Spring practice is wrapping up around the nation, which means the 2012 college football season is just around the corner. Athlon’s top 25 for 2012 kicks off on May 1 and ends in early June with our pick to win the national title. The SEC has won six championships in a row, but will that streak end in 2012? The early odds favor a SEC repeat, but there are some threats looming for a seventh consecutive title. USC is the early favorite to end the SEC’s reign, but Oregon, Michigan and Oklahoma are strong contenders.
Here’s a look at 10 threats to end the SEC’s string of national titles in 2012.
1. USC – The Trojans are likely the biggest obstacle to a seventh consecutive national title by a SEC team. USC is still dealing with scholarship reductions, but returns Heisman frontrunner Matt Barkley at quarterback and college football’s top receiving corps. Losing left tackle Matt Kalil was a blow to the offensive line, but four starters are back. The defense returns seven starters, but the line must be revamped. Considering how strong LSU and Alabama are in the trenches, the holes on the offensive and defensive lines will be USC’s biggest issue. The Trojans have a favorable non-conference schedule and host Oregon on Nov. 3. The biggest landmines on the road appear to be an Oct. 4 date at Utah and an Oct. 13 trip to Washington. USC closed out 2011 by winning its final four games and there’s plenty of motivation to get to the national title game after spending the last two years banned from postseason play.
2. SEC team(s) – That’s right, don’t adjust your vision. Sure, the SEC has won six titles in a row, but what if the conference beats up on each other? Alabama and LSU are the favorites to win the SEC, but it’s possible both teams end up with two losses. What if the winner of the SEC West enters the conference title game with one defeat and then loses to the East champ in Atlanta? Would a two-loss SEC team make a national title game appearance over an undefeated or one-loss team from another conference? It’s really anyone’s guess what could happen in that scenario, but a realistic possibility.
3. Oregon – In the pecking order of Pac-12 teams, the Ducks will likely rank behind USC in most preseason polls. Replacing quarterback Darron Thomas and running back LaMichael James is the top priority for coach Chip Kelly, but the cupboard is far from bare. Quarterbacks Bryan Bennett and Marcus Mariota appear more than capable of leading the Ducks’ high-powered offense. De’Anthony Thomas and Kenjon Barner should form one of the nation’s top one-two combinations at running back in 2012. The defense loses two first-team All-Pac-12 performers, but returns six starters. If the Ducks can get by USC in the Pac-12 title game, a trip to the national title game is certainly within reach.
4. Oklahoma – Which Sooner team will we see in 2012? Will the Oklahoma team that started 6-0 in 2011 show up again? Or is this the team that finished 4-3 in the final seven games? If the Sooners return to the form that had them in position for the national title midway through last season, this team should be a threat to finish unbeaten. The non-conference schedule is manageable, featuring games against UTEP, Florida A&M and Notre Dame. The slate is more difficult in Big 12 play, thanks to dates against Texas, Oklahoma State and road games against West Virginia and TCU. Losing receiver Ryan Broyles was a huge blow to the offense last year. However, with a full offseason to sort out the receiving corps and make adjustments to the scheme, the Sooners should be in better shape offensively. The defense returns seven starters and gains the services of Mike Stoops at defensive coordinator. Most preseason polls will have Oklahoma behind USC. However, with no Big 12 title game, it’s one fewer opportunity for the Sooners to lose, which could be important with USC likely to play Oregon two times next year.
5. Michigan – With an opening week matchup against Alabama, we will know early in the year if the Wolverines are a national title contender. Michigan is back among the top-10 teams after a successful 2011 season, and coach Brady Hoke has this program poised to win the Big Ten title in 2012. Quarterback Denard Robinson is one of the nation’s most exciting players, but he has to stay healthy for the Wolverines to finish in the top two of the BCS rankings. Hoke also needs to find replacements for center David Molk and defensive tackle Mike Martin – two of Michigan’s best players last season. Another obstacle to overcome is the competition in the Big Ten. The Wolverines have to play Ohio State in Columbus and games against division foes Michigan State and Nebraska won’t be easy. Even if Michigan loses to the Crimson Tide in the opener, finishing the season with just one loss should keep them in the mix for a spot in the national championship.
6. Texas – The Longhorns improved their win total by three games from 2010 to 2011. Another three-game improvement would mean 11 victories and at least an appearance in a BCS bowl. There’s a lot to like about Texas as a potential darkhorse for the national title, but quarterback play must improve. David Ash took control of the No. 1 spot on the depth chart, but he will be challenged by Case McCoy and Connor Brewer in fall practice. With the concerns about quarterback play, expect Texas to lean heavily on one of the top backfields in college football. Sophomores Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron combined for 1,225 yards and 10 scores last year, while true freshman Johnathan Gray will see a heavy role in 2012. Although the defense has to replace All-Big 12 linebackers Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson, this unit should be one of the best in college football. The non-conference schedule should allow Texas to jump out to a 3-0 start. However, a challenging three-game stretch (at Oklahoma State, West Virginia, Oklahoma) early in the year will decide whether the Longhorns can win the Big 12.
7. Florida State – An ACC team hasn’t played for the national title since 2000. Could that change in 2012? The Seminoles are the early frontrunner to win the ACC, but Clemson and Virginia Tech will certainly be in the mix. Florida State has underachieved recently, but coach Jimbo Fisher is accumulating some impressive talent and depth. The Seminoles have one of the deepest defensive lines in college football and return two solid cornerbacks in Greg Reid and Xavier Rhodes. While the defense could be the best in the nation, the offense has to improve for Florida State to challenge for a national title. Quarterback EJ Manuel battled injuries last year and didn’t have much help from the rushing attack and offensive line. If the Seminoles can get improved play from the line, this could be the year Florida State becomes a national title contender once again.
8. Clemson – If Florida State is a national title contender, Clemson can’t be too far behind. The Tigers claimed the ACC Championship last year, but ended the year with losses in three out of their final four games. The offense is loaded with talent, as quarterback Tajh Boyd, running back Andre Ellington and receiver Sammy Watkins could all challenge for All-American honors. The key question mark on offense will be the line. The Tigers must replace three starters up front, including tackles Landon Walker and Phillip Price. New defensive coordinator Brent Venables has some work to do, especially with a rebuilt defensive line. Clemson’s schedule isn’t too daunting, but a road trip to Florida State on Sept. 22 could decide the ACC Atlantic title.
9. Michigan State – Although Michigan is the early favorite to win the Big Ten, the Spartans will be in the mix. Michigan State has won 22 games over the last two years, but is still looking for its first BCS bowl appearance. The Spartans return 12 starters, but must replace two key performers in quarterback Kirk Cousins and defensive tackle Jerel Worthy. New quarterback Andrew Maxwell suffered a knee injury and missed a part of spring practices, but is expected to have a good season in his first as the starter. The offensive line should be better in 2012, while running back Le’Veon Bell is expected to rush for 1,000 yards. If Michigan State can successfully replace Worthy in the middle, the defense should remain one of the best in college football. The Spartans have non-conference games against Boise State and Notre Dame and have to make road trips against Wisconsin and Michigan. Michigan State needs a lot to fall its way to play for the national title, but it should push Michigan and Nebraska to be the top team in the Big Ten.
10. West Virginia – With quarterback Geno Smith and receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey returning, the Mountaineers will have no trouble fitting into the offensive-minded Big 12. West Virginia’s offense averaged 37.6 points a game last year, but that number could increase in 2012, especially with the players more comfortable with Dana Holgorsen’s scheme. With running back Dustin Garrison’s status uncertain with a torn ACL, the Mountaineers have concerns about the rushing attack. The offensive line was also shaky last year and needs to play better if West Virginia wants to win the Big 12. The defense must replace ends Julian Miller and Bruce Irvin and cornerback Keith Tandy. The Mountaineers will also be changing from a 3-3-5 to a 3-4 scheme under new co-coordinators Joe DeForest and Keith Patterson. West Virginia’s debut season in the Big 12 won’t be easy, especially with road dates against Texas and Oklahoma State. The Mountaineers are a longshot, but if they win the Big 12, they will certainly be in the discussion to be one of the top five teams in the nation.
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
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