Ranking All 124 College Football Teams, Summer Edition

Dan VastaSenior Writer IIIJune 24, 2012

Ranking All 124 College Football Teams, Summer Edition

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    Everybody loves (or hates) looking at where their beloved teams are projected to start and finish each college football season.

    However, with summer comes the time to really start ranking these teams based on where they should end up finishing, along with the talent and expectations that they all have going for them.

    Some expectations, fair or not, are what keeps a team from achieving their true goals because they are often shooting for the moon.

    Whether we are talking about the contenders or pretenders, every team has expectations, and that often decides whether or not the season was a success.

    So, here are your rankings of the 124 FBS schools based on where I feel they deserve to be heading into the 2012 college football season.

No. 124: Massachusetts

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    It stinks to be ranked as the worst team in the FBS, but the Minutemen should be excited they finally are part of the FBS.

    One thing they should be disappointed in is the fact that they are no longer playing in their home stadium (McGuirk Alumni Stadium), and instead, they must travel 94 miles to Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Patriots.

No. 123: Akron

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    It is never a good thing when the first thing you start talking about is your mascot. Zippy is arguably my favorite mascot in all of sports because this hilarious-looking kangaroo is quite the superstar.

    In fact, this female mascot won the 2007 Capital One Mascot Challenge, but outside of a Motor City Bowl appearance in 2005, the Zips have not had a winning season.

    Going 2-22 over the last two seasons is surely disappointing, but they should pick up at least one victory with Morgan State and Massachusetts on the slate.

No. 122: South Alabama

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    The Jaguars currently have the best winning percentage among any FBS school, but they are just 23-4 through three seasons as a program.

    The schedule is finally beefed up, and I would suspect the losses to really start to pile up despite returning 15 starters.

    North Carolina State and Mississippi State could obliterate them in September, but even teams like Middle Tennessee, North Texas and ULM should give them all they can handle.

    While I would suspect they find a way to get at least two wins, anything more than four would be a huge stretch.

No. 121: UTSA

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    The UTSA Roadrunners are coming off a 4-6 record, and last season was their first ever as a football program. Larry Coker, as expected with a new program, has all but one starter returning.

    I am banking on at least one victory, but it might be too difficult to believe they will get more than one or two if they do not pick one up in the season opener (at South Alabama, 8/30).

No. 120: Texas State

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    The Bobcats are one of the four new teams to enter the FBS (Massachusetts, South Alabama, UTSA), but they will begin in the WAC before heading off to face some solid competition in the Sun Belt.

    Games against Houston and Texas Tech to start off the season may beat them up physically, but they get a much-needed bye week before they take on FCS opponent Stephen F. Austin.

    The only other two opportunities for a victory would be in the final two games of the season against UTSA and New Mexico State.

No. 119: New Mexico

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    Bob Davie can only hope he witnesses a lot more success than Mike Locksley and George Barlow did.

    For the last three seasons, the Lobos have been as bad as it gets, going 3-33 (1-11 three straight years).

    That record is dreadful, but Davie should allow the Lobos to improve in the immediate future. Having 14 starters back and hosting both Southern (FCS opponent) and Texas State (homecoming game) gives them a legitimate chance to get at least two victories.

No. 118: Memphis

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    Posting a 5-31 record over the last three seasons is surely not a positive thing, but losing your best player (Dontari Poe) is also not a good thing.

    Returning 14 starters is, and having one of the easiest schedules in the country should help perhaps double their total from last season (2-10).

No. 117: UAB

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    The Blazers are another one of those struggling C-USA squads, and history backs up the fact they have struggled for quite a bit.

    Roddy White is no longer hauling in passes (least not for the Blazers), and they haven't appeared in a bowl game since 2004.

    In fact, since that Hawaii Bowl, UAB has been dreadful, going 26-57.

No. 116: New Mexico State

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    The New Mexico State Aggies managed to go 4-9 last season, but with only seven starters returning, most are leaning towards another losing season.

    In fact, this program has not put together a winning season since 2002, but more importantly, they have not appeared in or even won a bowl game since the 1960 Sun Bowl.

No. 115: Tulane

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    The Tulane Green Wave were brutal last year, going 2-11. To note why, look no further than the defensive side of the ball.

    On 11 occasions last season, they allowed 30 or more points, and only once did they manage to win one of those games (opener over SE Louisiana, 47-33).

    Maybe the 14 starters returning will help them pick up another two or three victories, but we would be dreaming and/or shocked to see them accomplish anything more.

No. 114: Florida Atlantic

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    It is sad to see legendary coach Howard Schnellenberger finally move on from coaching since he meant quite a bit to college football with what he did for both the Owls and obviously the Miami Hurricanes (Louisville too).

    This FBS program started up in 2001, and yet it went on to win bowl berths in both 2007 and 2008. Not since 2008 has the team has had a winning season, so former Nebraska defensive coordinator Carl Pelini has since moved in.

    Heading into his first season, expectations are low, albeit 15 returning starters should help at least double their win total from a season ago (1-11).

No. 113: UNLV

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    Bobby Hauck has gone 80-17 with seven straight playoffs, which includes three FCS title games in seven seasons, but the only problem is that was when he coached FCS powerhouse Montana.

    Having been with the Rebels for two seasons already, UNLV has been going in reverse more times than not.

    A 4-21 record over these last two seasons hopefully means the team will be moving forward with much more positive news.

No. 112: Idaho

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    The Vandals have not seen much recent success with Robb Akey in charge, and many feel it is his time to move on if there will not be any improvements coming soon.

    They went to a bowl game in 2010 (8-5), but coming off a 2-10 year is never a good feeling. Only 10 starters return, and Idaho will need to start out hot since both LSU and North Carolina will be waiting for them in September.

No. 111: Middle Tennessee

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    The Blue Raiders have not been nearly as dreadful as some other programs, but coming off a 2-10 season does not help matters much.

    Returning 13 starters should help, as should one of the softest schedules, but it is not like they have shown a ton of promise, having had eight losing seasons in the last 10 years.

No. 110: North Texas

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    North Texas has had some brutal opponents in the non-conference schedule, and Houston, LSU and Kansas State would once again fit that boat.

    Ranking 97th in total defense (429 YPG) is a tough pill to swallow, and with only five starters returning on defense, even the top Sun Belt opponents should be able to feast.

No. 109: Buffalo

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    These Bulls have been historically bad in the MAC, and the facts back it up. Over the last 10 seasons, Buffalo has gone just 21-59 in the MAC.

    That is a tad worse than Kent State (22-57), but the bottom line is, Jeff Quinn has to find a way to stop the bleeding. Going from 2-10 to 3-9 is not exactly a major improvement, but there are just no easy wins on this schedule (UGA, UConn, Pitt all on non-con slate).

No. 108: Kent State

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    Kent State is looking for some regular-season success just so it can appear in its first bowl game since 1972.

    16 starters are returning, which includes the MAC's only freshman to win MAC Defensive Player of the Year (Roosevelt Nix, now a junior).

No. 107: Ball State

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    I have been on the record for saying that Pete Lembo could be the next big thing per se in the MAC, especially since his Cardinals are coming off a 6-6 season.

    However, the schedule is absolutely atrocious for a program in a conference that supposedly "plays nobody."

    Clemson, Indiana, South Florida and Army are tricky games, with the Bulls and Tigers being favored by two-and-a-half- and four-touchdown favorites, respectively.

    Even the conference slate is tough, with Northern Illinois, Western Michigan, Central Michigan and Toledo likely waiting to give out a beatdown.

No. 106: Temple

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    Heading off from the MAC to the Big East means the Owls better bring their lunchboxes, because it will be a tough day at work with defensive slugfests headed their way.

    Temple does not have the most explosive offense returning after losing star running back Bernard Pierce, but the defense only returns five starters as well.

    Steve Addazio is a fine coach that did a fabulous job last season (9-4), but times should be rough looking ahead to the immediate future.

No. 105: Colorado State

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    The Rams are bringing back 15 starters from a season ago, but that is not exactly a good thing since they went just 3-9.

    In fact, Colorado State have posted that record for three straight seasons and have since brought in former Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain. Things look positive in the future, but in terms of the immediate future, there will ultimately be struggles before some solid success.

No. 104: Wyoming

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    These Cowboys out of Laramie would love if they can keep up the success they just saw in 2011 (8-5), but the blowout bowl loss to Temple may be a sign of things to come in the Mountain West.

    The schedule isn't impossible, but Texas and Toledo may destroy the confidence of a group that that has gone to two bowl games thus far in the Christensen era (entering fourth season).

No. 103: San Jose State

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    If you enjoy fantasy college football, make sure you give both wide receiver Noel Grigsby and tight end Ryan Otten a decent look, since the two will be getting a ton of looks.

    They will be receiving ample opportunity to post numbers since the Spartans should be struggling in several of their games this season.

    Stanford in the opener won't be fun, but BYU and Louisiana Tech in the final two games will cost this squad any chance of a postseason berth.

No. 102: Rice

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    The Rice Owls have some decent talent for a 4-8 C-USA squad, but the UCLA Bruins, Kansas Jayhawks and Louisiana Tech Bulldogs may wax these poor youngsters right out of the gates.

    Every coach and fanbase stresses a strong start to the season, but that might be asking too much with just 10 starters returning.

No. 101: UTEP

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    The 2004 and 2005 seasons mark the last time they posted a winning season.

    They did appear in the New Mexico Bowl two seasons ago, but they were obliterated by BYU, 52-24, and they have simply not recovered since. Going 5-7 isn't too shabby, but the struggles on defense are overwhelming right now (104th, 441 YPG allowed).

No. 100: Eastern Michigan

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    These Eagles have been struggling under Ron English—though 6-6 season isn't so bad—but there are 14 starters back for the 2012 season.

    However, they fooled and disappointed us before, since this program is looking for their first bowl appearance since the 1987 California Bowl.

No. 99: Utah State

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    Losing five games by single digits always is hurtful for a team that is so close to becoming contenders in their conference, but Gary Andersen had to be pleased with the way his team battled each and every week despite those heartbreaking losses.

    This team should be able to battle once again, but those single-digit losses might turn into double-digit losses with a few solid offensive clubs on the slate (Wisconsin, Utah, BYU, Louisiana Tech).

No. 98: Bowling Green

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    The Falcons could be an intriguing squad to look for since they should be much improved on paper, and it helps to have a favorable schedule.

    Florida and Virginia Tech are not exactly favorable matchups right out of the gate, though, so anything more than five wins would be considered a near-dream season for coach Dave Clawson (14-23 after three seasons).

No. 97: Western Kentucky

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    The Hilltoppers had a great season under Willie Taggert, but they were robbed of their first ever bowl invitation despite going 7-5.

    Western Kentucky has 16 starters back, but the bad news is, it is losing the program's all-time leading rusher in Bobby Rainey (4,542 yards from 2008-11).

No. 96: ULM

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    The Warhawks should be improved on paper, but they were used and abused in the non-conference slate as Florida State, TCU and Iowa outscored them 117-34.

    Arkansas, Auburn and Baylor might do them in danger zone once again, except this time, it might only get worse despite the return of 13 starters.

No. 95: Oregon State

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    My projected worst team among BCS schools are these Oregon State Beavers, mainly because the schedule is abysmal. 

    The depth will be tested, and Oregon State simply is one of the worst teams in the BCS to enter this season, regardless of where you're looking. 

    Returning 15 starters could save it from an unforgettable season, but I doubt it finds a way to get more than three wins again. With this schedule, it might be tough to get a victory after it will likely defeat Norfolk State.

No. 94: Central Michigan

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    Dan Enos may be on the hot seat after posting his second consecutive 3-9 season, but the youngsters returning (16 back) should give them a ton of optimism. 

    Freshman Titus Davis put together a sensational season, hauling in 40 passes for 751 yards and eight TDs.

    Hoping to avoid that sophomore slump that many talk about, the Chippewas should be able to, at worst, match last season's three victories with SE Missouri State, Akron and Massachusetts on the slate.

No. 93: Troy

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    Most would think with 15 starters returning that this squad has a ton of improvement ahead of them, but the non-conference schedule continues to be the X-factor with these non-BCS schools.

    It not only is tough to come alive from these games (Mississippi St, Tennessee, Navy), but there really are no moral victories since the scoreboard still screams a good tail-whipping more times than not. 

    Larry Blakeney has handed out his fair share of blowouts victories, but the tables are slowly starting to turn after a disappointing 3-9 season.

No. 92: Hawai'i

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    The Warriors are likely headed for a 5-7 season and no trip to the Hawai'i Bowl, but Norm Chow will turn this squad into a legit conference contender for years to come.

    The spread attack offensively is always tough to stop, and allowing the illustrious coach to land his own players will pay off in the near future.

No. 91: Indiana

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    The Hoosiers had a brutal 1-11 season in Kevin Wilson’s first season in Bloomington, but most believe they can easily surpass that effort (duh).

    If the team had a few more playmakers on the defensive side of the ball, I would likely have them bowl-eligible, but the fact remains that this team is not capable (at the moment) to notch more than five victories (should run non-con table, but more than a conference victory is a stretch).

No. 90: Kansas

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    The return of Charlie Weis to college football as a head coach does not exactly have many jumping for joy, but the guy is fun to keep a close eye on.

    It will be a challenge to take over for a KU program that has not been relevant 2008, when they won eight games. Several Notre Dame transfers have already made their move to Lawrence, but that does not mean they will automatically become successful.

    The schedule is brutal even in the non-conference (at NIU won’t be easy), and it might be dreamland if you expect a bowl trip in the first season under Weis.

No. 89: Syracuse

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    The Orange went to the postseason just two seasons ago, but mixed in between was a 4-8 and now a 5-7 season.

    Those are tough seasons to stay motivated and positive, but Doug Marrone truly believes his Orange have what it takes. I believe the man, but taking on one of the toughest schedules in the entire conference will likely put this team into a tailspin once again (seven bowl teams, not counting USC).

No. 88: Kentucky

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    The job is arguably on the line for head coach Joker Phillips this season, and many believe he better return to a bowl game, or at least close enough.

    If not, he could be a goner, which would be a bit sad since he is only entering his third season (11-14).

    According to most experts (specifically Phil Steele), the ‘Cats are lacking the elite talented players, and it started to show last season, as they gave up 156 points to the five ranked teams they played.

    It takes just an upset over a ranked team to sometimes get you in the postseason, but outside of offensive guard Larry Warford, there are not many next-level-caliber players.

No. 87: Boston College

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    I am clearly not on the Boston College bandwagon this season, but this squad is coming off a tough 4-8 season thanks to a horrid offensive squad (112th in total O).

    They averaged only 298 yards per game, and their career leading rusher was dismissed (Montell Harris, 3,735). Now, they must rely on a few guys (Finch, Williams) that luckily did see time last year while Harris was out with an ankle injury.

    Still, the passing game was not impressive (100th), and without improvement, their record will only worsen, regardless of how good the defense could still be after losing All-American Luke Kuechly.

No. 86: Minnesota

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    The Golden Gophers have not gotten out to a nice start under Jerry Kill, but this team was once accustomed to appearing in bowl games nearly every season (since ’02, they have gone to seven).

    Going 3-9 in consecutive seasons does not exactly make you think of the postseason, and with nearly every program improving, it still will be difficult to get anything more than four or five wins (if they upset a Big Ten team).       

No. 85: Marshall

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    The Thundering Herd are coming off a winning season (7-6), which includes a nice Beef O'Brady's Bowl victory over Florida International.

    Thank Doc Holliday, because the guy managed to find a way to win the final three games of their season (including bowl).

    The schedule gets a bit tougher, but that is only because I see C-USA's upper echelon improving.

No. 84: San Diego State

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    Ryan Katz has to be a tough kid; he took his fair share of lumps with Oregon State. Now he goes to beautiful San Diego State, where the Aztecs are hopeful in finding replacement for quarterback Ryan Lindley and running back Ronnie Hillman.

    Returning 12 starters is helpful, and so is a fairly soft schedule, but Boise State, Nevada and Air Force are still leaps and bounds ahead of them (maybe not Air Force as much).

No. 83: Miami (Ohio)

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    Zac Dysert and Nick Harwell are must-watches in the MAC next season, and this squad has at least six wins written all over them.

    Returning 16 starters is key, but facing a winnable schedule is helpful as well. Outside of a pair of juggernauts in Ohio State and Boise State, the Redhawks have a chance to compete with everybody on the schedule.

    Surely, Cincinnati and Ohio will be tough games, but they are actually favored in seven of their games.

No. 82: Connecticut

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    The Huskies would love to get back to that success level that Randy Edsall brought them just two seasons ago (seems longer) because this program is certainly capable of appearing in bowls every single season.

    That consistency level and "it" factor is still not quite there, and the hope is Paul Pasqualoni can find it soon. (Lyle McCombs sure is fun to watch in the backfield; they just need more guys like him.)

No. 81: Arizona State

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    Todd Graham should be able to force the opposition to "Fear the Fork" in time, but the struggles are on the way. A tough schedule that features seven bowl opponents will test everybody's patience.

No. 80: Arizona

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    The Arizona Wildcats had a bit too much success under Mike Stoops out of the gates because the expectations started to get higher and higher, which is something bottomed out quickly.

    Only 12 starters are returning, and facing one of the nation's toughest schedules should test Rich Rodriguez and his staff. A bowl trip would be amazing, but even five wins would be a feat as well.

No. 79: ECU

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    If you want a dark-horse C-USA team, look no further than the one in Greenville, N.C., because the squad has 15 starters returning from a team that just fell inches short of a postseason trip.

    The receivers are loaded with talent, and that vaunted run defense (81st) should be much improved. Plus, they avoid both SMU and Tulsa in the cross-division games, which only helps their chances of winning seven or more games this season.

No. 78: Duke

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    The Blue Devils under David Cutcliffe have not been a whole lot of fun, and you just cannot help but wonder when they are going to appear in a bowl game.

    Not since 1994 have they appeared (Hall of Fame) in the postseason, and the pieces are still waiting to be put together.

    Sean Renfree and Conner Vernon are solid players, and they will put up a fight, but they are still both worthy of paying attention to.

No. 77: Air Force

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    The Air Force Falcons only brings six starters back, which just happens to rank as the 122nd-least-experienced team in the country (Phil Steel).

    Still, the schedule is about as easy it gets, as they should be favored in the majority of their games. Losing Asher Clark and Tim Jefferson will be tough at first, but the rushing attack will still be potent with Mike DeWitt (12 TDs).

No. 76: Maryland

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    The Terps had some major issues in season one under Randy Edsall. The offense was just in a mess for a whole season, and they got worse as the season went on.

    Danny O’Brien was benched and transferred, but nobody on the entire team found an identity, as they were simply inept and lost.

    College Park was scratching their heads after they defeated Miami on Labor Day night because they would go on to just win one more game (Towson).

    I wouldn’t expect a whole lot of improvement record wise with a fairly brutal schedule (nine bowl opponents).

No. 75: Ole Miss

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    Houston Nutt is gone after going 24-26 (10-22 in SEC), but the man taking over will be Hugh Freeze.

    Freeze is a Mississippi native and once was the recruiting coordinator, but this young and impressive coach last season became just the 14th coach in FBS history to record 10 wins in his first season.

    Now Freeze needs to fix a lowly 2-10 Rebels squad that luckily has 16 starters intact from last season.

    They have quite a few of talented youngsters that can play with the best of the SEC.

    Still, the consistency and winning mentality needs to quickly get taken up a notch, or else it may take more than one season to make them relevant in arguably the best conference in all of sports .

No. 74: Navy

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    The Midshipmen have 13 starters coming back from a disappointing 5-7 season, but they may not be bowling for a ninth time in 10 seasons.

    Kriss Proctor and Alexander Teich meant a whole lot in their backfield, but Gee Gee Greene is a quick and elusive back that could carry the bulk of the load.

    Plus, the schedule is about as favorable as it gets in the FBS, with the likes of VMI, San Jose State, Indiana, ECU, Troy, FAU and Texas State.

No. 73: Wake Forest

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    Jim Grobe was able to muster off a bowl game in which most expected an easy losing season, but Tanner Price and Chris Givens proved they could keep pace with the best of the ACC.

    Defeating FSU was the highlight of Wake Forest's season, but it battled against Mississippi State despite losing. Will it keep it up despite only returning only 11 starters, or is a losing season in the dockets?

No. 72: Tulsa

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    Tulsa has been a great non-BCS school in recent memory, but the pass defense better improve if it expects to win anything this season. Plus, C-USA isn't getting worse these days at the top, so we shall see if this capable and talented secondary can perform like their billing suggests.

No. 71: Fresno State

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    Derek Carr and Robbie Rouse are a deadly backfield combination, but the ground game needs to make great strides, or else their dark-horse ability in the Mountain West will fall well short.

    A bowl bid is well within reach thanks to seven starters back on defense, but life after Pat Hill sure will seem odd. Tim DeRuyter will be a man on a mission, as his Bulldogs now have Mountain West competition to take on.

No. 70: Colorado

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    Colorado has a chance to shine under Jon Embree thanks to a grueling schedule last season that allowed the team to grow up in front of our very own eyes.

    Although it ended up with just a record of 3-10, the continuity defensively could go a long way. Will Pericak, Jon Major and Roy Polk are underrated defenders that should surprise the many experts who have the Buffs slated for last in the South.

    Look for at least another three-win season, but anything more than five could be a reach with an improving Pac-12 conference.

No. 69: Western Michigan

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    Alex Carder was fifth in total offense last season, averaging 345 yards per game, but the Broncos needed every bit of those 345 yards thanks to a disappointing defense.

    The defense ranked 99th, allowing 434 yards per game, and because of the struggles, they were gashed by the Purdue Boilermakers, which sadly extended their drought of never winning a bowl game in the history of the program.

    While the defense may not improve dramatically, many believe that winless streak will finally end with Carder leading the way once again.

No. 68: Army

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    With one of the easier schedules in America, the Black Knights should go bowling once again in 2012 thanks to 15 starters returning.

    None is bigger than their backfield, which includes quarterback Trent Steelman and running back Raymond Maples.

    If it can put an end to that 10-game losing streak against Navy, it would pretty much become a foregone conclusion that Army will be heading to a bowl, with Kent State, Eastern Michigan, Temple and Stony Brook all likely becoming fairly easy victories.

No. 67: Iowa State

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    The Cyclones had a magical season despite going only 6-7, but their Friday night victory over Oklahoma State not only cost them a trip to the BCS title game, it was the huge victory that put Iowa State into a bowl of its own.

    Paul Rhoads is an inspiring coach to play for, but at some point, they are not going to be able to escape the bottom two or three of the Big 12.

    Despite returning 12 starters, the schedule is tough, with a trip to Kinnick Stadium thrown into the fire as well (at TCU, at Oklahoma State, at Texas).

No. 66: Southern Miss

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    Southern Miss has a new coach in Ellis Johnson because Larry Fedora had quite the finish for a Golden Eagles team that finished in the top 25 at 12-2.

    Losing quarterback Austin Davis is a tough loss, but the playmakers are still legit, and the defense has had a knack for reloading regardless of how many starters return (just four this season).

    Look for another solid campaign, but they will likely come up short, with the experience factor coming into play against the likes of Nebraska, Lousiville and Boise State on the non-conference slate.

No. 65: Baylor

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    I wonder how much the Bears will miss the Heisman Trophy winner.

    Obviously, losing the best player on the planet in crunch time one season ago will kill this team offensively in terms of points, but the yards should not be too far off, with Nick Florence returning most of the weapons from a season ago (top-10 receiving corps).

    The defense has to be the real concern still, because they were a bit lucky and fortunate in their biggest wins of the season (TCU, Oklahoma Texas).

    Ranking 102nd against the run (197 YPG) is tough to overcome, but when teams like West Virginia and TCU come to your conference, your numbers won’t exactly improve much.

No. 64: Houston

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    Tony Levine takes over for Kevin Sumlin, who nearly stole the show last season, as his explosive Houston offense finally stalled in the C-USA title game. Until then, they were on their way to a perfect regular season, which would have resulted in the program's first ever BCS bowl.

    Instead, Sumlin left for the head gig at Texas A&M, and now Levine (who coached the bowl game) will be asked to continue the winning ways for the Cougars.

    Surprisingly, 12 starters are returning, although the majority of the stars are gone. D.J. Hayden, Phillip Steward and Derrick Mathews return for a defense that made nice strides throughout the season.

    If Charles Sims at running back can help out quarterback David Piland, then just maybe freshman sensation Deontay Greenberry will take everybody's breath away, as he is the first ever 5-star recruit that Houston has landed.

No. 63: Toledo

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    Bernard Reedy is quite the burner, and he will be asked to take over for Eric Page's 125 receptions for 1,182 yards and 10 TDs.

    Reedy hauled in nine last season, and there is a great chance this team can once again contend for a MAC title despite returning only eight players from a solid 9-4 season.

No. 62: Virginia

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    The Wahoos should go bowling again under Mike London, but the season will be a bit tricky with the opposition taking the squad much more serious.

    Only five return on defense, and the offense was never explosive to begin with, which means they will have to be near perfect in the fourth quarter to contend with Virginia Tech.

    Perhaps Perry Jones and Kevin Parks are the best ACC back combos, but the receivers and quarterback play are suspect at best for now.

No. 61: UCLA

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    Jim Mora, Jr. has not coached one single college game, but many believe this guy can put the Bruins back on the map because of his willingness to allow his players to succeed at a personal level.

    Plus, it doesn't hurt to bring in Noel Mazzone as your OC. Still, the Bruins will certainly have a few road bumps along the way.

    Nebraska, even at home, will be extremely difficult to pull off, but if Kevin Prince can steadily improve his final collegiate season, then just maybe the Bruins can contend in the Pac-12 South.

    Certainly, they won't be expected to win the division, but they could be bowl-bound if the passing attack improves upon their 81st ranking (198 YPG).

No. 60: Pittsburgh

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    Ray Graham missed a ton of time last season with a torn ACL (missed final five games), but he still ran for 958 yards with nine TDs. He should bounce back with Tino Sunseri returning for his senior season, but the schedule is quite daunting for the Panthers.

    Virginia Tech and Notre Dame are tough non-conference opponents, but overall, there are seven bowl squads on this schedule from one season ago.

    If the front seven on defense can improve in its first season with Paul Chryst as the head coach, don't be shocked to see them in contention for a Big East title.

No. 59: Washington State

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    Marques Wilson should be drooling over the hire of Mike Leach because he will have more pigskins thrown his way than arguably any receiver in the nation.

    He hauled in 82 for 1,388 yards and 12 TDs last season, but a healthy Jeff Tuel and an improved ground game (Rickey Galvin) could make the Cougars' offense one of the more productive ones in the Pac-12.

    The defense should not be too shabby either with seven starters returning, and the schedule will give WSU a solid challenge every few weeks. Opening up with BYU in Provo will be tough, but they then get Eastern Washington, UNLC and Colorado the next three weeks.

    Throw in mission impossible with Oregon, but there are winnable games with Oregon State, California, UCLA and Arizona State all on the slate. Don't expect this team to be locked into a bowl game, but it should surprise us by hovering around that .500 mark all season.

No. 58: Arkansas State

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    Gus Malzahn comes to Jonesboro, Arkansas, and we all know his offense in dare time will be unstoppable. Ryan Aplin is the perfect pocket passer that is athletic enough to find running room.

    He found daylight quite a bit actually, as he reached paydirt 10 times, and his 19 passing TDs sure makes Malzahn excited for the 2012 season.

    Only 10 combined starters returning will make life difficult, with Oregon and Nebraska both on the September slate, but we should expect the Red Wolves to appear in a bowl game.

No. 57: Northern Illinois

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    The Huskies' winning ways have been a joy to watch, as they have now gone 11-3 in consecutive seasons. Dave Doeren did a tremendous season his first season, bringing home a MAC title to DeKalb.

    This season, they lose their superstar in Chandler Harnish, but Jordan Lynch is a highly-touted junior that looks to fill the void.

    Martel Moore headlines a strong receiving corps, and the return of eight starters on defense should allow them to once again compete for not only a MAC title, but double-digit victories.

No. 56: Louisiana Lafayette

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    The Ragin' Cajuns were quite the story last season, as Mark Hudspeth took them to uncharted territory and they played in their first bowl since 1970.

    Javone Lawson at receiver and Blaine Gautier at quarterback played simple pitch-and-catch at the end of the season, but the two were nearly unstoppable in their virtuoso bowl performances over San Diego State.

    The defense may be down a notch, but we know the offense will be just fine, with Hudspeth returning nine of his starters.

No. 55: Northwestern

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    Pat Fitzgerald sure would just love to put that horrid 63-year drought of a bowl victory behind him because quite frankly, the fans in Evanston just want to win in December (or January).

    Kain Colter was known as the triple threat since he passed, ran and caught it one season ago, but Dan Persa has used all of his eligibility up.

    It is Colter’s time to shine, and the receiving corps must be able to draw a lot more separation against the opposition.

    Demetrius Fields lost Drake Dunsmore and Jeremy Ebert, so former USC transfer Kyle Prater or Christian Jones need to put forth a valiant seasonal effort if they expect to not only appear in a bowl game, but to also win one. 

No. 54: Illinois

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    Tim Beckham has the capability of putting together a Big Ten contending team if they can start to haul in more guys that can stretch the field on offense.

    Outside of A.J. Jenkins, there were not many (if any) options that could take you deep for a home run per se.

    Running back Donovonn Young is certainly capable, but quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and Riley O’Toole will both need to carry this passing attack.

    If not, then that solid and very respectable (legit talent up front, underrated secondary) defense will let up when you least expect it to.

    The issue on the schedule is not just the Big Ten because Arizona State and Louisiana Tech have some players of their own that might soften the Illini up for their biggest games of the season (see Penn State, at Wisconsin, at Michigan).

No. 53: Ohio

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    Tyler Tettleton is essentially a houdini at quarterback that is a poor man's version of Collin Klein. He is capable of doubling his rushing TD output, as he ran for 10 last season.

    The Bobcats as a whole return just six starters with a respectable offensive line that should enable them to contend for another MAC title. They suffered a tough three-point loss last season to Northern Illinois in the MAC title, but this season should be a different story.

No. 52: Texas Tech

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    Seth Doege is looking to put the “gambler” back on the map because most should be cheering for Tommy Tuberville to get back into the postseason.

    The Red Raiders have a solid offense, but their run defense was bad, to put it bluntly. In fact, they were dead-last in the FBS in rushing yards allowed (258 YPG).

    If there are not significant improvements made, these powerful offenses will once again chew some clock out and force the Tech offense to stay on the sidelines.

No. 51: Nevada

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    Chris Ault has been sensational with Nevada, taking it to seven bowl appearances in the last eight seasons.

    His ability to turn his quarterbacks into future stars is impressive, but the offensive line they have is always pushing the opposition around.

    Chris Barker and Jeff Nady are two beasts that should open up the entire offense, and with the Mountain West competition, they should easily improve last season's 7-6 year.

No. 50: California

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    The Cal Bears' schedule is extremely tough, and it starts with Ohio State and USC both on the road in September.

    If they can catch their breath afterwards, they might creep up in the Pac-12 standings, albeit it would likely take an upset at some point during the season.

    Zach Maynard, Isi Sofele and Keenan Allen are a great trio, but the consistent and dominant defense may have finally met their match with eight bowl opponents on the slate (not counting the Buckeyes).

No. 49: Florida International

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    I'm practically a nutcase when it comes to college football, but the excitement that I have for this Panthers; defense is borderline absurd for a team out of the Sun Belt.

    Mario Cristobal has turned this team from the doldrums of college football into a near mortal lock postseason team. The defense really is going to be insanely impressive this season, with 10 starters returning.

    Tourek Williams put on a clinic last season for a freshman, and linebackers Jordan Hunt and Winston Fraser might just be the best trio of defenders among any non-BCS team in the country. 

    Yes, Duke and Louisville will give this team some issues thanks to an offense that struggled a bit last season when they had T.Y. Hilton (graduated), but look for overall improvement and a nine-plus win season.

No. 48: Cincinnati

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    Butch Jones turned these Bearcats around from a 4-8 team to an impressive 10-3 squad that beat an SEC squad in their bowl (Vanderbilt, Liberty).

    Despite returning only four starters, I look for quarterback Munchie Legaux to receive a ton of help from his running backs, Jameel Poteat and George Winn.

    The defense has always been solid, and seven starters return in what should be the best secondary in the Big East. The non-conference isn't exactly a cake walk with Virginia Tech and Toledo on the slate, but this should be a ho-hum, eight-victory type of season.

No. 47: Vanderbilt

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    James Franklin refuses to be pushed around by anybody, and despite losing their bowl game, it was one hell of a season for the Nashville faithful.

    The improvement and overall excitement makes many think that the SEC is only getting better thanks to an improved squad like the Commodores. Jordan Rodgers has a nice duo in running back Zac Stacy and receiver Jordan Matthews that should surprise a few teams this year.

    South Carolina in the opener could be a legit tone-setter since it comes on Thursday night’s national prime-time (ESPN) game.

    Follow that game up with an intriguing matchup with Northwestern, and this team realistically could win six or seven games and return back to the postseason.

No. 46: Purdue

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    Danny Hope might as well be considered the least talked about and known coach in the Big Ten, but he sure is thriving at the moment.

    Coming off a solid 7-6 season, his Boilermakers have 15 starters returning to a team with an exceptionally favorable schedule. It would help if Ralph Bolden returns to 2010 form (suffered third torn ACL), but Akeem Shavers showed in the bowl game he can get the job done (149 yards rushing).

    Defensively, the big stud up front is Kawann Short, and alongside Bruce Gaston, they may just upset a team or two when all is said and done. Even if they do not, a second consecutive bowl bid is well within reach. 

No. 45: Rutgers

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    Returning 15 starters from a 9-4 season is great news despite losing your head coach (Greg Schiano), but these Scarlet Knights can play the dark horse thanks to a few solid playmakers on both sides of the ball.

    Tight end D.C. Jefferson is quite a talent, and young sophomore running back Savon Huggins is officially ready to burst onto the national scene.

    Defensively, linebackers Steve Beauharnais and Khaseem Greene are as good as it gets at linebacker, which should allow them to stay in the hunt all season long.

    Their season, however, could come down to how they perform in September sadly, because USF and Arkansas are two roads games that could affect a whole lot.

    The Razorbacks could abuse them, but the game against the Bulls may be used as a tiebreaker once the Big East heats up in November.

No. 44: UCF

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    This could be the final stretch of the head coaching career for George O'Leary,  but his Knights possess a ton of talent that many expected would turn into success last season.

    USF was coming off a 11-3 season, but injuries and inept offense turned them into a major disappointing 507 squad.

    Tyler Gabbert is the new sheriff in town, as he transferred over from Missouri, and their star running back, Storm Johnson, of course is the former Hurricane.

    Those two alone may give them a shot at contending for the C-USA crown, but their eight starters returning on defense is ultimately what will decide their fates.

No. 43: Miami FL

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    The Hurricanes have to love their chances of returning to a bowl game this season, mainly because the expectations are dying down.

    The defense will only improve with so many young stars developing, but the offense certainly did not look improved during the spring game.

    The growing pains will be tough to endure for the die-hard Cane fans, but in time, they should rise back among the elite in the ACC. For now, a four or five-loss season will have to be expected.

No. 42: Mississippi State

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    Dan Mullen and his Bulldogs had fairly high expectations last season since they were coming off a 9-4 record and No. 15 ranking to end their 2010 season.

    The 2011 season did not go as planned, as they went just 7-6, but Chris Relf struggled mightily and Tyler Russell had to take over in several games. The schedule is favorable (favored in all but three games), and the back end of the defense is fabulous.

    In fact, Corey Broomfield and superstar Johnthan Banks may just rank as the best duo of corners in the SEC (and beyond), so this vastly underrated defense just needs to concentrate on stopping the run better (61st last year). 

No. 41: Louisiana Tech

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    The schedule is one of the easiest in the country thanks to a WAC conference that is disbanding by the minute, but the Bulldogs are a legit non-BCS squad that can strike fear thanks to an explosive offense led by quarterback Colby Cameron.

    Wide receiver Quinton Patton only hauled in 79 catches for 1,202 yards and 11 TDs last season (sarcasm), but the emergence of running back Hunter Lee was a joy to watch down the stretch of the season.

    With Louisiana Tech coming off a respectable 8-5 season, many are looking at 10 wins despite A&M, Houston, Virginia and Illinois all on the schedule (all road games save A&M in Shreveport).

No. 40: Louisville

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    Teddy Bridgewater is capable of leading this Big East team to conference champions because he often willed this team to victory as a freshman last season.

    Fifteen starters combined are returning, and the schedule is manageable with home dates against USF and Cincinnati. The only major concern is that Kentucky and North Carolina could rough this team up a bit as it heads into conference play. 

No. 39: Georgia Tech

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    Paul Johnson’s squad had a tough and rough ending to their season after blowing a double-digit lead to Utah in the Sun Bowl (lost in OT, 30-27). However, Tevin Washington and the entire backfield returns, which should only help out the defense.

    That suspect defense was 44th in yards allowed per game (359 YPG), but the schedule is brutal, with road trips to Virginia Tech, Clemson, North Carolina and Georgia. 

No. 38: Texas A&M

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    The Aggies are being doubted by many fans across the country because of their brutal recent stretch of games against the SEC.

    It is never fun to enter a new league when that same conference has obliterated you, 198-118, in the last five meetings (all losses).

    Still, their offensive line and receivers rank among the SEC’s best thanks to a few stars of their own. Ryan Swope, Uzoma Nwachukwu, Jake Matthews and Luke Joeckel are four studs the team needs to play at their best ability.

    The defense was often porous last season (59th in total D), and that is not the best of news heading into the SEC despite six starters returning. The schedule starts out rough with Louisiana Tech (top five non-BCS squad), Florida and SMU.

    It is imperative they win all three contests or else the wheels may slowly come off in October when they get arguably the toughest four-week stretch of any team on the planet (LSU, at Auburn, at M-State, at Bama).

    Look for a postseason berth since they have a tad more talent than you realize, but this grinder of a schedule will likely cost them a New Year’s Day bowl bid.

37. Kansas State

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    Collin Klein is coming off an FBS record-setting season in which he ran for 27 TDs, but we cannot overstate just how amazing Bill Snyder is.

    Snyder has taken the Wildcats out of the dumps on two separate occasions, and going from a six to a seven and to now a 10-win squad is spectacular in the Big 12.

    The expectations are much higher in 2012 with 14 starters returning, but will they be able to squeak out eight victories by single digits once again?

    If they do, then maybe Snyder should run for mayor, but let us not forget the continued hits that Klein took last season.

    The kid was a warrior, taking shots left and right all season long, but I wonder just how many he will be able to take with Miami and then Oklahoma on the slate in September.

    Even if they can escape with just one loss, bank on the likes of West Virginia, Oklahoma State, TCU and Texas to give them all they can handle.

No. 36: Penn State

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    The Nittany Lions have an experienced and talented group of linebackers coming back, and they will need it since they have had quite the issues, offensively speaking.

    Any BCS program that expects to win cannot finish anywhere near 95th in the country (342 YPG).

    Paul Jones will be battling with Matt McGloin, albeit McGloin is the starter at the moment. It is not easy to believe it will be a mortal lock to avoid any struggles, since this offense has not been able to come close to breaking through.

    Silas Redd could become one of the more electric and productive backs in PSU history if he can get some help from an offensive line that has struggled as well.

    If Bill O’Brien can work off the rust from this team, then just maybe we'll see them give the Badgers a run for their money heading into the final week of their regular season.   

No. 35: North Carolina State

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    Mike Glennon is a solid and underrated quarterback, but the signal-caller needs a ton of help because he cannot do it alone.

    The same can be said for David Amerson and a very talented secondary because the front seven is returning just one starter from a season ago.

    That opener against Tennessee is huge because with a bad loss there, the Pack could be searching for answers with Miami (FL) and Florida State on the slate in late September/early October.

No. 34: SMU

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    Call me a believer, because the SMU Mustangs look like one of the top non-BCS squads in the country heading into the 2012 season.

    Defensive end Margus Hunt and linebackers Cameron Rogers and Taylor Reed lead a vastly underrated defense that nearly shut out Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl (28-6).

    The offense looks to make up a huge difference thanks to Texas transfer Garrett Gilbert at quarterback. Zach Line is back healthy in the backfield, and we know Darius Johnson can haul in the clutch passes when need be.

    The only question about this team is if their young and inexperienced offensive line can hold up against the likes of Baylor, A&M, TCU and UCF. If so, then bank on at least 10 victories in 2012.

No. 33: Brigham Young

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    The BYU Cougars possess a ton of talent with 14 starters returning to a 10-3 squad, but the schedule is like night and day comparing last season's to this one.

    Road dates with Utah (September15) and Boise State (September 20) seem outlandish since the Cougars only get seemingly a few hours to prepare for the Broncos on the Smurf Turf, where they have gone 77-2 since 1999.

    Still, wide receiver Cody Hoffman and quarterback Riley Nelson are force to be reckoned with thanks to an improving defense that started to turn heads in the later stretch of last season.

    Brandon Ogletree and Kyle Van Noy are freaks at linebacker that will need to live up to some of their hype when they travel to South Bend and Atlanta against Notre Dame and Georgia Tech.

No. 32: Washington

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    It is amazing to believe that many feel that Keith Price is the country's best quarterback ahead of a guy like Matt ,e but "KP17" is a talented kid that can thread the needle and escape pressure while being harassed in the pocket.

    Losing Chris Polk is not fun, but Jesse Callier and Bishop Sankey are talented backs to help take some of the pressure off Price.

    Those backs will be vital since everybody knows the Huskies like to gunsling it with guys like James Johnson and future superstar tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins.

    The defense at the end of the day, however, is still the biggest concern (by far). They looked like they had led in their shoes while playing Baylor in the Alamo Bowl, though most defenders looked like such in defending the Heisman Trophy winner.

    Still, ranking at No. 106 in total defensive yards allowed (454 YPG) is an atrocious stat to be a part of, and they will not stand a chance against LSU, Oregon and USC in the first seven weeks of the season if their seven returning starters cannot take it up a few notches.

No. 31: Missouri

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    Mizzou has a shot to shock the nation, and especially the SEC fans, if it can upset Georgia in the second weekend of the season when it hosts the Bulldogs.

    Twelve starters combined are returning, which makes for an intriguing season, but the healthy and production from quarterback James Franklin will be vital.

    Is he a legit star, or will he be just another quarterback that the SEC throws out on Saturdays?

    Time will tell, but it doesn’t hurt to have guys Dorial Green-Beckham (DGB), Marcus Lucas or T.J. Moe hauling in passes.

    The defense better beef up a bit up front because Sheldon Richardson and Brad Madison cannot do it all by their lonesome. A brutal schedule in November (at UF, at UT, at A&M) could decide not only their SEC East fates, but also the chances of winning eight-plus games.

No. 30: Iowa

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    Many are not even looking at the Hawkeyes to contend in the Big Ten, but thank to Kirk Ferentz, James Vandenberg and Keenan Davis, they might just surprise everybody.

    Plus, that schedule is far from daunting, as they may only play three ranked teams all season (excluding bowl). That is great news, but the holes on both lines of scrimmage will sure make life interesting in Iowa City once again.

No. 29: South Florida

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    The Bulls are still waiting to break through and reach the BCS, and the hope is that senior quarterback B.J. Daniels will finally put together an entire season of success.

    Injuries have slowed him down, and the inconsistency of the program has taken away the ultimate goal for this team: Big East Championship.

    While teams like Louisville, Rutgers and Cincinnati are right there, the Bulls easily have the most talent coming back in their conference.

    The speed will be relentless on defense, and if they can avoid stubbing their toes early on (at Nevada, vs. Rutgers before vs. FSU), USF should be looking at a top 20-25 type of a season.

No. 28: Stanford

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    Posting a 23-3 record over the last two season with Andrew Luck as your starting quarterback made Stanford a national contending program, but will they be able to stay as one without him?

    Its recruiting job thus far has been outstanding, and it is starting to land all of the top prospects to contend with any team in the Pac-12. Great teams are strong up front, and the Cardinal are just that.

    Their two fierce linebackers can lay the wood (Shayne Skov, Chase Thomas), but a physical front four and offensive line is what has set the tone for the last two seasons.

    Stepfan Taylor is their workhorse back that can grind out yards, which leads to long drives resulting in six. Brett Nottingham is the expected starter, and he has a few better weapons around him arguably than Luck ever did.

    Start calling the Tree "Tight End U" because their duo of Levine Toilolo (6'6", 263 pounds) and Zach Ertz (6'6", 247 pounds) cold shine on any BCS squad.

    The schedule, though, is nearly top-10 difficult, with Washington, Notre Dame and Oregon all hosting the Cardinal. Throw in that September 15 home date with USC, and they may be struggling finally to reach that double-digit victory mark.

No. 27: North Carolina

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    The Tar Heels are quite the talented bunch with Larry Fedora taking over, but the schedule gives them an opportunity to succeed right away.

    Bryn Renner and Giovani Bernard are easily your most underrated backfield in America because they have the chance to both be extremely productive in 2012.

    Look for at least eight victories, and if it can sneak by a few teams, UNC has the makings of being your surprise team in the ACC for 2012. 

No. 26: Oklahoma State

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    Mike Gundy and his Cowboys deserve a bit higher of a ranking than this since they are coming off quite the season.

    Even after losing Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon, it won’t be impossible to produce legit numbers again, offensively speaking.

    Wes Lunt is a capable youngster (true freshman) that has a ton of toys to play with, thanks to Gundy’s ability to put everybody in the perfect position to shine on offense.

    He orchestrates with the best of them, but running back Joseph Randle seemingly was the quiet individual that held all the pieces of the puzzle together.

    His 26 TDs went unnoticed because Blackmon, Weeden and Wisconsin’s Montee Ball took most of the praise away from him.

    Good thing Randle doesn’t care about anything other than winning because Gundy once again has a solid cast of receivers (Josh Stewart, Isaiah Anderson, Tracy Moore). The schedule doesn’t let up, but at least some of the tough games are in Stillwater (Texas, West Virginia). 

No. 25: Florida

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    Talk about an underrated team listed as the final squad in my top 25 (least for now). Their defense is top-10 quality with arguably the best defensive line in the SEC (save LSU).

    However, the only legit chance the Gators have of winning the SEC East is if their offense can magically improve.

    They were abysmally bad ranking 105th in total offensive yards per game (328 YPG). Injuries and inexperience was the credit for that, but the hope is that quarterbacks Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett will be a major upgrade from last season (Brantley graduated).

    If they can get their young receivers to come away with bigger grabs, this team realistically could compete for an SEC East title under Will Muschamp. If the struggles on offense continue, we could see them end up with another five-plus-loss type of season (including eventual bowl game).


No. 24: TCU

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    Gary Patterson is always known for his defense because he has been able to put together quite the group of underrated stars. However, that defense let many down last year after losing several former stars.

    Now this squad has become an offense that is able to keep pace with the best of the bunch, thanks to Casey Pachall threading the needle.

    Ed Wesley had to leave the team for family reasons, but no need to panic with Waymon James and Matthew Tucker still around.

    Josh Boyce leads a talented group (Skye Dawson, LaDarius Brown, Brandon Carter too) as well, but the pass defense better improve upon its No. 60 ranking (223 YPG).

No. 23: Notre Dame

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    Brian Kelly would really love a BCS bid these days, but this is not the season to sit back and relax.

    Thanks to a deadly schedule that many prognosticator ranks as the toughest in America (Phil Steele), the Irish will be hopeful to notch as many wins as they did last season.

    They are losing their best playmaker on offense in Michael Floyd, but an improved line on top of better decisionmaking should make this offense much better than last season.

    That, of course, is knowing there is some inexperience at receiver, but All-American tight end Tyler Eifert and stud back Cierre Wood should allow this team to look much better on the field than one season ago.

    That team from one year ago could not do the simple things, and it cost Notre Dame dearly. Manti Te'o, arguably the best defensive player in the country, is back, but he will need a young secondary to rise to the occasion against some elite college football passers (Landry Jones, Matt Barkley).

    If it can find a way to defeat one of those superstars or at least split with the Michigan schools (throw in Sparty), a BCS bowl is possible, although an eight-win year would have to be considered a tremendous season.

    The future is bright, but until Kelly or a quarterback under center looks consistent, we will all have to see what drama unfolds in 2012.

No. 22: Utah

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    This could be the least talented team in the top 40, but they do all the little things right. John White IV at running back will explode in the Pac-12, and that dreadful passing attack can only get better.

    They were ranked 99th (173 YPG), but the return of Jordan Wynn should be an improvement, assuming he is healthy (shoulder surgery). 

    The schedule and the underrated defense is the reason why these Utes are ranked this high, but their season could take a turn for the best if they manage to shock the landscape of college football on October 4. If not, still bank on the Utes cracking somewhere near the bottom of the top 25 when all is said and done.

No. 21: Virginia Tech

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    Blacksburg has been spoiled, thanks to Frank Beamer posting 10 or more victories in eight consecutive seasons.

    Logan Thomas is the guy that will be relied upon to make it nine seasons where the Hokies quietly do work on the gridiron.

    The defense should statistically rank among the best in college football, but if VT cannot run the ball, then this offense will fall short of another BCS bid.

No. 20: Tennessee

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    Tyler Bray really needs to stay healthy because the Vols' offense has a chance to become arguably the most explosive bunch (in the SEC).

    Da’Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter are studs on the outside, but the improved play by the offensive line is the key. Together as a group, they have a combined 105 career starts returning (tied for third-most in nation), but their two mammoth tackles are quietly the key to the season.

    Ja’Wuan James and Antonio Richardson were highly touted players not too long ago, and they must continue to protect Bray and improve in the running game.

    Marlin Lane is a solid, underrated back, and a few victories right off the bat (NC State, UF) could go a far way for one of my most improved teams in the country. 

No. 19: Boise State

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    Chris Petersen is quite the coach as he enters his seventh season with the Boise State Broncos. Having a career record of 73-6 is surreal because the guy consistently proves the naysayers wrong.

    Every year, there are several key pieces missing, and yet he finds a way to have the perfect players fit into his system. This year might just be the toughest to overcome after losing the most successful quarterback in the history of the FBS.

    Kellen Moore won 50 ball games, and in steps an experienced Joe Southwick, who saw time in a ton of games from the last two seasons (mop-up duty). Moore did not even play in the fourth quarter in half of their games last season.

    Throw in the return of D.J. Harper as well as star receiver Matt Miller, and this offense actually may not be too shabby.

    Plus, the defense always reloads under Petersen, but they need the young secondary to perform to its best ability in games against Michigan State, BYU and Nevada.

    Win two of those three and go no worse than 11-1, and just maybe these Broncos do not end up on the outside looking in again when the BCS pairings are released in December.

    Surely, a victory in East Lansing and a perfect regular season would end any doubt on whether they are once again for real.

No. 18: Clemson

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    The Clemson Tigers once again fooled most of us in the Orange Bowl, as they were obliterated by West Virginia (70-33). The team has that sexy talent you look for in a program on the rise, and Sammy Watkins sure can scoot (recently ran 4.2).

    Arguably the most electrifying player on the planet, Watkins, alongside his quarterback Tajh Boyd, gives Clemson another shot at a berth in the BCS.

    Certainly a suspension is looming, according to Dabo Swinney, after Watkins could not stay out of some trouble, but even if he were unable to play against Auburn in the opener, I would still fear these Tigers.

    The defense is a wild card despite returning seven starters, but the athletic back seven gives them a chance to come away with a bunch of turnovers if the front four can get any sort of pressure.

    Getting time in between their biggest games (Auburn, FSU, VT, SC) should allow them to pick up at least once of those games.

    The expectations are once again sky-high, but the skill players (Ellington, Hopkins, Brown, Howard) should allow them to notch at least nine wins.  

No. 17: Michigan

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    I had the Michigan Wolverines as one of my top surprises for the 2011 season, and they surely did not disappoint, as they even exceeded my expectations as they ended up winning a wild Sugar Bowl contest.

    Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison (Al Borges too) deserve a whole lot of credit because there may not have been a more impressive coaching staff last season than these geniuses.

    Denard Robinson has one year left on his illustrious resume, but he has yet to defeat Michigan State, and that in itself has to be looked upon as a disappointment.

    He was able to finally knock off Ohio State, and that game ended a miserable 2,926 days since their previous victory over the much respected and despised Buckeyes.

    Fitzgerald Toussaint is the horse they will lean on, and hopefully he can see less than nine-men fronts because the Wolverines' receivers need to improve win or lose (13-point underdogs) against Alabama in the opener.

    If that defense miraculously performs well up front at the line (legit linebackers), this team will be playing in another BCS bowl (if not, expect four losses when all said and done). 

No. 16: Auburn

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    Gene Chizik has done a sensational job coaching through his three seasons on the Plains, having won a BCS title.

    However, his two other seasons were non-winning seasons, although the expectations were not sky-high compared to a few other elite programs.

    Auburn has proven it is right there with a boatload of young stars on the roster. This defense has nearly everybody back, and they have the makings of being one of the more improved groups in the SEC, but the front four looks to be special.

    Great teams are built up front, and the Tigers look like they have a legit starting four with Corey Lemonier, Jeffrey Whittaker, Kenneth Carter and Nosa Eguae. Dee Ford, LaDarius Owens and Gabe Wright might just be the best backups in the country, as they too can bring the pain.

    This Auburn squad will go as far as their offense takes it because it was unable to put up any sort of a fight against the big boys.

    It won’t outslug LSU or Alabama, but it might not be far behind in the offensive talent department thanks to a few studs (Blake, McCalebb, Mason, Stallworth, Lutzenkirchen).

    Fasten those seat belts because the season could take us all on for a roller-coaster ride with Clemson, Mississippi State and LSU all before October.

No. 15: Nebraska

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    The Cornhuskers have been ripped apart by many prognosticators thanks to an unproductive passing game and the throwing mechanics from Taylor Martinez.

    The kid is just a junior, and Bo Pelini (who has drawn criticism as well) is working to get him at his best in time for the heavyweight battles. Speaking of heavyweight, running back Rex Burkhead might just be the true definition of a hard-nose north-south runner.

    The guy never goes down on first contact, and his ability to carry this offense when it matters most might be as impressive as any individual among the country.

    The defense was also ripped since these Huskers are one of the most prestigious programs in college football history, but I would suspect that seven returning starters all improve together as a unit under Bo and John Papuchis.

    Any improvements made, and this team could have some high hopes with Wisconsin and Michigan both coming to town this year (win both, and dare I say BCS?).

No. 14: South Carolina

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    The Gamecocks are coming off their best stretch in program history, as they have now won 20 games in their last two seasons.

    Steve Spurrier is the man, and he isn’t afraid to speak his mind, but he will need a few stars to appear in his famous passing game assault.

    Alshon Jeffrey was a star two seasons ago, and although his numbers dropped a decent bit, the loss of Marcus Lattimore in the seventh game certainly had a strong impact.

    Coming off that gruesome leg injury, Lattimore is poised to return to the nation’s best player in the country.

    Throw in their fierce pass-rushers (Clowney, Taylor), and the defense stacks up well with the rest of the East contenders. The secondary was darn good last season (second in both pass and efficiency D), but they will need to show up once again despite the loss of a few studs.

    Many have a beef with how they have been jobbed a bit with the schedule (just tough luck unfortunately), but they will need to prove they have the offensive line, and more importantly, the winning attitude to knock off the likes of Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, LSU and Arkansas.

No. 13: Wisconsin

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    The Badgers under Bret Bielema have been quite the dominant team during the regular season in recent memory (21-4 last two years), but this team’s success will always be based off their line play.

    That beefy and athletic offensive line has been considered as the best in the country, but it doesn’t hurt to have one of the best back in the BCS era such as Montee Ball.

    Coming off an FBS record 39 total TDs (not counting his one TD pass), Ball is primed and ready for another sensational season.

    The defense has stars aligned at linebacker (Mike Taylor, Chris Borland), but as good as they were, they couldn't quite corral the speedy defense of the Ducks in the Rose Bowl.

    That defense has never been the fastest in the country, and many feel they were exposed, but it was quite possible that the Ducks on paper could have played with almost any team in the nation.

    Russell Wilson really meant a whole lot to this offense, as he added an extra dimension with Houdini-like feet in the pocket, and Danny O’Brien may not be nearly as productive. Still, he was a freshman stud with the Terps two seasons ago, and he will be filled with an array of talent around him.

    Jared Abbrederis and Jacob Pedersen make the All-Underrated Team in my book, but home games against Michigan State and Ohio State will be much more difficult than most realize.  

    Bank on another division crown, but a third appearance in Pasadena could come up short this time around thanks to a much improved Big Ten.

No. 12: West Virginia

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    Geno Smith and his receivers are sensational, and many, including myself, are wondering if they can do what Oklahoma State just did in the Big 12.

    That would be to go bonkers with an accurate signal-caller and a few stud receivers. Blackmon was often a one-man attack in their passing game, but the Mountaineers have several guys that can absolutely torch you.

    The defense is suspect heading into the season, but realistically, they just need a stop or two per half to have a shot at winning nearly every game.

    Expect 35-40 points a game, and depending on what they do against Texas and Oklahoma, the fighting mad scientist’s (Dana Holgorsen) team might just be sitting pretty in January.

No. 11: Michigan State

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    The Spartans have been beating up on Michigan in the last four seasons, and although they have no BCS appearances to show for it, they are right on the cusp of becoming the best in the Big Ten.

    Andrew Maxwell is an athletic quarterback that will attempt to take over for Sparty’s most successful quarterback in program history (winningest, Cousins won 28).

    Le’Veon Bell might be the best back in terms of power and speed (6’2” 238 pounds), but their solid offensive line is what makes the holes so wide open.

    We know how impressive the defense will be, but the young and inexperienced receivers are the only thing that could hold this team back from its first trip to Pasadena since 1988.

No. 10: Oklahoma

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    Bob Stoops and his Sooners were coming off a solid Fiesta Bowl victory over Connecticut (48-20), and they were rewarded with the No. 1 ranking in college football’s preseason.

    They received so much hype, and many thought their road victory at Doak Campbell Stadium over Florida State would be what put them over the top.

    They thumped Texas by 48 and later crushed Kansas State by 41, but mixed in between was a disappointing loss to Texas Tech after a 90-minute delay due to inclement weather.

    Landry Jones turned down the NFL, and although he did not throw a TD pass in his final three games without Ryan Broyles, he looked a bit more like himself in their Insight Bowl victory over Iowa.

    Kenny Stills and Trey Metoyer must fill in more for the losses of Broyles as well as Jaz Reynolds and Trey Franks (scholarships removed, currently not on team).

    Nobody is anticipating the return of those two key pieces at receiver, so it may be up the “Belldozer” in Blake Bell and running backs Dominique Whaley and Roy Finch (Brennan Clay and all-everything fullback Trey Milliard too) to carry more of a billing.

    The defense was not Oklahoma-caliber, and losing two of their best players (Ronnell Lewis, Frank Alexander) will not help matters heading into the season, but the back seven will be the strength of the defense.

    Athletic and fast, these Sooners should be improved, and they will be led by star safety Tony Jefferson, who, as a junior, is one of the elite talents in the Big 12.

    If it can once again get by Texas, we might see OU capture the Big 12 title, albeit West Virginia and TCU should be give it all it can handle. 

No. 9: Ohio State

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    Urban Meyer is finally back home, and the Buckeyes are ecstatic to haul in such a prestigious future Hall of Famer.

    Meyer is already hauling in the best recruits in the country, but the defense he has returning is quite possibly the best in the Big Ten.

    John Simon, Garrett Goebel, Johnathan Hankins and Nathan Williams are one of the best front fours in the country, but the secondary is darn athletic.

    C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant might have what it takes to become All-Big Ten this season, and the starting corners are not too shabby either (Travis Howard, Bradley Roby).

    The schedule is tough, but all those tough games (save at MSU, at Wisc) are at home on account the Buckeyes have the fortune of eight homes games this season (first four to start year).

    If this team wants to even dream of following up what the USC Trojans did last season (top-five finish), the offense needs to become much better. It became a joke at times watching the Buckeyes because the expectations were fairly high.

    Braxton Miller is a future Heisman candidate, but that team he anchored last season finished 107th in the nation for offensive yards per game (318 YPG).

    The young receiving corps, led by Philly Brown, Devin Smith, Chris Fields, Verlon Reed and Michael Thomas might just be the most entertaining and anticipated young group to watch in the nation.

    That is, of course, if Miller can juke a few defenders and get some support from Jordan Hall and Carlos Hyde in their running game.  

No. 8: Texas

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    The Longhorns get the slight edge over the Sooners for me because this defense is absolutely loaded with stars.

    The secondary sure is flashy, but their athletic beef up front is what gives them a tremendous shot at returning to the BCS. Jackson Jeffcoat, Alex Okafor, Ashton Dorsey and junior college transfer Brandon Moore (6’5”, 335-pounds) should be tops among front fours in the Big 12.

    Texas’ secondary looks great as well thanks to the emergence from Quandre Diggs, but Kenny Vaccaro (All-American caliber) and Carrington Byndom look promising as well.

    The schedule is favorable, and the backs and receiver on offense are finally legit. It comes down to David Ash and his ability to gradually improve each and every week.

    If he can avoid any major issues, they should have a shot at coming close to running the table this season.

No. 7: Arkansas

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    Losing your head coach well prior to the summer in Bobby Petrino surely hurt, but many believe John L. Smith can get the job.

    That, of course, is because the Razorbacks have arguably the best quarterback-running back duo in college football. Tyler Wilson is a fine accurate quarterback that is loaded with the poise and moxie to lead the Razorbacks to their first ever SEC title (appeared in three title games).

    Knile Davis was one of the best backs in the country two seasons ago before he needed ankle surgery last summer.

    The guy is a nightmare for defensive coordinators, as he stands freakishly (6’2”, 226 pounds), but he can run in and outside the tackles with such ease. Throw in star wideout Cobi Hamilton alongside one of the best tight ends in the country (Chris Gragg), and you are looking at arguably the best offense in the SEC. 

    The defense, however, has always been the downfall, and it is unfortunate because they are not lacking the talent overall. Their beef up front has just been abused, and they have not been able to perform well in crucial games (see 'Bama last five years).

    They have hung in there with LSU (won three of last five), but the beef up front needs to play much better.

    Arkansas is are losing both edge rushers, and although it has both tackles returning, the linebackers need to play like the most underrated group in the country if it is to stand a realistic chance at winning the West.

No. 6: Oregon

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    The Chip Kelly-led Ducks are unstoppable these days because nobody can catch their skill players in the open field.

    The quick tempo is like slowing down a boatload of freak athletes in the NBA (hello LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant). De'Anthony Thomas and Kenjon Barner are the headliners this season, but the real story should be about bringing back arguably the best defense (by far) in the Kelly era.

    If the defense can step their game up, don't be shocked to see this team back into the BCS title picture. The USC Trojans will be hosting them in the regular season (November 3), but the chances of the Ducks losing twice to them are not as realistic as you would think.

    A split would lock up a BCS bid, and obviously, if they were to run the table, it would be nearly impossible to keep them out of the BCS National Championship.

No. 5: Georgia

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    The Bulldogs under Mark Richt have had a ton of talent but have recently been unable to take home the crystal ball.

    They were the preseason top-ranked team in the country in Matthew Stafford’s sophomore season (‘08), but instead had a 10-3 finish.

    UGA is once again coming off a similar season (10-4), as it won the SEC East and it has 16 starters returning. The defense (specifically at LB) is arguably the best in the country thanks to one of the finest defensive players out there (Jarvis Jones).

    It is never easy passing up a few million when you can become a rich first-round draft pick, but Jones has a bond with his ‘Dawgs, and they have some unfinished business to take care of.

    Bacarri Rambo is an All-American safety returning (will likely miss first four games), but he should be back and ready for another banner All-American caliber of a season.

    Aaron Murray and the offense are loaded with young playmakers (Crowell, Rome, Mitchell, Bennett, Marshall), but the offensive line will have to answer the bell when they go up against the likes of South Carolina, Florida, Auburn and potentially the SEC West winner as well.

    Outside of that fairly maligned offensive line, there are no weaknesses (secondary will be just fine), as coach Mark Richt looks to finally hold that crystal ball like the SEC has been accustomed to for the last six seasons.

No. 4: Florida State

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    Jimbo Fisher made us give Florida State unreachable expectations a season ago after he quietly took care of business by winning 10 games in year No. 1.

    It was tough going last season (9-4), as the injury bug hit them hard in September, and their relentless defense was on the field way too much against Oklahoma, Clemson and Wake Forest.

    However, everybody is back, and the recruits and overall depth of the program are starting to pile up. E.J. Manuel may be worshipped since he holds the keys, so it seems, but the guy needs some help in the running game.

    A plethora of talent with the likes of Devonta Freeman, Chris Thompson, Lonnie Pryor, James Wilder and Mario Pender will all go to waste if the young offensive line cannot continue to make tremendous strides.

    Many argue that every unit on this squad is top-10 worthy in the country (minus that OL), but this offensive line will not be too far behind if he we see young Bobby Hart (18 years old, Second Team All-American last season) improve.

    This team should not key on just one lineman, but although he may have struggled a tad in the spring game (good luck against FSU’s dominant line), the kid was sensational one year ago. It was almost as if the whole line played in unison because of the young pup (Stork, Fahrenkrug, Faircloth all played well down the stretch).

    If they can be that quiet and unsung unit, then perhaps these Seminoles will simply be unstoppable thanks to a defense that has top-five talents at each level (d-line, linebacker, secondary).  

No. 3: USC

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    The likely No. 1 team in the preseason has all the talent in the world, although many are questioning its depth heading into the season.

    The back seven of the defense is loaded with talent, and it will be tough for any team on the schedule to give them major issues (save Oregon).

    Matt Barkley is a current superstar and has NFL talent all around him, specifically at wide receiver, where Robert Woods and Marqise Lee can beat you deep on any given play.

    Lee looks like the bigger future star, but Woods is arguably the best route runner in the entire country. Throw in Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble at tight end, and the options start to really give you nightmares.

    Curt McNeal is the expected starter in the backfield, but DJ Morgan and a slew of freshman may need to rise to the occasion in some critical games.

    Those games include Utah on a Thursday night (October 4), at Washington the following weekend (October 13) and Oregon (November 3). Facing off against those high-flying Ducks will be a challenge since it is tough to beat a team twice in one season (just ask LSU with Alabama).

    While many are still questioning this depth and Lane Kiffin as their head coach, they are coming off quite the 10-2 season with all of their major pieces returning.

    The Trojans are the favorites to hold the crystal ball for a reason; they have a fairly favorable schedule and their firepower on offense can hang 40 on the scoreboard against anybody. 

No. 2: LSU

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    Les Miles and his Bayou Bengals are not only hopeful in returning to the BCS, but they are confident that they can run the gauntlet in the SEC for a second consecutive season.

    Having six superstar defenders return surely helps, but the defensive line is arguably the best on the planet. They have the beef with Bennie Logan, Anthony Johnson, Ego Ferguson and Josh Downs.

    Then they have filthy linebacker speed off the edge with Sam Montgomery, KeKe Mingo and Lavar Edwards.

    This unit by itself might be the best on the planet to watch because of the array of talents they all possess.

    The linebackers play nearly like All-Americans because of the push they get up front, but the secondary certainly has a few stars as well.

    None bigger than defensive back and return ace Tyrann Mathieu, who certainly will be tested more after losing Mo Claiborne to the NFL draft.

    Safety Eric Reid, however, should be considered the better prospect by most scouts because of his ridiculous size, speed and athleticism. His best quality might just be the nose he has for the ball because he sure as hell can lay the lumber.

    Winning championships starts with some defense, defense and some more defense. They have it, and then when you throw in their special teams, you start to wonder how they can even be beat.

No. 1: Alabama

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    Surprise!!

    Nick Saban is reloading that killer and unstoppable defense thanks to a boatload of 4- and 5-star recruits, but he is starting to reel in star junior college transfers that would be a stud for any team in the nation.

    All of the key pieces return on offense, and their offensive line is the best in the country. Barrett Jones is the reigning Outland Trophy winner, whereas D.J. Fluker and Chance Warmack are among the best in the country for their position.

    A.J. McCarron played his best game of the season in the BCS title against LSU, but that was because he finally had received help from his young receivers.

    Although their top four targets are gone from a year ago (Maze, Smelley, Richardson, Hanks), look for a major upgrade by tight end Michael Williams, Kenny Bell, Kevin Norwood and perhaps Duron Carter as well. The backfield is absurd with Eddie Lacy, Jalston Fowler and freshman phenom TJ Yeldon.

    Yes, they are favored in every game (save at LSU, nearly a toss-up), and they have a chance to once again return to the promise land thanks to Saban’s Tide being more prepared, motivated and, most importantly, more talented than the opposition.

     

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