Are you as ready for college football to start as we are at Athlon? Our daily countdown will take us right up to kickoff on August 30. Some days our number might represent an All-America player, a great stat or just something fun about the game we all love.
Days Until College Football: 1
We have finally hit No. 1 on our countdown, and our top wish for all of the fans out there is just to enjoy the college football that starts tomorrow. The offseason has been filled with scandal, playoff plans, realignment and player attrition, but now is the time to change the conversation to the actual gridiron. Will USC or Oregon wear the Pac-12 crown? Is LSU or Alabama the top dog in the brutal SEC? Will Michigan ascend back to the top of the Big Ten, or will Nebraska win its first league title since 1999? Can Texas or West Virginia challenge Oklahoma for Big 12 supremacy? How will Texas A&M, Missouri, West Virginia and TCU fare in new conferences?
The answers to all of these compelling questions will play out over the next four months, and we cannot wait for the season to begin. The Heisman race should be very interesting, with USC’s Matt Barkley, Wisconsin’s Montee Ball, South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore, Michigan’s Denard Robinson and West Virginia’s Geno Smith among the top candidates. And the nation is eager to see if a team outside of the SEC can break the stranglehold of six consecutive national championships by America’s toughest conference. Make sure to get out and enjoy the pageantry and fan experience that the college game has to offer.
Football is here!
2: There were several elite candidates — USC’s Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, Washington State’s Marquess Wilson, West Virginia’s Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, Cal’s Keenan Allen and Oklahoma’s Kenny Stills — for All-America honors at wide receiver during our preseason vote, and the two top selections share the No. 2. Woods and Watkins are two of the most electric playmakers that the college game has seen in a few years, and football fans should make it a point to see both of them play this season.
Woods had an amazing sophomore campaign for the Trojans in 2011, catching 111 passes for 1,292 yards and 15 touchdowns in just 12 games. He and Lee should form the top pass-catching duo in the nation this year, and that combo along with senior quarterback Matt Barkley are a major factor in USC being projected to win the Pac-12 and national title.
Watkins was an instant hit at Clemson, compiling 82 catches for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns during a stellar freshman season. He also averaged 25.0 yards on 33 kick returns with an additional score. Watkins will have to serve a two-game suspension to start the season, but he and quarterback Tajh Boyd will give the Tigers a solid chance at repeating as ACC champions.
3: Nebraska has won at least nine games in each of Bo Pelini’s four seasons in Lincoln, but the Cornhuskers have not claimed a conference championship since 1999. That fact could change this season, as the Huskers have the roster to compete for a Big Ten crown in their second year in the league. The defense must improve greatly from its 2011 performance, and the other key to NU’s success will be the development of No. 3, Taylor Martinez. The athletic quarterback has amassed over 1,800 yards and 21 touchdowns on the ground during the last two seasons, but the Nebraska passing game ranked 104th nationally last year. Martinez has worked extensively on his throwing mechanics this offseason, and he should be more comfortable in the second year of coordinator Tim Beck’s system.
The good news for the Huskers offense is that Martinez and All-Big Ten running back Rex Burkhead (1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2011) form one of the more dynamic rushing duos in the country. If pass catchers Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa and Kyler Reed are more utilized by Martinez, the NU attack can put some serious points on the board this season. On defense, the Huskers must simply be better against the run in 2012 after finishing eighth in the Big Ten last year. New defensive coordinator John Papuchis will look for playmaking up front from tackle Baker Steinkuhler and end Cameron Meredith, while linebacker Will Compton and safety Daimion Stafford will provide senior leadership for the back seven.
The non-conference slate will give Nebraska time to develop its passing game and run defense,
but the next five games — Wisconsin, at Ohio State, at Northwestern, Michigan and at Michigan — will decide the season. The Legends Division competition against the Wolverines and Spartans should be one of the more compelling races in the nation, and the Huskers will look for Martinez to lead them to Indianapolis in December.
4: The Big East needs a catalyst on the field to change the league’s national conversation from expansion and departures to football, and Louisville is the top candidate in 2012. The Cardinals have a rising star in coach Charlie Strong, a potential big-time quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater and a defense that is excellent against the run. Louisville is the prohibitive conference favorite, and a 10-win season is not out of the question. But to accomplish that feat, the Cardinals will need to revenge 2011 losses to North Carolina, FIU and Cincinnati. There is also a 4-game losing streak to Pittsburgh that Louisville would love to end this season.
USF has a talented enough roster to win the league, but the Bulls have not had a winning conference record since 2007. Pitt and Rutgers should also have quality teams in 2012, but both programs are adjusting to new coaching staffs. Louisville’s offense should be much improved, with Bridgewater throwing the ball to fellow sophomores Eli Rogers and DeVante Parker. The Cardinals have a solid trio of running backs in Dominique Brown, Jeremy Wright and Senorise Perry, and they will run behind an offensive line with four returning starters.
The defensive front should be a strength for the Cardinals as they look to repeat last season’s No. 10 ranking nationally against the run. The pass defense must get better, and all-league secondary candidates Hakeem Smith and Adrian Bushell will lead the way. Charlie Strong has upped the talent level greatly in his short tenure at Louisville, and he has the Cardinals primed to win the Big East and play in the BCS.
5: The Texas Tech Red Raiders missed the postseason last year, the first time that had happened since the 1999 campaign. Tommy Tuberville and staff are felling the pressure to make a bowl game this season, and they must start by improving on defense. New coordinator Art Kaufman is a coaching veteran, but he takes over a defense that ranked dead last in the country against the run and had only 5 interceptions a year ago in the pass-happy Big 12. The defensive line needs to show massive improvement, and the hope is that the tackle rotation of Delvon Simmons, Kerry Hyder, Leon Mackey and Dennell Wesley will give the Raiders a much better push up front. The linebackers were an issue in 2011, but starters Terrance Bullitt, Will Smith, and Sam Eguavoen should be more comfortable in Kaufman’s system.
The strength of the defense is the safety position, where D.J. Johnson and Cody Davis return. If the cornerbacks can develop early, the secondary should improve on last season’s low interception total. On offense, senior quarterback Seth Doege (4,004 yards and 28 touchdowns in 2011) will lead another vaunted Tech passing attack. Eric Ward, Alex Torres and Darrin Moore are back as the top targets, and the Red Raiders have solid running backs as well in Eric Stephens and Kenny Williams. They will run behind an offensive line that returns three starters.
A very manageable September schedule will give the Red Raiders time to develop, but the next five games — Oklahoma, West Virginia, at TCU, at Kansas State and Texas — are as brutal a stretch as you will see in college football. The Texas Tech fan base is very eager to see the team get back to the postseason, and the defense must help lead the way towards that goal.
6: Florida—LSU—Florida—Alabama—Auburn—Alabama. You may have noticed that the last 6 national champions have come from the SEC. Since the BCS started in 1998, eight of the 14 national champions are members of America’s toughest conference. And the strength of the league is not just in the fact that the amazing title streak is now at six, it’s that five different schools have won the aforementioned eight championships. So is 2012 the season where the streak ends? Athlon’s prediction is yes, with the USC Trojans projected as the top team in the nation. However LSU and Alabama stand at Nos. 2 and 3 in our poll, with Georgia, South Carolina and Arkansas also rated in the top 13.
This may be a season where each SEC squad has a loss, but it would likely take two major powers going undefeated to prevent the juggernaut league from having a shot at No. 7. Along with USC, the Pac-12 has another title contender in Oregon. Both west coast teams have electric offense and should also be improved enough on defense to compete with the SEC’s best. Oklahoma looks like the class of the Big 12, but both Sooners’ lines will need to develop quickly to run the table. Florida State has the defense to go undefeated in the ACC, but the offense may not have enough firepower. Michigan and Nebraska project as the Big Ten’s best, but both teams will need more consistency to play for it all.
Many gridiron fans around the nation are very eager for the streak to end, while those in SEC country believe No. 7 is inevitable. USC or Oregon may break through and win it all, but it would hardly be a surprise to hear the chants of “SEC, SEC” in January for a seventh consecutive college football campaign.
7: The LSU Tigers will look to repeat as SEC Champions and get back to the BCS title game this season. While Les Miles’ team is loaded with talent and depth, it did lose an electric playmaker with the dismissal of No. 7, Tyrann Mathieu. So how will the Tigers fare without the Honey Badger? The LSU defense should still be stout, but Mathieu’s amazing ability to generate game-changing plays will be heavily missed. His 133 tackles (16 for loss) and four interceptions in two seasons were impressive, but it’s the 11 forced fumbles, eight fumble recoveries and four total touchdowns that show his true value on the field. Those turnovers and scores were a huge reason that the Tigers were able to blow out the Pac-12 and Big East champions, as well as 10-win squads in Arkansas and Georgia, in 2011.
John Chavis’ defense should be excellent up front, led by All-America candidates at end in Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo plus Bennie Logan at tackle. Kevin Minter heads up a fast but inexperienced linebackers group, and there are now questions at corner as true freshman Jalen Mills and redshirt freshman Jalen Collins battle for the spot opposite of rising star Tharold Simon. However, Eric Reid is another All-America-level player at safety. On offense, LSU will rely on a stellar line and loaded running backs unit to play its usual brand of smash-mouth football. If new quarterback Zach Mettenberger develops quickly, the Tigers will light up scoreboards.
There’s a good chance that LSU will be favored in every game this season, and the November 3 matchup with Alabama in Death Valley could be one for the ages. If Mettenberger and the back seven play to their potential, the Tigers will be right back in the hunt for a national title.
8: It was an offseason of major change for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, with head coach Greg Schiano departing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after 11 seasons in Piscataway. Longtime assistant Kyle Flood will now head the program, and he and the new staff have a solid roster to compete for a Big East crown. The majority of the defense returns from a unit that finished 8th nationally in scoring a year ago. The strength of the defense is its back seven, led by a stellar group of linebackers. Khaseem Greene is an All-America candidate on the outside, and middle backer Steve Beauharnais is an experienced starter. The secondary features veteran corners in Logan Ryan and Brandon Jones, and safety Duron Harmon should compete for all-conference honors.
The defensive front will need to improve against the run while also generating a pass rush, and tackle Scott Vallone is a rock in the middle. If answers can be found at end from the group of Michael Larrow, Ka’Lial Glaud and Jamil Merrell, the defense should be the best in the Big East. On offense, Flood and new coordinator Dave Brock have decided to go with Gary Nova at quarterback. The sophomore signal caller will benefit from a quality set of skill players. The receiving crew, led by led Brandon Coleman, Mark Harrison and Quron Pratt, has plenty of big-play potential. Rutgers has two solid tailbacks in Jawan Jamison (897 rushing yards in 2011) and heralded sophomore Savon Huggins, and they will run behind a line that has plenty of talent despite lacking experience together.
The Scarlet Knights will have an adjustment period to the new staff, and early games against Tulane and Howard will give them time to develop chemistry. September trips to South Florida and Arkansas will be difficult, but the schedule October is very manageable. A season-ending slate of Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Louisville will decide Rutgers’ Big East fate, as Flood looks to win the league title that eluded his predecessor.
9: Notre Dame battled the turnover bug for all of the 2011 campaign, from five giveaways in an unlikely season-opening defeat against South Florida to three each in losses to Stanford and Florida State to end the year. In fact, only nine teams in college football turned the ball over more than the Irish did a year ago. It wasn’t all doom and gloom in South Bend with ND compiling eight wins, but it’s obvious where Brian Kelly’s team must improve as a tougher schedule looms in 2012. The focus of that desired improvement will be on the quarterback position, where junior Andrew Hendrix and redshirt freshman Everett Golson are battling to replace suspended incumbent Tommy Rees. Hendrix has game experience, but Golson starred (11-15 passing for 120 yards and two touchdowns) in the spring game.
The new signal caller will benefit from quality running backs Cierre Wood (1,102 yards and nine touchdowns a year ago) and Theo Riddick, an All-America candidate in tight end Tyler Eifert and a veteran offensive line. The Irish will need a playmaker to emerge on the outside from the group of TJ Jones, John Goodman and Robby Toma. On defense, Notre Dame should have a solid front seven. Manti Te’o is an All-American at linebacker, and the defensive line of Kapron Lewis-Moore, Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt is very talented. The secondary is experienced at safety with Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta, but the cornerback position has question marks — especially after the season-ending injury to Lo Wood.
The Notre Dame schedule is very difficult, with Michigan State and Michigan highlighting the September slate. Opponents hardly ever win at Oklahoma, and the season finale in Los Angeles could be against an 11-0 USC squad. If the quarterback(s) can avoid costly turnovers and the secondary develops quickly, the Irish can reach win the eight or nine-win mark in 2012.
10: A season after intrepid coach Jim Harbaugh departed for the 49ers, the Stanford Cardinal have the monumental task of trying to replace the NFL’s No. 1 pick in quarterback Andrew Luck. Junior Josh Nunes and sophomore Brett Nottingham are competing for the starting quarterback gig, but they have combined to attempt only 10 passes in their careers. And as difficult as losing Luck will be, the two-time Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year and runner-up for the Heisman Trophy is not the only key departure from last year’s stellar attack. Three other top 42 NFL Draft selections — tight end Coby Fleener and offensive linemen David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin — will also be missed.
Despite the attrition, the Cardinal offense still has solid potential. As good as Luck was in the passing game, Stanford also has a very effective, physical running game led by tailback Stepfan Taylor and a quality line. The senior runner has compiled 2,467 yards and 25 touchdowns on the ground over the last two seasons, and three starters return up front. The new signal caller(s) will have dependable tight ends in Levine Toilolo and Zach Ertz, and sophomore Ty Montgomery could become a star at receiver. On defense, the Cardinal should be excellent in the front seven after finishing third nationally against the run last year. The 3-4 scheme will be led by one of the best linebackers units in the country, and Chase Thomas is an All-America candidate. The secondary will have to replace safeties Delano Howell and Michael Thomas while also trying to improve on last season’s 95th ranking against the pass.
Coach David Shaw and staff have recruited well enough to sustain the program’s recent success. The 2012 schedule is difficult, with the Cardinal hosting USC in week three plus playing road games at Washington, Notre Dame, Cal, Oregon and UCLA. A third consecutive BCS bowl is unlikely, but Stanford has the ability to remain near the top of the Pac-12 pecking order if the passing game and secondary can develop quickly.
11: The Florida Gators performed below expectation in Will Muschamp’s first season, finishing with their first losing SEC record since 1986. With UF ranking eighth nationally in total defense and 105th in total offense, it’s pretty clear where improvement is needed. In fact, the Gators only averaged 11 points per game in their six losses a year ago. Muschamp replaced former offensive coordinator Charlie Weis with Brent Pease, who had an amazing run as Boise State’s wide receivers coach and coordinator in 2011. The first question for the 2012 Florida offense is at the quarterback position, where sophomores Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett are in a heated battle to be the starter. Both signal callers, as well as the rest of the offense, will have a significant adjustment to Pease’s offense that involves a ton of pre-snap movement and multiple formations.
While fans and media focus on the QB battle, the key to a successful Gators attack may lie in its ability to run the ball. The one-two punch of senior Mike Gillislee and sophomore Mack Brown will bring a more physical rushing game than UF has seen in years, especially carrying the rock behind a very experienced offensive line. However there are questions at receiver, as the team’s leading returning pass catcher is tight end Jordan Reed (28 reception in 2011). Florida will need Andre Debose to produce on the outside. On defense, the Gators should be stout once again. Tackles Sharrif Floyd and Omar Hunter plus end Dominique Easley will lead a very athletic line. Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins project as all-conference linebackers, and safeties Matt Elam and Josh Evans will head a secondary with vast potential.
The UF schedule will be difficult as usual, and back-to-back September trips to Texas A&M and Tennessee will provide a quality litmus test for Muschamp’s crew. The Gators will face three October opponents (LSU, South Carolina and Georgia) who rank in the preseason top ten, and the regular-season ending game in Tallahassee will be very tough. If the offense shows marked improvement and the defense can avoid the late-game breakdowns of last season, Florida can challenge the Bulldogs and Gamecocks in the SEC East.
12: The Iowa Hawkeyes went through a major transition this offseason, with offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe leaving the program and defensive coordinator Norm Parker retiring. Both assistants had been with Kirk Ferentz for over a decade, and now former Texas offensive boss Greg Davis and longtime defensive backs coach Phil Parker (no relation to Norm) will coordinate the Iowa units. The first priority for Davis will be improving a Hawkeyes rushing attack that ranked 12th in the Big Ten last season. That dead-last finish becomes more difficult to fix in 2012 without tailback Marcus Coker (1,384 yards and 15 touchdowns a year ago). Sophomore Damon Bullock and former fullback Brad Rogers will start the season receiving the most carries, but the position could be in flux for a while if a dependable option does not emerge.
The good news for the running game is that Iowa has a dependable senior quarterback in James Vandenberg (3,022 yards and 25 TDs in 2011). However he will have to find a new top target with the departure of Marvin McNutt, the Hawkeyes’ all-time leading receiver. Wideout Keenan Davis had 713 yards and four touchdowns a year ago, and tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz has vast potential. The offensive line will need to develop chemistry after losing three starters, including NFL first-round selection Riley Reiff. On defense, Phil Parker will need to find some answers on an inexperienced line. The back seven could be solid, and cornerback Micah Hyde is an all-conference candidate.
The 2012 campaign will be an important one for Kirk Ferentz, as the fan base would like to see Iowa perform above the expectations of another fourth-place finish in the Legends Division. The league will be challenging, but the Hawkeyes catch a break not playing Ohio State or Wisconsin from the Leaders. If Iowa is going to compete with Michigan, Nebraska and Michigan State, the running attack and defense will have to develop quickly under their new coordinators.
13: Virginia Tech had another outstanding season last year, winning 11 games and making a BCS bowl. However there was one major problem for Frank Beamer’s bunch in 2011; Clemson. The Tigers were the only regular-season loss for the Hokies, and Clemson won the ACC Championship Game as well. In those two contests, Virginia Tech only managed to score a total of 13 points. This season, the Hokies return star quarterback Logan Thomas but little other experience on offense. ACC Player of the Year David Wilson and his school-record 1,709 rushing yards have departed, along with four offensive line starters and the top two wide receivers. That fact puts a tremendous burden on Thomas, but he has the ability to carry the Tech attack. Thomas set the single-season school record for total yardage (3,482) and accounted for 30 touchdowns as a sophomore.
The key to the 2012 Virginia Tech season will be how the rest of the offense develops around Thomas. He will have three senior wideouts on the outside, and Marcus Davis (510 yards and five TDs in 2011) could be a star if he fulfills his vast potential. Redshirt freshman Michael Holmes could be the next great Hokies running back, and he will run behind a line that has talent but lacks experience. While the offense gets up to speed, the good news is that Virginia Tech should have an excellent defense with eight starters returning from a unit that ranked No. 7 nationally in points allowed a year ago.
The Hokies project as the favorite in the Coastal Division, but they do draw Clemson and Florida State from the Atlantic. The season-opener against Georgia Tech looms large, but the veteran defense should be up for the challenge. If the offense can grow around Thomas, look for Virginia Tech to win double-digit games for an amazing ninth season in a row.
14: Derek Dooley has been in Knoxville for two seasons, and the Tennessee Volunteers have lost an unacceptable 14 games during that span. Not all of the blame should go on the likeable head coach, since the end of the Phil Fulmer era and the Lane Kiffin scorched-earth season left the roster in shambles. Dooley has recruited well, but it’s time for those efforts to start producing wins on the field. The strength of the 2012 Tennessee squad is its passing game, led by junior quarterback Tyler Bray (3,832 yards and 35 touchdown passes in 16 career games) and imposing wideouts Da’Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter. When you add heralded junior college receiver Cordarrelle Patterson into the mix, the Vols could be lethal through the air.
The key to Tennessee becoming a big-time SEC offense will be showing dramatic improvement in the running game (116th in the nation in 2011). Dooley brought in former Vol Jay Graham to coach the backs, and junior Rajion Neal has the early lead as the starter. UT also has a new line coach in Sam Pittman, and he inherits a veteran unit. With highly-touted sophomore “Tiny” Richardson (6’6”, 332) taking over at left tackle, look for better line play from the Vols this season. On defense, there will definitely be an adjustment period to the 3-4 scheme of new coordinator Sal Sunseri. The line has size with newcomers Daniel McCullers (6’6”, 377) and Darrington Sentimore, and the starters at linebacker should be solid with Herman Lathers, Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson leading the way. The secondary gained valuable experience last year, and corner Prentiss Waggner has a nose for turnovers.
The Vols open in Atlanta against a tough NC State team, and the Big Orange fan base is thirsting for a big win. The SEC slate is always challenging — especially with trips to Georgia and South Carolina — but Missouri and Mississippi State replace LSU and Arkansas from last year’s schedule. If the running game improves as expected and Tennessee’s depth on defense is not overly tested, look for the Vols to win at least eight games and return the program to the top tier of the conference.
15: The West Virginia Mountaineers are going through a major change in moving from the Big East to the Big 12 this season, but Dana Holgorsen has the offense to make that transition much easier. The former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator has experience in WVU’s new conference, and the All-America trio of quarterback Geno Smith (4,385 yards, 31 touchdown passes) and wideouts Tavon Austin (101 catches, 1,186 yards, eight TD receptions) and Stedman Bailey (1,279 yards, 12 TD catches) could top the list of formidable Big 12 passing attacks. In fact Mountaineers receivers combined for 15 100-yard games last season, almost doubling the previous school record of eight.
While the WVU aerial assault should be excellent, the running game has question marks. Last season’s leading rusher, Dustin Garrison, is still recovering from a December ACL tear. Senior Shawne Alston and sophomore Andrew Buie will carry the load early, and they will run behind an offensive line that returns three starters. On defense, the Mountaineers lost key players in pass rusher Bruce Irvin, linebacker Najee Goode and cornerback Keith Tandy. New coordinators Joe DeForest and Keith Patterson will need to build up a solid front seven, with Terence Garvin topping the linebackers and Jorge Wright and Will Clarke leading the way up front. The veteran secondary should be a strength of the defense, but Darwin Cook and company will be tested thoroughly in their new pass-happy league.
West Virginia has five home games in Big 12 play, and the non-conference schedule is very light. If the defense develops on the line and the run game can show just slight improvement, West Virginia could match last year’s total of 10 wins and challenge Oklahoma and Texas for the Big 12 crown.
16: Michigan had an excellent turnaround campaign under Brady Hoke a year ago, winning 11 games including the Sugar Bowl. The next step for the Wolverines is to win the Big Ten for the first time since 2004, and they have the roster to do just that in 2012. The offense will be led by star quarterback Denard Robinson, No. 16, who has been a dual-threat force over the last two seasons. He will be joined by running back Fitzgerald Toussaint (after he returns from suspension) to form a stellar rushing attack in Ann Arbor. The passing game does have question marks, with and inexperienced receivers group and Robinson trying to cut down on interceptions. Senior Roy Roundtree should be UM’s leading wideout this season, but he will miss significant practice time in training camp after having arthroscopic knee surgery.
While Robinson’s weapons get up to speed, the Michigan defense will look for a repeat of last season’s outstanding performance. The Wolverines ranked sixth in the country in scoring defense a year ago, but three of the four line starters must be replaced. Craig Roh returns, but intrepid coordinator Greg Mattison will need the boys up front to gel quickly. The back seven should be a quality group, with Kenny Demens leading the linebackers and an excellent secondary. Three defensive back starters return, and the emerging star of the unit is sophomore cornerback Blake Countess.
The Michigan schedule begins with a major challenge — a neutral site game against defending champion Alabama — and the week four trip to Notre Dame will be tough as well. The end of October slate could decide the Legends Division, with back-to-back contests versus Michigan State and at Nebraska. And of course, the trip to Columbus at the end of the season is always difficult. If the receivers and defensive line can develop consistency, look for Michigan to compete for that long-awaited Big Ten crown.
17: The expectations are always high for the Oklahoma Sooners, and that fact only increased when OU’s all-time leading passer Landry Jones decided to return to Norman instead of entering the NFL Draft. Despite the loss of NCAA career receptions leader Ryan Broyles, Jones should have enough weapons to produce another elite aerial attack. Kenny Stills (61 receptions for 849 yards and eight touchdowns) is the leading returning receiver, plus Jaz Reynolds and Trey Franks have been reinstated after off-the-field issues but could face suspensions. However the most intriguing wideout is newcomer is No. 17 Trey Metoyer. The heralded Texas native originally signed as part of the 2011 recruiting class but spent last year at prep school. Metoyer joined the Sooners in January and starred in the spring game with six catches for a team-high 72 yards.
The Oklahoma running game will get a boost with the healthy return of Dominique Whaley, who will team with Roy Finch in a solid backfield. The offensive line projected as a strength with its experience and depth, but the health-related retirement of center Ben Habern and season-ending knee injury to guard Tyler Evans were big blows up front. On defense, Mike Stoops returns to Norman to coordinate a unit with seven starters returning. Pass rushers Frank Alexander and Ronnell Lewis will be missed on the line, and the Sooners will need ends David King and R.J. Washington to fulfill their potential. The back seven should be stout Tom Wort and Corey Nelson leading the linebackers and a secondary that returns four starters, including all-star candidates in safety Tony Jefferson and cornerback Demontre Hurst.
The Sooners project as the favorite in the new-look Big 12, and the schedule is fairly manageable. The September slate will provide time for both lines to develop before the challenge of October battles versus Texas and Notre Dame. The final three games will be difficult as OU travels to West Virginia, hosts Oklahoma State and plays at TCU, but Jones and
18: The 2011 Kansas State season was quite an interesting adventure. The Wildcats won 10 games despite ranking 101st nationally in total offense and 72nd in total defense. In fact, K-State went 7-2 in the Big 12 while being outgained by over 100 yards per game in league play. Two of the main factors that led to those fortunate results were a top 10 ranking in turnover margin and the outstanding running of quarterback Collin Klein (1,141 rush yards and an amazing 27 touchdowns on the ground). The senior signal caller will need to improve as a passer for the same type of results this year, and he’ll have leading receiver Chris Harper back on the outside. However a potential difference maker for the Wildcats offense is sophomore wideout Tyler Lockett, who totaled 18 catches for 246 yards and three scores as a freshman before a season-ending injury in early November. The K-State legacy was also excellent on kickoff returns, averaging 35.2 yards with two touchdowns.
The Kansas State running game has solid options with Klein and tailback John Hubert (970 yards in 2011), but the offensive line must replace three starters from last year’s excellent unit. On defense, The Wildcats have studs on all three levels — All-America candidate Arthur Brown at linebacker, leading sacker Meshak Williams at end and Nigel Malone (seven interceptions a year ago) at cornerback — but must improve as a whole group. That challenge will fall to new coordinator Tom Hayes, who takes over for the effective Chris Cosh. The front seven should have solid depth, but the secondary will be tested early and often in the pass-happy Big 12.
Many around the college football world doubt that Kansas State can repeat last year’s success, but intrepid coach Bill Snyder has a way leading teams past others’ expectations. The non-conference slate is manageable with a depleted Miami bunch coming to Manhattan. However the league schedule has five road games, including tough trips to Oklahoma, West Virginia and TCU. Ten wins may be tough to match in 2012, but Kansas State will be a difficult opponent each week in the Big 12.
19: The Mississippi State Bulldogs have never been known for their aerial attack, but they did set a school-record with 19 touchdown passes a year ago despite ranking 94th nationally in pass offense. Tyler Russell tossed eight of those scores, and he will take over as the starting quarterback after sharing duties with Chris Relf the last two seasons. The Bulldogs fan base is hoping that Russell can fulfill the expectations that existed after his stellar career at Meridian High School, and he will have a solid receiving group in seniors Chad Bumphis, Chris Smith and Arceto Clark. MSU lost its top rusher in Vick Ballard (1,189 yards and 10 TDs), but LaDarius Perkins and Nick Griffin should give the Bulldogs capable runners. The question on offense will be the development of an inexperienced offensive line that returns only two starters.
Mississippi State finished 16th in the country in scoring defense last season but had trouble stopping the run. Seven starters return from that unit, but NFL first-round pick Fletcher Cox will be missed. The linebacking group should be active, with senior Cam Lawrence and his 2011 team-high 123 tackles leading the way. The secondary projects as the strength of the defense, and cornerbacks Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield should be one of the top cover tandems in the nation.
The reality for the Bulldogs is that they must get past the 0-12 mark against SEC West foes not named Ole Miss. While it’s obviously tough to make progress in college football’s toughest division, Dan Mullen enters his fourth year in Starkville with the most depth and talent he’s had during his tenure. If Russell and the two lines show marked improvement, Mississippi State can move up the pecking order in the brutal SEC.
20: The Oregon Ducks have gone 34-6 in Chip Kelly’s three seasons as head coach, and they have mainly been known for his high-octane offense scoring points at will. However, people may forget that the Ducks finished 12th nationally in scoring defense in 2010 when they played for it all against Auburn. Last year’s unit went through some headaches but gained valuable experience, and the 2012 defense could be coordinator Nick Aliotti’s best group yet. Leading the way will be senior free safety John Boyett, No. 20, who topped Oregon with 108 tackles last season. He’ll be joined by sophomore cornerbacks Terrance Mitchell and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu in a secondary that should be much better against the pass this season. Hybrid end/linebacker Dion Jordan (7.5 sacks in 2011) will lead the pass rush for a front seven that is deep and athletic.
The biggest news with the Ducks offense is the ongoing quarterback competition between sophomore Bryan Bennett and redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota. Either signal caller has big shoes to fill in replacing Darron Thomas, who threw for over 5,000 yards and 63 touchdowns over the last two seasons. Oregon must also deal with the loss of running back LaMichael James (53 rushing TDs in the last three seasons), but senior Kenjon Barner and all-purpose machine De’Anthony Thomas are proven weapons. There are some question marks on the outside, where UO will look for Josh Huff to emerge as a threat. A very capable offensive line returns three starters and should pave the way for another productive Ducks attack.
A light early schedule and a solid defense should give Kelly plenty of time to solve the quarterback puzzle and get the Oregon offense producing at its usual high level. The November 3 matchup at USC could be college football’s game of the year, although most believe the Ducks and Trojans will meet again in the Pac-12 Championship Game — where Kelly’s squad would play for an outstanding fourth-straight conference crown.
21: This is an important season for California Golden Bears football, as they move back into a renovated Memorial Stadium and try to scale back up the Pac-12 pecking order. There was significant attrition off last year’s conference-leading defense, but the offense has big-time playmakers. The top weapon is wide receiver Keenan Allen, No. 21, who totaled 98 receptions for 1,343 yards and six touchdowns a year ago. The Bears will need another target to develop in order to prevent double-teams on Allen, and quarterback Zach Maynard must play with the consistency he showed late last season. The running game should be solid with the return of three offensive line starters and stud back Isi Sofele, who produced 1,322 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns in 2011.
The Cal defense has topped the Pac-12 over the last two seasons, but intrepid coordinator Clancy Pendergast must find some new solutions in 2012. The losses from last year’s unit include linebacker Mychal Kendricks, the conference Defensive Player of the Year, top lineman Trevor Guyton and starting safeties Sean Cattouse and D.J. Campbell. Nose tackle Aaron Tipoti is a quality player up front, but the rest of the front seven is fairly inexperienced. The secondary could be a strength with the solid cornerback tandem of Marc Anthony and Steve Williams. On special teams, the Bears must replace an excellent punter in Bryan Anger as well as kicker Giorgio Tavecchio.
The Cal schedule is very challenging, with a September trips to Ohio State plus having to play USC, Utah, Arizona State and UCLA from the South Division. Jeff Tedford has totaled 12 wins over the last two seasons, and the Bears fan base is ready to see the team return to the upper level of the Pac-12. For that to happen, Cal will need continued improvement from Maynard and some new playmakers to emerge on defense.
22: Purdue made the postseason last year for the first time since 2007, winning the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in Danny Hope’s third season as head coach. To play past November this season, the Boilermakers must be better on defense. New coordinator Tim Tibesar inherits a unit that finished 82nd against the run last year and only compiled 22 sacks. The good news is that seven starters return, including All-America candidate Kawann Short at tackle. He’ll lead an experienced group up front that should be better at the point of attack this season. Purdue’s leading returning tackler, linebacker Dwayne Beckford, is back on the team after serving a suspension for off-the-field trouble. The Boilermakers have a quality cornerback tandem in junior Ricardo Allen and senior Josh Johnson, and they would benefit greatly from an improved pass rush.
The Purdue offense has plenty of options at quarterback, with senior Caleb TerBush as the starter. Robert Marve and Rob Henry can provide an interesting change of pace for an attack that showed promise a year ago. The skill players should be solid with receivers Antavian Edison and O.J. Ross and running backs Akeem Shavers and Ralph Bolden leading the way. They will need support from a line that has potential but must develop chemistry quickly.
The Boilermakers have a tough game at Notre Dame in week two but should be able to manage the rest of the non-conference slate. The Big Ten schedule is always challenging, but the absence of Michigan State and Nebraska from the Legends Division will help. If the lines can show marked improvement, look for Purdue to make a bowl game for the second-straight season.
23: South Carolina set a new school record with 11 wins last season, and the Gamecocks have enough talent and depth to approach that total once again. There were some big personnel losses on defense in NFL first-round selections Melvin Ingram and Stephen Gilmore, but the most difficult void to fill may be the presence of wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. Steve Spurrier’s club does not have many proven wideouts, and Jeffery totaled 23 touchdown catches over his three seasons in Columbia. Ace Sanders can produce at the SEC level, but he is the only returning Gamecock who had over 20 catches in 2011. The focus of Spurrier’s offense in 2012 will be on the running game, especially with the return from injury of All-America tailback Marcus Lattimore. Additionally, quarterback Connor Shaw proved to be a dual-threat after running for 415 yards and eight scores over the final six games of last year.
The South Carolina defense should be a quality group once again, but there was offseason change with new coordinator Lorenzo Ward taking over for new Southern Miss coach Ellis Johnson. Ward inherits a pair of excellent defensive ends in Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor, plus a senior-laden linebackers group led by Shaq Wilson and former safety DeVonte Holloman. The secondary starters should be solid, but depth could be an issue.
The Gamecocks swept the Eastern division last season, but losses to Arkansas and Auburn prevented USC from going to Atlanta in December. Carolina faces the Razorbacks and LSU from the West this year, while Georgia does not play Alabama, LSU or Arkansas. However if Lattimore returns to form and some solutions emerge at receiver, South Carolina will be in the hunt for a second SEC Championship Game appearance in three seasons.
24: Coach Jimbo Fisher has the roster to lead Florida State to an ACC title this season. The Seminoles have the proven formula in 2012 of a stout defense and a senior quarterback. Veteran signal caller EJ Manuel has 24 career touchdown passes, but he could easily match that total this year if he plays well. The FSU receiving group should be much improved, with Rashad Greene, Rodney Hood and Willie Haulstead serving as the top FSU targets. The rushing duties will begin with senior Chris Thompson and sophomore Devonta Freeman, but they will be running behind a line that only returns one starter and is lacking experience.
The Florida State defense returns eight starters and has the athleticism and depth to repeat last season’s top five statistical ranking. The offseason loss of senior corner and punt returner Greg Reid will be felt, but there are still plenty of veterans for coordinator Mark Stoops. The line should be excellent, with pass rushers Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner leading the way.
The linebacking unit has solid experience, while the secondary has stars in safety Lamarcus Joyner and cornerback Xavier Rhodes.
The Seminoles won seven of their last eight games to end last year with the defense serving as a catalyst. If the offensive line can develop and Manuel shows consistency, Florida State will favored to win its first ACC crown since 2005.
25: Georgia Tech won eight games in 2011 with a young roster, and the Yellow Jackets should challenge Virginia Tech in the Coastal Division this season. Senior quarterback Tevin Washington accounted for 25 touchdowns — 14 on the ground and 11 passing — a year ago, but he must be more consistent in ACC play. Washington led the Yellow Jackets in rushing, but he had zero touchdown passes over the last seven regular-season games. The receiving unit is completely inexperienced after the loss of Stephen Hill to the NFL, as no returning wideout has a single career catch. However, we all know the focus of Paul Johnson’s offense is run, run, and more run. Georgia Tech returns four starters on an offensive line that could be the best of Johnson’s tenure, and veteran backs Orwin Smith and David Sims will join Washington to lead the vaunted spread-option attack.
The Yellow Jackets defense must be better against the run to beat the top opponents on their schedule. Al Groh’s group ranked 66th nationally in run defense last year, and there was a lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks as well. Defensive end Izaan Cross will lead a defensive line looking for playmakers, while the linebackers group should be solid with Jeremiah Attaochu leading the way. The secondary should be a quality group with returning corners Louis Young and Rod Sweeting, plus leading tackler Isaiah Johnson back at safety.
Georgia Tech has a challenging season-opener in Blacksburg, as the Hokies get all summer to prepare for the Jackets’ run game. The Clemson trip will be tough as well, but Florida State is not on the schedule. If the offense plays with more precision and the defense can show marked improvement, Johnson’s club will be an ACC contender.
26: Arkansas State enjoyed its best football season at the Division I/FBS level in 2011, going undefeated as Sun Belt champions and winning 10 games. That success led to coach Hugh Freeze moving on to Ole Miss and the SEC, but the Red Wolves found another bright offensive mind from America’s toughest conference in new coach Gus Malzahn. The former Auburn offensive coordinator will inherit an ASU attack with veteran skill players, led by Sun Belt Player of the Year Ryan Aplin. The senior dual-threat quarterback has scored 26 touchdowns in his career, as well as totaling 43 TD passes. Aplin is fourth among active FBS signal callers with 8,734 career yards of total offense, and he should continue to flourish in Malzahn’s fast-paced offense.
Seniors Taylor Stockemer and Josh Jarboe are back as the top receivers, but the Red Wolves will need to find a running back to complement Aplin — last year’s leading rusher. Speedy Frankie Jackson is the top candidate, and he will run behind a line that must replace three starters. On defense, new coordinator John Thompson will be searching for playmakers. ASU ranked 24th nationally in total defense in 2011, but only four starters return. The defense may give up some points this year — especially in September trips to Oregon and Nebraska — but the offense should be able to compensate. Malzahn knows there are good things happening in Jonesboro, and the Aplin-led Red Wolves look like the favorite to repeat in the Sun Belt.
27: UCLA football is going through a transition, as former Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks head coach Jim Mora takes over the Bruins program. Former coach Rick Neuheisel made progress in recruiting and was well-liked, but he could never get the offense going on the way to a four-year record of 21-29. In fact, UCLA has only 27 passing touchdowns over the past two seasons — the lowest total in the Pac-12 by far over that span. New offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone will try to change that fact with a fast-paced attack, but he must find a quarterback first. Redshirt freshman Brett Hundley may be the most-talented candidate, and he will compete with seniors Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut for the job. The Bruins have two solid running backs in Johnathan Franklin and Malcolm Jones, but the offensive line needs much improvement and to find some depth.
Mora and new defensive coordinator Lou Spanos will employ multiple schemes with the front seven. The line has a ton of talent, but must be better on the field after the Bruins defense finished 96th in the country against the run last season. Top tacklers Patrick Larimore and Eric Kendricks are back to lead the linebackers group, while the secondary has quality experience — especially in cornerbacks Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester. There are too many playmakers on this side of the ball for the Bruins to repeat a finish of 92nd nationally in scoring defense.
The new staff has many challenges in getting the football culture changed at UCLA, but there is plenty of talent on the roster. Getting back to the postseason would be a solid accomplishment in 2012 for Mora, and then he can work towards the goal of returning the Bruins to the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 1998 season.
28: The Washington program is on the rise in the Pac-12, and Steve Sarkisian has the Huskies fan base energized for the first time in a decade. The offense found a star in quarterback Keith Price last year, but the UW defense was awful on its way to ranking 106th nationally. After the humiliating 67–56 Alamo Bowl loss to Baylor and Heisman winner Robert Griffin III, changes were made on the staff. Sarkisian paid a hefty ransom to bring coordinator Justin Wilcox back to the west coast. The former Oregon player and Boise State defensive boss did a solid job at Tennessee, where he took a talent-depleted unit and had them ranked 28th in the country in total defense last season. Wilcox will also have top recruiters/coaches under him in Peter Sirmon and Tosh Lupoi. Can that group turn around the defense in Seattle?
The Huskies have some productive players in linemen Hau'oli Jamora and Josh Shirley, as well as defensive backs Desmond Trufant and Sean Parker. However there is little depth and playmakers are needed badly at linebacker. There will be an infusion of talent with a solid recruiting class, and heralded freshman Shaq Thompson could move into the lineup immediately at safety. The Washington offense, which scored over 33 points per game in 2011, should be excellent with Price throwing to top pass catchers Austin Seferian-Jenkins at tight end and Kasen Williams at receiver. Jesse Callier will try to replace All-Pac-12 rusher Chris Polk, and he will run behind a solid O-line with three starters returning.
The UW defense does have to be a shutdown unit, but it must improve greatly to give the Huskies a shot at challenging Oregon and Stanford in the Pac-12 North. The first half of the schedule is brutal with LSU, Stanford, Oregon and USC, but look for Washington to build momentum late on its way to becoming a perennial conference contender.
29: The Georgia Bulldogs will have a great shot to repeat in the SEC East, and the catalyst in Athens will be an experienced and athletic defense. Todd Grantham’s group finished fifth in total defense last season and returns 10 starters. The lead Dawg will be outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, No. 29 — a consensus All-American who led the SEC with 13.5 sacks a year ago. He’ll be joined on the linebackers unit by solid contributors Mike Gilliard and Alec Ogletree, and the line is stout with John Jenkins at nose tackle and Abry Jones at end. The secondary should be excellent, with senior safeties Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams. However there were some off-the-field issues with multiple defenders, and they will be suspended for two to four games.
The offense has a catalyst as well, as junior quarterback Aaron Murray comes off a 2011 campaign when he set a new school single-season record for touchdown passes with 35. His top target should be senior wideout Tavarres King, who led the team with 47 receptions for 705 yards and eight scores last season. Malcolm Mitchell was the Dawgs’ second-leading receiver a year ago, but he may split time between offense and defense in 2012. The UGA running game could be a concern after the dismissal of Isaiah Crowell, unless Ken Malcome or heralded freshmen Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley can emerge. The patchwork line lacks depth, but there is talent in the starting five.
The schedule is friendly — no Alabama, LSU or Arkansas from the West — for a UGA team that has the proven formula of a top defense and stud quarterback. If the Dawgs can survive the early suspensions and develop a rushing attack, they should return to Atlanta this December with a solid chance of winning an SEC crown.
30: The Arkansas Razorbacks and their fans have been through quite the offseason. It started out on a positive note when quarterback Tyler Wilson and his 30 career touchdown passes returned to Fayetteville instead of opting for the NFL. However the Razorbacks program would be shocked a few months later with the Bobby Petrino saga, which would lead to the firing of the coach who compiled a 21-5 record over the last two seasons. John L. Smith will coach the Hogs this year, and he announced earlier this week that promising receivers Marquel Wade and Maudrecus Humphrey — plus tight end Andrew Peterson — will not play this fall because of legal issues.
So how will Wilson and the vaunted passing attack fare after the losses of Petrino and three receivers to the NFL? The senior signal caller has two top pass catchers in receiver Cobi Hamilton and tight end Chris Gragg, but there is little other experience on the outside. The offense will be bolstered by the return of running back Knile Davis, who had an incredible 2010 season with 1,322 yards and 13 touchdowns. The offensive line brings three starters back, with All-America candidate Alvin Bailey leading the way.
The Arkansas defense has talent but lost a key player on each level in Jake Bequette, Jerry Franklin and Tramain Thomas. New coordinator Paul Haynes will look for improvement against the run, where the Hogs finished 74th nationally last season. The tackle rotation has depth, but the ends must show consistency. The linebackers group should be solid with Alonzo Highsmith — the Razorbacks’ top defender — and converted end Tenarius Wright, while the secondary has playmakers in safety Eric Bennett and corner Tevin Mitchel. Arkansas should still be a top 10-15 team in 2012, but the offseason turmoil may prevent the Hogs from challenging LSU and Alabama in the brutal SEC West.
31: The forecast for the Miami Hurricanes in 2012 looks fairly similar to the 6-6 campaign of last season. With looming NCAA sanctions and a depleted roster, Al Golden is looking for any positives as he and the staff try to develop young talent. Miami will have a new look on offense after losing top playmakers Lamar Miller, Jacory Harris, Tommy Streeter and Travis Benjamin. Stephen Morris and transfer Ryan Williams will battle for the starting quarterback gig, and that competition could last into the season. Junior Allen Hurns is the team’s leading returning pass catcher with 31 receptions a year ago, and he will be joined by Rashawn Scott and Phillip Dorsett on a receivers unit look for a top target to emerge. Mike James will start at running back, and he will run behind an offensive line that returns only two starters.
Despite being porous against the run last season, the Hurricanes ranked 17th nationally in scoring defense. This year’s group has some talent, but there are question marks as well. The defensive line lacks experience, but sophomore end Anthony Chickillo could become a star. Fellow sophomore Denzel Perryman had a solid freshman season with 69 tackles, and he will move to middle linebacker in 2012. Seniors Vaughn Telemaque and Brandon McGee will lead a secondary that needs to force a few more turnovers while also supporting the run.
Al Golden has recruited some big-time talent to ‘The U’, but the Hurricanes will be inexperienced in 2012. The ACC slate will be challenging, plus there are tough non-conference games against Notre Dame, Kansas State and South Florida. It may not be the norm at Miami, but making a bowl game could be considered a quality accomplishment this season.
32: The Nevada Wolf Pack will move up in competition this year with the transition to the Mountain West Conference. Hall of Fame coach Chris Ault has led Nevada to bowl games in each of the last seven years on the strength of his run-heavy Pistol offense, but the Wolf Pack finished 32nd in the country in passing offense a year ago — its highest ranking in years. To continue the upward trend with the aerial attack, Ault brought in new offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich from Hawaii. The emphasis on a balanced offense will be enhanced by Cody Fajardo, who took over at quarterback in mid-October last season and his dual-thereat play earned him WAC Freshman of the Year honors. Fajardo will benefit from the return of receiver Brandon Wimberly and tight end Zach Sudfield to the lineup, and he’ll be protected by a solid offensive line with three starters returning. Several running backs will have the opportunity to emerge as the leader, with junior Stefphon Jefferson as the top candidate.
The move to the Mountain West will be challenging for the Nevada defense, which lost some key contributors. Five starters do return, all in the back seven and all seniors. Mike Bradeson takes over at coordinator, and the strength of his defense should be the unit he previously coached — the secondary. The senior-laden group isled by safeties Duke Williams and Marlon Johnson and corner Khalid Wooten. The linebackers unit has quality veterans as well in seniors Albert Rosette and Jeremiah Green. The challenge for Bradeson will be finding playmakers on an inexperienced defensive line.
Nevada should play well in the Mountain West, with Fajardo and the offense as the catalyst. Boise State is still the preseason favorite despite major personnel losses, but the winning tradition that Ault has built in Reno should produce a team that competes with the Broncos for the MWC crown.
33: The college football world has not witnessed many seasons like the one Wisconsin running back Montee Ball had in 2011, rushing for 1,923 yards and an astounding 33 touchdowns. He made the Badgers fan base very happy by deciding to return to school rather than enter the 2012 NFL Draft, and the All-America back will now try to lead UW to a third-straight Rose Bowl. There was some serious offseason attrition in Madison with the loss of quarterback Russell Wilson, three quality offensive line starters and heralded offensive coordinator Paul Chryst. However, the program did receive good news with the transfer of talented signal caller Danny O’Brien from Maryland. He will have solid targets in receiver Jared Abbrederis and tight end Jacob Pedersen, plus the line does return All-America candidates in tackle Ricky Wagner and center Travis Frederick.
While the Badgers offense should still score plenty of points, the defense must improve against the run. Six starters are back from a unit that finished 13th nationally in scoring defense, but there were some lapses against teams like Ohio State, Michigan State and Oregon that will need to be corrected. The line should have better depth this year, and the linebackers group is excellent with all-conference players in Chris Borland and Mike Taylor. If the secondary can develop some early consistency, the defense should be a solid group.
Wisconsin seems to have a fairly clear path to the Leaders crown, with a quality roster and the fact that Ohio State and Penn State are ineligible for the postseason. There is a little uncertainty with O’Brien and the defense, but Ball and the other weapons on offense should put the Badgers in a good position to win a third-straight Big Ten title.
34: South Florida is still looking for its first Big East title, and the roster is stocked enough for that to happen in 2012. Louisville is the preseason favorite, but the Bulls return a senior quarterback and a veteran defense. The back seven should be particularly strong, with an excellent linebacking group led by No. 34 DeDe Lattimore. The all-conference candidate will be joined by senior backers Mike Lanaris and Sam Barrington on a defense that finished 15th nationally against the run last year. The secondary has quality experience with senior corner Kayvon Webster and senior safety Jon Lejiste leading the way, but they must find a way to not break down on drives late in games — a factor that hurt the Bulls multiple times in 2011. The line has question marks, but junior end Ryne Giddens could be a star.
Most of the attention on offense will go to senior quarterback B.J. Daniels, who is statistically productive but does have lapses in the passing game. He’ll have a quality group of receivers and backs around him, led by wideout Sterling Griffin. The offensive line returns three starters, and they should pave the way for a solid running game that produced over 180 yards a game last season.
Coach Skip Holtz must find a way to reverse the USF pattern of playing well during the non-conference slate but then faltering in Big East play. There is too much talent on the Bulls roster for another 1-7 end to the season. If Holtz can get a little more consistency across the board and finish off games, South Florida can challenge in the Big East.
35: Mike Riley, one of the nicest and well-liked coaches in college football, led Oregon State to bowl games in six of the seven seasons from 2003-09. However the Beavers have gone 8-16 over the past two years, including a lackluster 3-9 last season. OSU’s problems during the 2011 campaign stemmed from an inability to run the ball or stop the run on defense. The Beavers finished an anemic 118th in the country in rushing and had to rely on the arm of Sean Mannion to move the ball. The sophomore quarterback could become a big-time Pac-12 player, but he must cut down on interceptions this season. While Mannion has a solid receivers group coming back in Markus Wheaton, Jordan Bishop and Brandin Cooks, he must get some help from the running game. OSU’s leading returning rusher is No. 35 Malcolm Agnew, and he will be joined by Storm Woods and incoming freshman Chris Brown in a backfield looking for a consistent threat.
The Oregon State defense returns eight starters from a group that ranked 101st nationally against the run and last in the Pac-12. Sophomore defensive ends Scott Crichton and Dylan Wynn have potential on the line, but they will need help inside. The back seven has solid experience, led by veterans Feti Unga and Michael Doctor at linebacker and Jordan Poyer at cornerback. Riley’s teams have played solid run defense historically, so the OSU fan base is hoping last year’s performance was just an injury-filled outlier. If the Beavers are not more competitive this season, that same fan base will demand a change in the direction of the program.
36: Cincinnati had a rough first season (4-8) under Butch Jones in 2010, but the Bearcats rebounded last season with 10 wins and a share of the Big East title. The UC formula was fairly simple a year ago: run the ball and stop the run on defense. Cincinnati ranked 36th in the country in rushing, led by Big East Offensive Player of the Year Isaiah Pead (1,259 yards and 12 touchdowns) and quarterback Zach Collaros (eight rushing TDs). With those two stars gone, Jones will need to find some new weapons for his running attack. Senior George Winn tallied 219 yards in 2011 and should be the starter this year, but he will be challenged by Jameel Poteat, Ralph David Abernathy IV and Aaron Harris. Quarterback Munchie Legaux can also add to the rushing attack, and he will have veteran targets in Anthony McClung and Kenbrell Thompkins.
The Bearcats defense finished sixth nationally in rushing defense last season, but two key components — tackle Derek Wolfe and middle linebacker JK Schaffer — will be missed greatly. Senior ends Dan Giordano and Walter Stewart will lead a defensive line with solid potential, while Maalik Bomar tops the linebackers group. The UC defense had 16 interceptions last year, but the secondary must cut down on opponents’ passing yardage this season.
Cincinnati still has talent on the roster, but it will be tough to replace second-round NFL draft picks like Pead and Wolfe. Another strong campaign in Jones’ third season would go a long way in making the Bearcats fan base feel confident that UC football can continue to be a top Big East program.
37: New Ole Miss boss Hugh Freeze has been a college head coach for 37 games, 25 at NAIA Lambuth and 12 at Arkansas State. That resume might not sound like the usual path for an SEC head coach, but Freeze just may be the solution to what’s needed in Oxford. The Mississippi native won 30 of those 37 games, including a 10-2 season at ASU that resulted in a Sun Belt Championship. His up-tempo offense was a hit in Jonesboro, and points seem to follow the likeable coach wherever he works.
The issue(s) facing Freeze is that he inherited a Rebels team lacking the talent of its SEC brethren, as Ole Miss has lost an astounding 14 league games in a row. Last year’s club finished 116th in scoring offense and 96th in scoring defense, so there is quite a bit of work to be done in Oxford. The 2012 season will be about establishing a new football culture as much as wins and losses, and Freeze seems to be off to a good start with discipline, academic improvement and recruiting. The schedule is brutal in the SEC West, plus the Rebs face Georgia and an improved Vanderbilt program from the East and Texas in a non-conference tilt.
The losing may continue this season at Ole Miss, but Freeze has been excellent at every stop and should get the program moving in the right direction. He has put together a solid staff, but it will take some time to start winning in America’s toughest conference.
38: Utah had a quality season in its first Pac-12 campaign, winning eight total games including a bowl victory over Georgia Tech. The catalyst for the Utes was a defense that finished 38th in the country last year, led by the league’s top defensive lineman in Star Lotulelei. The effective unit ranked 19th in the nation and best in the conference in scoring defense, allowing 20.2 points per game. Utah’s top two tacklers from last year — linebackers Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez — must be replaced, but seven starters return for coordinator Kalani Sitake. Lotulelei and the Kruger brothers will lead a solid line, and an experienced secondary should be a major strength.
If the Utes are going to improve on their 4-5 conference record from 2011, the offense will need to find more weapons on offense than just star running back John White. The talented junior college transfer totaled 1,519 yards and 15 touchdowns a year ago, yet Utah finished 80th nationally in rushing. New coordinator Brian Johnson will try to resuscitate the Pac-12’s worst passing attack, with former starter Jordan Wynn probably returning to the quarterback position this fall. The receivers are veterans, but the O-line must replace quality tackles in Tony Bergstrom and John Cullen.
Kyle Whittingham’s crew is not expected to challenge USC in the South, but many believe the Utes can finish second in the division. Avoiding Oregon and Stanford helps with the league schedule, plus the non-conference slate is manageable. If the offense can just become a little more productive, the Utah defense can lead the club to big things in 2012.
39: Coach Frank Spaziani has been the head coach at Boston College for 39 games, and he has led to the Eagles to a 20-19 record. After winning an “interim” game in 2006 and then 15 games in his first two seasons at the helm, Spaziani’s Eagles dropped to 4-8 last year and BC missed the postseason for the first time since 1998. Many in the fan base fear the program is headed in the wrong direction, and attendance in Chestnut Hill has dipped to unhealthy levels. Most of the talk regarding Eagles football these days revolves around Spaziani and the “hot seat”, and that chatter increased when multiple assistants decided to take jobs at other schools this offseason.
A 20-19 record may not sound incredibly bad, but you have to examine the recent success of Boston College to understand the feelings of the fan base. Tom O’Brien won 66 games in his last eight seasons at BC, including taking the Eagles to a bowl game each season from 1999-2006. Jeff Jagodzinski then won 20 games in two years before his controversial firing for interviewing for a job with the Jets. If Spaziani is to get the current Eagles turned around, then they will simply have to find a way to score more points. BC finished 112th in the country in both scoring and total offense a year ago.
The 2012 schedule will not make it easy on Spaziani and staff as they try to lead Boston College back to the postseason. The Eagles play non-conference games against Notre Dame and at Northwestern, plus difficult ACC battles with Clemson, Florida State and Georgia Tech Virginia Tech and NC State.
40: The Oklahoma defense will have a new boss with a familiar name this season. Former coordinator Brent Venables is now at Clemson, while Bob Stoops welcomes back his brother, Mike, to run the Sooners defense like he did from 1999-2003. Last year’s unit was solid early but fell off in the second half of the season. OU tied for eighth in the nation with 40 sacks last year, and key pass rushers Frank Alexander and Ronnell Lewis are off to the NFL. That duo combined for 32 tackles for loss and 14 sacks a year ago. Stoops will have five seniors in the defensive line rotation with ends David King and R.J. Washington, plus tackles Casey Walker, Stacy McGee and Jamarkus McFarland. Junior college transfer Chaz Nelson should also contribute in getting to opposing quarterbacks.
If the front four plays well, the Sooners should be excellent on defense. A secondary with vast potential returns all four starters, including All-America candidate Tony Jefferson at safety. The linebackers are also good, with Tom Wort in the middle and emerging star Corey Nelson on the outside. Additionally, two top Big 12 quarterbacks who hurt the Sooners last season — Robert Griffin III and Brandon Weeden — have moved on to the next level.
Oklahoma looks like the league favorite and national title contender, and we all expect big things from senior Landry Jones and the Sooners offense. If Stoops can get the defense to play to its talent level, look for OU to return to its usual spot for the last decade-plus — the top of the Big 12.
41: Vanderbilt made a bowl game in James Franklin’s first season in Nashville, but the excitement on West End wasn’t just because the Commodores reached the postseason for the fifth time in school history. It was because VU dominated lesser opponents and stood toe-to-toe with the big boys of the SEC. Can Franklin keep the momentum going in 2012? The offense has solid weapons, led by star running back Zac Stacy (1,193 yards, 14 touchdowns) and quarterback Jordan Rodgers. The senior signal caller took over during the second half of last season, and the Vanderbilt offense saw its production increase greatly. Rodgers has a pair of quality targets in Chris Boyd (eight TDs) and Jordan Matthews, who led the team with 41 catches and 778 yards a year ago.
The Commodores return seven starters on defense, but they did lose some high-end talent and leadership with the departures of Casey Hayward, Sean Richardson, Tim Fugger and Chris Marve. The line has plenty of experience and will be led by Walker May at end and Rob Lohr at tackle. The starting linebackers have potential but little depth, while the secondary could be excellent with stud cornerback Trey Wilson topping the unit.
Franklin has raised the expectations at Vanderbilt with the team’s on-the-field performance as well as impressive recruiting results. The 2012 Commodores should make a bowl game for the second straight season (for the first time in school history) and could pull a major upset or two in America’s toughest conference.
42: We knew the 2011 season would be challenging for the Auburn Tigers, who had massive personnel attrition from the 2010 BCS Championship team. Gene Chizik’s bunch lost its best offensive (Cam Newton) and defensive (Nick Fairley) player, four offensive line starters, its two best linebackers and top two receivers. The results last year were surprisingly good for a team that was outscored by 42 points on the season, as Auburn finished with eight wins. The inexperienced Tigers did lose badly to some top 25 teams, but they did show major potential with a victory at South Carolina and a Chick-fil-A Bowl win over Virginia.
The 2012 Auburn squad returns 16 starters, although both coordinators changed during the offseason. Former Michigan, Florida and Temple coach Scot Loeffler takes over the Auburn offense, which will have a much more conventional feel than Gus Malzahn’s attack. Kiehl Frazier and Clint Moseley will compete for the starting quarterback gig, and either one will have solid senior weapons at his disposal in receiver Emory Blake, running back Onterio McCalebb and tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen.
Former Falcons and Georgia coordinator Brian VanGorder will lead the Auburn defense, and he is walking into a gold mine of talent. All four defensive line starters return, including All-America candidate Corey Lemonier at end. The back seven should also be solid, led by seniors Daren Bates at linebacker and T’Sharvan Bell at cornerback. There will be an adjustment to the new schemes, but Auburn should move back towards the upper echelon of the SEC West in 2012.
43: Northwestern will be striving for a school-record fifth consecutive bowl appearance this season, and quarterback Kain Colter will be the focus of the offense. The dual-threat signal caller filled in for Dan Persa early in 2011 and was also the hero of the Nebraska victory in Lincoln last November. Colter is the Wildcats’ leading returning passer (55-for-82 for 673 yards and six touchdowns) and rusher (135 carries for 654 yards and nine scores). Additionally, the talented junior is Northwestern’s leading returning receiver after compiling 43 catches for 466 yards and three TDs in 2011. Colter may not be catching passes this season, but he should have solid targets in Demetrius Fields, Rashad Lawrence and Tony Jones.
Colter is obviously a dynamic threat on the ground, but NW must get more production from its running backs. The offensive line returns three starters, and that group should be solid if the pass protection improves this year. Coach Pat Fitzgerald and coordinator Mike Hankwitz will need more from their defense that finished 80th in the country in 2011. The linebackers unit has experience, but there are question marks on the line and in the secondary. This group simply has to better all over the field, from stopping the run to getting more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
The Big Ten’s Legends Division is challenging, but the Wildcats play a manageable non-conference schedule and miss Wisconsin and Ohio State from the Leaders. If Colter gets some support and the defense can show improvement, then Northwestern will have a shot at winning its first bowl game since January 1, 1949.
44: The Texas Longhorns look primed to return to a double-digit win total in 2012. Mack Brown won nine games in each of his first three seasons (1998-2000) in Austin, and then compiled at least 10 victories per year for almost a decade (2001-09). The bottom fell out in the non-bowl season of 2010, but the Horns rebounded with eight wins last year. A huge reason for the current burnt-orange optimism is a loaded defense led by top pass rusher Jackson Jeffcoat, No. 44, and fellow stellar end Alex Okafor. The pair combined for 35 tackles for loss and 15 sacks a year ago. Texas also has one of the best secondaries in the country, with safety Kenny Vacarro and cornerbacks Quandre Diggs and Carrington Byndom all being candidates for All-America and All-Big 12 honors.
Texas does have to replace leading tacklers Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson at linebacker, but coordinator Manny Diaz has plenty of talent on that unit with Jordan Hicks, Steve Edmond and Demarco Cobbs. The key to hitting the 10-win level once again will be improving a passing game that ranked 86th in the nation in 2011. Sophomore quarterback David Ash will have a chance to do that with an experienced receivers group, led by Mike Davis, Jaxon Shipley and Marquise Goodwin. The running game should be excellent with four offensive line starters returning, plus talented backs in Malcolm Brown (742 yards and five TDs as a freshman), Joe Bergeron (463 yards and five TDs) and heralded freshman Johnathan Gray.
The Texas defense ranked 11th in the country last season even in the pass-happy Big 12. Look for more positive results this year with studs like Jeffcoat, Okafor, Vaccaro and Diggs leading the way. If the Longhorns can find some consistency at signal caller, Mack Brown’s bunch will be right back to competing for league and national crowns.
45: Washington State made big news this offseason with the hiring of former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach. The controversial bench boss has a reputation for a wide-open passing offense and saying whatever is on his mind, but he also gets results. Texas Tech had an 84-43 record during his decade in Lubbock, and the Red Raiders made a bowl game in each of those 10 seasons. Last season in Pullman, the Cougars offense finished 45th in the nation in scoring despite having the ninth-rated passing attack. That could be the Leach difference this year — taking the same highly-rated pass offense (with a lacking run game) and getting more points out of it.
Senior Jeff Tuel is back at quarterback after multiple 2011 injuries, and he had an excellent performance in the spring game. His top target will be All-America candidate Marquess Wilson, who compiled 1,388 yards and 12 touchdowns a year ago. The offensive line returns three starters, but they must do a better job of protecting the passer after ranking in the bottom five in the country in sacks allowed per game. The defense will change to a more aggressive 3-4 scheme under new coordinator Mike Breske, and he will benefit from the return of pass rusher Travis Long and a veteran secondary.
Leach has the signal caller and top wideout to build a potent offense in his first season at Washington State. The Cougars have not made a bowl game since 2003, but six wins looks like a solid possibility with a proven coach steering the ship.
Editor's Note: After a our Penn State entry, Silas Redd and Rob Bolden have transferred.
46: The Penn State community has been through the worst scandal in school history over the last nine months. The nation was shocked to learn of Jerry Sandusky’s crimes and the subsequent silence by PSU decision makers, including Joe Paterno. The release of the Freeh Report has people talking more about cover-ups and further prosecutions than football, but new coach Bill O’Brien and his football team will try to move forward amid distractions and an awkward atmosphere in Happy Valley.
On the field, the new Penn State staff will be challenged to simply find a way to score more points. The Nittany Lions defense was good enough to lead the team to nine wins a year ago, but PSU only scored 46 points in its four losses. O’Brien will begin with senior Matt McGloin at quarterback, while Rob Bolden or Paul Jones could claim the job as well if the Nittany Lions do not improve on their 96th in the country ranking in passing offense. Any of the trio of signal callers will be helped by the return of top running back Silas Redd, who was very impressive last season on his way to 1,241 yards rushing and seven scores. However there is only one starter back on the offensive line, and the receivers lack a big-time playmaker.
The PSU defense should be a quality group, with tackle Jordan Hill and linebacker Gerald Hodges leading the way. The Nittany Lions will also count on seniors Michael Mauti and Pete Massaro to solidify the front seven, which will be needed with the loss of all four secondary starters. Penn State has a manageable non-conference schedule and avoids both Michigan schools from the Legends Division, but O’Brien and staff may be challenged by off-the-field distractions as much as gridiron issues.
47: Baylor fans were witness to a magical season in 2011, as the Bears won 10 games and Robert Griffin III took home the Heisman Trophy. The star quarterback compiled almost 5,000 total yards and accounted for 47 touchdowns a year ago. While Griffin was the brightest star in the country last season, he is not the only playmaker coach Art Briles will have to replace on offense. Star receiver Kendall Wright (1,663 yards and 14 TDs) and lead running back Terrance Ganaway (1,547 yards and 21 TDs) were incredibly productive in 2011, and NFL linemen Philip Blake and Robert Griffin paved the way.
There really is no replacing RG3, but the passing game should be fine. Senior signal caller Nick Florence has some experience, and the starting receiving group of Terrance Williams, Lanear Sampson and Tevin Reese is excellent. Three starters return on the offensive line, and the trio of Jarred Salubi, Glasco Martin and transfer Lache Seastrunk will compete for carries. The Baylor defense struggled last season (116th in the nation), but eight starters are back. The secondary should be a solid group, as Phil Bennett tries to improve a fast and experienced unit.
Baylor may not contend for the Big 12 title or wins 10 games again, but the performance of the 2012 team should show how much the program has grown under Briles. Making a bowl game for a third-straight season (which has never happened in school history) would be a quality accomplishment for the Bears.
48: The Missouri Tigers have won 48 games over the last five years, as coach Gary Pinkel has shown the ability to consistently produce winning seasons in Columbia. Mizzou made two Big 12 Championships Games in 2008 and 2009 but lost both. In 2012 the challenge gets much bigger as the Tigers join the SEC, America’s toughest conference. Another major offseason development for Missouri was the shoulder injury to star quarterback James Franklin during spring ball. He had surgery in late March, and Franklin’s presence will be paramount to the Tigers’ success after a sophomore season where he had 3,846 total yards and accounted for 36 touchdowns.
Franklin will have senior T.J. Moe back as his top target, but the rest of the receivers lack significant experience. Missouri did pull off a big-time recruiting coup by inking the nation’s top wideout in Dorial Green-Beckham, and it will be interesting to see how much he can contribute as a true freshman. The offensive line should be solid with three returning starters, plus getting sixth-year tackle Elvis Fisher back on the fold. With top runner Henry Josey expected to miss the season after multiple knee surgeries, the Tigers will count on Kendial Lawrence (566 yards and five TDs in 2011) to carry the rock.
The Missouri defense will be led by senior end Brad Madison, a veteran linebacker group and experienced cornerbacks E.J. Gaines and Kip Edwards. The Tigers have played solid defense over the last few years in the pass-happy Big 12, but they will face a more physical league in the SEC. The 2012 schedule will be tougher for Pinkel’s crew, but he has built a program that will compete in its new conference.
49: Virginia Tech has won at least 10 games in every season since 2004, and the Hokies have played in five of the seven ACC Championship Games — winning three. Frank Beamer’s club is always a national contender and looks like the clear favorite in the Coastal Division in 2012. The strength of this year’s squad will be in its eight returning starters on defense, led by all-conference ends James Gayle and J.R. Collins. The dynamic duo combined 13 sacks and 49 quarterback hurries last season, and Virginia Tech led the ACC in getting to opposing signal callers. With stud ends and the Hopkins brothers — Derrick and Antoine — at tackle, the Hokies have one of the best defensive lines in the country.
Senior Bruce Taylor will lead a linebacker group that has talent and experience, but also has had the injury bug. Junior cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Antone Exum are the latest in a long line of excellent secondary members to play in Bud Foster’s defense. This unit will have to carry the team early while the offense looks to replace All-America running back David Wilson, four offensive line starters and its top two receivers. However Virginia Tech has a star in quarterback Logan Thomas, who accounted for 30 touchdowns a year ago.
Some Hokies fans may be frustrated that their team has lost six of its last nine bowl games, but this program is a proven winner under Beamer. On the strength of a shutdown defense and a top signal caller, look for Virginia Tech to be playing for another ACC title in 2012.
50: Boise State has had an amazing run over the last decade plus, and current head coach Chris Petersen has posted a phenomenal record of 73-6 in his six seasons at the helm. The overall strength of the program will have to be on display this year, as the Broncos must replace the winningest quarterback in NCAA history (Kellen Moore), NFL first-round picks in defensive end Shea McClellin and running back Doug Martin, All-America offensive tackle Nate Potter, the school record-holder for touchdown catches in a season (Tyler Shoemaker) and top defenders like George Iloka, Tyrone Crawford and Billy Winn. Moore set the all-time college football record with 50 career wins, while ranking second in NCAA history in career touchdown passes and fifth in career passing yardage.
Joe Southwick will get the first chance to succeed Moore as the Boise signal caller, and the junior will have a solid group around him. Senior tailback D.J. Harper (24 career rush TDs) is a proven player, and three starters return on a quality offensive line. Southwick will also have productive targets in receivers Matt Miller (679 yards and nine TDs as a freshman) and Mitch Burroughs, plus tight end Gabe Linehan. The Broncos defense is a larger concern, with only one starter back from last season. However there is talent on this side of the ball with proven tackles Michael Atkinson and Ricky Tjong-A-Tjoe, and senior cornerbacks Jamar Taylor and Jerrell Gavins will lead the secondary.
Boise State has a chance to win another season opener over a big-time opponent in Michigan State on August 31. If the Broncos top the Spartans, the BCS talk in Idaho will resume. This team should win the Mountain West title before moving to the Big East in 2013. Even with the personnel attrition, Petersen has built a perennial Top 25 program that should win double-digit games once again.
51: The USC Trojans were named our preseason No. 1 team because of a loaded roster on both sides of the ball. Senior quarterback Matt Barkley will be a Heisman favorite, the receiving duo of Robert Woods and Marqise Lee is probably the best in the country, and the defense has a ton of talent on all three levels. So what could prevent the Trojans from playing for both the Pac-12 and national crowns? Depth looks like the only concern for the SC staff, although a running game that finished 51st in the country could become a potential liability. Tailback Curtis McNeal finished last season on a major roll, compiling 876 yards and six touchdowns in the final eight games. However the depth chart is thin after McNeal, with Tre Madden out for the season, Amir Carlisle’s transfer and the inexperience of D.J. Morgan.
The Trojans do return four starters on the offensive line, so USC should be able to find effective runners to complement McNeal. Plus, the passing attack is lethal enough to score big-time points on its own. Besides the terrific tandem of Woods and Lee, Barkley will also have reliable targets in receiver George Farmer and tight ends Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble. The defense should be improved as well, with All-America candidates T.J. McDonald, Nickell Robey and Dion Bailey leading the way.
The November 3 game against Oregon and a potential rematch with the Ducks in the Pac-12 title game loom large for USC, but the Trojans look like a heavy favorite to win the conference and compete for the national title.
52: The Nebraska defense allowed 5.2 yards per play last season, which led to an alarming opponent’s total of 350.7 yards per game. The Cornhuskers powerful running attack was good enough to overcome those totals on the way to nine victories, but the defense will need to show much improvement to compete for the Big Ten crown. The NU defense has also totaled 52 sacks over the last two seasons, as compared to 79 in the 2008 and 2009 campaigns when Ndamukong Suh was making like miserable for opposing quarterbacks.
Carl Pelini is now the head coach at Florida Atlantic, and new defensive coordinator John Papuchis and new line coach Rick Kaczenski will face the challenge of bettering a unit that ranked eighth in the Big Ten in rushing defense (158.5 YPG). There is talent to work with up front, as tackle Baker Steinkuhler and end Cameron Meredith provide experience and senior leadership. Top tackler Lavonte David will be missed, but Will Compton will lead a veteran linebacker group. The secondary also has playmakers in cover corner Andrew Green and safety
The 2012 Cornhuskers have the ability to win the Legend’s Division and the Big Ten, especially with offensive stars Rex Burkhead and Taylor Martinez. If the defense can improve against the run and put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, Nebraska can reach the goals of its passionate fan base.
53: Ravens third-round pick Bernard Pierce was a major factor in the newfound success of Temple football over the last few years. The workhorse tailback ran for over 3,500 yards and 53 touchdowns in the last three seasons, and the 26 wins for the Owls during that time is the most-ever in school history for a three-year period. Al Golden and Steve Addazio have taken the program to a competitive level, but the challenge to sustain winning seasons becomes much more difficult this year with Temple (re)entering the Big East.
Running back Matt Brown (916 yards and six scores in 2011) will take over as the starter, but don’t look for him to tote the rock 273 times like Pierce did a year ago. Dual-threat quarterback Chris Coyer took over at the end of last season, running the ball especially well. Those are the positives for new coordinator Ryan Day, who will have his work cut out developing an inexperienced offensive line and depth at the receiver position. Temple’s defense was excellent last season, allowing the third-fewest points in the country. However, coordinator Chuck Heater will need another excellent effort after the loss of four All-MAC defenders. It may take a couple of years for Temple to be a player in the Big East, but the program and its leadership are as strong as ever.
54: NC State finished 54th nationally in both scoring offense and scoring defense a year ago. That sounds fairly average, but Tom O’Brien’s club was able to win eight games and beat North Carolina for a fifth consecutive season. How much better will the Wolfpack be in 2012? The forecast looks bright in Raleigh, with a proven senior quarterback and seven starters returning on both sides of the ball. Mike Glennon threw for over 3,000 yards and 31 touchdowns a year ago, and the running game should be improved with a veteran offensive line and leading rusher James Washington back in the fold. The Wolfpack defense is built on pressure and causing turnovers. NC State had 40 sacks (T-8th nationally) and the second-most takeaways in the country last season on the strength of a nation-leading 27 interceptions.
The key to the 2012 campaign will be consistency on both units. The talented offense produced 37, 56 and 31 points in NC State’s final three games a year ago, but tallied only 0, 13, and 10 points in the three prior games. The defense played well versus top foes like Clemson, Virginia and North Carolina, but struggled badly against Cincinnati, Wake Forest and Florida State. The start of the season will be challenging with a neutral-site contest against Tennessee and a trip to Connecticut, and the Wolfpack have tough trips to Miami, North Carolina and Clemson. The Seminoles and Tigers are the favorites in the ACC’s Atlantic Division, but NC State could shake up the balance of power in the league with a little more consistency across the board.
55: Louisville is our preseason favorite in the Big East, with a rising star in sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and a solid defense. Another positive for Charlie Strong’s club is four returning starters on the offensive line, led by No. 55 Mario Benavides. The senior center will help pave the way for what should be a much-improved offense in 2012. Bridgewater showed a ton of potential last season, tossing 14 touchdowns and running for four more scores during his freshman campaign. His top targets should be a trio of fellow sophomores — Eli Rogers, Michaelee Harris and DeVante Parker — who gained valuable experience last season. Junior running back Dominique Brown had the most carries last season, but he will compete with Jeremy Wright, Senorise Perry and Corvin Lamb to be the top Card in 2012.
The Cardinals defense may be young, but Strong and staff have upped the talent level greatly since arriving at Louisville. Last season’s group finished 10th nationally in run defense, but this year’s unit will need to improve against this pass. Louisville has challenging road trips to Pittsburgh and Rutgers and hosts USF and North Carolina, but a double-digit win season looks like a good possibility. If the offense develops as expected, look for the Cardinals to win the Big East and play in the BCS.
56: Michigan State set a school-record with 11 wins in 2010, and the Spartans followed that up with the same total a year ago. In fact, MSU is one of only seven BCS teams to win 11 games in each of the last two seasons. The Spartans stingy defense has been the catalyst for the recent success, but another major factor was the steady play of quarterback Kirk Cousins. He tossed 45 touchdown passes over the last two years and was an excellent leader. Michigan State ranked 56th nationally in total offense last season, but Cousins passing combined with the country’s sixth-best defense was enough to win the Big Ten’s Legends Division.
Eight starters return from the Big Ten’s top defense of 2011, and the running game should be improved with top back Le’Veon Bell (948 yards and 13 touchdowns) and four offensive line starters returning. The big focus in August will be on new quarterback Andrew Maxwell. The junior signal caller has the talent to continue MSU’s winning ways, but replacing Cousins’ leadership will not be easy. Additionally, the Spartans also lost top receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin to the NFL. Maxwell does not have to be a star because of MSU’s excellent defense, but his play may determine if Mark Dantonio’s bunch can reach the double-digit win mark once again.
57: Kansas made a splash this offseason with the hiring for former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis. After a dramatic end to the Mark Mangino era and two painful seasons under Turner Gill, the Jayhawks and their fans are desperate for any good news. Weis and staff have major work ahead to get KU competitive in the Big 12. As an example, last year’s squad finished 57th nationally in rushing offense. While that does not sound very impressive, it was the only major statistical category where the Jayhawks ranked in the top 90 in the nation. Ouch.
Weis is known for offense, and he started his Kansas tenure by bringing in two talented quarterback transfers — Dayne Crist (Notre Dame) and Jake Heaps (BYU) — as well as signing JUCO signal caller Turner Baty. Crist will start this season while Heaps sits out, and the former Irish QB will have three senior starters returning on the offensive line and three senior wideouts. Leading rusher James Sims is back (although he’ll serve a three-game suspension), and sophomore runners Tony Pierson and Brandon Bourbon have big potential. It may take former Dallas Cowboys coach Dave Campo a while to fix the nation’s worst defense, but the Kansas offense should be much improved in 2012.
58: North Carolina is not eligible for a bowl game this season because of NCAA sanctions from the Butch Davis regime. New coach Larry Fedora inherits a quality roster, and the Tar Heels should be among the ACC’s top teams. One main goal for UNC this season will be to beat rival NC State for the first time since 2006. Last year’s loss to the Wolfpack was especially painful, as North Carolina only gained 165 yards in 58 plays and was shut out 13-0. The Tar Heels have traditionally dominated their instate rival, but the current five-game losing streak has been tough on the fan base.
Fedora is known for offense, and his current UNC attack has a ton of potential. Running back Giovani Bernard is an All-America candidate after totaling 1,253 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. Quarterback Bryn Renner tossed a school-record 26 touchdown passes last season, and four starters return on a solid offensive line. The Tar Heels do have to replace Dwight Jones at receiver, but an offense with this much talent should not be blanked in any game. The NC State matchup on October 27 will be the Tar Heels “bowl game” this season, and Fedora could please UNC fans greatly by ending the streak against the Wolfpack.
59: The Notre Dame defense tied for 59th in the nation in sacks per game last season. The Irish were looking forward to improving that fact with the development of rising sophomore pass rushers Stephon Tuitt, Aaron Lynch and Ishaq Williams. However ND was dealt a major personnel blow the offseason with the transfer of defensive end Lynch, the team’s leading sacker in 2011, to South Florida. The three-man line should still be very solid with Tuitt, senior end Kapron Lewis-Moore and nose guard Louis Nix III, and the Irish did get their leading tackler back when linebacker Manti Te’o decided to return to South Bend for his senior season.
That group will need to play quality ball in front of a defensive backs unit that lost corners Robert Blanton and Gary Gray, plus top safety Harrison Smith. The reworked secondary would benefit greatly this season if the front seven can get more pressure on opposing signal callers, especially with the Irish facing three of the country’s top quarterbacks in Michigan’s Denard Robinson, Oklahoma’s Landry Jones and USC’s Matt Barkley. Bob Diaco’s defense played solid football last season, but the Te’o-led group will need to improve in forcing turnovers (only 14 takeaways in 2011) and sacks against a challenging 2012 schedule.
60: There were two huge moments for Iowa State football in 2011, the 44-41 triple-overtime win against rival Iowa and the 37-31, double-overtime thriller over Oklahoma State on national television. The Cyclones were obviously able to put the ball in the end zone in those two contests, but they struggled reaching paydirt in several other games. Despite ranking 60th in the nation in total offense, ISU only finished 90th in scoring. The biggest culprit for the disparity was the fact that the Cyclones tied for 115th in the nation in red zone efficiency.
New offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham, who replaces the departed Tom Herman (Ohio State), will have a tough decision at quarterback between Steele Jantz and Jared Barnett. Jantz had some early success before being replaced by Barnett in mid-October. The freshman showed his potential with a great performance in the Oky State victory, but then he was replaced by the older Jantz in the Pinstripe Bowl loss. Either quarterback will benefit from a solid 1-2 punch at running back in James White and Jeff Woody, and the offensive line should be a quality group. The deciding factor in the signal caller derby may be red zone proficiency, as the Cyclones offense must be better at taking advantage of its yardage success this season. That factor will be a key for ISU reaching a bowl game for a third time in four seasons under Paul Rhoads.
61: The 2011 season was a magical one for Oklahoma State, winning a school-record 12 games and a first-ever Big 12 crown. Obviously the nation’s second-highest scoring offense was the main catalyst for the championship campaign, but an opportunistic defense played a part as well. Although the Cowboys ranked 107th in the country in total yardage allowed, they were 61st in scoring defense. The reason for such a positive gap was OSU’s ability to create turnovers, as the defense compiled a nation-leading 44 takeaways in 2011. In fact, the second-best total in the Big 12 was Baylor with 29.
Can the Cowboys do it again? Even though Mike Gundy’s offense has been successful over the years with multiple quarterbacks, it’s difficult to see the 2012 attack putting up the same numbers as the Brandon Weeden-Justin Blackmon crew of the past two years. Last season, OSU averaged over 545 yards and 48.7 points per game. Eight starters do return to Bill Young’s crew, including the entire linebackers group and All-America candidate Brodrick Brown at cornerback. However, the Cowboys did lose All-Big 12 stalwarts Markelle Martin at safety and Jamie Blatnick at defensive end. If Oklahoma State is going to stay near the top of the conference pecking order, the defense will need to improve overall while still forcing the opponents’ miscues that were so important in 2011.
62: Texas A&M has a new coach and a new league, with Kevin Sumlin leading the Aggies into the challenging SEC. There will also be a new quarterback in College Station, with Ryan Tannehill going to the Dolphins in the top ten of the NFL Draft. Tannehill was a 62% passer last season, which probably does not sound overly impressive. However, it was as accurate a season as the Aggies had seen – along with Stephen McGee’s 2006 campaign – in a decade.
Now the offense belongs to Sumlin and coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, and they will be looking for a very accurate passer. The leading candidate for the A&M signal caller gig is sophomore Jameill Showers, who battled redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel this spring. Either quarterback will be protected by an excellent offensive line, and the Aggies have a big-time running back unit with Christine Michael, Ben Malena and true freshman Trey Williams. With only four starters back on defense, the offense will need to put up big points as the Aggies compete in the loaded SEC West.
63: Former Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas threw 63 touchdown passes over the last two seasons, but then made the ill-fated decision to go to the NFL early and was undrafted. The Ducks will move forward with Bryan Bennett, who was a solid backup in 2011, or redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota, who was better in the Oregon spring game. Obviously the expectations are high for any offense coached by Chip Kelly, and the signal caller decision will be a huge story in August.
Either quarterback will enjoy a solid offensive line and electric weapons in running back Kenjon Barner and all-purpose machine De’Anthony Thomas, but some new receivers will need to emerge on the outside. The defense returns six starters and should be much better than last year’s unit. The Ducks should be favored in every game with the exception of the November 3 road trip to USC. There may be some growing pains with a new quarterback, but look for Oregon to win the Pac-12 North and battle the Trojans for conference supremacy.
64:South Carolina has scored 64 points against Arkansas over the last three years, but the problem is that the Razorbacks have put up 118 and won by double-digits in all three games. The Gamecocks ran the table in the SEC East last season but because of two West losses, they saw Georgia go to Atlanta in December. Once again, Steve Spurrier’s bunch has a tougher league schedule than the Bulldogs. UGA avoids LSU, Alabama and Arkansas for a second straight season, while the Gamecocks must travel to LSU and host the Hogs.
All-America running back Marcus Lattimore will provide a huge boost to the SC offense, and quarterback Connor Shaw was excellent at the end of last season. The defense should be a quality unit once again with ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor, although there were some important losses to the NFL. If the Gamecocks can survive a brutal October slate (Georgia, at LSU at Florida and Tennessee), they will be in the mix to win the East. However, it is doubtful that South Carolina can afford a fourth-consecutive defeat to Arkansas and hope to make it to Atlanta.
65: Urban Meyer compiled 65 wins in 80 games at Florida, but then left Gainesville in controversial fashion. After a year away from the sideline, the polarizing Meyer is the Ohio State boss and is already stirring up Big Ten coaches with his highly-questioned recruiting methods. The Buckeyes are not eligible for the postseason in 2012 because of NCAA violations during the Jim Tressel era, but Meyer’s first club could be the best team in the conference.
The OSU defense will be one of the best in the country, with a nasty line and an excellent secondary. Quarterback Braxton Miller looks like a perfect fit for Meyer’s dual-threat system, and the sophomore could be primed for a monster season if he can find reliable targets on the outside. The Buckeyes will need left tackle Jack Mewhort and tight end Jake Stoneburner to return to scholarship, but the offense should be much improved under Meyer. With a favorable 2012 schedule, it would not be a surprise to see Ohio State reach the double-digit win mark even without the Big Ten Championship or a bowl game.
66: We’re taking a little liberty with the number today, looking at the unique nature of Illinois’ 6-6 regular-season record in 2011. The Illini became the only team in FBS history to finish the regular season 6-6 after starting the year 6-0. That six-game losing streak sealed the fate of Ron Zook after seven seasons in Champaign. Tim Beckman was hired after a solid three-year run at Toledo, and the new coach has some talent on the roster.
The defense returns seven starters, although national sack leader Whitney Mercilus will be missed. That unit ranked seventh in the nation in total defense and 15th in scoring defense. The key for success in 2012 will be a better offense, a group whose performance mirrored Illinois’ historic collapse last season. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase will have to learn another new system while not having much experience at receiver. Sophomore Donovonn Young looks like an adequate runner, and his emergence could be huge this season. The Leaders Division is a little down, but road trips to Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State and Northwestern will make it a challenging first campaign for Beckman.
67: We like to feature some of the big boys in the trenches on our countdown, and one of the more underrated blockers in the country plays at Kentucky — No. 67 Larry Warford. The powerful guard will be a top candidate this season for All-SEC and even All-America honors. Unfortunately, Warford’s name is not better known because of UK’s struggles on offense. In fact, the Wildcats only scored 22 touchdowns in 2011. Only three teams in the country — Akron, Florida Atlantic and New Mexico — had fewer visits to the end zone.
Warford is one of three starters returning on the Kentucky offense, and that unit will need to be vastly improved to get Joker Phillips off the hot seat in Lexington. The Wildcats have suffered 14 losses over the last two seasons under the former UK player, and he took over a program that had won 30 games in Rich Brooks’ final four seasons. Sophomore quarterback Max Smith played well late last season and in the spring, and he will have some veteran skill players in the huddle. Warford and center Matt Smith will lead an offensive line that will be challenged weekly in the brutal SEC.
68: Michiganquarterback Denard Robinson has accounted for 68 touchdowns over the last two seasons. The speedy signal caller followed his breakout sophomore campaign (18 TD passes, 14 TD runs) in 2010 with better scoring totals (20 TD passes, 16 TD runs) in 2011 despite having to change offensive systems. His play, along with a much-improved defense, was a catalyst for 11 wins and a Sugar Bowl victory for the Wolverines.
So what can we expect from the electric Robinson as a senior, besides a Heisman campaign? He calmed any fears last season in regards to executing the Al Borges offense, upping his scoring plays and leading the nation with a 15.3-yard average per pass completion. With the emergence of Fitzgerald Toussaint at tailback last year, Robinson was able to run a little less, take fewer hits and still produce more touchdowns. Look for more of the same this season, when Michigan returns to being a favorite in the Big Ten.
69: The Backyard Brawl between West Virginia and Pittsburgh has been played for 69 straight years, but conference realignment has caused the rivalry to cease in 2012. The Mountaineers are headed to the Big 12, while the Panthers will compete in the Big East for one more year before joining the Atlantic Coast Conference. The two schools seem interested in revisiting the game that has happened 104 times, but the new league schedules could be problematic. When Pitt joins the ACC, it will play a nine-game conference slate. That fact plus the Panthers’ rivalry with Notre Dame could mean little room for the Mountaineers.
Hopefully games like West Virginia-Pitt, Missouri-Kansas and Texas-Texas A&M will not permanently end because of the conference musical chairs we’ve seen over the last few years, but that could be the case. The SEC and ACC have several rivalry clashes (Florida-Florida State, South Carolina-Clemson, Georgia-Georgia Tech) at the end of the season, so it is possible for a school like Pitt to still play WVU. With all of the playoff and league restructuring, let’s hope that college football’s power brokers remember that one of the game’s biggest identities is its regional rivalries.
70: Clemson had a successful 2011 season, winning 10 games and its first ACC title since 1991. Unfortunately the number that seems to stick out from last year is 70, the numbers of points allowed by the Tigers in their Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia. That 70-33 drubbing in Miami led to defensive coordinator Kevin Steele’s ouster and the hiring of former Oklahoma defensive boss Brent Venables. Will things improve in 2012? Brandon Thompson, Andre Branch and Coty Sensabaugh were drafted into the NFL, and tackles Rennie Moore and Tyler Shatley will be missed as well.
The Tigers do have some solid talent on defense, but there is a ton of work to be done on a unit that allowed 29.3 points per game a year ago. Top tackler Rashard Hall and Jonathan Meeks return at safety and should lead a veteran back seven, while Malliciah Goodman will be the only upperclassman on an inexperienced defensive line. Venables does not need to produce a dominate defensive unit, just one that can give Clemson’s powerful offense a chance to win games. The trio of Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins and Andre Ellington should light up the scoreboard in 2012, and the Tigers improvement on defense will likely decide if they can repeat as ACC champion.
71: LSU had the perfect season in 2011, until facing the one January rematch the Tigers could not win. Les Miles’ crew will be right back in the championship hunt this season with the same physical run game and elite defense that produced wins over Alabama, Oregon, West Virginia, Georgia and Arkansas a year ago. The lone question mark in Baton Rouge remains the passing game, and much of the offseason attention has gone to new quarterback Zach Mettenberger. However, LSU also has to replace 71 receptions by top wideout Rueben Randle and tight end Deangelo Peterson. Sophomore Odell Beckham showed that he is ready for SEC defenses last year, catching 41 passes for 475 yards and two touchdowns during an impressive debut campaign. But who else will step up for the Tigers?
Senior Russell Shepard caught 33 passes in 2010 but faded last year with only 14 receptions. A bounce-back 2012 season by Shepard will help Mettenberger and the offense greatly. Jarvis Landry was a highly-decorated recruit in 2011, and he caught four passes in limited duty. Juniors Kadron Boone and James Wright will provide depth, and true freshman Avery Johnson from Florida could also sneak into the mix. At tight end, senior Chase Clement has nine career receptions while sophomore Travis Dickson has one.
Obviously the Tigers offense is focused on pounding the rock, with four tailbacks who each scored at least seven touchdowns in 2011. But if Mettenberger and the receivers can add just a little more production than last year’s squad, LSU will be the heavy favorite to repeat as SEC champion and play for the national title once again.
72: The Florida State defense struggled early in ACC play last year, as the Seminoles lost consecutive 35-30 games at Clemson and Wake Forest. However Mark Stoops’ crew would only allow 72 points in the final six league games, turning around FSU’s season and setting the table for major accomplishments in 2012. Nine starters return on the Noles defense, and there is quality depth because of the recruiting efforts of Jimbo Fisher and staff. The defensive line is loaded with veterans, including a superb pass-rushing tandem in ends Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner. Leading tackler Nigel Bradham must be replaced at linebacker, but FSU should have three upperclassmen starting for that group. The secondary, like the D-line, is one of the best units in the country. Xavier Rhodes and Greg Reid are a stellar pair of cornerbacks, and junior safety Lamarcus Joyner is an emerging star.
The Florida State offense has potential with senior quarterback EJ Manuel and some quality young playmakers, but the offensive line will need to improve greatly. The Noles defense will be the catalyst if the 2012 team is going to reach its goal of winning the ACC. From the middle of October through the bowl win against Notre Dame, Mark Stoops’ bunch did not allow 20 or more points in any game. Look for more of the same this season, as the Seminoles defense — along with Manuel and excellent special teams — carries the program back into the nation’s top 10.
73: Much of our countdown features offensive skill players and top defenders, but we also need to highlight the big boys up front. The Washington offensive line, led byNo. 73 center Drew Schaefer and his 30 consecutive starts, could be the key to quarterback Keith Price remaining at an elite production level while finding new weapons. Price emerged as a star last year, throwing for 3,063 yards and 33 touchdowns against 11 interceptions. However, the Huskies lost All-Pac-12 running back Chris Polk (1,488 yards and 12 touchdowns) and their two leading receivers in Jermaine Kearse (699 yards, 7 TDs) and Devin Aguilar (611 yards, 6 TDs) from last season’s attack that averaged over 33 points per game.
While that is some significant attrition, the cupboard is not bare around Price. Jesse Callier averaged 5.5 yards per carry in backup duty in 2011, so he and sophomore Bishop Stanley will look to replace Polk’s production. UW has a pair of sophomores, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and receiver Kasen Williams, who were very productive in both scoring six touchdowns as freshmen.
It may take a year for Steve Sarkisian’s new all-star defensive staff – coordinator Justin Wilcox and position coaches Peter Sirmon and Tosh Lupoi – to repair a unit that gave up a school-record 467 points last season. It’s difficult to see the Huskies surpassing Oregon in 2012, but catching Stanford and fending off Cal for the second spot in the Pac-12 North would be a solid achievement. With Schaefer and fellow returning starters Erik Kohler and Colin Tanigawa clearing the way, Washington has a good shot to continue its climb up the conference food chain.
74: Pittsburgh finished 74th nationally in rushing offense last season, but look for that to change in 2012. The main culprit for the running struggles a year ago was the ACL injury to star back Ray Graham, whose season ended in the Panthers eighth game against UConn. There were key offensive line injuries as well, but Graham may be the best player in the Big East when healthy. The senior back from New Jersey ran for 893 yards and nine touchdowns in Pitt’s first six games of 2011.
Another major offseason addition was new head coach Paul Chryst. His offenses at Wisconsin were extremely productive, and the Badgers consistently ran the ball as well as any program in the country. If Graham needs time to work back in, Pitt should have solid depth at running back to go with an experienced line. Isaac Bennett ran the rock well in the spring, and top incoming recruit Rushel Shell set a national prep record with 39 consecutive 100-yard games. The improved running attack will help quarterback Tino Sunseri immensely, after a junior season plagued interceptions and a ton of sacks.
Pitt has many questions on defense – especially in the front seven – and has to adjust to another new staff, but the Panthers offense should be an effective group in Chryst’s first season.
75: The Alabama defense allowed only 75 plays of 10 or more yards last season in leading the Crimson Tide to a National Championship. In fact that total was by far the lowest in the country, as South Carolina was second with 122. But now Nick Saban and Kirby Smart must adjust to life without four defenders — Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick, Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw — who were taken in the first 35 overall picks in the NFL Draft. Additionally, nose tackle Josh Chapman and defensive back DeQuan Menzie were selected in the fifth round. That’s a ton of attrition from the unanimous No. 1 defense nationally in 2011.
So for all of those thinking the Tide will subside in 2012, think again. Saban and staff have recruited at an elite level over the past few years, so the Bama defense may lack some experience but it will not lack talent. There are senior leaders on each level, with Damion Square and Jesse Williams on the line, Nico Johnson at linebacker and Robert Lester in the secondary. Sophomores backers Trey DePriest and Adrian Hubbard have the potential to be stars, and cover corner Dee Milliner is special as well. With elite talent and superb coaching, the Alabama defense will not take long to get back to the top of college football.