15 College Football Players Facing the Most Scrutiny Next Season

Amy DaughtersFeatured ColumnistFebruary 24, 2012

15 College Football Players Facing the Most Scrutiny Next Season

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    There are definitely plenty of upsides to having your picture plastered all over the glossy preseason college football magazines.

    Indeed, that are lots of great things about having your name on the lips of the experts, prognosticators and commentators who will spend the next 190 days anticipating the great things you are capable of doing in order to lead your team to gridiron glory.

    The obvious flip side to the shining sun of expectations for greatness is that the rays can hurt your eyes and cast a disarming glare across your life that can be quite difficult to deal with.

    Yes, labels such as “Heisman hopeful,” “preseason All-American,” and “anchor of a national championship contender” glow brightly on the surface but come complete with a huge target painted on your back and the potential for a serious lack of sleep.

    The following slideshow pinpoints 15 players who are arguably facing the most scrutiny, critical observation and/or examination coming into the 2012 college football season.

    On one hand, it must be phenomenal to be these guys.

    But on the other hand, it must be perilous, stressful and gut wrenching.

    As a note, the returning starters stats in this piece were sourced from Phil Steele’s handy calculations and the recruiting class rankings come via Rivals.com.


Denard Robinson, Michigan

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    After two seasons as the starting QB at Michigan Denard Robinson enters his senior season in an enviable position.

    Robinson will lead a stacked Wolverine squad in 2012 complete with sky-high expectations and a highly motivated, keyed up head coach who is convinced that he is leading a blue and maize hued football renaissance.

    And at least for this next season Robinson will be one of the key hinges on which the championship dream door swings.

    Though Robinson has certainly matured since taking over at QB in 2010 his passing numbers actually dipped in 2011; the completion rate went from 62.5 in 2010 to 55 in 2011, the passer rating went from 149.6 to 139.7 and interceptions rose from 11 to 15.

    And these numbers came via 33 less attempts in 2011 vs. 2012.

    But, on the other hand and more importantly, the win total rose from seven to 11 and though you could credit a lot of this to the overwhelming improvements defensively Robinson was the guy with the rock all season.

    Denard Robinson’s 2012 season could wind up being a Heisman campaign with a championship ring, a disappointing third place finish in the Big Ten Legends division or a thousand points in between the two extremes.

    But the truth is Robinson will be heralded if Michigan wins and blamed if they lose.

    And there my friend…lays a big pile of scrutiny.


Braxton Miller, Ohio State

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    Even though it’s easy to argue that Urban Meyer taking over the sidelines at Ohio State is a good thing for everyone associated with the program,  including QB Braxton Miller, it’s also easy to understand why his presence will amp up the scrutiny.

    Urban Meyer brings with him not only a SEC approach to recruiting, he also heralds in a new era of huge expectations to a program, that with the exception of last season, has been wildly successful in the past.

    Yes, now the Buckeyes will be expected to win championships…and lots of them.

    The catalyst for this team may well be the young and very talented Braxton Miller who went 85/157 in 2011 for 1,159 yards, 13 TDs and four picks.

    Miller will no doubt improve in his sophomore season but the eyes of the college football world will be squarely on the new and improved Buckeyes which will considerably turn up the heat on those in skill positions.

    Perhaps Miller’s saving grace will ironically be the postseason ban Ohio State will suffer in 2012, meaning that coming down the stretch wins will still be expected and enjoyed but they won’t be a matter of life or death.


Collin Klein, Kansas State

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    Not many folks had Kansas State QB Collin Klein on their national radar coming into the 2011 season.

    Flashing forward 12 months Klein is now the guy who led K-State to a 10-3 record that, other than an ugly 58-17 beat down by a riled up Oklahoma team, fell a mere 20 points short of a 12-win season.

    In 2012 both Klein and the Wildcats will play under the pressure of repeating or improving on their successes in 2011 which means nobody will be surprised if they play well.

    Yes, they’ll expect it and there will be at least some heat to take if actual results fall short of now rising expectations.

    Klein wasn’t a great passer last season (161/281, 1,918 yards, 13 TDs and six picks-netting a QB rating of only 125.6) nor was K-State a pass-centric offense.

    The Wildcats ranked No. 108 nationally in rushing yards in 2011 but made up for it by grabbing the No. 29 slot in passing yards and this in turn netted them the No. 34 ranking in scoring offense.

    And where did Klein fit into all of this?

    Well, the dude rushed for 1,141 yards and 27 TDs on 317 attempts making him the No. 35 rusher in the nation and the No. 3 rushing QB (behind NIU’s Chandler Harnish and Michigan’s Denard Robinson).

    In terms of rushing TDs Klein was tied for No. 2 nationally with RB Bernard Pierce from Temple and second only to Wisconsin’s RB Montee Ball who scored 33 times on the ground.

    Now Klein is a dark-horse Heisman candidate for 2012 and K-State (with 18 returning starters) is a shoe-in for a good spot in the preseason Top 25.

    Collin Klein’s senior season will have to be phenomenal to top what he did as a junior which means he’s going to live under a much bigger magnifying glass than he did in 2011.


Matt Barkley, USC

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    This just in…USC’s QB Matt Barkley is returning for his senior season in the land of a freshly unsanctioned, unbanned Troy.

    Yes, Matt Barkley and a whopping 16 other Trojan starters from 2011 will be back on campus in 2012 and the expectations will be through the roof, out the wazoo and over the moon.

    USC will be expected to conquer the Pac-12 South, win the conference crown and then be in position to possibly return to the national championship game for the first time since losing to Texas in 2005-06.

    And, oh yeah, Matt Barkley will expected to win the Heisman, or, at the very least, be sitting in NYC in December when the bronze statuette once again takes center stage.

    Matt Barkley may be the player under the most scrutiny of any single athlete going into 2012.

    It’s also important to note that Barkley’s hype is more than a smoke and mirrors campaign conjured up by some overzealous media types in the SID’s office…this guy has got some stats to back it up.

    USC went 10-2 in 2011 and Barkley’s passer rating of 161.2 (308/446, 69.1 completion percentage, 3,528 yards, 39 TDs and only seven picks) was No. 8 nationally behind guys like Robert Griffin III, Case Keenum, Russell Wilson, Kellen Moore and Andrew Luck.




Montee Ball, Wisconsin

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    Wisconsin’s RB Montee Ball led the nation in rushing in 2011 with 1,923 yards and 33 TDs on 307 carries.

    Ball’s performance was instrumental in the Badgers No. 11 ranking nationally in rushing yards (they were only No. 61 in passing yards) and No. 6 ranking in scoring which all added up to a Big Ten title and an 11-3 record.

    Montee Ball’s decision to return to campus for his senior season differs from that of USC’s Matt Barkley, because where Barkley will return to a stacked house, Ball will come home to a relatively empty cupboard.

    Yes, Wisconsin will return a mere 10 starters from their Rose Bowl team giving them the No. 116 spot nationally in returners, and place No. 10 among Big Ten members.

    And this is precisely why the heat will be turned up on Ball…he is the “go-to-guy” (and one of the few such players left) without the full support of the cast of characters he had in the past.

    It’s hard to believe that Wisconsin will have the kind of year in 2012 that they did in 2011 and that’s not because they will be bad team, they will be a young team.

    Less wins equals diminished Heisman aspirations and this may make Ball look less dominant than he was and is, and losing (as a team) may be perceived as a dip in individual performance on his part that is wholly inaccurate.

Gunner Kiel, Notre Dame

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    I hate it when people start yipping about young athletes before they’ve even taken a snap at the collegiate level, but Gunner Kiel’s story just begs you to go there.

    The 6’3”, 215 pound, four-star QB product of Columbus, IN first opted for Indiana, then switched to LSU and then reversed to Notre Dame which incurred the wrath of Les Miles.

    And all this just makes his four-stars shine more brightly and at the same time, it makes you want to know if they really belong on his promising chest.

    These perceptions and expectations are further ramped up by the fact that he’ll be vying for the starting QB spot at Notre Dame, which seems to get the lion’s share of the national media’s attention year in and year out.

    With guys like Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson in the running for the role of on-field leader of the extra shiny golden helmets, it’s likely that Kiel won’t start in 2012.

    But that said, whenever this kid takes a snap, whether it be in practice or in a game, look for the world to be watching and the scrutiny dial to be turned up to its maximum allowable setting.



Aaron Murray, Georgia

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    It’s hard to believe that Georgia QB Aaron Murray will only be a junior in 2012 because frankly it seems like this guy has been around for an eternity.

    But Murray’s junior season could be as golden as any in the long history of Bulldog football, with all the stars finally aligning for a blockbuster and potentially championship laced campaign.

    First you’ve got 15 returning starters to a team that won 10 games last season. And even more significantly, a defense that ranked No. 23 in scoring and No. 11 and No. 10 against the run and pass, respectively, brings back nine starters.

    Then you’ve got a schedule that by SEC standards is relatively “easy”…non-conference games are against Buffalo, FAU and Georgia Tech (which is in Athens), Florida and Tennessee are both home games and western foes LSU and Alabama are completely off the docket.

    Yes, if Murray can lead the Bulldogs down what seems to be a custom laid path it could mean the first SEC crown since 2005, the first BCS appearance since 2008 and the first national championship since 1980.

    And for Murray (who ranked No. 27 nationally in terms of passer rating last season) it could mean a shot at Georgia’s first Heisman since Herschel Walker won it in 1982.

    No pressure here….right?

Eddie Lacy, Alabama

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    Eddie Lacy is a 6’1”, 220 pound, incoming junior RB from Geismar, LA who is the heir apparent to the Alabama rushing throne.

    Yes, Lacy has the unenviable position of following in the footsteps of Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson at championship hungry (and well fed) Alabama.

    What makes Lacy’s role in 2012 tricky is the fact that he’ll be the guy that will lead the rushing attack that will need to be prolific enough to cover for the fact that the Tide’s magnificent defense from 2011 only returns a mere four starters in 2012.

    Add in the fact the Alabama was a running team last season (try a No. 16 ranking in rushing yards vs. a No. 69 ranking in passing yards) and Lacy’s expectations rise even further up the scale.

    Lacy rushed for 674 yards and seven TDs on 95 carries in 2011, and he’ll no doubt be the workhorse in 2012.

    Lacy won’t experience the pressure cooker stylings of some of the other guys on this list, but the fact of the matter is that Alabama will be expected to field a great team again in 2012 (regardless of whether or not they’ll win anymore rings) and that means skill players will be under the gun.


Zach Mettenberger, LSU

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    With Gunner Kiel going Irish, the role of the next QB at LSU has fallen squarely on the shoulders of Zach Mettenberger of Watkinsville, GA.

    Mettenberger has seen game action only once as a Tiger when in 2011 he went 8/11 for 92 yards and one TD during a brief stint in LSU’s Week 2 game against FCS Northwestern State.

    Mettenberger was originally recruited by Georgia as a four-star member of the class of 2009, but after a run in with the law resulting in an arrest and a season at Butler Community College in Kansas he didn’t make it back to the FBS until LSU came calling late in 2010.

    The good news for Mettenberger is that LSU is not a pass-centric team (they were No. 22 nationally in rushing yards in 2011 and No. 106 in passing yards) which means he won’t be expected to produce big numbers.

    But, LSU is expected to contend for a national title in 2012 and this means running down a slate of opponents that reads off like a murderer’s row…at Arkansas, at Auburn, at Florida, at Texas A&M, Alabama, Mississippi State, etc.

    Mettenberger may be given the role of “don’t screw it up” but that has to be put in perspective of “don’t screw it up because we’re trying to win the whole ball of wax.”

    And that sir, equals perfection which brings with it a huge dose of scrutiny.

Landry Jones, Oklahoma

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    After losing their stranglehold on the No. 1 spot in the polls in 2011, Oklahoma settled for a 10-3 finish and a bid to the Insight Bowl.

    Yes, national championship dreams became fantasies pushed off to the distance of the all important (and ultimately disenchanting) “next year.”

    For 2012 the Sooners return a whopping 17 starters from last season, which means that they are likely to be a member of virtually every preseason Top 10 and will no doubt be predicted to be the cream of the new look Big 12 crop.

    It was a bit of a surprise that Landry Jones returned to Norman for his senior season in 2012, but along with that decision comes the pressure to perform at a high enough level to elevate the Sooners, at minimum, to a return to the BCS.

    Jones seemed as if he lost some zip after prolific receiver Ryan Broyles went out for good in the Texas A&M game and he’ll have to step things up to run the tables.

    Working in Jones’ favor is the fact that the 2011 Sooners didn’t inspire a bunch of confidence (especially defensively) so they won’t live with the pressure they did coming into last season as the No. 1, and with no early season non-conference blockbuster games (they play UTEP and FCS Florida A&M in the first two weeks) they could easily fly under the radar for a while.

    But all eyes, and pressure, will be back on Jones and his Sooners on Oct. 27 when they square off with Notre Dame in Norman for what should be one of the most anticipated matchups of the year.

    Regardless of how you slice it, Landry Jones will have to be the man to get Oklahoma where they want to go.

    And that means if he does, he’ll be sitting pretty in NYC come Heisman Saturday, and if he doesn’t he’ll likely take a hit in the draft stock ratings.

David Ash/Case McCoy, Texas

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    Whomever assumes (or is awarded) the reins of the Longhorns offense in 2012 will be under the same amount of relentless pressure that all the guys who have come before them have suffered/enjoyed.

    What’s unique about the upcoming season in terms of Texas’ QB position is multi-faceted.

    First, you’ve got a fanbase and group of wealthy boosters who will expect the next logical step from 5-7 to 8-5 to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-3 or 11-2.

    Yes, when you’ve got a team built on what amounts to four Top 5 rated recruiting classes (per Rivals.com the 2009 class was No. 5, the 2010 class was No. 3, the 2011 class was also No. 3 and the 2012 class was No. 2) people expect nothing short of championships.

    And this pressure, especially at Texas, falls squarely on the shoulders of the QB.

    Secondly, you’ve got the fact that last season Mack Brown opted to conduct the offense with a dual QB approach, which considerably ramped up the burden on both David Ash and Case McCoy as neither of their efforts were ever validated.

    If Brown selects a similar option in 2012, there will again be more pressure on whoever the two candidates for the actual singular starting job under center are.

    David Ash, who saw full or partial action in all but one game, went 99/174 for 1,079 yards, four TDs and eight picks netting him a QB rating of 107.4.

    Case McCoy, who saw full or partial action in all but two games, went 88/144 for 1,034 yards, seven TDs and four INTs netting him a QB rating of 131.9.

    Regardless of whom gets handed the rock in Austin, that individual will be expected to lead a stacked Texas team to the next level and in Longhorn linguistics that’s the Big 12 title and a spot in the BCS.

    Nothing less will satisfy.

Tajh Boyd, Clemson

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    Clemson’s expectations and associated pressures are not as clear cut as those of say LSU, Oklahoma, USC or Alabama, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t be real to whoever gets saddled with them.

    Tajh Boyd went 298/499 for 3,828 yards, 33 TDs and 12 picks in 2011 netting him a passer rating of 141.2 and leading the Tigers to a 10-4 finish that included an ACC crown.

    And that all happened while he was a sophomore.

    Heading into 2012 Clemson, who wasn’t on the radar coming in to 2011, will be expected to play well again and, though they’ll likely be more like a No. 18 preseason rank than a Top Ten team, they will be expected to be in the divisional and conference title mix.

    This means that the pressure on Boyd to win a national crown won’t necessarily be there, but if Clemson starts to drop off from last year’s results then the blame and strain game will be in full effect with the QB being a major target.

    The Tigers return a mere 14 starters in 2012 giving them the No. 64 rank nationally and the No. 8 spot in ACC in terms of returners.

    This is a team that isn’t likely to shock people with either an 8-5 finish or a 10-3 campaign but Tajh Boyd and friends will definitely, without a doubt, be living under more pressure than they did in 2011.




Devonta Freeman, Florida State

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    Though you might expect to see QB E.J. Manuel’s name here to represent an individual’s share of the scrutiny Florida State will be under in 2012, we’ve opted for Freeman for less obvious, yet critical reasons.

    Florida State’s biggest struggle last season was trying to establish an effective running game, a deficiency that earned them the No. 104 rank in the nation in rushing yards.

    Yes, if the Seminoles could have run the ball in 2011 they may well have fulfilled some of the promise they showed coming into season.

    For 2012 Florida State returns the correct mix of starters, is stacked with the kind of high caliber talent and plays the type of schedule that makes the Seminoles look like a Top Ten team.

    But if they still can’t run the ball, all bets are off.

    The ‘Noles leading rusher in 2011 was freshman Devonta Freeman who gained 579 yards and scored eight TDs on 120 attempts.

    Though it’s impossible to argue that Freeman will be asked to single handily save Seminole football (and therefore live under the associated strain) it’s safe to say a prolific rusher needs to rise up and be counted on (in yards gained preferably).


Geno Smith, West Virginia

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    Though there is nothing quite like closing a season out with a huge bang it also sets up huge expectations coming into the next year.

    Yes, West Virginia’s 70-33 triumph over Clemson in the Orange Bowl makes Geno Smith and the Mountaineers seem to simply ooze with dominance, but the flip side is now they’ll be expected to do so on a weekly basis in 2012.

    In the Big 12…against Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas Tech, Kansas State, etc.

    Geno Smith went 346/526 (that’s a 65.8 completion rate) for 4,385 yards, 31 TDs and only seven picks in 2011 (the passer rating of 152.6 was No. 18 nationally) and as he matures into Dana Holgorsen’s system in his senior year he and the Mountaineers could explode off the charts.

    Yes, they could be good but they’ll be playing in a different league with more difficult opponents and they’ll still be expected to win a bunch of games.

    Terms like “Heisman candidate” will put the pressure on Smith and company, and there is no doubt that the magnifying glass will focus in further to see what they can do together in 2012.


Tyrann Mathieu, LSU

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    Tyrann Mathieu’s honey badger impersonation was so effective in 2011 that he punched his ticket to a front row seat at the Heisman ceremony, which is even more impressive when you throw in the fact that the guy was a sophomore and a cornerback.

    Yes, Mathieu was mesmerizing last season and was one of the huge spark igniters that fired LSU to a 13-0 record through the SEC title game.

    But, can the Badger repeat his stripping, streaking and scary performance as a junior and get what he wants when he wants it?

    Coming in fifth in the Heisman voting as a sophomore means you are going to be expected to be even better as a junior (and a senior if Senor Miles can convince you to stay) and that means pressure.

    Throw in a good dose of “national championship contender” on to the top of an already stress ridden heap and you’ve got a scrutiny cocktail.

    The good news for the Honey Badger is that he seems like just the type of guy who can perform well under the media microscope.

    I hope he does because somebody needs to be the first primarily defensive player to win the Heisman since Charles Woodson from Michigan did so in 1997.