I’ll keep this intro brief because what follows is an exhausting 3,000 words of somewhat insightful, hopefully entertaining, analysis of the forthcoming 2012 college football season. But real quick:
Saturdays in the fall. Nothing like ‘em. They’re even better if spent on a college campus with its team playing a big game. The anticipation. The excitement. The celebration. (Or sometimes) the agony. It’s a melting pot of emotions that, win or lose, makes everything worth it. Saturdays as a whole are the one thing I painfully miss about my college days. And it’s something I didn’t realize until my first season back home last year, with no alternative other than to watch hundreds of miles away all alone on my parents’ couch. *wipes tear*
Here’s how this is going to work. I go conference-by-conference for only the BCS conferences (sorry WAC), listing division winners (if necessary), champions, and sleepers, as well as my picks for the Heisman Trophy and national title game. Each section has its own blurb, which I intended to keep short, but failed miserably at doing so. Sorry, just call me Indefatigable Jones. No, I don’t have an Asian kid as my sidekick. No, my father is not Sean Connery. And yes, I’ll know better than to come out of retirement to run around the jungle with Louis Stevens.
Let’s start out east.
Atlantic: Florida State
Coastal: Virginia Tech
Champion: Florida State
Sleeper: North Carolina
The thing the ACC needs this year is consistency. Last year, in a clear example of why preseason polls are stupid and should go the way of the dodo, Florida State started the season ranked sixth and were expected to take a big step toward returning to the glory that former coach and voice of Foghorn Leghorn Bobby Bowden brought the school in the 90′s. You probably know where I’m going with this, so do you care to guess how the Seminoles’ season turned out? They lost four games and barely won the Champs Sports Bowl.
Consistency wasn’t just an issue with Florida State. Parity was rampant in the conference last year. There was the case of Clemson, which came out of nowhere to have an outsider’s chance at making the national title game — thanks in part to running the gamut during a three-week stretch earlier in the season with consecutive wins over No. 21 Auburn, No. 11 Florida State, No. 11 Virginia Tech –being 8-0 and ranked fifth with four weeks to go in the regular season, only to flop against an unranked Georgia Tech squad and then slip up twice more. Clemson went on to top Va Tech again in the There’s No Period in Dr. Pepper ACC Championship Game. But then it subsequently had a 70-spot dropped on them by West Virginia in the Orange Bowl.
Virginia Tech is another team that, despite constantly playing in important bowl games at the end of almost every season, can’t manage to have things click season-long.
But I’ll go with the ‘Noles to take the conference. Maybe they can learn from last year’s blunders. At least they’ve got experience on their side this campaign with 15 returning starters on both sides of the ball, including QB E.J. Manuel (if he can stay healthy), who presently is an outsider in the fledgling Heisman race. It also helps they don’t have any big tests early like last year (a home loss to No. 1 Oklahoma) to crash their confidence. OooooOOOOoooOOOooOoooOOOOo000! That was my attempt at the tomahawk chop chant. Yeah, it doesn’t translate well in print.
Legends: Michigan State
League of Extraordinary Gentleman: Sean Connery
Champion: Michigan State
What’s there to expect from the Big Ten this year? Well, from a standings perspective, a whole lot of the same. Wisconsin and Michigan State, last year’s champion and runner-up, respectively, look like they’ll be the class of the conference again this year. They’ll meet on Oct. 27 and perhaps again in Indianapolis at the end of the season.
Wisconsin has 11 total returning starters, none perhaps more important than running back Montee Ball, a Heisman finalist last year. The ball is a workhorse and will be the focal point of the offense. It’ll be tough for Wisconsin to replace the playmaking ability of Russell Wilson, a huge spark plug at quarterback last year. But taking snaps this year will be Danny O’Brien, a former ACC rookie of the year with Maryland in 2010. Like with Wilson last year, O’Brien is immediately eligible as a graduate transfer. High school quarterbacks? Wisconsin doesn’t need any stinking high school quarterbacks.
Michigan State has a revamped offense this year, after losing seven starters from last year, including QB Kirk Cousins. But the Spartans’ defense, with eight returning starters, is going to be stocked this year. They have three potential All-Americans in the defensive end William Gholston, linebacker Denicos Allen, and cornerback Johnny Adams. That’s some SEC-like defensive breadth. And if you’ve followed my writing on this site for very long, you’ll know I love defense, hence why I’m taking Sparty to win the conference. It won’t be without some challenges along the way, however. The Spartans have a tough schedule that opens with No. 24 Boise State (lucky, for them, in East Lansing) and also includes a back-to-back-to-back stretch of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Nebraska, beginning Oct. 20.
Michigan with Denard Robinson as an early Heisman candidate should figure prominently in the conference picture but perhaps not so much for the national title picture, depending on what happens in a Week 1 showdown with Alabama. Such is the peril with scheduling other national title contenders early in the season. Oregon knows what I’m talking about. And that’s why the Ducks are happy to open their season with Arkansas State, Fresno State, and Tennessee Tech this year. Cake. Walk.
Champion: Does it matter?
Sleeper: Who cares?
The Big East in essence is becoming the NHL of college football. It’s there; the only problem is not too many people really care about it, other than the fans who actually have teams in it. The only difference is that the NHL actually has good teams. All that the Big East has going for it is the inherent relevance it has still being considered (albeit barely) one of the “Big Six” BCS conferences. As with the NHL about six-or-seven-some-odd years ago, the Big East’s coverage on ESPN is dwindling, a sure sign of its undeniable dwarfing germaneness. In last week’s Herbie Awards special, the Big East barely got any mention, if any, from Kirk Herbstreit (although this might have been an oversight in my haste to fast forward through stupid parts such as Herbstreit talking about guys who “have the look,” whatever that means, to the parts where Herbie breathlessly jinxes the Pac-12 once again — MATT BARKLEY! DE’ANTHONY THOMAS! MARQUISE LEE! SLURP SLURP SLURP!).
Once a forceful football conference with Virginia Tech and Miami as perennial national contenders in the 90′s and early 2000′s, the Big East will soon see two of its oldest members, Syracuse and Pitt, following The U and Va Tech to the ACC’s greener and more cushy pastures, leaving the Big East with schools such as Cincinnati, Louisville and those ruthless South Florida Bulls carrying its once enviable football torch onward. Oh, but don’t worry. They’ll soon be joined by the likes of SMU, Central Florida, and Houston, among others, who were just absolute juggernauts in the intimidating Conference USA. But, hey, at least the conference next year is also getting Boise State, which is totally on the East Coast. So, good luck with all your efforts to stay relevant, Big East, which probably won’t end well when the BCS is abolished in 2014.
Oh, and if you really must know, I’ll go with Louisville to win the conference.
East: South Carolina
The SEC can’t win the national title every year, right? RIGHT? That’s a question that’s been asked for each of the last, oh, maybe, three years — when the SEC already had produced the previous three BCS champs. Alabama’s upset over LSU last season made it six straight national champions out of the SEC. Well, unsurprisingly, all signs point to the conference being a force again this season. Six ranked teams going into the season. Five in the top 10. Two in the top five. Bests among all conferences.
I like South Carolina to come out of the east. The Cocks have owned their division the last two seasons, going 9-1 against SEC East opponents. The Cocks also have my ill-fated Heisman pick last year Marcus Lattimore healthy again after blowing up his ACL (a Heisman contender again this year?). The kid is a beast and has already amassed over 2,000 yards and 27 touchdowns in just two years in Columbia — that’s even including the five games he missed at the end of last season! The Cocks also have another young phenom in D-end Jadeveon Clowney, who wreaked havoc in the backfield last year with eight sacks as a true freshman. The Cocks have one of the country’s most dominant d-lines, with Clowney, Kelcy Quarles, and Devin Taylor. The Cocks also have the consistent and decidedly less-headache-inducing-for-Steve-Spurrier Connor Shaw returning for his first full year as the starting quarterback. So, yeah, watch out for the Cocks.
But it goes without saying once again the entire conference will be looking up at Kentucky and Tennessee. HA! No, just making sure you’re paying attention. The rest of the conference will be looking up at No. 3 LSU and No. 2 Alabama, duh. Both squads lost a lot on defense in the offseason. The Tide had four guys on D taken in the first 35 picks of the NFL draft. LSU loses two guys selected in the top 15, as well as Tyrann Mathieu, a rare Heisman finalist at cornerback last year, who was kicked off the team recently for reportedly failing a drug test. But both LSU and Alabama are in the class of teams that can stockpile the talent and can just reload when their top players leave. As if you couldn’t love Nick Saban any more!
And yet only one team can come out of their division. It’s honestly a coin toss between those two. But I’ll go with LSU for two seemingly notable, but probably more trivial, reasons: 1) LSU vs. Alabama contest on Nov. 3, which will likely decide the division, is in Baton Rouge. 2) History. The last time Alabama defended a national championship, in 2010, it fell disappointingly short of matching the previous season’s success, including a loss, yep, at LSU.
Forget the Big East. We all thought the Big 12 was the conference that was going extinct. Nebraska and Colorado left for the Big Ten and Pac-10, respectively. Then Oklahoma, Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma State were reportedly flirting with the Pac-10 as well. And suddenly the future of the Big 12 was on tenuous ground. But it’s all good in the covered wagon hood now! Those five schools balked at the Pac-whatever’s offer, essentially saving the Big 12 from a forlorn demise. Yes, Missouri and A&M jumped ship to the SEC when the future was looking really shaky, but the conference recovered by wriggling TCU and West Virginia away from the Big East, even if now when you look at the current Big 12 schools lined up on a map, it looks like one of Torry Holt’s fingers.
There are still only 10 teams in the conference that boasts the number 12 in its name, but six of those teams are ranked in the top 25. This is going to be a tough conference to win, but I like Oklahoma to pull it off. The Sooners start the season ranked No. 4, but have taken some huge hits to the offensive line due to injury. But Landry Jones is about to play in his fourth season as the Sooners’ QB1. Fourth season! That’s an experience few get to have come into their senior years. There are concerns about his receiving corps, but, to the credit of the smart scheduling by Bob Stoops, Jones has some extra weeks to get on the same page with his receivers before they get to the meat of their schedule. There are also eight returning starters on D, and that’s the kind of experience — along with the four years Jones has under his belt — that can only help Oklahoma. While the Sooners have somewhat of a joy ride to start the year, it’s far from that toward the end. That includes a Nov. 17 contest against No. 11 West Virginia in Morgantown (hopefully the setting to a future season of “Campus P.D.”). But 10 wins should be a cinch for Oklahoma, and as long they don’t repeat any sad, inexplicable losses to teams like Texas Tech again, the Sooners should roll to the conference title.
Do you know how many teams have won the Pac-10/12 in the last 9 seasons? Two. Care to guess who they are? Yep, Oregon and USC. SC dominated the conference for the better part of the previous decade. From 2003 to 2008, it was the Trojans sitting atop the Pac-10 standings at the end of the season. That’s a lot of fighting on and a lot of this being played before, during, and after games (apparently the only part of the fight song the marching band likes to play).
But perhaps much to the relief and delight of the rest of the Pac-12, the Trojans’ reign came to an end with Oregon taking the conference crown in 2009. But what was a breath of fresh air for Pac-12 fans seeing the Men of Troy fall rather ungracefully (with the help of NCAA sanctions) is likely now a bit vexing, what with the Ducks and their 4,045,839 brightly colored, reflective-property-incorporating, eye-assaulting, it’s-lightning-yellow-not-just-yellow jersey combinations and their smokin’ hot cheerleaders the Internet drools over creating a bit of a conference dynasty of their own. With Chip Kelly at the helm, Oregon has won the last three conference titles, including securing the inaugural Pac-12 championship game last year. The hunter is now the hunted.
But it’s a new day at the conference, particularly for the Trojans. USC is finally free from sanctions. Matt Barkley is back for his senior season. He’s the Heisman frontrunner after passing on millions of dollars from the NFL (like Matt Leinart did!). The Trojans
shamelessly jacked hospitably welcomed tailback Silas Redd from Penn State’s damaged goods of a football team. It looks as if Barkley and that offense have more than enough to take back what the Trojans think is rightfully theirs, which pains me to say, being an Oregon alum and having been snubbed by USC (twice!). Oregon’s offense should be nice as well, and despite losing LaMichael James and Darron Thomas and naming a redshirt freshman the starting quarterback (Marcus Mariota — in a bit of an upset over sophomore Bryan Bennett), it shouldn’t lose a step. But that SC offense, whether through the air or on the ground, is just more loaded.
The one gripe about USC is that its defense is weaker than SC’s defenses traditionally are. But that shouldn’t be a factor in a conference hardly known for having superior defenses. It should also be good news for the Ducks in case they ever desperately needed to get a walk-on kicker in field goal range.
Heisman winner: Montee Ball, Wisconsin
The thing about the Heisman the last two years is that the winners were nowhere near the focuses of the Heisman watch list to begin the year. This year Matt Barkley has emerged as an overwhelming front runner to take home the trophy come December. And of course, that’s no surprise. He’s one of the best quarterbacks in the country. He’s the starting QB on the top-ranked team. He’s got scary-good weapons in Robert Woods and Marqise Lee to throw to. He’s got a nice smile. Total lock, right?
But when you’re the favorite for the Heisman, it’s almost as if you have to exceed expectations to come away with the award. That’s how much of a microscope you’re under. You can have a tremendous season overall, but if you slip-up with a lackluster game somewhere down the line, especially one on national TV, your Heisman stock will suffer (see Andrew Luck vs. Oregon last season).
Barring injury or a total pants-pooping by the Trojans, right now it’s hard to see Barkley not winning the Heisman. But for the sake of trying to make an accurate prediction, I’ll roll with the current trend. Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton had to claw their way into the Heisman race with their play, but this year I like someone who’s actually in the discussion already. Montee Ball is the centerpiece of the Badgers and can make some real noise this season.
LSU over USC
Remember how three conferences ago I asked about the SEC winning the national title every year? The answer is no. But that doesn’t apply to this year. As mentioned some thousand words ago, I like LSU out of the SEC, and, until it no longer does, that conference is going to be a pathway to the national championship game. USC should be able to ride its prolific offense to meet the Tigers in Miami. USC might have the best offense in the land, but against LSU, it’ll get a hard lesson on what makes the SEC so damn indomitable: the defense. And behind Zach Mettenberger and Spencer Ware that LSU offense should have its way with a wobbly SC defense.
The Tigers aren’t going to be as dominant as last year and may even stumble along the way. The good news for them is that I think a one-loss team will be winning the national championship again this year. Looking at all the BCS conferences, I just can’t see anybody who can absolutely, unquestionably run the gamut and go without losing a game. When it comes to the Trojans, it’s totally possible they lose their Nov. 3 battle with Oregon and still turn around and beat the Ducks in the conference championship. That’s assuming USC and Oregon don’t slip up anywhere else in their schedule.