The 2011 college football season has come to a close, with Alabama absolutely obliterating LSU for the BCS National Championship.
While 2011 has provided lots of memorable moments and special memories for college football fans, I think it's time to look at which teams will contend for a BCS title in 2012.
There are powerhouses like USC, Oregon and Alabama who will undoubtedly contend for the BCS title next year, but who are the "sleeper" teams who might give those teams a run for their money?
Let's start off with picking one team to keep your eyes on in each major BCS conference, followed by the top five BCS title contenders in all of college football.
DISCLAIMER: I know West Virginia is technically headed to the Big 12 in 2012, but until legal issues are put to rest they'll stay in the Big East for the upcoming season.
Holy West Virginia!
I don't know too many sports analysts that thought the Mountaineers would absolutely dominate the Clemson Tigers like they did in the 2012 Orange Bowl, ultimately crushing them 70 to 33. With the Big East being one of the weakest conferences in all of college football, their big win in a BCS bowl means a lot for the Mountaineers.
The Mountaineers ended 2011 with a 10-3 record, with their losses coming against weak competition, aside from their "closer than it sounds" 41-27 loss to one of the nation's best teams the LSU Tigers. The Mountaineers are returning 14 starters, 8 on offense including star quarterback Geno Smith, and stellar first year running back Vernard Roberts.
West Virginia have the talent, especially since they play in the weak Big East, to cruise to another Big East title, a BCS bowl and even the BCS title game.
In the Big East's final year before expansion, West Virginia will take advantage of the conference's lack of depth, resulting in an almost guaranteed trip to a BCS bowl.
This one was a toss up between LSU, Arkansas and South Carolina. All three teams are going to undoubtedly be dangerous in 2012, but I think South Carolina has the slight edge, especially when it comes back to the talent that is returning to each team's respective rosters.
What will hold Arkansas back, even after a solid Cotton Bowl performance, is losing their top two wide receivers and six starters on defense. What will hold LSU back is having to replace two veteran starters at the quarterback position, which will be too much to do in 2012.
South Carolina will be returning 15 starters, including starting quarterback Connor Shaw and star running back Marcus Lattimore, back from a knee injury in 2012.
With Shaw having one more year of experience under his belt and Lattimore most likely returning to 2010 season form, the Gamecocks will be a difficult team to handle, especially with the talent they are returning on the defensive side of the ball.
The road to the BCS title game won't be easy for South Carolina, just as it won't for any SEC team, but the Gamecocks have the pieces in place to at least make a solid run at playing in a BCS bowl. The Gamecock's have a solid non-conference schedule, with games against Vanderbilt and Missouri, that will help them fine-tune before they enter into difficult SEC play.
Keep your eyes on South Carolina next year—they will at least be in contention for a BCS bowl bid, if not the BCS title game itself.
The Michigan Wolverines will ride the momentum from their 23-20 2012 Sugar Bowl victory over Virginia Tech into next season as one of the pre-season favorites to win the 2012 Big Ten Conference Championship.
While the Wolverines are losing 11 starters in 2012, they have enough depth on their roster to make do with the replacements who will be filling the voids on the Wolverine's roster. As long as Denard Robinson, who will be an early 2012 Heisman candidate, returns for his senior season, the Michigan Wolverines will be a contender for a 2nd straight BCS bowl in 2012.
If the Wolverines can make it past their season opener against the Alabama Crimson Tide, they will be an early favorite to play in the BCS title game—especially with the talent that the Big Ten is losing across the board.
The Wolverines' biggest hurdles, after Alabama, will be their game at Notre Dame and the midseason Big Ten matchup at Nebraska.
With the running game solidified through Robinson and sophomore running back Fitzgerald Toussaint, the Wolverines will be a hard team to stop in 2012, making them an early contender for the BCS title.
This pick was a toss up between the Missouri Tigers, the Texas Longhorns, and the Oklahoma Sooners (now that Jones is staying).
The Missouri Tigers, with now-sophomore quarterback James Franklin returning, could be a very dangerous team in 2012. What will hold them back is the difficulty of their schedule, with games against Georgia, Arizona State and South Carolina before entering Big 12 play.
The Sooners will undoubtedly be a tough team to beat in Big 12 play, but it's too hard to predict their success without knowing which opponents they will play outside of their conference.
The Texas Longhorns, who are returning starters at all key offensive positions, have a much more favorable non-confernce schedule, with games against Wyoming, New Mexico and Ole Miss.
Texas returns quarterbacks David Ash and Case McCoy, running back Malcolm Brown, and wide receivers Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley, which will make the Longhorns offense one of the most explosive in all of college football.
The Longhorns were a young and inexperienced team in 2011, and they still managed to end their season with a bowl win and an 8-5 overall record—a pretty impressive feat.
In 2012, with more experience and more time to build team chemistry, the Longhorns will easily be one of the top two teams in the Big 12, ultimately vying for the Big 12 Championship.
If the Longhorns can get a big win against Oklahoma in early October, they will be an early favorite to make a run for the BCS title.
The Washington Huskies offense, led by young quarterback Keith Price, put on quite a clinic against the 12th ranked Baylor Bears in this year's Alamo Bowl. Although the Huskies ultimately lost to RGIII and the potent Bears offense, the Huskies did show Washington fans why there is reason to be excited going into 2012.
The Washington Huskies had a tough time with ranked opponents in 2011, losing by double digits to Nebraska, Stanford, USC and Oregon. A large reason for those losses was an inability to defend the pass, ultimately ranking 116th against the pass.
The good news for the Huskies is that they are returning all but four starters on defense, which will hopefully give them enough time in the offseason to learn how play legitimate defense.
The Huskies have a front loaded schedule with difficult early games against LSU, USC, Oregon and Stanford, but if they can manage to win at least two out of those four games—which will be incredibly hard to do—they should be in a good shape to contend for a BCS bowl.
There is no doubt that the Huskies have the offense—with quarterback Keith Price—that they need to contend in 2012.
Washington's BCS hopes hinge on their development on the defensive side of the ball. While it is hard to believe that they can get that much better in 2012, it is feasible that their defense can at least hold teams to point totals that keep the Huskies in games.
No matter which direction the defense goes, make sure you keep your eyes on the Washington Huskies going into 2012.
2011 started off with FSU receiving a pre-season top-ten ranking, and being considered a dark horse contender for a trip to at least a BCS bowl.
Both of those pre-season accolades didn't last throughout the entirety of the season, but at least the hopes of making it to a BCS bowl will return next year, as long as quarterback EJ Manuel comes back—and if they can stay healthy in 2012.
The Seminoles have a much more favorable non-confernces schedule in 2012, with their most difficult game at home against the a dominant West Virginia squad who also will have lofty pre-season aspirations.
The Seminoles are also returning 17 starters—if Manuel indeed does stay at FSU—which will make them one of the most experienced teams in the ACC on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.
Aside from Clemson, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech, the ACC isn't terribly deep, and that will benefit the veteran Seminoles squad. While the 2012 ACC schedule isn't released yet, it is safe to say that the ACC championship will be determined by games against Virginia Tech and Clemson.
If the Seminoles can manage to handle West Virginia early on in the year, they will be early season favorites to make a run at the BCS title game. With senior quarterback EJ Manuel under center in 2012, Florida State will be a very interesting team to watch in 2012.
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish ended their 2011 season with a disappointing loss against the Florida State Seminoles in the Champs Sports Bowl.
While the Fighting Irish lost that game mainly because of quarterback Tommy Rees's two inopportune interceptions, there is still hope in Notre Dame that Rees can be the quarterback who leads the Irish back to playing in BCS bowls.
A Notre Dame BCS title run is highly unlikely, with games against Michigan, Oklahoma, Miami and USC, but there is still a possibility that head coach Brian Kelly can turn things around in his second year in South Bend.
Notre Dame's hopes of playing in at least a BCS bowl are largely based on whether or not star tight end Tyler Eifert returns for his senior season. If he doesn't, losing him and Michael Floyd will be too much for Notre Dame to replace.
I will be amazed if the Fighting Irish actually make it to a BCS bowl game—nevermind the actual title game—but because they are Notre Dame they have a better chance of actually making it than teams like Boise State and TCU.
Keep your eyes on the Irish, especially if Tyler Eifert returns. If he doesn't the Irish's season will be a struggle.
After starting the year 8-0, with wins over 11th ranked Virginia Tech and the 21st ranked Auburn Tigers, the Clemson Tigers entered a nose dive and ended the season with only two wins in their final six games.
Clemson achieved their highest ranking in quite some time—when they made it all the way up to number five—but they couldn't hold onto that ranking, which is something they will actually be able to do in 2012.
Clemson will be returning their top statistical starters form each major offensive position with quarterback Tajh Boyd, running back Andre Ellington and wide receiver Sammy Watkins all coming back in 2012.
The expectations will undoubtedly be lowered for the Tigers, especially following their atrocious performance against West Virginia in the Orange Bowl, which they ultimately lost 70-33.
But I don't think that game will hold them back at all in 2012. With 7 starters returning on defense, the Orange Bowl thrashing will be a good motivator to improve this offseason, something they must do if they want to be a legitimate team in 2012.
Lucky for Clemson, in 2012 their most difficult non-conference game comes against South Carolina in the last game for the regular season—hopefully when the Tigers will be playing their best football.
It isn't unreasonable to think that Clemson could rush out to another 8-0 start in 2012, if they get past Auburn in their season opener. If they do that, there is no doubt that the Tigers will be in the BCS title talk up until the end of the regular season.
Keep your eyes on the Clemson Tigers in 2012—yes, even though they got absolutely destroyed by an average Big East team.
Kansas State was one of the biggest surprises in 2011.
While they ended their season with an underwhelming offensive Cotton Bowl performance, they did manage to play above-average defense, which is reason to believe they will be solid in 2012.
Kansas State's explosion onto the college football scene in 2011 was in large part due to the success of then-junior quarterback Collin Klein. Klein erupted into the college football world this year by accounting for 2,884 yards and 38 total touchdowns.
If the Kansas State Wildcats are going to contend for a Big 12 title and earn a bid to play in the BCS title game, Collin Klein will have to produce on an equal if not better level than last year.
More importantly though the Wildcats need to figure out how to play defense. While that won't be an easy task, it is possible, because the Wildcats are returning 6 starters on defense. In 2011 the Wildcats showed glimpses of an ability to play solid defense, in games against Baylor and Texas.
On September 8th, the college football world will see how legitimate Kansas State when they matchup against the always-dangerous Miami Hurricanes.
I predict the Wildcats will surpass their 2012 record of 10-2 with a 11-1 record, which will earn them a BCS bowl appearance—something they were robbed of this year—and potentially a shot at playing in the BCS title game.
In 2012 Kansas State will ride the success of Collin Klein on the offense side of the ball and Arthur Brown on the defensive side of the ball. Look out for this team in 2012.
No matter what happens in this years BCS title game between SEC powerhouses Alabama and LSU, one thing is for sure—that Alabama will be just as good in 2012 as they were in 2011.
With Heisman candidate Trent Richardson reportedly coming back in 2012, and starting quarterback A.J McCarron having a solid year of experience under his belt the Crimson Tide will undoubtedly enter the 2012 season with realistically high expectations.
The Crimson Tide turn out a top 10 national ranked defense year in and year out, and that won't be a problem to do in 2012 with at least five starters returning. Further, the depth behind those starters are players who have already earned a majority of playing time.
Ultimately, Alabama's BCS title hopes in 2012 will come down to how quickly quarterback A.J McCarron can develop into a legitimate threat under center. McCarron's lack of experience held the Crimson Tide's offense back in big games this past year, and if he doesn't develop over the summer it will be more for the same in 2012.
I expect McCarron to resemble former Crimson Tide quarterback Greg McElroy in 2012, playing intelligently and conservatively enough to not make big mistakes while still being a productive quarterback.
If McCarron develops and Richardson does indeed come back, the Crimson Tide will most likely be ranked in one of the top four spots in early pre-season rankings, and they won't move from that spot for a majority of the year.
If Alabama can start off the year with a big win against Michigan they will be set up for a nice run for another spot in the BCS title game.
The Oregon Ducks emphatically ended their 2011 season with a truly impressive performance in their Rose Bowl win against Montee Ball and the vaunted Wisconsin Badgers.
While they undoubtedly won the game because of their incredible jerseys, they also had stellar performances from players who are returning next year, like running back De'Anthony Thomas—who had 155 yards and two touchdowns on two rushes—and quarterback Darron Thomas, who threw for 268 yards and 3 touchdowns on 17 completions.
With all the talent the Oregon Ducks are returning there is absolutely no way they won't start off the season with a top-three preseason ranking.
Early on, Oregon will benefit from not playing a legitimate BCS contender in their non-conference schedule (unlike 2011, when they played LSU). Oregon will cruise out to an easy 8-0 record until they face their first serious test against the USC Trojans in Los Angeles in early November.
The only reason why the Ducks aren't ranked first on this list is because they lost to the number one team—USC—in 2011, in a 38-35 overtime thriller.
Unless another team like Washington can surprise the college football world in 2012, the November 3rd USC vs Oregon matchup will be a preview of the Pac-12 championship game.
It will also most likely decide which Pac-12 team will fight for a bid in next year's BCS title game.
Pay attention to the Oregon Ducks and their flashy jerseys next year, because they will undoubtedly be contending for a BCS title.
If it wasn't for NCAA violations linked to the Reggie Bush scandal, the USC Trojans would have most likely played in a BCS bowl in 2011.
The Trojans ended the season with an impressive win against the then-fourth ranked Oregon Ducks, and a dominating 50-0 win against UCLA. USC had one of the most dominant offenses in all of college football in 2011, led by none other than star quarterback Matt Barkley, who many thought was a Heisman snub.
Good news for USC, Matt Barkley declared his intent to return to USC for his senior season, which gives him another year to dominate weak Pac-12 defenses—and put his Heisman ability on display for all those voters who overlooked him in 2011.
Matt Barkley threw for 3,528 yards and 39 touchdowns, while only throwing 7 interceptions the entire year. With wide receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee—who each accounted for 1,000+ yards in 2011—returning in 2012, there is no doubt that Barkley will be able to replicate, if not increase, his production in 2012.
USC also benefits from an easy opening schedule with games against Hawaii, Syracuse, Stanford and California. The Trojans' first serious challenge of the season won't be until they face off against the Oregon Ducks in early November.
The Oregon matchup is a home game for USC, so the Trojans have the advantage. If they can manage to replicate last year's winning performance against the Ducks, USC will undoubtedly be on their way to their first BCS title game since 2005.
Barkley and the USC Trojans are sure to impress in 2012, resembling the dominance we saw this year out of the LSU Tigers.