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The start of the 2012 college football season is just a few weeks away. However, as fall practice kicks off around the nation, plenty of unanswered questions remain, including some that will have an impact on the national title race. Athlon preps you for everything you need to know about fall practice with the 20 biggest storylines to watch over the next couple of weeks.
College Football's Top 20 Storylines to Watch in Fall Practice
1. Is Zach Mettenberger the missing piece at LSU?
National championship caliber defense? Check. Punishing running game and offensive line? Check. Quarterback? Wait and see. The biggest issue for the Tigers in recent years has been quarterback play. Although LSU made the national title game last year, having a difference maker under center could make the Tigers the most complete team in college football. Mettenberger played sparingly last season, completing 8 of 11 passes for 92 yards in mop-up duty against Northwestern State. The Tigers won’t ask Mettenberger to win many games on his own, but his emergence will allow the offense to open up more in 2012 and finally give the team a chance to stretch the field. The junior will have his share of ups and downs in his first season, but it looks like LSU finally has a quarterback that it can lean on to win games through the air.
2. Bryan Bennett or Marcus Mariota: Who will start at quarterback for Oregon?
Regardless of whether Bennett or Mariota takes the first snap, Chip Kelly shouldn’t have too much concern about his quarterbacks. Sure, anytime that you replace a starter there is bound to be a few ups and downs. However, both players are more than capable of keeping Oregon’s offense as one of the best in the nation. Bennett played in eight games last season, including one start against Colorado. He finished the year with 369 passing yards and six touchdowns, along with recording 200 yards on the ground. Bennett entered spring practice with an edge, but Mariota closed the gap. The redshirt freshman dazzled in the spring game, throwing for 202 yards and one score, while adding 99 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Both players should be more dynamic on the ground than their predecessor (Darron Thomas). It could be a mystery as to which Oregon quarterback will be in the opener against Arkansas State, and both players could play significant snaps in 2012. Regardless of whether Mariota or Bennett starts the year, it’s unlikely the Ducks will have many concerns under center.
3. Can Texas improve its passing attack?
The Longhorns have the rushing attack and defense to win the Big 12. However, in a league known for offense, Texas still has to find a way to generate more from its quarterbacks. The Longhorns finished eighth in the conference in passing offense last year, and quarterbacks combined to throw 15 picks on 357 attempts. David Ash took control of the No. 1 spot late last season but injured a hamstring in summer workouts and could be limited for fall camp. Case McCoy and true freshman Conner Brewer will get every opportunity to win the job, but Ash is expected to finish atop the depth chart. Texas doesn’t need Ash to be Colt McCoy, but the passing attack has to be better than it was in 2011. With one of the nation’s deepest backfields and the Big 12’s best defense, Texas should be one of college football’s top 15 teams. However, winning the conference title and making a BCS bowl will come down to how quickly Ash, McCoy or Brewer can jumpstart the passing game.
4. How big of a concern is USC’s defensive line?
The Trojans’ best defense in 2012 may be the offense. With Matt Barkley back under center and Robert Woods and Marqise Lee catching passes, USC will have no trouble averaging around 40 points a game in 2012 – which is important since the Trojans will have to win with offense. The defense made improvement in the second year under coordinator Monte Kiffin last season but suffered some key departures on the line. End Nick Perry and tackles Christian Tupou and DaJohn Harris depart, while end Devon Kennard suffered an injury in summer workouts and could miss 2012. With the personnel losses and Kennard’s injury, the Trojans are very thin up front. Wes Horton and George Uko are two solid building blocks, but the defense needs big contributions from freshmen Greg Townsend and Leonard Williams. USC’s issues in the trenches may not be a concern in Pac-12 play, but a national title appearance against a team from the SEC could expose the concerns up front.
5. Will unproven commodities at wide receiver and defensive line derail title hopes at Oklahoma?
A prolific veteran quarterback, the best offensive line in the Big 12 and the return of Mike Stoops as defensive coordinator was enough to push Oklahoma in to the top five of the Athlon national rankings, but the Sooners have plenty of questions to answer if they’re going to compete for a national title. At receiver, the passing game struggled when Ryan Broyles was hurt. Now he’s gone permanently. That puts more pressure on Kenny Stills to be the No. 1 option. Meanwhile the suspension to Jaz Reynolds puts pressure on newcomers Trey Metoyer and Lacoltan Bester to perform right away. On the defensive line, seniors R.J. Washington, David King and Jamarkus McFarland have been around for a while, but they have yet to emerge as consistent factors on the defensive front. That needs to change if Oklahoma is going to be a factor in the national race.
6. How could early season suspensions hamper Georgia?
Mark Richt hasn’t revealed any suspensions other than two games for starting cornerback Sanders Commings, but a handful of other starters on the Bulldogs’ defense could miss a crucial game at Missouri in the second week of the season. Safety Bacarri Rambo and linebacker Alex Ogletree are possibilities to miss the Tigers’ SEC debut. Rambo’s suspension could stretch into four games, which would include a home date with upstart Vanderbilt. The Commodores came within five points of upsetting the Bulldogs last season. Richt’s silence on the matter may be gamesmanship for the Missouri game, but even if Georgia’s only missing a couple of key players on defense, coordinator Todd Grantham may need to prepare his secondary to take some lumps.
7. How quickly can Alabama’s defense find replacements?
Losing Trent Richardson is a huge blow for the offense, but the Crimson Tide has capable replacements waiting in the wings with Eddie Lacy, T.J. Yeldon, Jalston Fowler and Dee Hart. The biggest obstacle to a repeat national title will be the loss of several key players on defense, including All-SEC selections Mark Barron, Courtney Upshaw, Josh Chapman, Dont’a Hightower and Dre Kirkpatrick. Alabama has recruited well, so the cupboard is far from bare for coordinator Kirby Smart and coach Nick Saban. The secondary will have three new starters, but juniors Dee Milliner and John Fulton have experience at cornerback. Sophomore Vinnie Sunseri will likely start at strong safety. Additionally, junior college recruits Travell Dixon and Deion Belue had a solid spring and will push for time in the fall. The biggest questions on defense could be in the front seven. Jesse Williams will move from end to nose guard, while the starting linebacking corps could be composed of three sophomores. Repeating last season’s No. 1 rank in total, scoring, rush and pass defense is probably too much to ask of a rebuilt defense. However, don’t expect the Crimson Tide to suffer much of a drop in production, especially as some of the younger players get comfortable with more playing time.
8. Who’s leaving, who’s staying at Penn State?
Quarterback Rob Bolden is already gone to LSU. Meanwhile, coach Bill O’Brien says about 50 players have pledged to stay with the Nittany Lions despite ample opportunities to transfer immediately and without penalty. The biggest domino was standout running back Silas Redd with his transfer to USC. Even if Penn State starts the season without a mass exodus, players can leave any time before the start of the 2013 season without having to sit out a year. With Redd leaving, Penn State loses one of its only offensive threats. O’Brien also has to be concerned if one or two key players leave, others will follow.
9. Can Ohio State execute Urban Meyer’s spread offense?
After finishing last in the Big Ten in passing offense last season, plenty of doubts remain about quarterback Braxton Miller and the Buckeyes’ passing attack. Those concerns are amplified even more due to an offensive line that returns only two starters and a receiving corps that lacks a proven No. 1 option. Freshman Mike Thomas opened some eyes in the spring game, catching 12 passes for 131 yards. With Thomas’ emergence and the return of tight end Jake Stoneburner, the Buckeyes should have two solid targets for Miller. However, the receiving corps needs a big year from junior Philly Brown and sophomore Devin Smith. The potential is there for Ohio State’s offense to seamlessly pickup Meyer’s spread attack and emerge as one of the best in the conference. However, fall practice will be a good indicator of just how far the offensive line has come, which could hold the key to Ohio State’s season.
10. Is Marcus Lattimore fully healthy?
Reports from South Carolina indicate the Gamecocks star running back is ready to go for the season, but we won’t know for certain until we see Lattimore take the field for the first time since his Oct. 15 knee injury against Mississippi State. Steve Spurrier says the Gamecocks are protecting Lattimore in practice, so his first true game action may be the opener at Vanderbilt. Lattimore’s injury last season enabled Brandon Wilds and Kenny Miles to gain experience. South Carolina could be in better shape in the backfield than it was at the start of last season, but Lattimore’s knee may be the difference between winning the SEC East or not.
11. Can Oklahoma State repeat as Big 12 champs with a freshman QB?
There’s always pressure when you have to replace a quarterback like Brandon Weeden, but Lunt is under extra scrutiny in 2012, as the Cowboys hope to repeat as Big 12 champs. The freshman was one of three candidates vying for time in the spring and edged out J.W. Walsh and Clint Chelf for the No. 1 spot. Walsh is expected to see time as a change of pace quarterback, but barring a setback in the fall, Lunt will be Oklahoma State’s starter in the opener against Savannah State. The Cowboys haven’t had much trouble producing good quarterback play under Mike Gundy, but it’s a lot to ask a true freshman quarterback to win a Big 12 title. Expect Oklahoma State to lean on running back Joseph Randle and a defense that led the nation in takeaways last season early in the year. However, for the Cowboys to win the Big 12, Lunt needs to be ready to deliver in the Big 12 opener on Sept. 29 against Texas. The freshman doesn’t have to be Brandon Weeden – but he needs to play beyond his years for Oklahoma State to repeat as Big 12 champs.
12. Who takes the lead at quarterback for Notre Dame?
If the Irish want to have any shot at topping last season’s win total (eight), they have to get better quarterback play. Tommy Rees led the team with 2,871 yards and 20 touchdowns last year but ran into off-the-field trouble and is suspended for the season opener. With Rees sidelined for the first game, the focus of the quarterback battle will shift to redshirt freshman Everett Golson, sophomore Andrew Hendrix and true freshman Gunner Kiel. Golson is an intriguing talent, as his dual-threat ability would give Notre Dame a different dimension on offense. Hendrix played in five contests last year, throwing for 249 yards and one touchdown while also adding 162 yards and one score on the ground. Golson and Hendrix figure to have an edge over Kiel for the No. 1 spot, but the true freshman will have every opportunity to earn playing time. Even if a starter doesn’t emerge, it’s important for the coaching staff to get Golson, Kiel and Hendrix as many snaps as possible, as neither of the trio have a career start.
13. Can Brent Venables fix Clemson’s problems on defense?
If Clemson’s Orange Bowl performance were an isolated incident, maybe it would be easier to accept (or maybe not, ask a Clemson fan or Kevin Steele). The 70 points allowed to West Virginia was the worst of the season by far, but Clemson’s defensive shortcomings were apparent all season. The Tigers ranked 70th or lower in six major defensive categories. Now, here comes Oklahoma’s Brent Venables to fix the Tigers’ D. Though Oklahoma fans may have grumbled, the Sooners finished in the top four in the Big 12 in total defense in each of Venables’ eight seasons as defensive coordinator. Clemson has eight returning starters on defense, but seven are at linebacker and defensive back. Inexperience and a lack of depth are major concerns on the defensive line. Venables might need to get creative while his defensive front grows up.
14. Is EJ Manuel the right quarterback to lead Florida State back to prominence?
Florida State fans have held high hopes for Manuel since he arrived on campus in 2008. After spending 2009 and 2010 as a backup to Christian Ponder, Manuel received the keys to the Seminoles’ offense last year, throwing for 2,666 yards and 18 touchdowns. He completed 65.3 percent of his throws and tossed only eight interceptions on 311 attempts. Although Manuel’s numbers weren’t eye-popping, it’s unfair to pin Florida State’s offensive concerns on him. The Seminoles struggled to establish the run, and the offensive line never found the right combination. Manuel was also bothered by a shoulder injury throughout the year and did not play in the 35-30 loss to Clemson. With a deep receiving corps returning and experience coming back on the line, Florida State’s offense should be improved in 2012. Manuel has all of the physical tools to succeed and should be more comfortable in his second year as the starter. While the Seminoles underachieved last season, Manuel is the right quarterback to lead Florida State back to a national title – provided his offensive line and rushing attack step up in 2012.
15. How quick can Boise State reload?
With only seven starters and a new quarterback under center, the Broncos will struggle to match last season's win total (12) and compete for a BCS bowl. Replacing quarterback Kellen Moore is no easy task, but junior Joe Southwick and freshman Nick Patti should keep the offense performing at a high level. Senior running back D.J. Harper is capable of rushing for over 1,000 yards but must stay healthy. Despite the return of only one starter, the Broncos should have one of the top defenses in the Mountain West. The opener at Michigan State will be a good barometer test, but the season finale against Nevada could decide if Boise State can finish inside of the top 10 in the BCS standings. Don't count out the Broncos from making another run at a BCS bowl. However, the personel losses suggest this team is probably one year away from playing in a BCS game.
16. What will we see from John L. Smith at Arkansas?
The motorcycle fiasco that eventually cost Bobby Petrino his job seems like ancient history. John L. Smith appears to have rallied the players, and then he enjoyed a charm offensive with reporters at SEC Media Days. All of that is great for the summer, but he’ll be back under the microscope on game days. Arkansas still has some questions on offense, including the line, the health of Knile Davis and depth in the receiving corps. The Hogs have early cakewalks against Jacksonville State and Louisiana-Monroe to iron out those issues before facing Alabama in Week Three.
17. If Stanford is going to rely on Stepfan Taylor to run the ball, who’s going to pave the way?
Wait, Stanford lost more than Andrew Luck in the offseason? Yes. David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin, both taken in the first 42 picks on the NFL draft, are gone. The other three starters (left guard David Yankey, center Sam Schwartzstein and right tackle Cameron Fleming) are back to form a solid foundation for the line. There’s healthy competition among returning players for the two vacant slots. Stanford’s impressive freshman line class -- which included three linemen in the Athlon Consensus 100 -- will be worth watching as well. True freshmen rarely start on the offensive line anywhere, but we should note Martin and DeCastro both started as redshirt freshmen at Stanford.
18. Which ACC contender will find the right mix on the offensive line?
Florida State, Clemson and Virginia Tech are expected to be the ACC’s best teams in 2012. However, neither of the three should feel particularly good about its offensive line. Virginia Tech must replace four starters, including standouts Blake DeChristopher and Jaymes Brooks. Center Andrew Miller is a solid place to start rebuilding but there’s very little experience around him. Florida State returns a handful of experienced players, but the starting five could all be sophomores. Clemson loses three starters but returns center Dalton Freeman. The Tigers have one of the college football’s top trios coming back (Tajh Boyd, Andre Ellington and Sammy Watkins), but the offense could sputter without better performance from the line. It’s possible that none of the three teams will find an answer during the year. However, whichever team can sort out its offensive line question marks the earliest could have the inside track at winning the ACC title.
19. Can Michigan find the right answers in the trenches?
Even with quarterback Denard Robinson returning, Michigan could find it difficult to repeat last season’s 11 wins. The Wolverines have a tough schedule and must replace two stalwarts from the trenches in center David Molk and defensive tackle Mike Martin. The Wolverines will likely turn to senior Ricky Barnum at center, while freshman Ondre Pipkins could play a key role on the defensive line. Considering Barnum’s experience and Taylor Lewan’s return at left tackle, the Wolverines should feel confident that the line can still perform at a high level. The defensive line is a bigger question mark, especially with run-first teams like Alabama, Michigan State and Nebraska on the schedule. It’s unreasonable to expect both units to match their production from 2011, but too much of a drop could cost Michigan a chance to win the Legends Division.
20. How will Danny O’Brien take the reins at Wisconsin?
Though O’Brien and Russell Wilson arrived under similar circumstances as graduate student transfers from the ACC, the Badgers shouldn’t necessarily expect similar results. Wilson had the best single-season for a Big Ten quarterback. Ill-suited as he may have been with the Terrapins under Randy Edsall, O’Brien did lose his starting job for a 2-10 Maryland team last season. Wilson was as accurate and efficient as any quarterback in the country, but he also took an active leadership role when he arrived on campus. O’Brien may have less on his shoulders thanks to Montee Ball, but how well he takes to his new team and new role may determine the course of the Badgers’ season.
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