Predicting College Football's 2012 Leaders in Every Statistical Category

David Luther@@davidrlutherFeatured ColumnistMay 10, 2012

Predicting College Football's 2012 Leaders in Every Statistical Category

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    There's more to football than X's and O's, rushing yards, passer ratings and sacks.

    But when you put all of the statistical categories together at the end of the season, you can usually get a pretty good idea of where each team stands. We rarely find teams with top performers finish near the bottom of the conference, and BCS title contenders usually fare pretty well in the numbers game.

    There's a lot of talent returning for 2012, and we're going to take a crack at predicting who will end up at the top of the various statistical categories come the end of the season.

    Will these greats be able to propel their respective teams to victory this season?

Tackles

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    We'll get started with the defense.

    It was a junior that led the nation in stops last season, as Boston College's Luke Kuechly put a hit on 191 different plays last season—32 more tackles than Tulsa's Cornelius Arnick, who finished in the No. 2 spot.

    Without much prospect for the Eagles to make any sort of run in the ACC in 2012, Kuechly is probably wisely taking his undeniable skills to the NFL in 2012.

    That leaves quite a window of opportunity for other players to take over the top tackling spot this season, and it's looking like Wisconsin's senior linebacker Mike Taylor has an excellent chance.

    Taylor had 150 tackles in 2011, which included 60 solo stops.

    If he improves just slightly on his 10.7 tackles per game, we could see some amazing tackling from this tenacious Badger in 2012.

Sacks

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    There are few things defensive fans love more than a good sack.

    Illinois' Whitney Mercilus led the way last season with 16—one of just four FBS players to average over one sack per game.

    Unfortunately for the Illini, Mercilus was the only Illinois player to opt for an early entrance to the pro ranks. He won't be returning for Illinois in 2012.

    But another player who averaged over one sack per game last season, Connecticut senior Trevardo Williams, will be back for 2012, and with an arguably weakened Big East this season, it's safe to expect Williams to improve upon last season's one-man backfield wrecking ability.

Tackles for Loss

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    Novice football fans might think that sacks and tackles for loss go hand in hand, and being great in one category automatically means you'll be great in the other.

    The truth is, that's rarely the case.

    The top “TFL-ers” in college football are often those linebackers—and sometimes even corners—that can react quicker than everyone else on the field.

    From responding to a quarterback rollout, reading an option or sniffing out the run, the top defensive players in this category have a special skill set that usually means we find them in the offensive backfield as often as not.

    That skill set is also one that typically takes a few years to develop, and it can be very difficult to predict who will emerge as a tackle-for-loss leader in any upcoming season.

    But when there is a youngster near the top of the list who plans on returning, you can bet he's going to get a good deal of attention.

    Georgia junior Jarvis Jones was so good as a linebacker in his sophomore season in 2011, you can bet his name is highlighted on every offensive line coach and offensive coordinator's lineup in the SEC. Last season, Jones had an impressive 19.5 TFLs, ranking him tied for eighth in the FBS.

    He's also one of the nation's top returning tacklers, and will be expected to play a major role for the improving Bulldogs.

Interceptions

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    Interceptions are often a momentum-stealing play that can alter the entire flow a game.

    In 2011, there was one unrivaled interception wizard in the FBS, and lucky for his teammates, he's decided to come back for his junior season at North Carolina State.

    David Amerson hauled in an eye-popping 13 interceptions last season, besting his nearest competition by five.

    13 interceptions means Amerson managed to average a pick per game in 2011 as a sophomore. And the ACC isn't exactly a push-over conference.

    Everyone will be watching Amerson in 2012 to see what he'll do for an encore, but it's clear that the Wolfpack won't be able to achieve the same level of success unless Amerson is leading the way defensively.

Forced Fumbles

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    Nordly Capi was only a sophomore on Colorado State's defensive line in 2011, but that didn't stop this 6'3", 249-pound strongman from Ocoee, Florida from making his presence felt for the Rams.

    Capi had seven forced fumbles last season. And while the Rams had yet another disappointing 3-9 season (their third in three years), the two narrow wins over FBS programs—by a combined five points—might never have happened.

    If Colorado State is ever to break out of the doldrums in the Mountain West, Cabi and others like him will need to continue to impress statistically.

Kickoff Return Yards

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    With some “interesting” rule changes coming this season, predicting what will happen with kickoff returns is likely going to be very difficult.

    But for those kicks that are returned, it's clear that Purdue's electrifying sophomore wide receiver Raheem Mostert will be looking to repeat his stellar numbers from a season ago.

    Even as a freshman, Mostert led the FBS in average kickoff return yardage, with an impressive 33.5 yards per return last season.

    While Mostert only returned 25 kicks last year, his average return yards per game was still good enough to claim the No. 28 spot in that subcategory (for comparison, Mostert placed 64th in the FBS for number of returns per game with 2.1).

    Showing such ability as a freshman will likely earn him some extra return work in his 2012 sophomore season, giving him ample opportunity to make a name for himself as one of the nation's top return specialists.

Punt Return Yards

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    There's no one better in the nation at returning punts than Texas A&M's Dustin Harris.

    In 2012, Harris will return for his senior season, and will be testing his returning skills against a new crop of competition in the SEC.

    In 2011, Harris averaged 18.6 yards per return, best in the FBS, and he'll return in 2012 with the fourth-highest number of total yards gained on punt returns.

    The Aggies have a number of holes to smoothed over if there is to be any short-term success in their new conference, but it appears as if Harris has the punt returns covered.

Kicking / Punting

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    While kicking and punting duties are (typically) handled by two different players, we're combining them here for a couple of reasons.

    First, it's not the sexiest of individual statistics.

    Second, with the aforementioned new kickoff rules being implemented for 2012, it's exceedingly difficult to know which of the returning kickers will best be able to adjust to the new kickoff distances, and how the increased walk-off of touchbacks will affect yardage statistics.

    That leaves us with the punters, who won't be similarly affected by rule changes.

    Easily the top punter returning for 2012 is Idaho's Bobby Cowan.

    It's not often the Vandals get anyone even near the top spot of a statistical category, so we won't blame any Idaho fans who want to whoop it up over this one.

    But before we get too ahead of ourselves, it's important to point out that Cowan, in addition to posting a very impressive average of 46.4 yards (net yards) per punt, had to punt the ball away 88 times last season.

    That's not good, Idaho. We'll give Cowan his due, especially given how much he had to punt last season, but it would probably be nice to give him a break every now and then by picking up the occasional first down.

Receiving

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    West Virginia has moved from the lowly Big East to the pass-happy Big 12, and that means a couple of things.

    First, West Virginia will finally be tested on a weekly basis throughout the entire season; no more “gimmies” against the weakest competition the ranks of the BCS-AQ programs have to offer.

    Secondly, we are preparing for the return of former Big 12 offensive genius Dana Holgorsen.

    The Mountaineers have several effective weapons at their disposal, and returning senior quarterback Geno Smith will have a target-rich environment when slinging the ball downfield.

    One of his favorite targets is junior Stedman Bailey.

    Bailey was one of the nation's top receivers in 2011, averaging 98.4 receiving yards per game (13th in the nation). Bailey also accounted for 12 touchdowns while amassing 1,279 receiving yards last season.

    As weak as the Big East is, the Big 12 isn't exactly known for its pass defenses, and the Smith-to-Bailey connection is something Big 12 fans should get ready to hear. A lot.

Rushing

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    We were all so excited to see what Marcus Lattimore could put together last season.

    He was very impressive as a freshman with South Carolina in 2010, with 1,197 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns.

    Unfortunately, Lattimore was robbed of the chance to wow us with an untimely and season-ending injury.

    But that injury has instilled a sense of urgency and determination in both Lattimore and his teammates. Sometimes, delayed gratification is the best kind.

    Expect Lattimore to come out as intense as ever this season, eager to put up those eye-popping numbers we likely would have seen last season.

    If he remains healthy, he's a lock for Heisman consideration and will likely leave the rest of the nation's running backs in his dust.

Passing

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    All those great receivers out there need someone to throw the ball.

    Quarterbacks are certainly important, and that's why we at B/R spend a great deal of time on them, and it's also why the passing stat appears in the final spot on this list.

    The race for the top passing spot in 2012 will ultimately boil down to the two top passers—both returning starters—in the Big 12.

    We have already mentioned West Virginia's Geno Smith (the gunslinger who could lead Stedman Bailey to the top receiving spot in the nation). Smith is certainly a contender for the peak of the passing world in 2012, but we're going to select his counterpart at Oklahoma: Landry Jones.

    The Sooners will once again have a very talented team, and we'll see OU near the top of every major preseason poll.

    If Jones can simply hammer out some issues—namely eliminating games with multiple interceptions thrown—then he should be a solid Heisman contender come November.

    And if Jones is able to eclipse the 4,500-yard mark this season (he had 4,463 last season) while improving his 29-to-15 touchdown-to-interception ratio, OU may find itself a contender for the BCS National Championship Game.