College Football 2012: The Biggest Challenge Facing Every FBS Team
Every team in the FBS, from the lowliest challengers to defending champion Alabama, faces challenges entering the 2012 college football season. The successful programs identify and address these challenges while the less successful programs remain stagnant.
This article is all about identifying the main challenge for each of the FBS programs. In some cases I will discuss whether or not the team is well equipped to tackle the challenge facing them, but regardless, the challenge is there.
Quarterback Tim Jefferson is leaving this season. Jefferson had started in 36-straight games and played all four years while at the Academy. It's safe to say there will be some unfamiliarity at the position.
With the style of play in which Air Force employs, it may be even more imperative that they find a replacement quickly.
Akron has some reason for excitement entering the 2012 season. Terry Bowden is returning to FBS coaching after serving three years as the coach at Northern Alabama. With him is long-time Bowden family friend and defensive coordinator Chuck Amato.
They have personnel coming back, but they have to build the defense up. The Zips gave up 38.5 points per game last year, and they have to bring this number down if they want to eventually make a bowl game.
In case you haven't been paying attention, Alabama is losing a lot on their defense. That is, they lose Dont'a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw, Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick, Nick Gentry and Dequan Menzie.
National Signing Day has jokingly become Nick Saban Day in the past few years, so we know that Alabama has some All-Stars ready to step in. It just remains to be seen how quickly they will take to become comfortable playing as a unit.
Arizona is losing QB Nick Foles, RB Keola Antolin and their top-three receivers. Therefore, the biggest challenge facing this team is to find one or two players that will contribute on offense.
There will be plenty of fresh faces in Tucson, including head coach Rich Rodriguez.
Arizona State is losing their top-six tacklers including All-Star Vontaze Burfict. All of these losses come from the secondary and linebacking corps, so the back seven is going to be very vulnerable next season under first-year head coach Todd Graham.
The Sun Devils allowed 28.6 points per game this past season. It may get worse before it gets better.
Arkansas has sported one of the more prolific offenses in the SEC the past couple of years. Unfortunately, their defense, while decent, has not been up to par with their division rivals LSU and Alabama.
Next year they'll lose Jerry Franklin, Tramain Thomas and Jake Bequette from the defensive side of the ball. They'll be good on offense as usual, but the defense needs to reload if they want to compete for a division and national title.
I'm not worried about the offense next year. They should be just fine with Ryan Aplin back and Gus Malzahn coming in at head coach.
They are losing their top-two defensive linemen and their top-two linebackers, however. All in all, they are losing their top-six sack leaders from 2011.
They will definitely need to fix the front seven and find some players to get after the quarterback.
Army has plenty of returning starters next season and a relatively easy schedule, so it is possible that the Knights are ready for a bowl game.
One thing they need to improve on is their pass defense. The Knights finished 100th in the nation in passing yards allowed last season but have all of their defensive backs returning.
If they can improve this facet of their game, then they can be dangerous.
Auburn had a pretty successful season in 2011, given that many predicted the Tigers would miss out on a bowl. Instead, they fought through injuries, inconsistent quarterback play and suspensions to finish 8-5.
The play at quarterback still remains the biggest question mark. I'm confident in the defense and in Onterio McCalebb at running back. Whether it's Barrett Trotter, Clint Moseley or Kiehl Frazier, Tiger fans would breathe more easily if there's a consistent presence under center next year.
Ball State allowed 34.7 points per game last season, so clearly the defense needs to improve.
They are losing half of their secondary and half of their defensive line. They only got to the quarterback 16 times last season, good for 102nd in the nation. If they can produce more pressure on the quarterback next year, then their defense can improve overall.
Robert Griffin III was one of the best Baylor players of all time. And now, he's gone.
That's one of the biggest challenges. Losing RB Terrance Ganaway and WR Kendall Wright will also hurt. All in all, the biggest challenge facing Baylor is the loss of three integral players on the offense, one at each of the skill positions.
Kellen Moore is the all-time winningest quarterback in the history of college football. That's quite an unenviable position for any replacement to step into and a serious hole for them to fill as they move forward.
This isn't to say that they can't do it or won't eventually succeed in replacing Moore. It is just that there will be a new face under center for the first time in a while on the blue turf.
Boston College is going to return a lot of players next season and should be much improved. They will be losing their best player in linebacker Luke Kuechly but will most likely have enough back on defense to be solid once again.
Therefore, the biggest challenge facing them entering 2012 is the same as 2011...entering the end zone! They'll have all of their skill position players back, but they only averaged 18.2 points per game last season.
Bowling Green allowed over 28 points per game in 2011 but should improve as they return 12 of their top- 14 tacklers. This includes their best defensive player, Chris Jones. Before they go any further, however, they need to generate a pass-rush from someone other than Jones; the leader in sacks besides Jones tallied only two sacks.
BYU quietly put together one of the better defenses in the nation this past season, allowing only 20.4 points per game.
There is reason for concern entering next season, however. The Cougars will lose Jordan Pendleton, Jameson Frazier, Hebron Fangupo and Jadon Wagner from the front seven alone. These four men combined for 25.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks last season, so the production from the front seven is a major concern entering 2012.
Buffalo allowed 29 points per game last season. This was due in large part to their inability to pressure the opposing quarterbacks. The Bulls tallied only 19 sacks on the year, good for 95th in the nation.
They'll return almost their entire defensive line but lose their top linebacker and top defensive back. It is now up to the line to create pressure and become the strength of the defense.
Cal improved their rushing attack throughout the year and will return a terrific tandem in Zach Maynard and Keenan Allen on offense.
Unfortunately, they lose their top-four leaders in tackles for loss and five of their top-six tacklers overall. This is a team that improved throughout the year but still allowed 24.3 points per game. This number could dip slightly next year.
Central Michigan allowed 33.3 points per game last season and have scattered returning starters on this side of the ball.
They are losing their top-two linebackers and their best defensive lineman but return three-fourths of their secondary. This team only tallied 13 sacks last season, 111th in the nation. They need to get to the quarterback and improve on this side of the ball.
We already saw the greatest challenge for the Bearcats. Quarterback Zach Collaros went down with an injury late in the season, and they struggled with Munchie Legaux under center. Legaux has tons of potential, and I'd like to see him successful, but replacing Collaros is a tough task.
This task is made no easier by the loss of Isaiah Pead and D.J. Woods.
We all saw the Tigers give up 70 points in the Orange Bowl. Therefore, it's safe to assume that the defense is the area that is the biggest challenge going forward.
They'll lose Andre Branch, Brandon Thompson and Rennie Moore on this side of the ball, so this should be a major concern for Clemson fans entering 2012.
Colorado struggled on both sides of the ball in 2011. They have plenty of returning starters on the defensive side of the ball, so we can expect that they will improve.
They lose QB Tyler Hansen, RB Rodney Stewart and their top-two receivers next year. This team averaged only 18 points per game last year, and unless a bunch of newcomers can come together, they will struggle again next year.
Former Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain is taking over the head coaching duties in Fort Collins next year. He'll be inheriting a team that averaged only 21 points per game but is returning nearly every significant contributor from a year ago.
The Rams have plenty on defense coming back, too and should improve on that side of the ball. I'm interested in seeing what twists and flare McElwain brings to the offense, though. The first year could be boom or bust for the Rams.
UConn has several returning defenders and a strong rushing attack coming back next year, so they have a great core to build off of.
The area of concern? QB Johnny McEntee, who only completed 51 percent of his passes last year. That is coupled with the fact that the Huskies are losing their top-two receivers from last season.
Running the ball and playing solid defense will win you a lot of games. That said, the Huskies may find themselves in trouble if they have to play from behind or move the ball through the air.
Duke is going to have plenty of starters back at every single position but one. That is, the wide receiving corps.
Wide receivers are generally my last concern, but given Duke's propensity to throw the ball, the loss of two of their top-three receivers could be a cause for concern. It would be unfortunate if the defense were to make vast improvements only to see Duke incapable of moving the ball.
Eastern Michigan had a great year under Ron English. English was finally able to make significant strides on defense as his team allowed only 24.3 points per game.
The team was filled with seniors, however, and they will need to replace many players and find new leaders on the defensive side of the ball. Willie Williams, Latarrius Thomas, Brad Ohrman and Jabar Westerman are all gone.
The Eagles finished 6-6 but were not selected to go to a bowl game. They will need to replace the defense quickly if they want to get to the postseason this year.
East Carolina also struggled on both sides of the ball last season. Just like Colorado, they return plenty of starters on defense and should be much improved on this side of the ball under Ruffin McNeill.
Offensively, they will lose quarterback Dominique Davis. Davis wasn't the greatest quarterback but was very talented. He also started the last 25 games for the Pirates, so they will have to break in an entirely new face to distribute the ball.
Florida has to introduce almost an entirely new offense. Gone is quarterback John Brantley and running backs Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey. They will also lose offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, who was with the Gators only one season.
It is better that Weis left the team this year than say, next year. With all the change, it is better in the long run that the Gators start entirely fresh. That said, 2012 could be a season in which the Gators struggle to put points on the board.
The greatest challenge for FAU entering 2012 is to adapt to life with a new coach. We're not talking a new coach in the sense that Illinois, UCLA, Texas A&M or Kansas have new coaches, but FAU has to replace a legend in Howard Schnellenberger. Worse yet, he's the only coach the program has ever known!
In for Schnellenberger is first-year coach Carl Pelini. This is uncharted territory for Pelini and the Owls.
T.Y. Hilton is the most explosive player in the history of FIU and was one of the most exciting players to watch in the entire nation in 2011.
The defense should be great again for the Panthers in 2012, but how will they manage to replace a guy with blinding speed who managed 1,038 receiving yards, 124 rushing yards, a 30.44 yard kick return average and a 23.25 yard punt return average?
Hilton could do it all; the closest thing football has to a "five-tool player." He will be sorely missed.
If Florida State wants to entertain the thought of an ACC championship, much less a national championship, then they have to establish a rushing attack.
The Noles ran the ball more than they threw it last year (437-383) but averaged only 3.34 yards per carry, 105th in the nation. I applaud their stick-to-itiveness, but they have to improve.
Fresno State has the potential to be very potent on offense next season. Derek Carr will be returning for his second season along with Robbie Rouse and Jalen Saunders.
They are returning plenty of defensive starters as well and should therefore be well equipped to compete in the Mountain West.
Their two biggest challenges are adjusting to new head coach Tim DeRuyter and replacing their best defensive player, Logan Harrell. If they can do those two things, the Bulldogs may be a national sleeper.
Much has been said about the defense's improvement this past season, and with good reason. They should continue to improve on this side of the ball in 2012.
I'd be most concerned about the rushing attack in 2012. The Dawgs averaged only 3.95 yards per carry last season and have gone through issues with leading rusher Isaiah Crowell. They have plenty of talent in the backfield, but it would be nice to see one of the backs step up and dominate like he is capable of.
Georgia Tech wasn't terrible this past season. They will always be a solid rushing team, but they struggled slightly on defense, allowing 26.1 points per game.
They will have most of their back seven back and some of their defensive linemen back, but the linemen were not productive in 2011. The returning defensive linemen combined for only four sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss in 2011.
If the defensive line could improve, then GT could be a contender for the ACC title. If not, then they will continue to play several high-scoring games. When that happens, you're going to lose three or four games a season.
Norm Chow has finally accepted a head coaching job in college football. He only spent close to 40 years as an assistant, accumulating two national championship rings in the process.
He's an offensive guru, but will be walking into a situation in which he needs to replace the quarterback and top receiver. There could be some growing pains in Honolulu before Chow eventually has the team firing on all cylinders.
It's hard to predict what the offense will look like in Houston next season. They are losing the all-time leading passer in Case Keenum, their three top receivers and their coach.
Tony Levine will take over in place of head coach Kevin Sumlin. Levine has served as a TE/WR coach for the Cougars for the past three years, so it's a good chance that Houston continues to try to throw the ball all over the field. They'll have a long way to go to replace Keenum and the receivers, though.
Idaho may face more unfamiliarity on offense than any other FBS team next year. They are losing their quarterback, their second-leading receiver and their top-two running backs.
This is off of a team that averaged 301.5 yards per game. Now they're losing a quarterback and over 1,100 yards rushing.
Through thick and thin, Illinois could always count on a solid rushing attack under coach Ron Zook. That is, until last year, when the Illini averaged only 171 yards per game on the ground. Worse yet, they averaged only 11 points per game over their final six regular season games.
They're going to lose wide receiver A.J. Jenkins and their top-two running backs in Jason Ford and Troy Pollard. The onus is now completely on QB Nathan Scheelhaase and Donovonn Young to re-establish a strong rushing attack under first year coach Tim Beckman. If they can't, then the Illini will be hard pressed to make a third-straight bowl.
Indiana had planned on Gunner Keil suiting up in crimson and cream next year. Instead, Kiel is already enrolled at a university a couple hundred miles north of Bloomington (but not before committing to another university beforehand).
They have to deal with the disappointment of losing Kiel. Then, more importantly, they need to develop one of the quarterbacks they have. Tre Roberson, Dusty Kiel and Edward Wright-Baker will all be back next year. The trio combined to complete only 55.8 percent of their passes and turned it over more than they found the end zone.
Iowa has to find some stability at running back. Last year Adam Robinson was dismissed due to charges of possession of marijuana. Then, near the end of this past season, Marcus Coker was released amidst assault allegations.
The Hawkeyes have to get back to playing solid defense and running the football. They have plenty of starters back on defense and could be improved on this side of the ball. It remains to be seen who will step up in the backfield.
Iowa State could be a surprise team next year...if they can replace a strong defensive line.
Jake Lattimer, Stephen Ruempolhamer and Patrick Neal are all gone. The trio combined for 15.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks in 2011. That's a lot of personnel to have to replace in a offensive-oriented Big 12.
Kansas is welcoming new head coach Charlie Weis and his former recruit Dayne Crist to Lawrence, Kansas. There should be a sense of optimism in Jayhawk land, as the duo is capable of lighting up scoreboards.
That's all fine and good. But one ominous fact remains.
The Jayhawks finished last in the nation in points allowed. And yards allowed. This clearly needs to be improved upon before Kansas can have any fantasies of a bowl game, much less a conference title.
Kansas State is going to be a great rushing team again next year and were helped significantly with the return of linebacker Arthur Brown.
That's the good news. The bad news is that the Big 12 will still be a passing league, and the Wildcats are losing their top-three players in the secondary.
The front seven remains almost entirely intact, so the onus will be on them to produce a pass rush to help out a young secondary early in the season.
Kent State improved significantly through the course of the season on defense and will have most of their starters back. This makes them somewhat of an oddity in the MAC, given that they don't score many points and keep their opponents out of the end zone.
I would be most concerned about their ability to score on offense. In particular, the Flashes only averaged 145 yards per game through the air and are losing four of their top-six receivers from a year ago.
Kentucky has to find a quarterback to go forward from here. It's almost that simple.
It's not that simple because both Morgan Newton and Maxwell Smith split time last season, and neither stood head and shoulders above the other. One of them needs to step up so that quarterback roulette doesn't plague the Wildcats again in 2012. They averaged only 15.8 points per game last season.
The Cajuns were 4-0 in games decided by less than four points in 2011. Besides the improbability of continuing with this record, the Cajuns also lose 10 of their top-12 tacklers.
Keep in mind that while the Cajuns had a great year at 9-4, the defense did allow 29.8 points per game. Now they will have to play with nearly all replacements. Another nine-win season would be the coaching job of the century from head coach Mark Hudspeth.
ULM was a trendy pick for the Sun Belt crown this past season. Unfortunately, they struggled with an extremely difficult non-conference schedule and were never able to recover.
The difficult schedule is back next year (at Arkansas, at Auburn, Baylor), so they have to be sure not to let a potential slow start derail their season once again.
They also lose their top-two defensive linemen in Ken Dorsey and Troy Evans. These two guys combined for 25 tackles for loss and 11 sacks last year, so the defensive line will need some help.
I feel as if Louisiana Tech could be on the precipice of greatness. This is going to be a high-powered offense as Colby Cameron enters his first full year as a starter in Sonny Dykes' offense.
I would be concerned about the defense, however. They're losing five of their top-seven tacklers and their top-four tacklers for loss. There isn't a unit on the defense that won't go through a significant loss this offseason.
Louisville is going to have an incredibly strong defense next season and another year of development for impressive freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Now, they need to build a complementary rushing attack.
They are losing their leading rusher from a team that averaged only 3.39 yards per carry. Jeremy Wright figures to be the starting running back come 2012. He tallied only 334 yards on the season and was virtually non-existent down the stretch. The Cardinals will have to establish a running game if they want to win the Big East.
Those who watched the championship game realized that the quarterback position wasn't the only reason why LSU lost to Alabama. Then again, those who watched realized that the position certainly didn't help matters much.
LSU is going to have a great defense and will have a huge stable of running backs coming back. Who will be handing the ball off, though? If they don't find a quarterback to keep defenses honest, then the offense could struggle next season.
If the Tigers go with Zach Mettenberger (pictured), then they'll be going with a quarterback who has attempted 11 career passes. If they go with anyone else, then they'll be going with a quarterback who has attempted zero career passes.
I'm not the type who puts everything on the quarterback's shoulders. I realize that the Tigers are extremely strong at every other position. Still, this will be a very inexperienced position for the Tigers in 2012. That's not good news for a team that figures to be the No. 1 team in the nation entering the season.
Marshall is losing five of their top-six tacklers and their top-four leaders in tackles for loss. Worst of all, that includes Vinny Curry, who consistently played himself into what should be a first-round pick in the NFL draft.
That front seven is going to be completely decimated. The Herd weren't great on offense last year, but my biggest fear remains along the front seven on defense.
The bad news is that Maryland allowed 34.3 points per game last year. The good news is that they will return 10 of their top 11 tacklers and should be much improved.
Still, 34.3 is a number that requires massive improvement. This team actually finished 108th in the nation in yards allowed, so they were somewhat lucky in allowing only 34.3 points per game (102nd). I'm encouraged by the returning starters, but I'll believe the improvement when I see it.
Memphis hasn't been good for a few years now. In fact, they are just 5-31 in their last three years. The Tigers have had two coaches in the same time span in Tommy West and Larry Porter.
Now, they move on to 35-year-old former TCU offensive coordinator Justin Fuente in what will be his first head coaching gig. My biggest concern is that they are as impatient with Fuente as they were with Porter.
They need to realize the task at hand here and give a head coach some leeway to build. If they continue to switch coaches every two years, then they will never be successful.
We know that it has happened, but it seems impossible that anyone other than Jacory Harris will be under center for the 'Canes. Harris fought with Robert Marve to become the starter in 2008 and never looked back.
Now he's gone. The safe bet is that Stephen Morris will take over under center for Al Golden's squad. Whoever becomes the replacement, he is not aided by the fact that Lamar Miller has decided to go pro early.
The offense could be a problem early next year in South Beach. Throw in a looming sentence from the NCAA, and there are plenty of things to worry about if you're a 'Cane.
There should be plenty of optimism for fans of Miami-OH entering next season. The Redhawks had a down year in 2011 but will be returning most of their defensive line, QB Zac Dysert and All-Star receiver Nick Harwell.
The main source of concern will be some losses to the back seven on defense. In fact, the top-three tacklers from 2011 will all be gone. It seems as if they have the pieces to successfully replace these guys, but you never know how certain teams click and gel together.
Michigan went 11-2 and won the Sugar Bowl in 2011. They somehow accomplished this feat with a mediocre offense.
I'm not one to complain about teams winning with defense, but the Wolverines were a boom-or-bust offense. Boom would be the final two minutes against Notre Dame and a win against Nebraska. Bust would be a loss to Michigan State and poor offense against Virginia Tech.
They'll have Fitzgerald Toussaint and Denard Robinson back, two men who combined for over 2,200 yards rushing last season. Still, I'd like to see a passing game develop for the Wolverines.
They lose their top receiver in Junior Hemmingway, who averaged over 20 yards per catch! I like teams that win with defense and a strong rushing attack, but I still feel that Michigan is a more consistent passing game away from being a national title contender.
Michigan State may end up having one of the best defenses in the nation, and they have a warrior in running back Le'Veon Bell.
That said, they are going to lose Kirk Cousins (who started 40 games over the last three years) and their top-four receivers! Therefore, the Spartans aren't much unlike their in-state rivals; their biggest challenge is a lack of an established passing attack.
Middle Tennessee hasn't been the same since Dwight Dasher was being investigated for gambling, er... left the program.
In all seriousness though, the Blue Raiders were bad on defense last year, allowing 36.8 points per game. They will lose their top-four tacklers from last year.
That is a reason for concern.
Da'Jon McKnight was a pretty solid receiver for the Gophers last year. More importantly, he was the receiver.
McKnight caught 51 of the 134 passes completed by the Gophers last year. The second leading receiver (Brandon Green) is returning, but he caught only 15 passes for 190 yards.
This doesn't bode well for a Gophers team that lacked offensive pop last season. QB Marqueis Gray is back, but who will he throw to?
Ole Miss averaged just 16 points per game, and that average was even worse in the final month when they averaged less than a touchdown a game.
They have most of their offense back, but will new head coach Hugh Freeze be able to transform the offense? Who will he choose as his starting quarterback? Will they be able to complete more than 50 percent of their passes (both Randall Mackey and Zack Stoudt failed to do so in 2011)? Right now, the offense is my biggest concern.
The Bulldogs ran the ball 513 times and threw it 349 times. Two years ago, they ran it 620 times and threw it 287.
The personnel they had was well suited for this balance. They had a mobile quarterback in Chris Relf and a solid, workhorse running back in Vick Ballard.
Both of those men are gone this year, and Tyler Russell steps in at quarterback. Russell has a great arm but not as quick of legs as Relf. The Bulldogs are also returning their top-four receivers.
I think it will be interesting to see if the Bulldogs continue to rush the ball as much as they have in the past. If so, will they be successful? If not, can they make the transition to a more pass-oriented team? The future is in doubt, and that is concerning.
Had Missouri stuck around in the Big 12, they could have been the favorites entering the 2012 season. Instead, they have to play in the SEC East and will face South Carolina and Georgia in the first month of the season!
Throw in a game against Alabama and trips to Texas A&M, Florida and Tennessee, and you'll see that the SEC did no favors for the Tigers. They could be a great team that still loses five games.
Welcome to the SEC.
Navy is going to have plenty of returning starters on defense and should be much improved in this regard.
They will be losing their top-two rushers in QB Kriss Proctor and RB Alexander Teich. This is huge considering the type of offense Navy runs. They will have to break in a new quarterback to run the triple- option offense if they want to return to a bowl game.
Nebraska is a pretty simple team to figure out the past two seasons. When they play a mediocre team, they beat them. When they play someone at their level or better, they lose. When they face a difficult defense, they have trouble moving the ball (save for this past year's game against Michigan State).
They need to add another dimension to their offense. I love Rex Burkhead and Taylor Martinez is a solid runner, but what they are doing now is not getting the job done.
The bowl game was a perfect microcosm of how things have gone. The Huskers started off hot and tallied 109 yards and 13 points in the first quarter. After that, South Carolina took away the run, and the Huskers tallied 144 yards and zero points the rest of the game.
Nevada is losing talent on both sides of the ball, but I am more confident in their ability to replace the losses on the offensive side and continue to run the pistol effectively.
Defense may be another story. They are losing their top-four leaders in tackles for loss, two from the defensive line and two from the linebacking corps. That quartet combined for 39.5 tackles for loss and 17 sacks last year!
That production isn't easily duplicated or replaced. I would be most concerned about the Wolfpack's front seven entering 2012.
New Mexico is just 3-33 in the last three seasons. Last year may have been the worst, as they averaged only 12 points per game.
They have most of their skill players back on offense, but how could one not be concerned about numbers like that?
Hopefully, head coach Bob Davie gleaned something from his decade-long hiatus that he can implement immediately in Albuquerque.
New Mexico State
New Mexico State struggled on defense last year, allowing 36.8 points per game. This is a concern going forward as the Aggies lose their entire secondary and seven of their top-eight tacklers.
QB Bryn Renner and RB Giovanni Bernard were both surprisingly effective last season, and I have no doubt that they can continue to prosper under new coach Larry Fedora.
I'd be more worried about the quality of players that have left the defense not just last season, but the last two seasons. They will lose Quinton Coples, Donte Paige-Moss and Zach Brown this season, which comes just one year after losing Quan Sturdivant, Bruce Carter and Marvin Austin (not that he played two years ago).
This is a team that had produced some stars on the defensive side of the ball. They're all gone now.
North Carolina State
The Wolfpack were awful on the ground last season, averaging only 3.04 yards per carry, 115th in the nation. They were better through the air, but now I am concerned over the loss of WR T.J. Graham and two other top Wolfpack receivers.
They either need to improve their rushing attack or quickly replace the losses at receiver. Or better yet, both.
North Texas struggled on defense last year, allowing 30.7 points per game. Now, they're losing seven of their top-10 tacklers including their top player in Brandon Akpunku.
Losing Akpunku and some linebackers leaves a void for pass-rushing on the Mean Green.
I'm not sure if one single player meant more to this team than Chandler Harnish did to the Huskies last year.
Harnish threw for 3,216 yards, 28 touchdowns and six interceptions. Then, he rushed for 1,379 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground. Wow!
It would be remiss of me if I didn't mention that they also lose their second-best rusher, running back Jasmin Hopkins. Hopkins rushed for 963 yards last year, so he's certainly no slouch himself.
That is a ton of production lost for the Huskies.
General consensus would be that the Wildcats should be concerned over replacing Dan Persa. While Persa was a tremendous athlete and player, we already saw what post-Persa Northwestern will look like when he was oft-injured during the 2011 season.
I would be worried about a general lack of passing game entirely. Leading receiver Jeremy Ebert is gone. Their second-leading receiver was Tight End Drake Dunsmore, who is also gone.
Their third-leading receiver last season was Colter. Unless they can figure out a way to do that old backyard move where you throw it up in the air over your shorter friend and catch it yourself, then the Wildcats are going to be short on weapons.
The Irish are losing All-Star Michael Floyd, but chances are that with a strong stable of receivers returning that they will be prolific once again on offense.
What is more disconcerting is the decimation of the secondary unit. Harrison Smith, Gary Gray, Robert Blanton and Jamoris Slaughter are all gone. I don't care who you are or who you have lined up for replacements, losing an entire secretary is a reason for concern.
Ohio's defense should be fantastic next year. Overall, the Bobcats can easily win the MAC championship. (They would have this year if not for a second half collapse.)
There are concerns, though. Namely, the Bobcats are losing their top-two receivers, and they're both good ones. LaVon Brazill and Riley Dunlop are both gone. The two combined for 1,736 yards and 17 touchdowns last year.
Optimism is abounding in Columbus as Urban Meyer takes over at head coach and Braxton Miller returns for his sophomore year. Not even the one-year bowl ban can ruin the Buckeyes' fans euphoric feelings.
What should be concerning, however, is the rushing attack. Ohio State struggled early last season without Dan Herron, and Herron will be gone completely next season.
It will be interesting to see if Meyer sticks with sophomore Carlos Hyde or goes another route. Hyde had flashes of quality, but like other Ohio State running backs, was inconsistent throughout the year.
Oklahoma has to find a replacement for Ryan Broyles. That's simple.
I understand what every Sooners fan is saying right now. I realize that they are returning Kenny Stills, Jaz Reynolds and Trey Franks, but they had all of those men last season, and the passing attack struggled mightily when Broyles was lost for the season.
Stills and Reynolds are both talented. Now, one will have to step up and become the No. 1 receiver that Broyles was.
Oklahoma State set defenses on fire this past season, averaging 48.7 points per game, the most of any BCS school in the nation.
Unfortunately, they'll lose QB Brandon Weeden and wide receivers Justin Blackmon and Josh Cooper.
Mike Gundy has been through losses before and has always rebounded. It seems as if Oklahoma State gets better and better every year. I wouldn't put it past Gundy to have another strong team again next year, but still, it is obvious that the passing game will need to be rebuilt.
To me, the offense is somewhat of a concern. I'm optimistic that it will work eventually, but the Ducks are losing their quarterback and LaMichael James. I've never seen a fanbase seem so confident following the departure of a guy who rushed for 3,536 yards and 39 touchdowns in the past two seasons.
I get that De'Anthony Thomas, Kenjon Barner and Bryan Bennett aren't slouches and can eventually handle the high-octane offense. I just want to see how long it will take.
The major concern for Oregon State is that they need to get a more consistent presence in the backfield. The defense is returning nearly all of their starters, and QB Sean Mannion is back after throwing for over 3,000 yards as a freshman, but I don't seen anyone ready to step up in the Beavers' backfield.
They only rushed the ball 318 times last year, second to last in the nation. One could argue that it was because they were behind so often, but nobody is behind that much to completely abandon trying to rush the ball. This needs to be addressed.
On the field: The Nittany Lions need either Matt McGloin or Rob Bolden to step up at quarterback. I admit, for a while I thought Bolden was the better option, but he did finish the season with a 39 percent completion percentage.
Off the field: The players and coaches need to do their best to insulate themselves from what is sure to be a constant media storm all of next season. It will be the first season in more than 40 years in which JoePa is not head coach in Happy Valley, and the Jerry Sandusky scandal will most likely never be erased from our memories.
The fact is however, neither of those issues have anything to do with the current roster of players. They need to go out and play football for themselves and each other in a time when the media will surely make every game, drive, play, snap, practice and drink of water into national news.
Pittsburgh finished dead last in sacks allowed this season by a wide margin at 119th in the nation. Miami-Ohio allowed 47 sacks on the year. Pitt allowed 63, more than one more per game than the second-worst team.
After going through a season like that, how can that not be the No. 1 concern for Pitt fans?
Purdue has a solid corps of returning players and should be a legitimate threat to win the Big Ten in 2012.
How will they get from where they are to where they want to be?
The defense should be solid, but the offense lacks a certain firepower. It would be great if they can get RB Ralph Bolden back and fully healthy in time for the season opener, but this is unlikely.
This leaves a cast of players which have experience but have yet to step up and make the team their own. This includes QB Caleb TerBush, Akeem Shavers and Antavian Edison. I think someone on Purdue needs to step up and emerge as a senior leader on this side of the ball.
Sophomore quarterback Taylor McHargue started the season but couldn't finish. Instead, the Owls opted to go with senior Nick Fanuzzi.
Fanuzzi is gone and now a decision has to be made. Will they go back to McHargue or choose someone who has no experience.
Rutgers seemed poised for a run at the Big East title next season when all at once Greg Schiano split for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The move shocked many players and recruits.
This isn't to say that Rutgers can't win without him. In fact, the Scarlet Knights already won the first post-Schiano battle when they secured the 24th-ranked recruiting class despite the departure of the coach.
I love the personnel they have in Piscataway. I'm most concerned about head coach Kyle Flood simply because he is an unknown entity. I hope things work out.
No quarterback has yet been able to step up and fully handle June Jones' offense in Dallas. Kyle Padron started this season but was quickly replaced by senior J.J. McDermott. Now, Padron has recently transferred.
This means that the quarterback on the roster with the most experience is Stephen Kaiser. He has attempted one pass in his career.
Whoever they decide to go with will get a huge boost in pass attempts (an infinity boost in some cases). SMU attempted 476 passes in 2011 and 516 in 2010.
San Diego State
Ronnie Hillman surprised some with his announcement that he would be turning pro this season. Hillman rushed for 3,243 yards and 36 touchdowns in just two seasons.
As you can imagine, that isn't easy to replace. The Aztecs were able to absorb the loss of Brady Hoke last season due to a balanced offense. Now, they will lose Hillman and QB Ryan Aplin. They may be hard pressed to put points on the board in 2012.
San Jose State
The Spartans are going to have a new-look offense in 2012. Gone is QB Matt Faulkner, who attempted 422 passes. Also gone is RB Brandon Rutley. Rutley rushed for 903 yards yards while the second leading rusher on the Spartans rushed for 111.
As you can see, the Spartans weren't fantastic on offense last year, but it remains that most of it is leaving. Someone will need to step up.
South Carolina had to dismiss quarterback Stephen Garcia and deal with the loss of Marcus Lattimore last season, and they still won 11 games. Therefore, I'm not too concerned that the offense can continue to produce next year.
The defense should be great again, but they are losing Melvin Ingram and Antonio Allen. Optimists will point to the return of Devin Taylor and Jadeveon Clowney, but pessimists will point out how Ingram and Allen combined for 24.5 tackles for loss.
Those will be some tough numbers to make up for, regardless of who is returning. The Gamecocks aren't going to have many personnel issues entering 2012, but surprisingly, I feel that the front seven is one of the harder hit areas that South Carolina has to address.
Southern Miss is ravaged by widespread losses. First, Larry Fedora leaves for North Carolina. Then, the inevitable happened; they lost all their seniors.
They're losing four-year starter Austin Davis at quarterback, their top-two receivers and Ronnie Thornton and Cordarro Law.
The biggest challenge for Southern Miss going forward is to deal with inexperience at coach and on the field and find some new senior leadership.
Pretty simple here. The Cardinal are losing the future No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, along with Chris Owusu, Coby Fleener and Griff Whalen.
I love Stepfan Taylor, but he will be keyed in on by the defenses until a passing game develops.
Syracuse may be losing more on offense than any other team in the nation. They're losing RB Antwon Bailey and five of their top-six receivers. Bailey rushed for 1,051 yards of the team's 1,445 total yards.
QB Ryan Nassib is back, but he will have his work cut out for him as he loses nearly every single player surrounding him.
This may sound like a cop out, but I feel that the biggest challenge facing TCU is their move to the Big 12.
The Horned Frogs are solid at almost every single position entering 2012 and should be well-equipped to compete in the Big 12. Finally, we will answer the age-old question of if a non-AQ team could handle a tougher schedule week-in, week-out. Gone are the likes of New Mexico, Colorado State and UNLV; in are Oklahoma, Texas and Oklahoma State.
There are two major challenges facing Temple going forward. Both are pretty simple; neither are easy to fix.
Temple was a great rushing team. Unfortunately, they are losing Bernard Pierce. Pierce rushed for 3,570 and 53 touchdowns the past three seasons.
The defense was one of the best in the nation, allowing 13.9 points per game. They're losing six of their top-nine tacklers including Adrian Robinson and Tahir Whitehead.
Two major problems, no easy fix.
Tennessee desperately needs to develop a rushing attack. Senior running back Tauren Poole was due for a big year in 2011 but was lost to an injury. When this occurred, no one stepped up.
Poole will be gone next year, and someone needs to establish themselves to take the heat off of QB Tyler Bray.
Texas seems to have stockpiled some talent over the last couple of years. The only problem is that we haven't seen their team on display with all of their key participants simultaneously healthy yet.
Therefore, the biggest challenge facing the Horns is to stay healthy and develop. The personnel of David Ash, Malcolm Brown, Joe Bergeron, Mike Davis, Jaxon Shipley, Jackson Jeffcoat and Kenny Vacarro may or may not be great. I'd at least like to give them a fair chance and find out.
Joining the toughest division in football may be the least of the Aggies' concerns next season. They will also be breaking in a new quarterback, a new running back, new receivers and a new head coach which figures to change the philosophy of the team significantly. That's a lot.
And yet we can't help but point out that they are going to be playing LSU, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida and Auburn. Take your pick for the Aggies' biggest challenge.
Texas Tech has more returning starters than any other team that played in the FBS in 2011. The offense was solid last year and should continue to be so. So, let's focus on the defense.
Tech battled through injuries but was hurt the most by a total lack of pass-rush. The Red Raiders tallied only 16 sacks last year. Scott Smith, who was responsible for 5.5 of those sacks, is gone next year. This leaves a huge need for a pass-rusher which will in turn help out other areas of the defense.
Toledo did the right thing by hiring offensive coordinator Matt Campbell to replace Tim Beckman. This will certainly pay off in the short term and could pay off in the long term as well.
He's losing a talented duo of running backs, though. Adonis Thomas and Morgan Williams were his strength last year, combining for 1,742 yards and 23 touchdowns. Toledo is going to continue to rush the ball, and therefore they need some talent to step in and replace Thomas and Williams.
Troy has a lot of personnel on offense and defense back. That's a good thing, as both sides of the ball struggled last year.
They're going to be hurt the hardest on the defensive line. Jonathan Massaquoi is leaving early for the NFL, and John Robles is graduating.
That leaves the Trojans with just eight sacks of record on their roster.
Tulane is going to have plenty of starters back on both sides of the ball. I'm more concerned about the defense, however, as they lose Dezman Moses on the defensive line.
Trent Mackey is a terrific linebacker but less of a pass-rush option. They will need to generate pressure from their young defensive line.
G.J. Kinne was a three-year starter, so his departure means that the Hurricane will be very inexperienced at quarterback.
There's some talent on offense with receivers Willie Carter and Bryan Burnham and running backs Ja'Terian Douglas and Trey Watts. It's just a matter of figuring out who will get them the ball.
UAB tallied eight sacks all season. Eight. That was dead last in the nation.
They'll have all but one of those sacks accounted for from their returning players next season, so clearly this is an area that is concerning, but could improve.
UCF had to be one of the better 5-7 teams in 2011. They averaged 27 points per game, gave up only 18 and lost six games by seven points or less.
They have all of their skill players back on offense and almost their entire defense back. This is a team that could easily compete for the C-USA title. That is, if they can win the close games.
It would be great to see some leadership emerge on both sides of the ball, which would in turn get some close games to swing the Knights' way. If they can get that, the sky is the limit.
The biggest challenge going forward for the Bruins is the same thing that has plagued them the past few years. They need to find some consistency in their lives.
Whether it is change-over at the coordinator position or injuries, the Bruins have not been able to build upon anything since their semi-successful season in 2009.
Their defense struggled last season but will be returning several starters. They need to have players stay healthy and work with a single group of coaches for a couple years before they can become a power.
UNLV needs help just about everywhere on the field. To put it simply, the Rebels averaged 17 points per game and gave up over 40 per game in 2011. Therefore, it isn't one thing that needs fixing, but rather a collection of concerns that needs to be addressed going forward.
I will say that since I am a fan of defensive football, it is concerning that the Rebels lose their three top tacklers including their best player, James Dunlap. The offense has some personnel back, so it's possible that they can improve, but the defense will have to go a long ways to be successful in 2012.
USC received a tremendous boost with the much-publicized return of Matt Barkley and the less-publicized return of T.J. McDonald. Now, the Trojans have one of the most prolific offenses in the nation and their entire back seven is back.
That makes this choice pretty simple. USC is losing Nick Perry and DaJohn Harris along the defensive line. They are already undersized at linebacker (opting to go for speed) and cannot afford to get pushed around on the defensive line as a result.
USF has exhibited such an interesting trend the past few years that it borders on phenomenal. Since 2007, the Bulls are 19-2 in the month of September. They are 17-25 in all other months.
There isn't an immediate explanation for this. One would think that it would be a result of playing an easier non-conference schedule, but the Bulls beat Notre Dame in 2011, Florida State in 2009, Kansas in 2008 and Auburn in 2007. Those teams were as good as anyone in the Big East in those particular years, so the collapses are simply astounding.
The biggest challenge going forward then is to finish a season off. QB B.J. Daniels is back for another year, and he has to provide veteran leadership to his team to keep them focused throughout. He and several other Bulls have been down this path before.
Utah fared pretty well for themselves in their first year as a Pac-12 member. They improved throughout the year, found a running attack and finished 8-5.
They can be a sleeper in the Pac-12 South next year but not until they replace their three top defenders. Derrick Shelby, Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez are all gone from the front seven. Walker and Martinez combined to record 200 tackles, so Utah has to find some players for their front seven.
Utah State was one of the surprise teams of the 2011 season, finishing 7-6 with three losses by less than four points. Their offense should continue to improve and be quite explosive in 2012.
They struggled at times defensively in 2011. What's even more concerning is that they will lose their top-two defenders in Bobby Wagner and Kyle Gallagher. The two combined for 247 tackles last season! Where will they find replacements for these two great players?
UTEP is losing their top-three rushers from last season; Joe Banyard, Vernon Frazier and Leilyon Myers. The trio were quite productive last year, combining for 1,634 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Now, the leading returning rusher is Nathan Jeffery, who carried only 26 times last season. They'll need him (and most likely some others) to step up and duplicate that strong rushing attack.
I don't think there was a bigger surprise in 2011 than the Vanderbilt Commodores. First-year head coach James Franklin took a two-win, perennial losing program and transformed them into a competitive, 6-7 team with close losses to big boys Florida, Arkansas and Georgia.
I love the potential of Vanderbilt going forward. As far as 2012 goes, they will need to replace some senior leadership on the defense quickly. Their three top tacklers and four of their top-five leaders in tackles for loss are gone.
Vanderbilt was aided in 2011 by the fact that they had a senior-laden squad. That isn't the case now, so their inexperience on defense is the greatest obstacle going forward. If they can clear that hurdle, they can be a contender in 2012 and beyond.
Speaking of surprises, the Cavaliers finished 8-5 and earned a trip to the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta. A great season under Mike London with plenty of potential to build.
The main concern going forward is the loss of their top-two defensive linemen in Matt Conrath and Cam Johnson. The two combined for 23 tackles for loss last season and opened up opportunities for other defenders on the field.
There's no reason as to why Virginia won't be solid again next year, but they will only go as far as their defensive line will take them.
All the pieces were in place for Virginia Tech to be a highly ranked team entering next season. All of their defense would be back, their quarterback would return and a solid rushing game would return.
And then David Wilson declared for the NFL draft.
Wilson deserves it, and I wish him the best going forward. However, his absence creates a huge need in the Hokies backfield. Wilson rushed for 1,709 yards last season.
With his absence, the Hokies leading rusher from the running back position is Daniel Dyer. He rushed for 30 yards last season!
Wake Forest was a quarter away from winning the ACC Atlantic division despite allowing more points on the season than they scored. The fact that they were able to go 5-3 in the ACC is actually quite astounding.
I'm most concerned about their rushing attack in 2012. They averaged only 3.21 yards per rush last year and are losing their leader in Brandon Pendergrass.
Wake rushed the ball 464 times last year and threw it 457. In other words, they were very balanced despite the inefficiency on the ground. I'm concerned that a lackluster rushing attack could lead to a more air-oriented game.
Washington was plenty inexperienced on the defensive side of the ball this year, so it is more than possible that they improve on their 35.9 points per game allowed from 2011.
I don't know how they will initially replace Chris Polk, though. Polk was the MVP of the team last year, not all-of-a-sudden Heisman contender Keith Price. Polk totaled 1,780 yards and 16 touchdowns and will be sorely missed.
The optimism caused by Mike Leach's arrival in Pullman is well-founded. That said, before we get carried away and pronounce the Cougars perennial BCS contenders, they have to improve on their defense.
The Cougars will return several starters on the defensive side of the ball but did allow 31.8 points per game last year. They were strong on offense last season and should be solid again under Leach, so that just means they need to show improvement on defense to develop into a bowl team.
If you simply watched the Orange Bowl, then you may be wondering how West Virginia could ever lose a game. As it turns out, they lost three games in 2011.
The reason they did lose three games was in part due to their defense. While it improved along the course of the season, the Mountaineers are now faced with replacing Bruce Irvin, Najee Goode and Julian Miller. The trio combined for 39.5 tackles for loss last year!
WV is going to be prolific on offense again next year, but they will need to keep opponents out of the end zone if they want to win the national title. Rebuilding the front seven is an imperative.
I'm not sure if a team leaned more heavily on one player than WKU did on running back Bobby Rainey last season. Between rushes and receptions, Rainey had 405 touches for 2,056 yards!
That's a lot of yards to be lost next year, but it is even more concerning to think of the percentage of touches lost. WKU ran 845 plays all year, so Rainey was involved in 47.9 percent of the team's plays!
I can't think of a team that will lose a better corps of receivers than the Broncos will lose next year. WMU is losing Jordan White, Chleb Ravenell and Robert Amheim next year. The trio combined for 269 receptions, 3,452 yards and 30 touchdowns! That's incredible.
They will have QB Alex Carder back, so all is not lost. Still, it has to be concerning to lose so much production at receiver.
It's common knowledge at this point that Wisconsin will be returning Montee Ball, a strong offensive line and a solid defense. What they won't be returning is Russell Wilson.
They've won conference titles before without Wilson and can continue to do so without him. That said, Wilson did add an extra element to Wisconsin's offense that may be lacking this upcoming season. The quarterback position is probably the main concern entering camp, but whoever wins the job should be helped out by the fact that he can hand off to Mr. Ball behind him.
According to college football guru Phil Steele, Wyoming quarterback Brett Smith was one of the most successful freshman quarterbacks in the entire nation in 2011. This should be enough for them to continue to build on what was a very successful 2011.
Before they take the next step, however, they will need to replace some key players on their defense. Overall, they will return a majority of starters but do lose their top-two defensive linemen and their best linebacker. If they can fill these holes, then they could be a sleeper to win the Mountain West.