nearly 100 yards rushing a game, which ranks him 28th in the nation. His total rushing yards are down (1,163 to 1,702) compared to last year as is his yards per carry average (5.6 to 6.6), but he’s had fewer attempts (208 to 256) and scored more rushing touchdowns (16 to 14).

Robinson also has attempted fewer passes (237 to 291) to this point than last season, while throwing for 2,056 yards with 18 touchdowns. He’s not the most accurate passer, completing 56.1 percent of his attempts thus far, and has tossed 18 interceptions.

Even though his overall numbers are down compared to last season when he finished sixth in the Heisman voting, he is still an extremely dangerous weapon as he ranks 29th in the nation in total offense with 268.3 yards per game.

Part of the reason Robinson’s rushing attempts are down is because of the emergence of running back Fitzgerald Toussaint. A sophomore, Toussaint established himself as Michigan’s lead back in the second half of the season. The first Wolverine not named Robinson to rush for 1,000 yards or more in a season since Mike Hart in 2007, Toussaint has 112 carries for 678 yards (6.1 ypc) in the past five games alone.

Robinson and Toussaint have combined to rush for 2,174 yards and 25 touchdowns. They are the main reason the Wolverines have the nation’s 12th-ranked rushing attack, averaging more than 235 yards on the ground alone.

Four different Wolverines have caught at least 18 passes this season led by Junior Hemmingway’s 32 receptions for 636 yards. Senior tight end Kevin Koger is the team leader in touchdown receptions with four.

Michigan’s offensive line has done a good job all season opening up running lanes and protecting Robinson when he stays in the pocket. The line is a veteran group led by senior center David Molk, who was awarded this year’s Rimington Trophy as the nation’s top center. Molk also was named the Big Ten’s top offensive lineman and has started 41 games in his career.

Michigan is averaging more 420 yards of total offense and 34 points per game. By comparison, Virginia Tech’s defense has allowed that many yards and points in a game twice. Once to Miami (Fla.) in a 38-35 win and to Clemson in the ACC title game loss. The Hokies will look to continue their defensive consistency against the Wolverines.

Virginia Tech has already faced several dual-threat quarterbacks similar to Robinson, most notably Clemson’s Tajh Boyd (twice) and Georgia Tech’s Tevin Washington, so Robinson won’t necessarily be a new challenge. However, the Hokies will need to limit Michigan’s entire rushing attack if they want to force the Wolverines to throw more, which is not Robinson’s strong suit.

The Hokies are one of the more solid defenses in the nation, performing well against both the run (107.8 yards per game allowed, 17th in the country) and pass (206.2 ypg allowed, 40th). They also are giving up less than 18 points per game and are 11th in sacks per game with nearly three a contest. It will be interesting to see how much pressure they can get on Robinson, and if they will be able to bring him down before he gets out of the pocket.

Two Hokies to watch for on the defensive side are Jayron Hosley and Kyle Fuller. Not only are the two defensive backs good in pass coverage, combining for four interceptions, but they also are capable of rushing the passer. Fuller is fourth on the team with 4.5 sacks and it will be interesting to see if Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster uses him or Hosley as a “spy” on Robinson or blitzes with them often to try and pressure the Wolverine’s signal-caller.

As long as they can contain Robinson, the Hokies should be able to force a mistake or two out of him, as they have already picked off 15 passes this season.

WHEN VIRGINIA TECH HAS THE BALL:

Virginia Tech has its own dual-threat quarterback in Logan Thomas, but it also has David Wilson, the ACC Offensive Player and Player of the Year, in its backfield. Wilson is fifth in the country with 1,627 rushing yards (125.2 per game), is averaging more than six yards per carry, and has scored 10 total touchdowns.

The junior has rushed for 100 yards or more in 10 of 13 games and has a chance to break Virginia running back Thomas Jones’ ACC single-season record of 1,798 yards, which he set in 1999 in 11 games.

Wilson is a fast and explosive runner who is deceptively strong for his size (5-10, 205) and does not go down easily. He’s dangerous as a receiver out of the backfield and, when given the chance, as a returner. Josh Oglesby serves as the Hokies’ change-of-pace back for Wilson and has 336 rushing yards and six touchdowns this season.

While Michigan’s Robinson and Tech’s Thomas may both be dual-threat quarterbacks, they do it in different ways. Thomas is 6-6, 254, which has brought out comparisons to 2010 Heisman Trophy winner and current Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.

At times this season, Thomas has played like Newton, using his size and strength to bowl over defenders on quarterback draws and sneaks, or shaking off pass rushers long enough to prolong the play and come up with big yards. The sophomore is the latest in a line of successful dual-threat Virginia Tech quarterbacks, most notably Michael Vick and last season’s starter, Tyrod Taylor.

Thomas doesn’t rush nearly as often as Robinson, mostly due to Wilson’s presence in the backfield, but he does have more than 400 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground. He has completed close to 60 percent of his passes for 2,799 yards and 19 touchdowns with just nine interceptions.

Thomas has spread the ball out to his receivers with six different Hokies catching at least 14 passes. Jarrett Boykin leads the team with 57 catches, while Danny Coale has the most receiving yards (787) and Boykin and Marcus Davis are tied with five touchdowns each. Those three and D.J. Coles have combined for 172 catches, 2,466 yards and 16 touchdowns. 

The starting offensive line consists of four seniors and one sophomore and has done a good job of keeping Thomas upright, allowing just over a sack a game. Michigan’s defense comes into this game 27th in the nation in sacks with 2.3 per game and will try and get to Thomas and slow down Wilson with a trio of defensive linemen in Mike Martin, Craig Roh and Ryan Van Bergen.

The Wolverines are surrendering less than 130 yards rushing per game, so one of the key battles to watch is their run defense against Wilson and Ogelsby. If Virginia Tech can find success on the ground, it should open up things downfield for Thomas and the receivers to make some noise.

Michigan’s defense has been solid all year, one of the biggest reasons for its turnaround this season. Last year the Wolverines gave up nearly 450 yards and 34 points per game, which ranked them in the bottom 20 of the nation in both categories. This season, the Wolverines are currently 18th in the nation in total defense, surrendering less than 320 yards per game, and are giving up less than 18 points per game, which ranks them seventh overall.

With improvement like that, it’s easy to see why the Wolverines went from 7-5 last year to 10-2 this season. Now they get to see if they can maintain this level of performance against the Hokies.

Special Teams

Both Michigan and Virginia Tech rank near the bottom when it comes to net punting and kickoff returns. Virginia Tech is the only team with either a kickoff or punt return for a touchdown this season. Virginia Tech’s Hosley can be dangerous as a returner and has two punt return touchdowns in his career.

Virginia Tech has a reputation for its special teams play, most notably its propensity to block kicks, but the Hokies have just one punt block to this point. Michigan also has one blocked kick this season.

Michigan’s Brendan Gibbons has connected on all but one of his 53 PAT attempts. The sophomore has made 10 of 14 field goal attempts, but just two of those makes were between 40-49 yards.

Cody Journell, like Gibbons, is a sophomore and has missed just one PAT (43-of-44) this season. The Virginia Tech placekicker also hasn’t attempted a field goal from beyond 50 yards, but he has made 14 of his 17 field goal tries overall, including three of four from 40-49 yards.

Prediction

As noted above there are a lot of similarities between these two teams, but let’s concentrate on the ones that matter to the game itself. Both Michigan and Virginia Tech feature strong defenses that don’t give up a lot of yards or points. Both also have offenses led by dual-threat quarterbacks and 1,000-yard running backs. So either something has to give or this is going to be a low-scoring affair.

I’ll lean towards the former as while I see neither team exploding offensively, I do think Virginia Tech has a slight edge on Michigan when it comes to overall offensive makeup. Robinson is by far a better and more dangerous runner, especially in the open field, than Thomas, but Thomas has the edge as a passer and also has a better receiving corps. Toussaint has been extremely productive as the Wolverines’ lead back recently; while Wilson has been doing it all season for the Hokies.

Both teams are on a mission to prove to everyone that they belong in a BCS bowl, but as everyone knows, only one can win. Both teams are no stranger to a BCS bowl, but Virginia Tech was here just last year, and while the Hokies may not have the best record in the BCS spotlight, they are more familiar with it than the Wolverines, who haven’t been in a BCS bowl since 2007.

In the end, I think Virginia Tech’s experience, coupled with its offensive balance and special teams prowess, will be enough to slow down this “young” and hungry Michigan squad.

Virginia Tech 27, Michigan 24

Teaser:
<p> Athlon previews the 2012 Sugar Bowl: Virginia Tech vs. Michigan.&nbsp;</p>
Post date: Monday, January 2, 2012 - 10:03
Path: /college-football/gator-bowl-preview-florida-vs-ohio-state
Body:

by Nathan Rush

Gator Bowl
Ohio State (6–6) vs. Florida (6–6)

Date: Jan. 2, 2012 at 1 p.m. ET
Location: EverBank Field, Jacksonville, Fla.

Coined the “Urban Meyer Bowl” this year’s Gator Bowl pits the two-time BCS national title-winning coach’s former team, Florida, where he coached from 2005-10, against his new team, Ohio State, where he will coach beginning in 2012.

The Buckeyes had national championship aspirations for 2011. After all, coach Jim Tressel had proven capable of winning it all and quarterback Terrell Pryor was returning for his senior season.

But those expectations vanished faster than TP2’s black-on-black Nissan 350Z, after NCAA investigation led to Tressel being fired, Pryor entering the NFL supplemental draft and OSU’s top playmakers — running back Daniel Herron and receiver DeVier Posey — being suspended indefinitely. Interim coach Luke Fickell took over a program backpedaling in shambles, but was still able to lead the Buckeyes to a bowl.

Gator Nation was sad to see Meyer “retire” after the 2010 season, but excited about the arrival of Will Muschamp — an energetic then-39-year-old defensive coordinator who had won a BCS title at LSU under Nick Saban and been the head coach in-waiting at Texas under Mack Brown before arriving in Gainesville. Muschamp also brought three-time Super Bowl winning offensive coordinator and former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis with him to the Swamp.

Many expected the Gators to contend for the SEC East title and possibly a BCS berth. But those illusions of grandeur were quickly squashed, as UF lost six of its last eight games. The Gators only notched one win against a team in a bowl this year — a 26–21 nail-biter over Vanderbilt.

Both traditional football powers have fallen on hard times, with identical 6–6 records, and will need to win this rematch of the BCS national title game following the 2006 season — when the Gators upset the Buckeyes, 41–14 — in order to avoid a losing mark. Florida has not finished below .500 since 1979, while Ohio State’s last losing season was in 1988.

WHEN OHIO STATE HAS THE BALL:

After being suspended for the first six games of the season, “Boom” Herron exploded onto the scene to rush for 596 yards and three TDs over the last six contests — including a 160-yard workhorse effort against Wisconsin, OSU’s best win of the year. Last season, Herron totaled 1,155 yards and 16 TDs on the ground. This will be the 5’10”, 205-pounder’s final game in scarlet and gray, expect him to see plenty of action running behind a quality O-line led by center Mike Brewster and tackle Mike Adams.

Freshman quarterback Braxton Miller has been Pryor-lite this year, passing for 997 yards, 11 TDs and four INTs, while scrambling for another 695 yards and seven TDs on the ground. The stage is set for a coming out party of sorts for the 6’3”, 210-pound Huber Heights, Ohio, native. The Buckeyes have no receivers of note, with only three players catching over 10 passes this year.

Florida’s defense ranks ninth in the nation (299.58 ypg) and 25th in scoring (20.58 ppg), but has been susceptible to the run, ranking 40th (132.33 ypg). With so many four- and five-star recruits, more “splash” plays were expected from the Gators stop-unit, which had only eight INTs and four fumble recoveries this season. Linebacker Jon Bostic and safety Matt Elam have been the best of the bunch.

WHEN FLORIDA HAS THE BALL:

Following Weis’ departure for Kansas, interim offensive coordinator Brian White will call the shots in the Gator Bowl, which will be quarterback John Brantley’s last stand. The one-time Texas commit and longtime Tim Tebow backup was never able to put it all together at Florida — passing for 1,912 yards, 10 TDs and six INTs in his final campaign. True freshmen Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel are waiting in the wings if the oft-fragile Brantley goes down again.

There is plenty of speed in the backfield, with 2010 NCAA Indoor Track 60-meter champ (6.56 seconds) Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey combining to rush for 1,329 yards and eight TDs this season. Both runners are a threat to take it the distance at any time. Receiver Andre Debose is also a big-play threat, with 423 yards and four TDs on just 15 catches (28.2 ypc).

Ohio State has struggled against the run, allowing 142.42 yards per game. However, the Buckeyes did limit Wisconsin’s Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball to just 85 yards. End John Simon has been disruptive, with seven sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. In a down year for the Buckeyes, Simon, safety C.J. Barnett and linebacker Andrew Sweat were the only defenders to be named either first- or second-team All-Big Ten.

Special Teams

Gators kicker Caleb Sturgis was one of three finalists for the Lou Groza Award, after connecting on 21-of-25 field goals — including three from beyond 50 yards — and all 28 extra points this year. Demps (25.0 ypr, 99-yard TD vs. Georgia) is a dangerous kick returner, as are Rainey and Solomon Patton. Rainey has a punt return TD as well.

Ohio State’s Jordan Hall gives the Bucks solid starting field position on kick returns (28.1 ypr), and kicker Drew Basil is adequate (15-of-18 FGs). But there are no Joey Galloways or Mike Nugents on special teams for OSU.

Prediction

Meyer’s new team will ground-and-pound his old squad, as Muschamp’s first season train wreck ends in a Gator Bowl loss. After a bitter start to the season, Ohio State’s year will end with a sweet win over Florida, its most-hated intersectional rival.

Ohio State 27, Florida 20

Teaser:
<p> Athlon previews the 2012 Gator Bowl: Ohio State vs. Florida.</p>
Post date: Saturday, December 31, 2011 - 07:57
Path: /college-football/outback-bowl-preview-michigan-state-vs-georgia
Body:

by Rob Doster

Outback Bowl
Teams: Michigan State (10–3) vs. Georgia (10-3)

Date: Jan. 2 at 1 p.m. ET
Location: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.

 
This game, one of the most intriguing matchups of bowl season, is a rematch of the 2009 Capital One Bowl, won by Georgia 24–12, and also another chance for the Spartans to redeem themselves against an SEC foe after losing in embarrassing fashion to Alabama 49–7 in last year's Capital One Bowl. In fact, Spartans coach Mark Dantonio is still looking for his first bowl win as the boss in East Lansing (0–4). Similarly, the Bulldogs are seeking redemption after an embarrassing 10–6 Liberty Bowl loss to UCF last season.

Raymond James Stadium will play host to two 10-win teams who lost conference championship games and still have something left to prove. The Bulldogs overcame an 0–2 start to race to the SEC East title but squandered early opportunities in the SEC Championship Game and were ultimately pounded by LSU, 42–10. Meanwhile, the Spartans squandered an eight-point fourth quarter lead against Wisconsin and lost the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game 42–39. 


Still, both teams seem to be headed in a positive direction, and the winner will get an extra boost of momentum heading into the stretch drive of recruiting season. Mark Richt has kept the wolves at bay and fashioned a 10-win team that boasts an elite defense, while Dantonio has led a Spartan surge on the strength of a balanced offensive attack that has averaged 38.6 ppg over MSU's last five games. The key could be the ability of the Spartans defense to contain record-setting Georgia signal-caller Aaron Murray, who set a new standard in Athens with 33 touchdown passes this season. 
 
WHEN MICHIGAN STATE HAS THE BALL:

Watching Spartans senior quarterback Kirk Cousins try to find the weak spots in Todd Grantham's 3-4 defense will be one of the highlights of bowl season. The Bulldogs are third nationally in total defense, allowing only 268.5 yards per game, but they'll have their hands full against Cousins and his complement of weapons. The Spartans turned a corner offensively after a 24–3 loss to Nebraska, scoring no fewer than 31 points over their next five games, a stretch during which Cousins has thrown 13 touchdowns with only two interceptions, including a 281-yard, three-touchdown performance against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game. For the season, Cousins ranked 16th nationally in pass efficiency (151.37). Providing balance is sophomore running back Le'Veon Bell, who rushed for 900 yards and 11 scores and posted 100-yard rushing games against Iowa and Wisconsin. The Spartans were effective in protecting the football, committing only 15 turnovers all season. Leading the charge for the Dawgs defense will be explosive sophomore linebacker Jarvis Jones, who ranked third nationally in sacks with 1.04 per game and forced two fumbles. 
 
WHEN GEORGIA HAS THE BALL:

The Dawgs will be tested by a Spartans defense that finished just a couple of notches behind Georgia in total defense (5th) and allowed only 17.5 ppg. Georgia showed nice balance on offense this season, rushing for 172.7 yards per game while throwing for 255.4. Murray shared the wealth, throwing touchdown passes to 10 different receivers this season, and he was at his best down the stretch in rivalry games against Auburn (four touchdown passes) and Georgia Tech (252 yards, four TDs) — Georgia's only two victims who posted winning records on the season. Running back Isaiah Crowell has been something of a disappointment to some Dawg fans despite leading SEC freshmen in rushing with 847 yards. The Georgia offense will try to use Crowell to loosen the Spartans defense and make things easier for Murray and top targets Malcolm Mitchell, Orson Charles and Tavarres King. 
 
Special Teams

Both teams boast experienced kickers, although Georgia's Blair Walsh was uncharacteristically inconsistent this season, missing 12 field goals after missing only 13 in his first three seasons in Athens. Bulldogs punter Drew Butler is a weapon, ranking 12th nationally at 44.3 yards per boot. For Michigan State, Keshawn Martin is a effective punt returner, averaging 11.78 yards per return and taking one back for a score against Northwestern.
 
Prediction
 
This matchup has everything a college football fan could want — namely, two superb quarterbacks with weapons and two imposing defenses. So which team can overcome the heartbreak of a championship game loss and find redemption in Tampa? Both squads have shown resiliency and toughness this season, but the Spartans' lack of success against SEC foes has to be a bit of a red flag. Look for the Dawgs to do just enough to win, as they have so often during the Mark Richt regime. 

Georgia 24, Michigan State 21

Teaser:
<p> Athlon previews the 2012 Outback Bowl: Michigan State vs. Georgia.</p>
Post date: Saturday, December 31, 2011 - 07:30
Path: /college-football/ticketcity-bowl-preview-houston-vs-penn-state
Body:

by Nathan Rush

TicketCity Bowl
Houston (12-1) vs. Penn State (9-3)

Date: Jan. 2, 2012 at 12:00 p.m. ET
Location: Cotton Bowl Stadium, Dallas, Texas

The first-ever Big Ten vs. Conference USA postseason matchup is a surreal pairing of two teams in the middle of downward spirals — albeit of decidedly different natures — led by interim head coaches.

Houston is hung over after having its BCS bowl dreams dashed and undefeated season ruined by Southern Miss during a 49–28 loss in the Conference USA title game. Then, Cougars coach Kevin Sumlin, who was 35–17 in four seasons at UH, left to take the Texas A&M job. Special teams coordinator, inside-receivers and tight ends coach Tony Levine will take over the top spot for the TicketCity Bowl. But make no mistake, the Coogs will rely heavily on the leadership of record-breaking sixth-year senior quarterback Case Keenum, who will be making the final start of an historic career.

On the other side, no one is smiling in Happy Valley these days, following the disgraceful exit of iconic coach Joe Paterno and disgusting criminal charges of child abuse filed against JoePa’s longtime defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky. In the wake of the shocking scandal, defensive coordinator Tom Bradley took over as interim coach, posting a 1–2 record — losing to Nebraska (17–14), winning at Ohio State (20–14) and getting blown out at Wisconsin (45–7) in the regular season finale.

WHEN HOUSTON HAS THE BALL:

The Cougars’ high-octane attack ranks No. 1 in total offense (599.0 ypg), passing (443.8 ypg) and scoring (50.8 ppg).

Keenum orchestrates Houston’s scoreboard fireworks display; but the signal-caller has plenty of weapons at his disposal. Receivers Patrick Edwards (1,524 yards, 18 TDs), Justin Johnson (1,081 yards, 11 TDs) and Tyron Carrier (914 yards, 5 TDs), and running backs Charles Sims (782 yards, 9 TDs) and Michael Hayes (707 yards, 11 TDs) give UH a variety of playmakers capable of putting up big numbers in any given game.

Speaking of numbers, Keenum has taken the video game-gaudy statistical tradition of former Houston passing legends Andre Ware and David Klingler to another level. The 6’2”, 210-pounder from Abilene, Texas, owns the all-time FBS records for total offense (19,572 yards), passing yards (18,685) and passing TDs (152). This season, the 23-year-old — who was granted a medical redshirt after suffering a knee injury last season — led the nation in both passing yards (5,099) and passing TDs (45), while completing 71.7 percent of his passes and throwing just five INTs.

On paper, the Nittany Lions appear to have a formidable defense, ranking fifth nationally in points allowed (15.7 ppg) and 10th in total defense (300.9 ypg). But Penn State played only two offenses ranked in the top 40 nationally in scoring — Wisconsin (4th) and Alabama (16th). PSU went 0–2, losing by a combined score of 72–18 in those contests.

WHEN PENN STATE HAS THE BALL:

If Coach Bradley has his way, the Nittany Lions will play ball-control football, squeeze the air out of the pigskin, dominate time-of-possession and keep Keenum and Co. off the field. That is Penn State’s only realistic formula for victory; PSU will not be able to win a shootout against Houston.

This season, Penn State’s season-high was 41 points, scored against lowly Indiana State in the opener. The Nittany Lions topped 30 points two other times, against Eastern Michigan and at Northwestern. Houston, however, scored over 40 points in 10 games this year and failed to score 30 points only once — scoring 28 in its lone loss to Southern Miss.

Stud sophomore running back Silas Redd (1,188 yards on 5.2 ypc, 7 TDs) will have to dominate a Cougars run defense that ranked 77th nationally, allowing 171.8 yards per game and 12 rushing TDs in 13 games this season.

Special Teams

If Houston scores often that just means more kick return chances for Penn State ace Chaz Powell, who averages 28.3 yards per return and has a 95-yard TD on his resume. Kicker and punter Anthony Fera is also a weapon, having connected on 14-of-17 field goals while averaging 42.0 yards per punt. But Fera will need to be careful punting to Cougars returners Patrick Edwards and Damian Payne, who combined to score two TDs and average 17.3 yards per return. Tyron Carrier is a force on kickoff returns, with a 24.8-yard average and a 100-yard TD. Houston hasn’t punted much or kicked many field goals (10-of-12).

Prediction

Houston sends Keenum out in style, while Penn State ends an ugly season with an embarrassing loss. The Cougars’ offense will run past a Nittany Lion defense — and program — that is licking their wounds after the JoePa, Sandusky disaster.

Houston 42, Penn State 20

Teaser:
<p> Athlon previews the 2012 TicketCity Bowl: Houston vs. Penn State.</p>
Post date: Saturday, December 31, 2011 - 06:11
Path: /college-football/fiesta-bowl-preview-oklahoma-state-vs-stanford
Body:

by Nathan Rush

Fiesta Bowl
Oklahoma State (11–1) vs. Stanford (11–1)

Date: Jan. 2, 2012 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Location: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.

The No. 3 and No. 4 teams in the country — Oklahoma State and Stanford — go toe-to-toe in this year’s Fiesta Bowl, which features two of the three one-loss teams remaining from BCS conferences (with Alabama being the third one-loss squad and LSU, of course, the lone undefeated).

More than that, University of Phoenix Stadium will host the nation’s top-ranked team from outside the Southeastern Conference as well as the consensus No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming 2012 NFL Draft.

Both the Cowboys and Cardinal fell just short of the BCS national title game. But with so many players either set to graduate or expected to bolt for the NFL following this game, expect both sides to be motivated to end their impressive seasons on a high note with a BCS Fiesta Bowl statement.

After starting the year 10–0, main “man” Mike Gundy’s Pokes lost at Iowa State, 37–31 in double-overtime, in a Friday night thriller in their penultimate game — before dominating Oklahoma, 44–10, in the Bedlam finale to end an eight-game losing streak to OU, clinch their first-ever Big 12 title and first outright conference championship since winning the three-team Missouri Valley in 1948.

On the other side, first-year Cardinal coach David Shaw was off to a 9–0 start at Stanford before a disappointing 53–30 letdown to Oregon ended any Pac-12 North division, Pac-12 Conference or BCS national title hopes on The Farm. The Cardinal bounced back, however, with a 31–28 win over Cal in the Big Game and a 28–14 victory over Notre Dame in prime time.

The boys in Vegas are expecting a shootout in this one, with a 74-point over-under, which is the second-highest on the board — trailing only the Alamo Bowl (79) between Baylor and Washington. Expect a scoreboard scorcher in the desert.

WHEN OKLAHOMA STATE HAS THE BALL:

The Cowboys have the nation’s No. 2 scoring offense (49.33 ppg), No. 2 passing offense (386.25 ypg) and No. 3 total offense (557.0 ypg).

Quarterback Brandon Weeden is a former minor league pitching prospect who was drafted by MLB’s New York Yankees in the second round of the 2002 draft, traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers as part of the 2003 Kevin Brown deal and picked up by the Kansas City Royals in the Rule 5 Draft before arriving on campus in Stillwater. The 28-year-old Oklahoma City native has been throwing strikes for O-State all season — passing for 4,328 yards, 34 TDs and 12 INTs.

Only the second-ever two-time Biletnikoff Award winner, Justin Blackmon is the nation’s top wide receiver. The 6’1”, 215-pound junior has 113 catches for 1,336 yards and 15 TDs, but will need a whale of a game in Glendale to match his 2010 stat line of 111 catches for 1,782 yards and 20 TDs, along with four carries for 77 rush yards and one score on the ground. Blackmon is joined by Tracy Moore (672 yards, 4 TDs) and Josh Cooper (660 yards, 3 TDs), but there is no doubt about who is Weeden’s top target.

The Pokes’ running game has a solid one-two punch in feature back Joseph Randle (1,193 yards, 23 TDs) and sidekick Jeremy Smith (645 yards, 9 TDs). But O-State is powered by its dominant O-line — led by first-team All-Big 12 left tackle Levy Adcock (6’6”, 322) and center Grant Garner (6’3”, 292).

Stanford’s defense struggled against the top two offenses it faced this season, allowing 53 points in a loss to Oregon and 48 points in a triple-overtime win at USC. The unit ranked a respectable 23rd nationally in scoring defense (20.33 ppg); but the Cardinal’s 78th-ranked passing defense (241.08 ypg) is cause for concern against the Cowboys. All-Pac-12 safety Delano Howell must avoid getting beat over the top; end Ben Gardner and linebacker Chase Thomas will have to bring their A-game.

WHEN STANFORD HAS THE BALL:

Andrew Luck is being touted as the greatest NFL quarterback prospect since Tennessee’s Peyton Manning in 1998 and possibly since Stanford’s own John Elway in 1983. The son of former NFL quarterback and current West Virginia athletics director Oliver Luck was coached up by former NFL quarterback and current San Francisco 49ers boss Jim Harbaugh prior to this, his fourth-year junior season. Luck has the size (6’4”, 235), arm, athleticism, leadership and “it” factor to lead any team to victory.

Plus, the quick-triggerman plays behind arguably the top offensive line in the country — with a top-10 pick candidate at left tackle in Jonathan Martin (6’6”, 304) and a mauling All-Pac-12 guard David DeCastro (6’5”, 310).

This season, Luck completed 70 percent of his passes —albeit on far fewer attempts than Weeden, who threw 522 passes in O-State’s spread attack compared to Luck’s 373 attempts in Stanford’s pro-style offense — for 3,170 yards, 35 TDs and nine INTs, while rushing for two TDs and hauling in a highlight-reel diving 13-yard catch for good measure.

Luck has a solid running back corps behind him — with Stepfan Taylor (1,153 yards, 8 TDs), Tyler Gaffney (445 yards, 7 TDs) and Jeremy Stewart (8 TDs) — but lacks speedy downfield receiving threats. Instead, the Luck’s Cardinal use a Tom Brady, New England Patriots-style tight end attack with Coby Fleener (648 yards, 10 TDs), 6’8” Levin Toilolo (325 yards, 6 TDs) and H-back Ryan Hewitt (277 yards, 5 TDs) providing most of the plays. Griff Whalen (664 yards, 4 TDs) is the top receiver, while oft-concussed Chris Owusu (376 yards, 2 TDs) is a question mark.

O-State has the nation’s 61st-ranked scoring defense (25.83 ppg) and 102nd-ranked pass defense (265.58 ypg). On first glance, those numbers seem to favor Luck and the Cardinal. But the Cowboys’ top playmakers on defense are pass rusher Jamie Blatnick, roaming safety Markelle Martin and cover corner Brodrick Brown — players who could make Luck’s last game a tougher test than expected.

Also, the Pokes faced four of the top six passing offenses this season — Arizona (third), Oklahoma (fourth), Baylor (fifth) and Texas Tech (sixth) — posting a 4–0 record and winning by a combined score of 206–54. That defense against the pass doesn’t look too bad upon further review.

Special Teams

Cowboys kicker and punter Quinn Sharp is a valuable field-position weapon, averaging 46.6 yards per punt with a long of 60. He has also been steady inside of 46 yards, connecting on 20-of-23 field goals this season. Kick returner Justin Gilbert is quicksilver with the ball, averaging 25.8 yards per return with two TDs — including a 100-yarder to paydirt.

The Cardinal kicking game has struggled lately, with Jordan Williamson (12-of-15 on FGs) and Eric Whitaker (4-of-5) combining to miss three of their last four attempts — two from long range (48 and 49 yards) and one chip-shot (33). The return game is not much better, although kick returner Ty Montgomery did score on a 96-yarder earlier this year.

Prediction

Oklahoma State is too powerful for Stanford. After all, Luck doesn’t play defense; and there’s only so much the future No. 1 overall pick can do with the limited offensive weapons at his disposal. Gundy will break out the big guns and the Pokes will have people asking why they aren’t playing for the national championship when the sand settles at the Fiesta Bowl.

Oklahoma State 48, Stanford 34

Teaser:
<p> Athlon previews the 2012 Fiesta Bowl: Stanford vs. Oklahoma State.</p>
Post date: Friday, December 30, 2011 - 08:58
Path: /college-football/rose-bowl-preview-wisconsin-vs-oregon
Body:

-by Braden Gall (follow at @BradenGall)

Rose Bowl
Wisconsin (11-2, 6-2) vs. Oregon (11-2, 8-1)

Date: Jan. 2 at 5:10 p.m. ET
Location: Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Calif.

When the Pac-12 and Big Ten champions square-off in the 98th edition of the Granddaddy of Them All, there should be no shortage of pyrotechnics. The Oregon Ducks, who topped UCLA with ease in the Pac-12 title game, will play in its third consecutive BCS Bowl. Chip Kelly’s squad is still looking for its first BCS bowl win, however, after getting handled along the line of scrimmage by both Ohio State and Auburn in its last two postseason trips.

Wisconsin outlasted Michigan State in the Midwest’s version of the rematch in the inaugural Big Ten title game in Indianapolis. The second edition was just as entertaining as the first, as the 42-39 come from behind victory sent the Badgers to their second straight Rose Bowl. They, too, lost a BCS bowl last season as the TCU Horned Frogs claimed the 2011 Rose Bowl championship 21-19.

Wisconsin holds the lead in the all-time series between the two squads 3-1 with wins coming in 1977, 1978 and 2000. Oregon won the last match-up in 2001 when current Badgers’ athletic director Barry Alvarez and former Ducks’ A.D. Mike Bellotti split a home-and-home.

WHEN OREGON HAS THE BALL:

Most offensive coordinators can’t even dream about designing an offense around the Oregon Ducks skill position players. Former Doak Walker Award winner LaMichael James led the nation in rushing yards per game for the second straight season. Backup Kenjon Barner posted 1,041 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns. Freshman DeAnthony Thomas rolled-up 1,934 all-purpose yards and scored 16 total touchdowns in three different ways.

And it is quarterback Darron Thomas’, who threw 30 touchdown passes for the second straight season, responsibility to distribute the football accordingly. A knee injury and some ineffective play slowed Thomas’ season at the midway point, but the second-year starter has rallied and played his best football of late. He has accounted for eight touchdowns and 571 yards of total offense over the last two games.

The speed of the Oregon offense will challenge the Wisconsin front seven that is led by all-league linebackers Mike Taylor (137 tackles) and Chris Borland (131 tackles). Stopping the run has proven to be key in the last two non-conference losses for Oregon. LSU held Oregon to 95 yards on 28 attempts earlier this season and Auburn controlled the Ducks’ line to the tune of 75 yards rushing on 32 carries.

The last Wisconsin loss came because the Badgers could not stop the ground attack. Boom Herron rushed for 160 yards and freshman quarterback Braxton Miller torched UW for 99 yards and two big touchdowns. Stopping the four-headed rushing attack of the Ducks will be a tall order for Big Red.

WHEN WISCONSIN HAS THE BALL:

Wisconsin brings one of the nation’s most balanced attacks in to Pasadena. Quarterback Russell Wilson has a chance to finish with the most efficient passing season in NCAA history (191.60) and is only the fourth Big Ten quarterback to ever throw 30 touchdown passes in a single season. He has thrown a touchdown pass in an NCAA record 37-straight games. He will look to dependable targerts Nick Toon, Jared Abbrederis and tight end Jacob Pedersen.

Make no mistake, however, the Badgers are still a ground and pound football team. The Big Ten’s top rushing attack was led by record-setting Heisman finalist Montee Ball. The do-everything tailback led the nation in rushing at 1,759 yards and is one touchdown away from breaking Barry Sanders’ single-season NCAA touchdown mark of 39. He has scored 17 times since the loss to the Buckeyes on Halloween weekend. His 17.5 points per game easily led the nation. Back-up James White added 683 yards and six scores of his own.

The key to defeating Oregon not only involves slowing their fast-paced rushing attack but controlling the ball on offense. The Ducks have allowed an average of 195 yards rushing and 47.8 attempts per game in their last five losses. Wisconsin will use a physical offensive line in an effort to control the line of scrimmage. The last two teams Oregon faced with this M.O., LSU and Auburn, ran for 429 yards and three touchdowns.

Special Teams

Heading into the Big Ten title game, Abbrederis was leading the nation in punt returns. His 16.1-yard average instead finished third nationally giving the Badgers a great threat in the return game. Punter Brad Nortman averaged a Big Ten third-best 42.1 yards per punt but Bret Bielema’s special teams have had trouble blocking for him — and whomever is attempting field goals.

The Ducks are even better on special teams. Oregon finished No. 2 nationally in net punting (41.7 ypp) and De. Thomas led the Pac-12 in kickoff returns. His remarkable speed makes him one of the most dynamic return men in the country.

While the return game should be exciting for both teams in a positive way, the field goal attempts could bring a much different type of excitement to the table. The Ducks’ kicker Alejandro Maldonado has made 71-of-72 extra points but has yet to attempt a field goal since missing against USC — and costing Oregon an unbeaten Pac-12 season. Wisconsin’s Kyle French and Phillip Welch have shared place-kicking duties this fall with Welch finishing the season as the starter. He made only four field goals all season.

Prediction

This game will feature two of the most dynamic, complete and exciting offense in all of college football. What makes this match-up that much more exciting is the dichotomy of styles. The Ducks will spread it out, speed up the tempo and rip off huge chunks of yards with big-play threats like James and De. Thomas. Wisconsin will line-up and physically impose their will upon opposing front sevens before hitting the secondary with picture-perfect play-action fakes and bootlegs. Whoever has the ball last wins.

Oregon 41, Wisconsin 38

Teaser:
<p> Athlon previews the 2012 Rose Bowl: Wisconsin vs. Oregon.</p>
Post date: Friday, December 30, 2011 - 08:55
Path: /college-football/capital-one-bowl-preview-south-carolina-vs-nebraska
Body:

by Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman on Twitter)

Capital One Bowl 
Nebraska vs. South Carolina

Date: Jan. 2, 1:00 PM ET  
Location: Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium, Orlando, Fla.

This is one of the better bowls each postseason, matching up powers from the SEC and Big Ten. Both South Carolina and Nebraska will bring a ton of fans, and we should see a physical, “running game and defense” type of game in Orlando. The Gamecocks finished 10-2, losing only to No. 6 Arkansas and defending national champion Auburn. Nebraska went 9-3 in its inaugural season in the Big Ten. This meeting will be the first between the two schools since 1987, and the Cornhuskers have won all three games between the programs.

Bo Pelini has taken the Huskers to a bowl game in each of his four seasons in Lincoln, while Steve Spurrier has led the Gamecocks to the postseason in six of his seven years in Columbia. One interesting note with these two teams is that both defensive coordinators were hired as head coaches in December. Nebraska’s Carl Pelini is headed to Florida Atlantic in the Sun Belt, while South Carolina’s Ellis Johnson is taking over at Southern Miss in Conference USA.

Nebraska has never met South Carolina in the postseason, but NU has faced a Steve Spurrier-led team in a bowl game. At the conclusion of the 1995 season, current Nebraska athletics director Tom Osborne led the 11-0 Big Eight champions against Spurrier and the 12-0 Florida Gators in the Fiesta Bowl. The Tommie Frazier-led Cornhuskers dominated the Gators, 62-24, and won that season’s national championship.

WHEN NEBRASKA HAS THE BALL:

The Huskers rank 13th in the nation in rushing, with over 223 yards per game. Running back Rex Burkhead was one of the more productive rushers in the country, finishing the season with 1,268 yards and 15 touchdowns. Quarterback Taylor Martinez is also a huge part of the ground attack, and he ran for 837 yards and nine scores on the season. The potent rushing duo accounted for 433 of Nebraska’s 565 carries on the year.

The Nebraska passing game is limited, but Martinez did throw for 1,973 yards and 12 touchdowns. The Huskers’ leading receiver was Kenny Bell, who had 29 catches for 408 yards and two touchdowns this season. Fans know what to expect when Nebraska plays, and the running game will be the key like usual.

South Carolina defense ranks fourth in the country in total defense and second in pass defense. The Gamecocks are led by a solid defensive line, with senior defensive end Melvin Ingram earning All-America honors after a season with 13.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and three touchdowns scored. Safety Antonio Allen led the team in tackles with 81, and the Gamecocks had four different defenders with three interceptions. Despite being stellar against the pass, South Carolina ranks 44th in the country versus the run. Rushing quarterbacks for Navy and Citadel were able to give the Gamecocks some headaches, so stopping Martinez could be a challenge.

WHEN SOUTH CAROLINA HAS THE BALL:

October was a very turbulent month for the South Carolina offense. First, frequently-suspended quarterback Stephen Garcia was dismissed from the team. Second, the Gamecocks lost one of the better running backs in the nation when Marcus Lattimore suffered a knee injury in the Mississippi State game. Sophomore Connor Shaw took over at quarterback, and he has been more of a runner than typical Spurrier passer. Shaw played well late in the season and ran for seven touchdowns in South Carolina’s final five games.

Freshman runner Brandon Wilds did a solid job in replacing the heralded Lattimore. The rookie ran for over 100 yards in three of South Carolina’s final five games. Receiver Alshon Jeffery led the Gamecocks with 45 catches for 614 yards and seven scores, but his production dropped off from previous seasons with the inconsistent passing game. This Gamecocks’ team is not the old-school Spurrier passing type, instead relying on the ground attack and stellar defense.

The Nebraska defense is led by All-America linebacker Lavonte David, who topped the team in tackles with 122 while also adding 3.5 sacks and two interceptions. The Huskers did not get a ton of pressure on opposing passers this season, but defensive end Cameron Meredith was solid in leading the team with five sacks. Outstanding senior cornerback Alfonzo Dennard will cover Jeffery, but the key for the Cornhuskers in this game will be controlling the South Carolina run game.

Special Teams

Nebraska definitely has the advantage in this area. Kicker and punter Brett Maher had an excellent season and was named first-team All-Big Ten at both positions. He was 19-for-22 on field goals, and his three misses were from 50+ yards. Maher also averaged 45.0 yards on 54 punts, including placing 24 of them inside the 20-yard line. The Huskers also have one of the best returners in the nation in Ameer Abdullah. The speedy freshman from Alabama averaged an excellent 30.0 yards per kick return (while taking one to the house) and a solid 7.7 yards per punt return.

South Carolina kicker Jay Wooten was 7-for-10 on field goals and only attempted two kicks of less than 40 yards. Spurrier does not like to settle for three points, and the Gamecocks went for it on fourth down 28 times this year. Punter Joey Scribner-Howard averaged 38.9 yards on 47 punts, with 10 of them inside the 20-yard line. USC does have a solid punter returner in Ace Sanders, who averaged 9.3 yards per return and scored once. Bruce Ellington, who also plays on the Gamecocks’ basketball squad, will return kickoffs.

Prediction

This will be a very physical game, where a key turnover or rare big play in the passing game could be the difference. I like South Carolina’s advantage in talent, but Steve Spurrier-led teams often struggle in the postseason. He has lost four of his five South Carolina postseason games, with the only win coming against Houston in the 2006 Liberty Bowl.

After winning their first two bowl games under Pelini, the Huskers looked bad in last season’s Holiday Bowl loss to Washington. It’s difficult to see that happening again. I’ll take the special teams edge with Nebraska winning a close, physical battle.

Nebraska 20, South Carolina 17

Teaser:
<p> Athlon previews the 2012 Capital One Bowl: South Carolina vs. Nebraska.</p>
Post date: Friday, December 30, 2011 - 08:39
Path: /college-football/chick-fil-bowl-preview-auburn-vs-virginia
Body:

by Rob Doster

Chick-fil-A Bowl
Teams: Virginia (8–4) vs. Auburn (7–5)

Date: Dec. 31 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Location: Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Ga.

 
The defending national champion Auburn Tigers limp into the postseason at 7–5, losing in blowout fashion to the SEC's elite teams in the season's second half. The Tigers never could muster much offensive consistency without Heisman winner Cam Newton, and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, formerly a rising superstar, was forced to slink off to the Sun Belt, taking the head coaching job at Arkansas State rather than holding out for a BCS job. Malzahn's absence simply adds an extra level of uncertainty for an Auburn team that had trouble finding any kind of rhythm this season. 

Meanwhile, the Cavaliers were a pleasant surprise in Mike London's second season, improving from four wins to eight and finishing tied for second in the ACC Coastal Division at 5–3 a year after winning only one conference game. In only his second season as a head coach at the FBS level, London has established himself as a rising star in the profession. All four of the Cavs' losses came against teams that are playing in the postseason, and UVa boasts wins over Georgia Tech and Florida State. 

Both teams are looking to erase the sour taste of uncompetitive losses to their chief rivals. The Cavs were dismantled by Virginia Tech 38–0 in their season finale, while the Tigers fell 42–14 to Alabama in the Iron Bowl. 
 
WHEN VIRGINIA HAS THE BALL:

The Cavaliers employ an effective mix of run and pass. During the four-game winning streak late in the season that clinched bowl eligibility, sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco was highly efficient, throwing seven touchdown passes and only one interception during that stretch. That level of ball security is extremely important for the Cavaliers, who turned it over 14 times in their four losses — including four turnovers in their 38–0 loss to Virginia Tech — and only 12 times in their eight wins. The Cavs do boast a nice one-two punch in the running game, as Perry Jones and Kevin Parks combined for 1,544 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. 

The Tigers were inconsistent on defense, although Corey Lemonier (9.5 sacks) maintained the recent tradition of a solid pass rush that has marked Auburn's defense of late. 

WHEN AUBURN HAS THE BALL:

Gus Malzahn is headed to Arkansas State, but he will be on the sidelines in Auburn gear one more time. The Tigers scored 17 points or less in six of their eight SEC games and rank 104th in the nation in total offense at 328.2 yards per game. Throw in the loss of the Tigers' primary offensive threat, running back Michael Dyer, to a suspension, and Auburn will be hard-pressed to score many points. It's a stark contrast to last season, when Cam Newton was at the helm of an unstoppable offensive attack.

The Tigers will need solid play from quarterback Clint Moseley, who took the job at midseason but may share some snaps with freshman Kiehl Frazier, who looks like the quarterback of the future on the Plains. They'll also need production from running back Onterio McCalebb to compensate for the loss of Dyer.

The Cavs play solid defense, as evidenced by their propensity for tackles behind the line of scrimmage — they ranked second in the ACC in that category at 6.9 per game. 
 
Special Teams

The Tigers did use special teams to their advantage at critical points this season. They led the SEC in kickoff return average (24.3), and Tre Mason ranked 19th nationally in that category. Auburn punter Steven Clark ranked only 57th in the nation in average (40.49), but the Tigers ranked 19th in net punting at 39.01. The Cavs' special teams play was unremarkable, although Robert Randolph did make 15-of-22 field goal attempts. 
 
Prediction
 
These two teams seem to be trending in slightly different directions. Their disappointing loss to Virginia Tech aside, the Cavs have to be ecstatic about Year 2 of the Mike London era, particularly the 14–13 win over Florida State in Doak Campbell Stadium in the season's penultimate game. Auburn was alarmingly uncompetitive in its biggest games this season, and without the ground threat that Dyer provides, the Tigers have a steep hill to climb. 

Virginia 23, Auburn 17

Teaser:
<p> Athlon previews the 2011 Chick-fil-A Bowl: Virginia vs. Auburn.</p>
Post date: Friday, December 30, 2011 - 08:12

Pages