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.