Rivalry games are the heart and soul of college football. They are the reason we watch the sport to begin with. We relish seeing two traditional powers with a history of bad blood invest every ounce of energy they have into beating the heck out of each other.
Teams rise and fall, but the best rivalries are timeless. 2012 figures to offer a slew of compelling matchups. Here are the predictions for the biggest Division I-A college football rivalry games next season.
This will be a matchup of one of the Big Ten's best teams in Michigan and a sleeping giant that is on the rise in Ohio State. Quarterback Denard Robinson returns, along with most major pieces of the Wolverine offense. Defensively, up to eight starters are retained, making UM, coming off a Sugar Bowl victory over Virginia Tech, an appealing choice for Big Ten champion in 2012.
Ohio State, meanwhile, will be a more mature team in 2012 after going 6-6 in 2011 and should see improvement from dual-threat quarterback Braxton Miller, who should become a star under Urban Meyer. The Buckeyes will improve immediately with Meyer at the helm, but they won't quite be at the Wolverines' level next season.
That's not to say they won't put up a good fight in Columbus, however. Fans who enjoyed an entertaining 2011 contest that ended in a 40-34 victory for the Wolverines should be in for another good one in 2012, with the Wolverines winning a close one.
The Red River Rivalry should be more interesting in 2012 than in 2011, when OU thrashed Texas, 55-17. Besides losing a few key players on defense in linebackers Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho and defensive back Blake Gideon, the Longhorns return a lot of talent from a team characterized by growing pains in 2011. David Ash and Case McCoy, who split reps under center last season, both return and should progress, along with UT's maturing offense.
The Sooners return a lot of talent as well, however, and should leave Dallas with their third straight victory over the Longhorns. Landry Jones headlines an offense that returns most of its starters besides star receiver Ryan Broyles.
Defensively, the Sooners lose defensive ends Ronnell Lewis and Frank Alexander as well as linebacker Travis Lewis, but will have plenty of talent and should improve with Mike Stoops returning as co-defensive coordinator. Oklahoma has a chance to be a legitimate national title contender in 2012 and should be able to top Texas once again.
Auburn should be an intriguing team in 2012. After losing big to Arkansas, Georgia, LSU and Alabama last season, Gene Chizik and the Tigers ended the season on a high note with a bowl win over Virginia. Clint Moseley, Kiehl Frazier and incoming freshman Zeke Pike will battle for the starting quarterback role after Barrett Trotter announced he will forgo his senior season. Whoever wins the battle will helm an offense that loses several starters and coordinator Gus Malzahn, but at least retains tailback Onterio McCalebb.
Alabama also loses several pieces as they defend their national title; Trent Richardson, Marquis Maze, Courtney Upshaw, Dre Kirkpatrick and Dont'a Hightower highlight the losses.
But, the Tide are never short on talent and will be competitive in the SEC, as quarterback AJ McCarron and lineman Barrett Jones anchor the offense. Defensively, seniors Damion Square (defensive end), Nico Johnson (linebacker) and Robert Lester (safety) will be counted on to lead the new Bama defense.
Considering Alabama drubbed Auburn, 42-14, last season and will play the Tigers in Tuscaloosa this time around, look for Saban to lead his team to another victory in the touted Iron Bowl.
Gunner Kiel's decision to spurn LSU in favor of Notre Dame means he could very well beat out Tommy Rees and company for the starting quarterback position.
The Irish lose talented wideout Michael Floyd to the NFL, as well as several other offensive and defensive starters, but fans should be encouraged by the return of tight end Tyler Eifert and linebacker Manti Te'o.
Still, Notre Dame won't have what it takes to knock off USC, which is in good position to compete for the BCS title. Matt Barkley will be a Heisman front-runner for an offense that should retain nine players, the same number that the defense returns.
The beauty of rivalry games is that they can be surprisingly competitive regardless of how the teams stack up in any given year, but the Trojans shouldn't have too much trouble with the Irish as they close out the 2012 regular season in Los Angeles.
Will Muschamp's debut in Gainesville has to be encouraging for Florida fans, as he brought in new coaches and delivered a 7-6 record and bowl victory over Ohio State. It's natural to expect steady improvement from the Gators in 2012, despite the departure of senior quarterback John Brantley and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. Jacoby Brissett appears to be next in line under center, and on the whole, the Gators return a lot of starters.
Although they kept it close against Georgia last season, expect the Bulldogs to win more handily this time around. The Dawgs will be dark-horse national title contenders with Aaron Murray and Isaiah Crowell back on offense and a defense that was dominant in 2011 that should retain a whopping 10 starters.
All things considered, it might get ugly for the Gators in Jacksonville.
This matchup looks to be one of the most compelling in 2012. Both teams could realistically end up as Big Ten champions with their returning talent.
Michigan State loses quarterback Kirk Cousins and its top four wideouts next season, but tailback Le'Veon Bell is back, along with four starting offensive linemen. What makes the Spartans scary, though, is the fact that they return eight defensive starters from a unit that ranked sixth nationally in yards allowed per game in 2011.
Give the Wolverines the slightest of edges considering Denard Robinson is back and the Wolverines get the Spartans at home. But the Spartans could easily knock off UM in what figures to be one of the best games of 2012.
2012's Battle for the Golden Boot in Arkansas will be a dandy. Both squads are coming off stellar 2011 seasons and have big names returning.
For Arkansas, which only lost to Alabama and LSU last season, the return of quarterback Tyler Wilson and tailback Knile Davis gives the Razorbacks a chance to win the SEC. Thirteen starters should return, but the losses of wideouts Jarius Wright, Joe Adams and Greg Childs will hurt. Add to that two departing offensive linemen and six defensive starters, including the top two tacklers, which means the Hogs will have to have contributions from new faces to have a chance of repeating the success of last season.
LSU, despite losing quarterbacks Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson, returns receiver Odell Beckham, Jr., three offensive linemen, all its major tailbacks and key defenders Eric Reid and Tyrann Mathieu. Don't underestimate the importance of punter Brad Wing, either; he can dictate field position in a big game.
Overall, LSU gets the nod over Arkansas because it will more closely resemble the LSU of 2011 than Arkansas will resemble its 2011 squad.
Sooner fans should look forward to this year's Bedlam Game; it will be an opportunity for OU to avenge its humiliating 44-10 defeat at the hands of the Cowboys in 2011.
As mentioned before, Oklahoma has a good amount of talent returning. Oklahoma State isn't as fortunate. Electrifying quarterback-receiver duo Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon are gone, as well as three offensive linemen and All-American safety Markelle Martin.
That said, it's unlikely the Cowboys will replicate the success of their 2011 season with a host of new faces, but the positives include eight returning defenders and the return of tailback Joseph Randle and defensive back Justin Gilbert.
The rivalry is described as "bedlam" for a reason, but look for Landry Jones and the Sooners to bounce back from their embarrassing showing last season in Stillwater and beat the Cowboys comfortably.
Al Golden weathered the storm in Coral Gables last season, guiding the Hurricanes to a 6-6 record amid a bowl ban and an ongoing NCAA investigation.
Impressively, he is putting together a top-10 recruiting class for the Canes, but it will probably take at least a couple more seasons before Miami becomes relevant at the national level in college football. Next season, they will have to adapt to not having quarterback Jacory Harris and several other offensive starters.
Florida State, on the other hand, is poised to compete for the ACC Championship, and possibly more. Nine defensive starters return for a defense that finished third nationally in total yards allowed. On offense, quarterback E.J. Manuel is back, and the Seminoles will benefit from multiple returning starters on the offensive line. All-purpose threat Greg Reid will be a key player for the Noles as well.
This rivalry will heat up in the upcoming years, but for now, FSU has the upper hand.
Winner: Florida State
Notre Dame will have a better chance of beating Michigan State than USC, but at this point, the Spartans look to have a better team in 2012 than the Irish.
MSU's rushing attack, led by Le'Veon Bell, and its stout defense will be too much to handle for Notre Dame, which loses half of its defensive starters from 2011 and faces questions at quarterback and the offensive line. It wouldn't be surprising to see Gunner Kiel start immediately at quarterback and have success, but it's by no means a guarantee.
This is another rivalry that should get very intense in the coming years as Brian Kelly continues to rebuild the Irish.
Winner: Michigan State
"The Saban Bowl" is heating up rapidly, and Alabama's dominant victory in the BCS title game only added to the bitterness. The 2011 version in Baton Rouge won't be lacking in excitement. For now, give LSU the edge.
The Tigers lose less talent than the Tide, which will have to deal with replacing 14 starters. AJ McCarron's return is pivotal for Bama; he brings poise and continuity to the otherwise raw 2012 squad.
LSU probably won't be quite the team it was this past season, but it will be talented. Interestingly, coach Les Miles noted in a press conference that the Tigers will utilize the pass game more next season. He also claimed that the 2012 squad will be have "just as much talent" as any team he's coached in Baton Rouge.
LSU will also rely on its stable of returning tailbacks behind Zach Mettenberger, who at this juncture appears to be the next starting quarterback, and its aggressive defense, which will be spearheaded by Tyrann Mathieu and Eric Reid, the team's top two tacklers last season.
This game is included only by virtue of its storied tradition; the Trojans should run away with it in 2012. The Bruins went 6-8 last season, prompting them to fire coach Rick Neuheisel.
Incoming head coach Jim Mora, Jr. is starting things off the right way with a top-15 recruiting class, but his team won't be ready to deal with USC. One positive is that the Bruins have a lot of starters returning, but it's hard to imagine them becoming relevant again for at least a few more seasons.
The Trojans will ride their potent offense and boatload of returning talent to an easy victory in LA.
This game will see the exciting intersection of teams with serious chances of winning their respective conferences.
Clemson, despite being humiliated in the Orange Bowl by West Virginia, should be optimistic about next season. Quarterback Tajh Boyd will be a junior, and tailback Andre Ellington is returning, Granted, the Tigers lose talent on the offensive line and five starters on defense, but Dabo Swinney should have his squad in the thick of the ACC title picture.
South Carolina, coming off a school-best 11 victories in 2011, boasts eight returning starters on offense, highlighted by tailback Marcus Lattimore and quarterback Connor Shaw. The defense has holes to fill, but expect end Jadeveon Clowney to have a monster season for the Gamecocks.
Spurrier's team, which beat the Tigers, 34-13, last season, should win for the fourth straight year. In the end, the Gamecocks offensive attack will be too much for the opposition.
Winner: South Carolina
The last game of the regular season for both teams will take place at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, where the Seminoles will likely win their third straight against the Gators.
2012 will be a breakout season for Jimbo Fisher; the Noles may have the kind of season that was expected of them heading into the 2011 campaign. The defense should be stifling once again, and EJ Manuel is poised to have a big year.
The Gators will continue to improve as Will Muschamp adjusts to being a head coach in the SEC, and FSU will offer UF a good chance to see where they stand compared to other teams in the region. But Florida won't be as good as Florida State in 2012.
Winner: Florida State
This rivalry produced one of the most thrilling contests of 2011, with Michigan coming from behind and scoring at the last minute to pull off a 35-31 victory in Ann Arbor.
The Fighting Irish had trouble containing Denard Robinson last season; he rushed for 108 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries in addition to passing for 338 yards and four touchdowns. Look for him to have another huge day as the Wolverines downs their foes at Notre Dame Stadium. Overall, Michigan will be more polished and experienced than Notre Dame in 2012.
The Civil War, which resulted in a lopsided 49-21 Oregon victory in 2011, could be a bloodbath once again next season.
Oregon will again be in the national title talk. Despite losing quarterback Darron Thomas and tailback LaMichael James, the Ducks offense should maintain its potency with tailbacks Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas, and the defense will be good enough to slow down the opposition to an adequate degree. Chip Kelly is on a roll in Eugene, and don't be surprised if he takes his team to its fourth straight BCS bowl.
Oregon State, coming off a 3-9 season, is known to be a scrappy opponent and returns a solid amount of starters, highlighted by quarterback Sean Mannion. Barring a shock, however, the Beavers will succumb to the Ducks for the fifth straight year.
Stanford will miss quarterback Andrew Luck very much, but the Cardinal have talent heading into next season. Tailback Stepfan Taylor returns along with wideout Ty Montgomery. Defensively, the return of linebacker Shayne Skov will be a big plus for Stanford.
Cal, coming off a 7-6 record and bowl loss to Texas, retain quarterback Zach Maynard and tailback Isi Sofele, who is coming off an impressive junior campaign. The Bears lose 11 starters, however, and will have a tough time stopping Taylor, who has accumulated 2,467 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns on the ground the last two seasons.
Overall, Stanford has the edge, but look for an intriguing matchup in one of the most storied rivalries in college football. The Cardinal could make some noise in the Pac-12; an intriguing national storyline will be how the team adjusts to life without Andrew Luck.