We are a little over three months away from the kickoff of the 2012 college football campaign. Anticipation is quickly mounting for what promises to be another spectacular season, one sure to be filled with the pageantry and traditions that define this sport we all love and more drama than our underpants can probably sustain.
With my fervor harder to contain than most, I have decided to take a peek into the crystal ball (not the one that the LSU Tigers forgot they were playing for at the end of last season in the Superdome, but one like I was able to find a few blocks away at Reverend Zombie's House of Voodoo) and look ahead to what could be the biggest games on the season.
These 10 games project as the most important games of the year—games I feel will make the biggest impact on the landscape of college football in determining who plays where come the 2012-13 bowl season.
The separation of the contenders from the pretenders, the men from the boys and so on and so on.
The following are projected in accordance with importance rather than by date. Please take notice to and circle November 3 on your calendars, as it is most likely on this date that the two teams that will be vying for the BCS crown in Sun Life Stadium on January 7 will be determined.
Last season disappointingly ended with an 18-14 loss to a fellow underachieving Florida State team in the Champs Sports Bowl.
The good news here for Kelly is that the Golden Domers' standards must not be as high as they once were, evident in the additional two years they have provided him with making good on his proclamation.
The bad news...the Irish are going to have to put up more than just a lot fight to find greener pastures during this year's bowl season with a schedule that is chock full of powers, including dates with:
Michigan State on September 15 in East Lansing
Michigan on September 22 in South Bend
Oklahoma on October 27 in Norman
USC on November 24 in Los Angeles
A trip to the Emerald Isle to kick off the season with Navy in Dublin should provide the Irish with the greenest pastures they will see all season.
Hopefully the image lasts a long time, as El Paso, Texas, home of the Hyundai Sun Bowl, is where the Irish could be headed for the holidays if they fail to navigate successfully through these obstacles on the road to that national championship that was foolishly promised a few years. And although I have never been to El Paso, it does not sound all that green.
The Little Engine That Could is the perfect metaphor for the Boise State Broncos.
A college football program willing to reject the grandiosity and bright lights, opting instead to flourish in relative obscurity through optimism and hard work.
The Broncos' mantra, however, is not "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can" because they are well aware they can.
It goes a little something like this: “anyone, anytime, anywhere."
And it is this attitude that makes you want to root for the blue and orange-clad warriors that are often mistakenly referred to as mid-majors, or in general sports speak—underdogs. However, make no mistake about it, the Broncos can play and are rarely a dark horse (no pun intended).
Just ask Bob Stoops, Chip Kelly, Frank Beamer or Mark Right.
The question is: how will they play following the departure of their four-year starter at quarterback, Kellen Moore?
The Broncos must replace Moore, who holds the all-time record for wins by a starting quarterback in the NCAA Division I FBS. He finished his career with a 50-3 record and was also the first Bronco Heisman finalist, finishing fourth in 2010.
Also, the team must find a way to replace a handful of others who heard their names called recently in New York at the NFL's annual draft (two in the first round).
The Broncos will find out quickly, along with the rest of the country, as the Broncos travel to East Lansing, Michigan to take on the Spartans.
Michigan State needs to replace a a very successful quarterback of it's own, Kirk Cousins. Cousins, recently selected in the fourth round by the Washington Redskins, was a three-year team captain and signal caller.
This should be an interesting one to kick off the season.
Sometimes you have to be careful what you ask for.
The Aggies' 2012 move to the SEC has cost them their historically bitter rivalry with Texas, whose position will be most likely filled by the LSU Tigers. The Tigers and the Aggies have played each other 50 times in a long history dating back to 1942 before concluding in 1995. Given this history and their proximity, this could become just as acrimonious.
Kevin Sumlin, a bright offensive-minded head coach, and his pass-oriented offense are also somewhat new to the fans in College Station. Sumlin went 36-17 at Houston, including 13-1 last season with Case Keenum, who became the NCAA's career leader in passing yardage, touchdowns and completions under Sumlin's tutelage.
The Aggies will have to replace quarterback Ryan Tannehill (eighth overall selection in the recent NFL draft), which may be a tall order for Sumlin. The finalists for the position will most likely be redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel and sophomore Jameill Showers. The key here for either selection will to keep the turnovers at a minimum with the Tigers defense charging at you from all angles.
The Tigers should very well be heading into this midseason matchup at Kyle Field undefeated and the number one-ranked team in the country. And the Aggies, along with their 12th man, would love for nothing more than to seek a little revenge from the thumping LSU handed them a few seasons ago in the Cotton Bowl 41-24 and to introduce themselves to the SEC "Big Texas Style."
Could this be the year for Jimbo Fisher and the Seminoles?
We have all seen the appaloosa named Renegade dart out onto the field with Chief Osceola aboard, spear in tow and we have taken notice that he is not a dark horse by any stretch of the imagination.
Neither are the Seminoles.
The 'Noles return 15 starters from a very talented, yet underachieving 2011 team that ended the season on somewhat of a high note, defeating Notre Dame in the Champs Sports Bowl 18-14 and capping off their disappointing 9-4 season. This was a season in which many on a national level had considered them a dark horse for a spot in the National Championship game.
A healthy EJ Manual returns at quarterback, as do defensive stars Brandon Jenkins and Greg Reid, who passed up hefty paychecks from the NFL to make a run at a National Championship. Jenkins, who is highly regarded as one on the best defensive ends in college football, anchors a defensive unit that finished last season ranked fourth nationally.
Clemson and their young, brash head coach Dabo Swinney caught a glimpse of reality last season, and in embarrassing fashion, as the Tigers were tamed by the West Virginia Mountaineers in the Orange Bowl, 70-33.
Similar to a hurricane that hits in south Florida and travels up the coast to South Carolina, leaving a trail of debris in its path, this particular storm that hit Sun Life Stadium left doubt. And not just from Florida to South Carolina.
Swinney will use the drubbing as a motivational tool on his Tigers to try to erase the doubt that many of the fans and sportswriters have on a national level regarding Clemson football.
The Tigers return quarterback Tajh Boyd and the sensational Sammy Watkins, which should go a long way in proving the legitimacy of the Tigers on a national level.
The winner of this one has the inside track to an ACC title, Orange Bowl bid and quite possibly more.
Title this one: "The Renewal of a Rivalry."
These two midwestern powers have been playing this game since 1897. It was ranked by ESPN in 2000 as the greatest North American sports rivalry, but you have to admit the last 10 years or so have not been all that heated. Ohio State has dominated the Wolverines, winning seven games in a row at one point, and going 8-2 over this span.
Enter Brady Hoke and Urban Meyer.
Both coaches have been hired recently by their respective schools to restore national prominence, and in the case of Meyer, image as well.
Although this will be officially be their first meeting in this rivalry, the coaches are both very familiar with each other and the importance of this game.
Hoke, who was raised in Ohio, was an assistant in Ann Arbor from 1995-2002 prior to returning as the Wolverines' head coach in 2011. In his inaugural campaign, he guided the Wolverines to their lone win over the Buckeyes in the last eight seasons with a 40-34 victory last season.
Meyer also hails from the state of Ohio and started his collegiate coaching career at Ohio State back in 1986, coaching tight ends for then head coach Earle Bruce.
So both are very familiar with "The Game," as it referred to by many in the midwest.
And this game should be a good one.
The Buckeyes are not permitted to play in the post season this year, but that should not deter them one bit.
The Bucks return quarterback Braxton Miller who fits perfectly into Meyer's spread offense. Throw in one of the top recruiting classes in the country, and with time to blossom they should be ready come late November.
Unlike the Buckeyes, the Wolverines have a lot more at stake here than just pride. A Legends Divisional crown and a spot in the Big Ten Championship game would most likely be clinched here with a victory. This is something that eluded them last season.
1. Lit. to leave one's position on a ship and fail to be aboard it when it sails.
Well, that ship would be the Big East.
But sailing it is not. Sinking more like it.
The West Virginia Mountaineers, fresh off a thumping of ACC champion Clemson in the Orange Bowl 70-33, bolted from the fledgling Big East Conference and joined the Big 12.
With that move, soon they will realize that the waters in the Big 12 are a little rougher.
The Sooners hit a little rough water of their own last year as they were unfortunately on the wrong end of a Texas-style butt whuppin' in Bedlam 44-10 and finished the season 10–3, after having been the number one ranked team in the country to start the season.
Landry Jones returns at quarterback to try and right the Sooner ship, receiving help from his mates, Jaz Reynolds and Kenny Stills.
Returning signal caller Geno Smith will guide the West Virginia Mountaineers into the uncharted territory of the Big 12 and should be a very capable captain. But this date with Oklahoma looms large.
Full speed ahead!
If this game is anything close to what was witnessed in Sanford Stadium last September, then we surely are in for a real treat as college football fans.
In an SEC opener last season in which there were seven lead changes and a game-winning field goal, the South Carolina Gamecocks defeated the Georgia Bulldogs 45-42. It would be the only conference blemish on the Dawgs record until they lost to SEC West champion LSU in Atlanta 42-10.
The Dawgs return the much-ballyhooed quarterback Aaron Murray and stud running back Isaiah Crowell, as well as All-American candidate, linebacker Jarvis Jones on the defensive side.
Led by The Ol' Ball Coach, the 2011 Gamecocks went on and had an excellent season as well, accumulating more wins than any other Gamecock football team and finishing in the Top 10 for the first time in program history. Carolina posted an 11-2 overall record, going 6-2 in the SEC.
The Cocks will counter with Connor Shaw and Marcus Lattimore, along with another great recruiting class by Spurrier.
The winner here, unlike last season, should get to Atlanta to represent the SEC East and could have the opportunity to blur the National Championship picture again after failing last season.
What does Brady Hoke do for an encore?
We will find out extremely early as the Wolverines take on the defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide at Jerry World to kick off the 2012 college football season.
The Maize and Blue were splendidly surprising last season, winning 11 games, including a long-awaited victory over Ohio State, and putting the finishing touches on a great season with a defeat of the Virginia Tech Hokies in the Sugar Bowl.
The Wolverines return 14 starters from last season (seven on both sides of the ball), including uber quarterback Denard Robinson (a Heisman candidate) and running back Fitz Toussaint. Also returning is the majority of a defensive unit that allowed their opponents just 17.4 points per contest (sixth nationally), which was a dramatic improvement from the previous season.
Alabama is coming off a 12-1 season in which they defeated the LSU Tigers in the BCS title game in New Orleans in dominating fashion 21-0. They are reloaded once again to make a another run at a BCS title.
The Tide also return seven starters on offense, including the BCS Offensive Player of the Game, quarterback AJ McCarron. On the other side the the ball, however, the Tide return just two starters from one of the greatest defensive units ever assembled at the college level and will not be allotted too much time to gel before kicking off this showdown.
Jerry Jones has been criticized for many things, but the man sure knows how to put together a great college football game.
Matt Barkley passed on millions of dollars and an NFL lifestyle to return to the campus of the University of Southern California and remain a student athlete (albeit a very privileged one) because, as he stated at his press conference following last season, he has unfinished business to attend to.
Barkley, who guided the men of Troy to a 10-2 record last season, believes the 2012 Trojans could be better this time around, which motivated his decision to return. The fact that he should be the Heisman front-runner also probably weighed a little on the decision.
He will be joined in this business venture by future star receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, along with running back Curtis McNeal, who will once again try to eclipse the 1,000-yard rushing mark.
The Trojans, on NCAA probation and seemingly with nothing to play for, won seven out of their last eight games, losing only to Stanford and Andrew Luck in three overtimes. An argument could have surely been made that the Trojans were one of the top two or three teams in the country at the end of the season.
They may have had their feathers ruffled a bit with the unexpected departure of quarterback Darron Thomas, who opted for the NFL draft (and went undrafted), but the Ducks should recover quite nicely.
The Ducks do return Kenjon Barner and the exciting De’Anthony Thomas. Coach Chip Kelly has done such tremendous job since taking over in Eugene that I have no doubt that they will be ready to go for this big showdown at the Coliseum.
Glancing into that crystal ball that I found in a dark corner of the French Quarter, the voodooienne and I did see the winner of this big game playing for another type of crystal ball in Sun Life Stadium in the future.
What will the moniker for this one be?
We have seen the Game of the Century, and although it was a great game (if you like that kind of football), it was mistake-filled and considered a dud in the eyes of some. Nonetheless, it was a far cry from the title that had been bestowed upon it with LSU winning in overtime 9-6 in Tuscaloosa.
We have also seen what was billed simply as The Rematch, and it was surely not a rerun... at least the aforementioned was watchable. The Tide dominated the Tigers in every aspect of the game (including the coin toss), spoiling the Tigers' perfect season in route to a convincing 21-0 National Championship victory in the Bayou Bengals' backyard.
In early November, these two powers meet again for what most likely will be another hard fought instant classic, earning the victor a layover stop in Atlanta for the SEC Championship game and subsequently a trip to Miami Gardens for the BCS Championship.
It may be hard to fathom, but these Tigers could be better than last season's team that steamrolled into the Superdome with a perfect record only to have its wheels fall off.
The highly regarded Zack Mettenberger takes over at quarterback and how he will perform is anybody's guess. He remains the only question mark the Tigers' 2012 version has because this team is loaded.
So the possibility exists that the only question regarding the Tigers could quite possibly transform into the biggest blessing cast upon offensive huddles in Baton Rouge in a while.
If that makes any sense.
The Tigers have seriously struggled at that position since the 2007 season under Matt Flynn and have not had a passer like Mettenberger on the roster since the days of Jamarcus Russell.
Insert Jamarcus Russell joke here.
So, if Mettenberger is the unknown, here is what we know:
The Bayou Bengals return nearly everyone from a national runner-up save for a few. Heisman finalist Tyrann Mathieu, along with exciting sophomore playmaker Odell Beckham are back. As is, get this—their top four leading rushers.
These Cats will wear you down.
With a November date, Alabama, having lost several key pieces to arguably one of the best collegiate defenses ever assembled will have plenty of time to gel and mature into another elite unit under Nick Saban. And with the meticulous preparation that Saban preaches, this Tide team will be ready to roll.
There is no need to wait until Bowl Selection Sunday following this annual SEC divisional showdown. The winner will represent the SEC in the BCS National Championship game at Sun Life Stadium on January 7.
The loser will not be as fortunate this time around.
Joe Rogers is a college football writer and a member of NSSA (National Sportscasters & Sportswriters Association). He also operates the website The College Football Bowl Report.