In 2011, most of the teams in this article underperformed. Look for them to turn it around in 2012.
That is the ebb and flow of college football. That is the ebb and flow of a sport in which the players in question only have four years of eligibility, and the best of those players often only use three of those years.
Of course, it is difficult to put an exact number on how improved any of these teams will be. That said, every team in this article is a safe bet for more wins.
2011 Record: 5-7
Last season, South Florida was one of the favorites to win the Big East. Unfortunately for Bulls fans, it didn't work out that way.
After winning its first four games—including an upset over Notre Dame—USF went 1-7 to close out the season.
The disappointment was punctuated by four three-point losses.
Expect South Florida to turn it around in 2012.
First of all, the Bulls return nine on offense and seven on defense.
You might say that returning that many from a squad that went 5-7 might not be a good thing. However, on paper, USF was better than its record indicated. It was the second-best scoring offense in the Big East and the fourth-best scoring defense. Under normal circumstances, one would expect such a squad to be in the running for the conference championship.
Next season, it will be.
2011 Record: 8-5
In 2011, Georgia Tech started the year on a tear. It rattled off six straight wins, and scored over 45 PPG in each of those victories.
Then the wheels came off the cart. The Yellow Jackets finished the season 2-5, including a heartbreaking 27-30 loss to Utah in the Sun Bowl.
However, things look bright heading into 2012.
First, the entire offensive line returns. In fact, six experienced offensive linemen return. That is no small issue for a team that runs as much as Tech.
On top of that, the Yellow Jackets' top three rushing options return, including quarterback Tevin Washington. Washington will have to find a new deep threat, as receiver Stephen Hill has opted to leave early for the NFL, but big, physical receivers have never been an issue for Paul Johnson's crew.
The ACC's No. 8 scoring defense will have to make some strides forward, but with eight returning starters, they will have the players to do it.
Next year, Tech has the Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate game in Athens, and they have to travel to Blacksburg and Clemson.
Those roadies will make the going tough, but expect the Jackets to pull out at least one of them and sweep the rest of their schedule, en route to 10 wins and a Coastal Division championship.
2011 Record: 6-7
Last season was something of a Murphy's Law season for the Bucks—everything that could go wrong did.
The coordinator who took over for the former coach was hardly ready for the job, and was, in all fairness, thrown into the fire.
Then Terrelle Pryor, the previously suspended Buckeye quarterback, not surprisingly, declared himself eligible for the NFL's supplemental draft.
Then there were more suspensions.
All of this was on top of the reality that with the suspended players out of the picture, OSU only returned four on offense and four on defense—by far the fewest number in the Big Ten.
The truth is the Buckeyes probably would have topped out at eight-nine wins even if Jim Tressel had still been the coach.
Now, there is a new sheriff in town and his name is Urban Meyer—he of two national championships and unqualified success at every stop he's made in his coaching career.
Who knows how long Meyer will stay, as he may have another "heart issue" if the Bucks slip to seven wins.
However, in 2012, with nine returning starters on offense and 10 on defense, plus a winnable out-of-conference and home games against Nebraska and Michigan, things look bright for Meyer's first year in Columbus.
This year, Meyer will get the Bucks back to double-digit wins.
2011 Record: 7-6
Meanwhile, Meyer's former team, the Gators, have had a substantial amount of coaching instability for a program as successful as they are.
Over the last 11 years, Florida has had four different head coaches.
The current head man, former Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, is in his second year in Gainesville.
His first one couldn't be called successful—losses to Georgia and Florida State, no big-time conference wins, only seven victories total—but it was a transitional year. A great deal more will be expected of him in 2012, and it looks like he will deliver.
The Gators return eight on offense, including a ton of depth in the skill positions, and five experienced offensive linemen. If they can figure out the quarterback situation, they will be one of the top three offenses in the SEC.
Meanwhile, the defense returns a whopping 10 players.
The schedule is also favorable, as they miss Auburn, Bama and Arkansas; and they get South Carolina and LSU at home.
Their only tough road trips are to Tennessee, Texas A&M and Florida State. The first two are decidedly winnable, and the game against FSU could be the biggest meeting of these interstate rivals since Spurrier and Bowden were on the sidelines.
Next year, look for Florida to reach nine wins at minimum and an SEC Championship and BCS National Championship game bid at maximum.
2011 Record: 3-9
Oregon State is in the unfortunate position of playing little brother to Oregon, at the same time the Ducks are not-so-quietly stepping into a role as one of college football's elite.
Complicating Oregon's success, the Beavers haven't gone to a bowl for two years.
That will change in 2012.
First, OSU returns eight on offense and nine on defense.
Also, the defense—which was ranked seventh in Pac-12 scoring defense last season—built up a good deal up depth due to injuries—the Beavers defense lost 20.5 percent of its starts in 2011.
The 2011 offense, which was second-to-last in conference scoring offense, was hounded by two issues: a quarterback with a propensity for throwing interceptions and a weak running game.
Sean Mannion was the quarterback in question. He had a TD:Interception ratio of 16:18, and threw the second-most interceptions in the country. He also led the Beavers to the worst turnover margin in the Pac-12.
However, he was a true freshman in 2011. Look for him to take substantial strides next season.
Meanwhile, the running game was hampered by the poor play of the offensive line and inexperience at running back.
The Beavers' top rusher was true freshman Malcolm Agnew. He played well when he did play, but he missed a lot of time with injuries. That was no surprise when one considers he is listed at 5'8", 188 pounds. An offseason in the weight room will help with durability.
Meanwhile, the O-line also lost a number of starts to injury, though that doesn't excuse its poor play. With three returning starters, it projects to be better in 2012, though it will still have to step up its game.
In closing, I am not calling for the Beavers to beat the Ducks or challenge for the Pac-12 title; however, they will achieve bowl eligibility.
2011 Record: 7-6
Finally, something Big Ten and SEC fans can agree on: Ron Zook was a lousy coach.
And now he is finally out of Champaign, much to the chagrin of every non-Illini Big Ten fanbase.
The new head man is former Toledo head coach Tim Beckman. He will inherit a squad that started the season off with six straight victories, only to fall apart down the stretch, losing its last six in a row.
It did manage to win its bowl game against another reeling program—UCLA—but it wasn't a particularly impressive win.
2012's Illini will return eight starters on offense and seven on D.
All things considered, the 2011 defense held its own—fifth in conference scoring D—and should continue to hold its own in 2012. It will have to replace All-American end Whitney Mercilus, but there are experienced players ready to step in; specifically, linebacker Jonathan Brown and defensive end/linebacker Michael Buchanan are rising stars.
The problem for the Illini was the offense, which only managed 11 PPG over its end-of-the-season slide.
If the eight returning starters can regain the swagger that led to 34.7 PPG in its initial six games, this will be a formidable team.
Though the conference road slate is imposing—at Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State—the Illini do miss Iowa, Nebraska and Michigan State.
In effect, even if they drop all three of the aforementioned roadies, they will have a realistic shot of winning every other game on the schedule.
In 2012, look for Tim Beckman's Illini to win at least eight games in the regular season.
2011 Record: 8-5
I'm admittedly on the fence where it concerns the Tigers.
On paper, they should be set for a big turnaround from last year—a year in which it could be said that they overachieved. After all, they were the youngest team in the country, and they had one of the toughest schedules. Eight wins against those odds was a pretty good showing.
In 2012, they'll return eight on offense and 10 on defense, plus both specialists.
Also, the schedule, while a beast, does have them play Georgia, LSU, Arkansas and Texas A&M at home.
My issue concerns the loss of offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, who has taken the job of head coach at Arkansas State.
Malzahn was one of, if not the best, OC in the country.
If the Tigers can replace him, they should climb back into the thick of things in the SEC West. If not, the worst they will do is another eight-win season.
2011 Record: 9-4
FSU is another team that began 2011 far higher in the polls than it had any business being. It wasn't the Noles' time. This year, it will be.
Florida State returns nine on offense and nine on defense, plus its all-conference kicker.
The defense in question was the No. 4-ranked scoring defense in the country, No. 1 rushing defense (YPC), and it led the ACC in sacks and was second in pass defense (opposing passer efficiency). Next season's FSU defense should resemble 2011's Bama and LSU defense in terms of pure speed, talent and depth.
The offense wasn't quite as impressive. It was third in the ACC, but it laid an egg in two of its losses, scoring only 13 points each against Oklahoma and Virginia.
Part of the issue was injuries. The Florida State offense lost 28 percent of its starts to injuries. That will pay dividends this season, as players that would have been inexperienced gained a great deal last year.
The schedule is challenging, including out-of-conference dates against Florida and South Florida, as well as ACC matchups against Virginia Tech and Clemson. Nevertheless, the Florida and Clemson dates are both at home.
Look for Florida State to win the ACC Atlantic Division, and perhaps, play for a lot more in its Nov. 24 meeting against the aforementioned Gators.