College Football: The 1 Question Each Top 25 Team Currently Can't Answer

David LutherFeatured ColumnistApril 12, 2012

College Football: The 1 Question Each Top 25 Team Currently Can't Answer

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    It may only be April, but college football coaches around the nation should have a good handle on where their team measures up for 2012.

    Unfortunately, there are some important questions that remain unanswered for the top teams, and time is running short to find answers.

    So where does each team stand currently? What is left to solve between now and late August?

Notre Dame

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    We'll start with Notre Dame, because, well, it's Notre Dame.

    Regardless of how well the Irish do in any previous season, they manage to find their way into pretty much any Top 25 poll come the start of the next season.

    But Notre Dame may actually deserve some preseason love this year as Brian Kelly enters his third season in South Bend.

    Still, with the perennial hope and all the things Notre Dame has going its way, there's still the nagging question about the quarterback position.

    Perhaps the lone position with the most scrutiny is college football today is quarterback for the Fighting Irish. Last season, Tommy Rees stepped in somewhat unexpectedly early in the season, and had his ups and downs. Now, he has Andrew Hendrix nipping at his heels, and it's anyone's guess what Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin will do.

Florida

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    A few short years ago, it was almost inconceivable that Florida would become a middle-of-the-road SEC team.

    But with a 3-5 conference mark in 2011, that's exactly what the Gators have become.

    If Florida wants to dig itself out of the SEC hole it's in, offensive efficiency must improve.

    The Gators ranked 105th in the FBS last season in terms of total offense (328.7 ypg), and 113th in turnover margin (-0.92).

    Turning things around won't be an easy task for Will Muschamp, as he'll need to find a new quarterback, a new primary running back and a small handful of new receivers.

    Will Florida's decidedly young offense be able to improve upon last season's woeful output?

Auburn

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    Last season, the Tigers went through that always painful task of rebuilding.

    Surprisingly, it was Auburn's defense that was particularly terrible, as the Tigers finished 2011 as the 80th-best defensive team in the nation (408.0 yards given up per game).

    Auburn's young defense not only gave up quite a few yards, but the Tigers seemed almost incapable of defending the run (94th) or coming away with interceptions (just 11 all season).

    The good news is that Gene Chizik will welcome back 10 starters from last season. The bad news is that Gene Chizik will welcome back 10 starters from last season.

    Will the defense grow enough in the offseason to return Auburn to relevance in the SEC-West?

Nebraska

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    Now that Nebraska has made it through its first Big Ten season, there shouldn't be any surprises left.

    The Cornhuskers now know what it takes to win a conference championship in the Big Ten, and last year's performance clearly isn't it.

    A key to any chance Nebraska will have moving forward is the play of junior quarterback Taylor Martinez. Over his first two seasons in Lincoln, Martinez has had some very inconsistent play. But he still holds the Huskers' fortunes in his hands.

    The problem is, he's not that great with the ball in his hands—at least when he's trying to throw it.

    The big question heading into the summer will be whether or not Bo Pelini still believes in Martinez's passing ability or will Pelini instead opt for—something that's not necessarily a bad thing in the Big Ten—a run-oriented offense?

Texas

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    The Longhorns began the long road back from their 2010 losing season by finishing 8-5 in 2011.

    Still a long way off from what Texas fans are used to, the Longhorns are hoping to take another leap forward in the new-look Big 12 in 2012.

    With nine returning offensive starters, the task will shift from gaining experience to utilizing that experience and winning more football games.

    The biggest roadblock to Texas's return has been and remains the shaky play at quarterback. Both David Ash and Case McCoy will battle it out for the starting spot in 2012, and hopefully Mack Brown will be able to settle on just one starter this season.

    Which one will Brown pick and will that quarterback be able to perform to the lofty expectations in Austin are the real questions swirling around the Texas program this offseason.

Virginia Tech

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    Offense, offense, offense.

    Sure, defense wins championships, but offense wins games. Virginia Tech was unable to move the ball effectively last season against the likes of Michigan and Clemson, and the job won't be getting any easier in 2012.

    Virginia Tech will have just three returning full-time starters from last season's offensive unit.

    Starting quarterback Logan Thomas is one of those three, and he'll need to break in his receiving corps quickly if the Hokies have any hope of repeating as ACC Coastal Division champions.

    We all know Beamerball is an important part of any VA Tech team, but the open question for 2012 remains how much will the Hokies need to rely on Beamerball to win games.

Kansas State

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    Kansas State was one of the feel-good stories of 2011. Legendary head coach Bill Snyder rebuilt the program—again—and the Wildcats earned a well deserved trip to the Cotton Bowl Classic at season's end.

    With a combined 14 starters returning from last season's 10-3 squad, will Bill Snyder be able to sustain that success, or was K-State a flash in the pan?

    The offense, which is a major factor to any Big 12 team's success, returns almost entirely intact; wide receiver Sheldon Smith is the only skill position loss from last season.

    With the added experience, will Kansas State be able to hang with the big boys in terms of offensive production in 2012?

Boise State

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    Everyone should be able to figure out the big question facing Boise State without any help from us.

    How do you overcome the loss of a player like Kellen Moore?

    Moore left Boise as the winningest starting quarterback in the history of the FBS, and his impact on the success of Boise State football over the past four years cannot be understated.

    His likely replacement, Joe Southwick, shows every sign of being a capable signal-caller, and there's not a lot of doubt that he'll be able to do a serviceable job.

    But serviceable probably won't cut it at Boise State, and the Broncos are facing an uncertain future.

    Will Chris Petersen be able to cobble together another BCS run for Boise State given all of the talent that is leaving town? Boise State has just five returning offensive starters, and it's going to be interesting to see how the Broncos change and adapt for their season opener at Michigan State.

Michigan State

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    Speaking of the Spartans, head coach Mark Dantonio has his work cut out for him.

    As we move towards 2012, it's apparent that Michigan State will sorely miss the leadership provided by Kirk Cousins.

    In addition, MSU is losing the services of Edwin Baker, BJ Cunningham, Keith Nichol, Keshawn Martin, Brian Linthicum, Garrett Celek, and Joel Foreman—and that's just on offense.

    Dantonio has spent years building Michigan State into a program that can compete annual for a Big Ten title. How much of that hard work will remain once the season begins in September?

    Will Michigan State be able to repeat its 11-3 Legends Division title performance from a year ago? Will the Spartans be able to keep their win streak alive against a resurgent Michigan?

    Dantonio is undoubtedly a hard worker and one of the most dedicated Spartans anywhere. But as Michigan State stares down the prospect of a rebuilding year, all of these questions remain unanswered.

Texas Christian

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    A few weeks ago, the biggest question facing TCU was how it would fare in a new, BCS-AQ conference while dealing with some pretty significant losses on offense.

    Now, the possible answers to any questions are made more complicated by the evolving drug scandal that surrounds the team.

    Gary Patterson is placed in a very difficult position. He must now ready a Horned Frogs team for a new, much tougher conference schedule while simultaneously attempting to fend off the inevitable distraction caused by the off-field issues.

    Will his ability (or inability) to do so affect the Frogs' performance come September?

Wisconsin

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    Like so many head coaches around the nation this year, Bret Bielema is desperately hoping for a serviceable replacement at the quarterback position.

    After last season's stellar performance from Russell Wilson, it's difficult to envision a third-straight Big Ten title for the Badgers without some sort of surprise performance turned in by whoever takes over for Wilson.

    Joe Brennan, a sophomore, is the like quarterback for 2012, and he only saw limited duty as a backup last season. Will he be able to take a quantum leap in ability this offseason to keep Wisconsin's Big Ten stock high?

Clemson

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    Clemson was a surprise last season, as the Tigers failed to appear on any major Top 25 poll to start 2011.

    But by the midway point of the season, people were talking about a possible BCS title run for Clemson. While that didn't materialize, the Tigers were still able to capture the ACC crown, earning a trip to the Orange Bowl in Miami.

    With the bulk of skill position players returning on both sides of the ball, Clemson will have every opportunity to build on last season's success. That leaves just one large, lingering question: Will Clemson be able to avoid what is becoming the perennial late-season letdown? Can Clemson find a away to sustain success throughout the entire season and avoid the championship-dashing losses in late October and November?

    If so, they'll need to do it with a new defensive coordinator and philosophy after getting absolutely rocked in the Orange Bowl by West Virginia.

Florida State

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    It looks as if the pollsters bought into the Florida State hype last fall.

    The lofty ranking for the Seminoles in the preseason make voters look silly by late October, and the Seminoles were never much of a threat to break into the BCS.

    While there are plenty of excuses—some, like injuries, legitimate—the proof is in the pudding, so to speak. Florida State finished 2011 with a disappointing 9-4 mark and fell well short of the early goal of a BCS run.

    The good news for Noles fans is the plethora of returning talent. Jimbo Fisher will have 18 combined starters back from last season. While the pollsters aren't likely to give Florida State another top-five preseason nod this August, a top-15 mark is certainly valid. Now, can Florida State shake off the specter of last season?

Oklahoma State

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    It's entirely possibly that Iowa State took away the Cowboys' one, best shot at winning a BCS National Championship anytime soon.

    Mike “I'm a Man” Gundy put together one heckuva team last season, and it seemed as if there wasn't a team on the planet that could stop the unstoppable Oklahoma State offense.

    Surprisingly, Iowa State was that one team, as the Cyclones were able to withstand the onslaught of the Oklahoma State attack and escape with a narrow, BCS National Championship Game-ruining victory.

    Now, Gundy is going to have to figure out a way to capture lightening in a bottle twice, this time with just five returning offensive starters.

    Sure, there are eight guys coming back from last season's defense, but has defense ever been the things that gets it done for Oklahoma State—or the rest of the Big 12 for that matter?

    Not only will the Cowboys be breaking in a new quarterback, the offensive line will be almost completely retooled from the ground up.

    Will new starting quarterback Clint Chelf be able to keep the good times rolling in Stillwater, or will the Cowboys need to find a way to win games without scoring 50 points each week?

Michigan

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    If you're a Michigan fan, you have to be almost giddy at the future prospects for the maize and blue.

    But as great as Michigan's turnaround was this past season (particularly on defense), there are still some issues at quarterback.

    Yes, Michigan fans will argue until they pass out that Denard Robinson is one of, if not the best quarterback in the nation right now. But they conveniently forget that his passing skills are outpaced by many high school sophomores.

    True, Robinson makes up for any lack of throwing ability with his eye-popping foot speed, so the real question for Michigan is what type of quarterback Robinson will be for Brady Hoke's 2012 squad.

    Will Hoke stick with the same old broken record, or will he find a way to utilize Robinson in such a way that keeps opposing secondaries honest and away from the line of scrimmage?

    If the Wolverines can find a way to keep the pressure near the line off of Robinson, Michigan will have a better-than-decent shot at the Big Ten title this season.

West Virginia

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    The question of will they or won't they has been answered. West Virginia will be in the Big 12 this season, and the Mountaineers couldn't be happier about it.

    Of course, that tune may change once the conference season actually starts.

    For now, West Virginia is working on shoring up some shortcomings that were made painfully obvious in the losses in 2011.

    Losing to LSU is one thing, but Syracuse? There's no explanation for losing the Syracuse that doesn't come off sounding a bit like, “my dog ate my homework.”

    There are plenty of good things going for the Mountaineers right now. Beyond the 15 returning starters from last season's Big East co-championship and Orange Bowl title-winning team, head coach Dana Holgorsen will be prowling his old haunts this season.

    And if there's one person who knows how to beat up on Big 12 defenses, it's Holgorsen.

    But will West Virginia be able to avoid that massive midseason letdown that completely derails any national championship talk?

    That bug seems to strike Morgantown more than its fair share, and there are plenty of nasty season-ending bugs buzzing around the Big 12.

South Carolina

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    In the end, it's probably a good thing that oft-suspended quarterback Stephen Garcia was booted from the team midway through last season. It gave Connor Shaw ample opportunity to hone his skills against some of the best competition the SEC has to offer.

    Now, heading into his junior year, Shaw has not only the experience, but the proven talent to lead South Carolina's offense.

    The biggest problem USC has had, though, has been protecting the quarterback. Last season, South Carolina ranked eighth in the SEC in sacks allowed with 30. If South Carolina hopes to challenge Georgia for the East Division title this season, that number needs to improve dramatically.

    Will the three returning O-linemen be able to provide enough experience and leadership to give Shaw enough protection this season? The Gamecocks' conference championship hopes ride on it.

Arkansas

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    My, how one week can change the entire outlook for a program.

    How many bad things can be uncovered by one little motorcycle accident?

    As it turns out, a lot.

    As if wrecking your motorcycle wasn't bad enough, it turns out Petrino had a 25-year-old woman aboard.

    It turns out he neglected to tell Arkansas officials about that.

    It turns out the woman was a football program employee.

    It turns out the woman was Petrino's mistress.

    It turns out the woman may have been hired because she was having an inappropriate relationship with Petrino.

    It turns out Petrino also gave the woman $20,000.

    And if all of this wasn't bad enough, it looks as if Petrino decided he was going to try (in vain) to keep this all on the down low.

    So instead of talking about SEC championship prospects or how the 2012 Razorbacks' offensive line is going to be a potential weakness, we're now going to address the only questions that matters; who will be the next Arkansas football coach, when will that decision be made, and how will it affect 2012?

    Stay tuned.

Georgia

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    At this time last year, everyone was talking about Mark Richt and the temperature of his backside.

    Now, after an SEC-East title, Georgia fans have paradoxically gone from wanting the guy fired to hoping he can win a conference championship.

    Make up your minds.

    With all of the good things going for Georgia, one has to wonder if the Bulldogs really have a legit shot at the SEC crown this season.

    The simple answer is, yes, they do.

    Junior quarterback Aaron Murray is on the cusp of possibly becoming the next great SEC quarterback. If he has the type of season many expect, we could be talking about a Georgia team ranked in the top two or three in the nation preparing for another trip to Atlanta in early December.

    But in order for that prognostication to come true, Richt will need to shore up his offensive line protecting Murray.

    Just two starting linemen from last season return; guards Kenarious Gates and Chris Burnette, both juniors.

    The other three positions are up for grabs, and are likely to be filled by underclassmen. How quickly will those underclassmen be able to adjust to their new starting roles in the conference with some of the nation's best defenses? Will they be able to give Murray enough time in the pocket to unleash his punishing arm?

Oklahoma

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    Last season's Oklahoma team should be a perfect example of why they play the game.

    When the season began, the consensus No. 1 team in the nation was touted as an unstoppable BCS National Championship favorite.

    By season's end, the Sooners were 6-3 in the Big 12, and had to settle for a disappointing Insight Bowl berth.

    But some of that letdown may have had a silver lining.

    Quarterback Landry Jones opted to return to Norman for his senior season, as did seven other offensive starters.

    But as great as Jones is, it's undeniable that he's failed to live up to the admittedly lofty expectations of the Oklahoma fan base. He looked shaky at times, and seemed to lose some focus as the season wore on. His knack for turning the ball over at the worst possible moment has definitely hurt the Sooners' chances, so the question now seems pretty obvious.

    Can Landry Jones rebound from last season, and live up to his potential in his final effort in an Oklahoma uniform?

Stanford

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    For the vast majority of Top-25 teams, it's fair to say that one player doesn't make or break a team.

    But when we're talking about Stanford, Andrew Luck clearly made a decent team into a very good one.

    Now, the Cardinals will need to move ahead without everyone's pick for the top NFL draft spot.

    Regardless of what happens at the quarterback position for Stanford (Brett Nottingham is the likely replacement with Robbie Picazo also a possibility), the Cardinal will also need to replace most of their receiving corps, too.

    So it's not just a quarterback question; it's an entire passing game question.

Oregon

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    Sure, Oregon has some losses that need to be replaced. But so does every other team.

    Based on past experience, we're not going to cast too much doubt on Chip Kelly's ability to reload his offense with a lot of speed and talent.

    Instead, we're going to direct our questioning towards the other side of the ball.

    Last season, the Ducks needed the near full-time services of a couple of freshmen in order to keep the secondary at least serviceable. Still, there were struggles, especially against quality offensive opponents, like USC and LSU.

    The biggest unanswered question for Oregon for 2012 has to be the defensive secondary. Will the three young returning starters have enough maturity in 2012 to help get the Ducks back to yet another BCS game?

LSU

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    LSU had an almost perfect season last year. In fact, if you take away the last game, it was about as close to complete domination as we get these days.

    Of course, that last game happened to be the BCS National Championship Game, and LSU was completely embarrassed by Alabama.

    Now, Les Miles has to go about the task of getting his team—and the team's fans—to forget about last season, as great as it was. With so much new blood coming in this season, it may be easier than many expect to simply move on.

    But with new starters comes growing pains. One of LSU's strengths last season was some fantastic play from the linebackers. For 2012, only Kevin Minter returns.

    Linebackers is also the only position group which lost more than half of its starters, and Stefoin Francois and his partner Ryan Baker aren't easily replaced.

    We all know how deep SEC defenses are, and LSU is hoping that Miles has a very deep roster at linebacker. But if there's even the smallest fall off, the Tigers could be in real trouble when defending their SEC title this season.

Alabama

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    Similarly, Alabama will need to find some quality linebacker replacements, and quickly.

    In addition to Courtney Shaw and Jerrell Harris, super stud Dont'a Hightower has opted to take his talents to the NFL this season.

    That means head coach Nick Saban will have to rely on a trio of sophomores in his 3-4 scheme.

    Like LSU, the defense at Alabama is loaded with talent all the way down the depth chart, so it's not like other teams will be running right through the 'Bama defense. But Upshaw and Hightower were the heart and soul of the Tide's defense last season, and were a big reason Alabama went on to win the BCS National Championship Game.

    Alabama will lose something on defense with the departed linebackers. The question is how much.

USC

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    The Trojans are back.

    Okay, so they never really went anywhere. But now, they're playing for keeps.

    USC was good enough last season, finishing 10-2 in their final postseason-less year. In addition to knocking off eventual Pac-12 champion Oregon and taking Fiesta Bowl selectee Stanford to the brink in triple overtime, the Trojans toyed with the rest of the Pac-12 like it had said something about their mothers.

    Now, USC will finally be able to compete for not only a conference title, but a bowl berth, too. And the way things are shaping up, it looks more and more likely that the bowl in question will be of the BCS variety.

    With so much talent returning—16 starters, including Matt Barkley—the only question is how good will the Trojans be this season?

    The only concern we see is an untried defensive line. But with some of the biggest offensive producers in the conference headed for the NFL this year, that may not be as big of an issue as it would have been in years past.

    If Matt Barkley stays healthy (because Lane Kiffin has absolutely no one to replace him), there may not be anyone who can stop USC in 2012.