Every college football team has personnel issues that will be a question mark going into the season, but some have national title implications. LSU fell short of winning a national title last year, largely due to the struggles of quarterbacks Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee against Alabama. Zach Mettenberger could be the missing piece to LSU's title run in 2012, especially if he can help the Tigers stretch the field. However, Mettenberger isn't the only question mark among teams in the top 10, as Oregon will have a new starting quarterback, and USC has significant issues on the defensive line.
10 Players Who Will Decide College Football's 2012 National Title
1. Zach Mettenberger, QB, LSU
With one of college football’s best defenses and rushing attacks, Mettenberger won’t need to win games on his own this year. However, the Tigers’ biggest weakness last season was the passing attack, which was clearly on display in the national title loss to Alabama. Mettenberger has thrown only 11 passes in his LSU career but ranked as one of the top quarterbacks coming out of high school in 2009. Mettenberger should give LSU a much-needed boost in the passing game, which will allow the Tigers to stretch the field more in 2012. However, if Mettenberger struggles, Alabama could surpass LSU for the SEC West title.
2. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
Considering the recent success of Oregon quarterbacks, and Chip Kelly’s no-huddle, spread offense, all signs point to Mariota becoming a future star. The Hawaii native edged sophomore Bryan Bennett for the starting nod in the fall and assumes the controls of one of the nation’s top offenses. Although Mariota should be one of college football’s top breakout players, his performance in the Nov. 3 game against USC could decide whether the Pac-12 Championship is in Eugene or Los Angeles. A first-year starter always has an adjustment period, but if Mariota can avoid any major hiccups, the Ducks could be playing for the national title in January.
3. George Uko, DT, USC
There’s no question USC should have one of college football’s best offenses. However, the defense is under the microscope after ranking 102nd nationally against the pass last season. The Trojans should be better in the back seven this year, but the line is a major concern. USC lost key contributors Nick Perry, Christian Tupou and DaJohn Harris, leaving the depth chart thin on experience and depth. Uko played in all 12 games last year, recording 18 tackles and 1.5 sacks. The sophomore needs help from the rest of the players on the interior, but if USC wants to win a national title, Uko will have to play a key role in stopping opposing rushing attacks.
4. Cameron Erving, LT, Florida State
There’s really no way to sugarcoat it: Florida State’s offensive line was a disaster last season. The Seminoles allowed 3.2 sacks per game and averaged just 112.2 rushing yards per contest. A big reason for the issues up front was youth, as Florida State started four freshmen in the bowl win over Notre Dame. The Seminoles hope they found some answers in the spring, as Erving shifted from defensive tackle to left tackle and will protect quarterback EJ Manuel’s blindside. Florida State is the favorite to win the ACC title but contending for the national championship rests heavily on a young line and how quickly Ervin develops at left tackle.
5. Trey Metoyer, WR, Oklahoma
After losing receiver Ryan Broyles in early November, Oklahoma’s passing attack was never the same. The Sooners posted 447 passing yards against Baylor but didn’t post more than 256 in each of the final three games. Although quarterback Landry Jones deserves some of the blame for the struggles, he needs more help from the receiving corps. Kenny Stills is a solid No. 1 target, but Metoyer is expected to emerge as one of the Big 12’s top receivers. The Texas native had a huge spring and all signs point to a monster season. If Metoyer is as good as advertised, the Sooners won’t miss Broyles in 2012.
6. David Ash, QB, Texas
Just like LSU, Texas boasts one of the nation’s best defenses and rushing attacks. The Longhorns led the Big 12 in total defense last season and have three backs that could start in 2012 – Malcolm Brown, Joe Bergeron and Johnathan Gray. Texas doesn’t need Ash to be Colt McCoy, but he has to give Texas a spark through the air. Ash threw for 1,079 yards and four touchdowns on 174 attempts, but he also tossed eight picks and completed 56.9 percent of his throws. The sophomore will start the opener against Wyoming, but backup Case McCoy is also expected to play. With weapons like Jaxon Shipley and Mike Davis on the outside, Texas should be able to stretch the field more in 2012. Not only does Ash need to jumpstart the passing game, but he also has to be more careful with the ball.
7. Danny O’Brien, QB, Wisconsin
A transfer quarterback from the ACC (Russell Wilson) turned out well for Wisconsin last season. Will the Badgers find the same magic in 2012? O’Brien had a terrific freshman season, throwing for 2,438 yards and 22 touchdowns in College Park in 2010. However, a change in coaching staffs prevented O’Brien from building on his freshman campaign, and he managed only 1,648 yards and seven touchdowns. The junior doesn’t have Wilson’s mobility, but he is a proven starter and a reliable option. With running back Montee Ball and the Big Ten’s best offensive line returning, O’Brien can be eased into the lineup. If O’Brien finds his freshman form, the Badgers should push for another Big Ten title.
8. John Theus, OT, Georgia
With the departures of center Ben Jones and tackle Cordy Glenn, the Bulldogs have huge question marks up front. Keeping quarterback Aaron Murray healthy and upright in the pocket is Georgia’s best hope at playing for a national title, and the coaching staff is putting a lot of faith in Theus. The true freshman from Jacksonville ranked as the No. 2 offensive lineman by Athlon Sports in the 2012 signing class and earned the starting right tackle spot in fall practice. Junior Kenarious Gates will start at left tackle, but Theus’ emergence will be just as critical to keeping Georgia’s offense among the best in the SEC.
9. Adrian Hubbard/Xzavier Dickson, LB, Alabama
With the departure of Courtney Upshaw on the outside, the Crimson Tide needs a new playmaker to emerge off the edge. Hubbard and Dickson didn’t play a ton of snaps last season, but both are physically ready for life in the SEC. Hubbard recorded 1.5 sacks in limited action, while Dickson picked up three tackles in seven games. Matching Upshaw’s production (9.5 sacks) may not come from one player, but both sophomores need to play a huge role in establishing Alabama’s pass rush.
10. Connor Shaw, QB, South Carolina
Shaw made nine starts last season and finished with an impressive 8-1 record. After a sluggish performance in the opener against East Carolina, Shaw returned to the lineup on Oct. 8 against Kentucky and threw for 311 yards and four touchdowns. He finished the final three games of the season with three 200-yard efforts and eight touchdowns, while tossing only one pick. With Alshon Jeffery departing for the NFL, the Gamecocks need to find a new go-to target, but the offense will get a boost with the return of running back Marcus Lattimore. With Lattimore returning to full strength and a solid defense, Shaw doesn’t need to throw for 300 yards every game. However, assuming he continues to improve, South Carolina will have a chance to win the East and challenge Alabama or LSU for the SEC title.
by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
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