College Football's Top 20 National Title Contenders for the 2012 Season

Danny Flynn@FlynnceptionSenior Analyst IAugust 2, 2012

College Football's Top 20 National Title Contenders for the 2012 Season

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    The USA Today preseason coaches poll Top 25 has just been released, which means that it’s officially time for college football fans to begin debating about which teams are ranked too high and too low and which teams are overrated and underrated for the 2012 season.

    Overall, there really aren’t many surprises in the Top 10 of the first official major poll of the offseason.

    Defending SEC champs LSU, defending national champs Alabama, USC, Oklahoma and Oregon claimed the top five spots, which was pretty much to be expected.

    As we’ve learned in recent years, however, preseason polls are far from a foolproof indicator or perfect predictor for success.

    Just ask Oklahoma fans, Texas A&M fans and Florida State fans, who all watched their preseason Top 10-ranked teams falter and disappoint in 2011.

    On paper, LSU, Alabama and USC may be the three best teams in college football going into the season, but there are also plenty of other capable challengers out there that could step up and contend for a national crown.

    Here’s a look at how college football’s top 20 national title contenders stack up for the 2012 season.

1. LSU Tigers

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    It's difficult to really assess just how disappointing LSU's no-show performance against Alabama in the BCS championship game really was to the Tigers, given how special the 2011 season was for everyone surrounding the program.

    Regrouping from such a disastrous defeat won't be easy for a team that was riding so high for four months only to crash at the worst possible time.

    Still, if there's any group out there that has the talent to resurrect itself and make another run at a national championship this year, it's LSU.

    Sure, losing two top-15 NFL draft picks, CB Morris Claiborne and DT Michael Brockers, as well as All-American offensive guard Will Blackwell and leading receiver Rueben Randle definitely hurts, but the Tigers have plenty of reinforcements to help patch up the holes they need to fill for 2012.

    As far as the overall level of talent and depth is concerned, there's simply no other defense in college football that will compare to LSU's this season.

    The Tigers defense will feature seven players—defensive ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo, cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, safety Eric Reid, defensive tackles Bennie Logan and Anthony Johnson and linebacker Kevin Minter—who have All-American potential.

    Mingo, Montgomery, Mathieu and Reid all appear to be destined to be first-round picks in the 2013 NFL draft, and all four defensive stars will once again form the backbone of LSU's defense in 2012.

    After yielding an average of just 11.3 points and 262 yards per game last year, remarkably, this is a defense that could be even scarier this season.

    On offense, strong-armed junior quarterback Zach Mettenberger will take over a unit that should be able to move the ball much more effectively and consistently this year than it did in 2011.

    LSU has the deepest stable of running backs in the country with Kenny Hilliard, Spencer Ware, Michael Ford and Alfred Blue, as well as two dangerous threats at receiver in Odell Beckham Jr. and Russell Shepard.

    Plus, the Tigers have an offensive line that should be one of the strongest in the country, led by a potential future first-round NFL draft pick, left tackle Chris Faulk, as well as three other returning starters, including standout right tackle Alex Hurst.

    Mettenberger is a much more polished passer than either of last year's two quarterbacks, Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee, and the former Georgia Bulldog should be hungry to prove himself on the national stage.

    There's no doubt that there's enough talent in Baton Rouge for another undefeated tear through the SEC yet again, but it will all come down to the Tigers' attitude this year.

    LSU had an almost untouchable swagger during its 13-0 run to the BCS championship game last year, but after such a disappointing loss in such a big game, it remains to be seen if there will be any hangover effect in 2012.

    If there isn't, the Tigers will be right back in the hunt to win another SEC championship and contend for a BCS title once again this season.

2. USC Trojans

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    USC probably would have been good enough to win the Pac-12 South division this season even if QB Matt Barkley decided to leave early for the NFL. However, Barkley returning for his senior year makes the Trojans one of the true spotlight teams for the 2012 season.

    Barkley will enter his final year in a similar position to former Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, as he'll be lauded as both the preseason Heisman favorite and the early front-runner to be the No. 1 overall pick in next year's NFL draft.

    The star signal-caller is going to be the cover boy of college football this summer, but with all of those expectations comes a lot of pressure, and we'll find out if USC's latest "it" quarterback is really ready to handle the spotlight.

    This offseason, Barkley lost his ultra-talented and reliable blindside protector, left tackle Matt Kalil, who was taken with the fourth overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft. Still, with nine returning starters coming back, the USC offense will once again be loaded this season.

    Surrounding Barkley will be two of the top receivers in the country, Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, as well as running backs Curtis McNeal, who's one of the most underrated players in the Pac-12, and Silas Redd, a huge potential impact transfer from Penn State.

    It will also certainly help to have an offensive line that will feature five future pro players—tackles Aundrey Walker and Kevin Graf, guards Marcus Martin and John Martinez and center Khaled Holmes.

    Very few offenses in college football will be able to compare to USC's in 2012, but if the Trojans truly want to compete for a national title this season, they're going to need a big effort out of their defense as well.

    The unit's top four tacklers—linebackers Hayes Pullard and Dion Bailey, safety T.J. McDonald and cornerback Nickell Robey—all return.

    All four players have the type of talent to be future high NFL draft picks, and if all of them play up to their potential, they should be right in the running to earn All-American honors in 2012.

    Up front, the defensive line lost first-round pick DE Nick Perry, but it welcomes back another disruptive pass-rusher in Wes Horton on the outside. If the front four holds steady, the Trojans should have one of the strongest defenses in the country this year.

    With so much talent and veteran leadership returning for 2012, there hasn't been this much hype for a USC team since the heyday of the Pete Carroll era. The Trojans will enter the season on the short list of national title favorites.

    Matt Barkley may be the most talked-about star on this team, but he certainly won't be the only elite player on USC this season. McNeal, Woods, Lee, Holmes, McDonald, Horton, Pullard, Bailey and Robey will all play a key role in the team's success as well.

    If all of them can elevate their level of play and perform like they're capable of this season, USC could storm right through the Pac-12 like a freight train this season.

3. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    This offseason, Alabama parted ways with plenty of big-name stars like running back Trent Richardson, linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and safety Mark Barron.

    Obviously, any time a team loses eight players that were drafted by NFL franchises, including four first-round picks, there are going to be glaring holes to fill no matter how deep its roster is.

    It seems like the Tide are just readying the next crop of stars, though, as there's still plenty of elite talent left in Tuscaloosa, and there's plenty more on its way with the top-ranked incoming 2012 freshman class.

    On offense, you simply can't replace a rare physical specimen like running back Trent Richardson. However, Alabama does have one of the most underrated rushers in the country, Eddie Lacy, just waiting for his opportunity to shine.

    Lacy, a 6'0", 220-pound junior who averaged 7.1 yards per carry in 2011, could really carve out a name for himself in the SEC in 2012, especially since he'll be running behind college football's strongest offensive line, led by defending Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones.

    After leading the SEC in rushing offense last year, Alabama should once again have one of the most powerful ground games in the country this season.

    If this team truly wants to make another run at a BCS title in 2012, though, the Tide are going to need QB A.J. McCarron to become a much bigger factor in the offensive game plan.

    McCarron, a 6'4", 205-pound junior who is entering his second year as a starter, has to go from game manager to game winner, and it's now time for him to become a team leader and put the offense on his shoulders.

    Richardson and Alabama's stifling defense were the two main factors for the team's success last season, but now it will be up to McCarron to step his game up and play a bigger role in 2012.

    That stifling defense, which ranked first in the country in both scoring defense and total defense last year, loses six starters and four of its top five tacklers.

    There will surely be growing pains this season, but there will also be plenty of defenders who could be in store for a breakout campaign.

    Nose tackle Jesse Williams, defensive end Damion Square, linebackers Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley, cornerback Dee Milliner and safety Robert Lester all look like they're going to be a part of the next wave of great Tide defenders. Plus, all of them should be coveted pro prospects, just like their former teammates Upshaw, Hightower, Barron and Kirkpatrick were.

    The defense won't be historically dominant again, but with so much up-and-coming talent being coached by one of the best defensive coaching staffs in the country, it should grow into one of the nation's toughest units.

    Overall, if McCarron takes the next step in his development and emerges as a legitimate offensive weapon this season, the Tide will have what it needs to put together a strong title-defense campaign in 2012.

4. Oklahoma Sooners

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    At this time last year, Oklahoma was being praised and built up by the media as the best team in college football for the 2011 season. The Sooners started off ranked No. 1 in both major polls, and Bob Stoops' squad began the year firing on all cylinders, winning their first six games.

    It was one stormy night in mid-October, however, that drastically changed the national perception of the Sooners, as they suffered an embarrassing home loss to 29-point underdog Texas Tech.

    After a heartbreaking loss to Baylor and a blowout defeat at the hands of in-state rival Oklahoma State, Oklahoma soon found itself without a Big 12 championship, without an invitation to a BCS bowl and without a Top 10 national ranking by season's end.

    A 10-3 record would have been admirable for most schools, but for a team that was expected to do so much more, it was a bitter disappointment.

    Now, we'll get the chance to see just how resilient the boys from Norman really are, as they'll enter the 2012 season looking to prove that they're still one of college football's powerhouse programs.

    Given the fact that seven Sooners were selected in the 2012 NFL draft, including former team leaders WR Ryan Broyles and LB Travis Lewis, there will obviously be some key holes to fill this offseason.

    Still, Oklahoma has a ton of talent returning for the 2012 season, and the face of the team will once again be returning senior quarterback Landry Jones.

    Jones may have completed 63 percent of his passes for over 4,400 yards and 29 touchdowns in 2011, but he failed to live up to his preseason Heisman hype, and he made the wise decision to return to school when his pro stock took a considerable hit due to his struggles.

    While he'll surely miss his favorite receiver Broyles, fortunately for Jones, he'll have plenty of other playmakers to work with, such as running backs Dominique Whaley and Roy Finch and receivers Kenny Stills, Jaz Reynolds (when he returns from suspension) and incoming 5-star freshman Trey Metoyer.

    Jones will also have one of the nation's top offensive lines, led by potential All-American OG Gabe Ikard, to help keep him safe. However, he'll miss center Ben Habern, who has retired from football after numerous injuries.

    With Jones, Whaley and Stills all returning, Oklahoma's offense should once again be one of the most productive units in the country in 2012. Plus, the Sooners should have plenty of success on the defensive side of the ball as well.

    Seven defensive starters return for this season, including potential All-Big 12 standouts such as defensive tackle Jamarkus McFarland, linebackers Tom Wort and Corey Nelson, cornerbacks Demontre Hurst and Aaron Colvin and safety Tony Jefferson.

    Wort and Jefferson are only juniors, but they're definitely capable of taking on leadership roles, and you can bet that both of them are already on the NFL's radar.

    Since the offense shouldn't have much trouble scoring points this season, Oklahoma's defense doesn't have to necessarily be great; it just has to be good enough at the right times.

    This is a team that has a lot to prove in 2012, but with so much talent returning, the Sooners have the ammunition they need to really explode this season.

5. Georgia Bulldogs

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    After an 0-2 start last year, it seemed as if Georgia's 2011 season was on the verge of spiraling out of control, and it appeared as if much-criticized head coach Mark Richt's job could have been hanging in the balance.

    Thankfully for the Bulldogs and for Richt, the time of crisis brought out the best in quarterback Aaron Murray, who proceeded to lead the team on a 10-game winning streak, which ultimately landed Georgia an SEC East division title and an invitation to Atlanta for the SEC championship game.

    The season may have ended on a sour note with a blowout loss to LSU and a devastating triple-overtime defeat at the hands of Michigan State in the Outback Bowl, but it was still impressive to see Richt's crew bounce back when faced with adversity, which is something it didn't do in 2010.

    We watched as Murray matured right before our very eyes last season, as he developed into a veritable offensive leader, throwing for over 3,100 yards and hitting 35 touchdown passes in 2011.

    After taking a big step forward last season, the 6'1", 211-pound junior now has the chance to be one of the top contenders for the Heisman Trophy this year, and he'll once again have plenty of playmakers surrounding him.

    Starting running back Isaiah Crowell was booted from the team this summer, but Richard Samuel, Ken Malcome and incoming 5-star recruit Keith Marshall shouldn't have much trouble making up for his loss.

    Georgia will also have one of the best receiver corps in the country with four explosive pass-catchers—Tavarres King, Malcolm Mitchell, Marlon Brown and Michael Bennett—all returning.

    The offensive line, which lost two NFL draft picks—OT Cordy Glenn and C Ben Jones—is the only offensive unit that has considerable holes to fill. Nevertheless, with the return of guard Chris Burnette and tackle Kenarious Gates, two of the SEC's most talented linemen, the Bulldogs should remain strong enough up front to get the job done in 2012.

    Murray, King and the rest of the offense will likely garner most of the attention and the headlines this season, but if Georgia really wants to win the SEC and make a run at the big game down in Miami, the Bulldogs will need their defense to play at an elite level in 2012.

    With nine starters back, including 12 of the top 13 tacklers from a unit that ranked fifth nationally in total defense last year, Georgia's defense should be capable of doing just that.

    The Bulldogs' big, powerful and athletic front seven will once again be led by LB Jarvis Jones, who is one of the most explosive players in all of college football. Jones, a former transfer from USC, took the SEC by storm in 2011, leading the conference with 13.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss last year.

    Jones will be joined in the 3-4 front by defensive ends Abry Jones and Cornelius Washington, nose tackles Kwame Geathers and John Jenkins and fellow linebackers Alec Ogletree, Michael Gilliard and Chase Vasser.

    Early on in the season, the secondary will have to deal with suspensions to two of its top players—safety Bacarri Rambo and cornerback Sanders Commings—but once both players return, the Bulldogs should have one of the strongest defensive backfields in the country.

    While LSU's defense will receive most of the preseason attention around the SEC this summer, Georgia has the type of defensive stars it takes to steal away the spotlight from the Tigers this season.

    If Murray continues to develop into a top-flight signal-caller this year, and if the Georgia defense plays up to its potential, the Bulldogs should defend their SEC East division title and end up right back in Atlanta in 2012.

6. Florida State Seminoles

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    Florida State entered the 2011 season ranked in the Top Five of the coaches' poll, and the Seminoles were considered by many to be a legitimate threat to win a BCS championship.

    Those national championship aspirations quickly disappeared, however, after an early-season home loss to Oklahoma, and the goal of winning an ACC title fell by the wayside as well with consecutive losses to Clemson and Wake Forest in the following weeks.

    A record of 9-4 is obviously not one that left the Florida State faithful happy last season, especially given all of the expectations surrounding the team following its ACC championship game appearance in Jimbo Fisher's first season back in 2010.

    Still, there's reason for optimism once again in Tallahassee, as the Seminoles bring back one of the most talented defenses in college football, as well as one of the most intriguing quarterbacks in the country, E.J. Manuel.

    Manuel has all of the physical skills to be a star, but he's going to have to figure out how to put it all together to reach his full potential in his final season.

    Luckily, the senior signal-caller will have plenty of talent to work with at both running back and wide receiver this year.

    The Seminoles may have only ranked 104th nationally in rushing offense in 2011, but that's sure to change this year with the return of Devonta Freeman, Chris Thompson and James Wilder Jr. and the addition of incoming highly-touted freshman Mario Pender.

    Receiver is another position of strength, as the team's top four pass-catchers from last season—Rashad Greene, Rodney Smith, Christian Green and Kenny Shaw—all return, as does Willie Haulstead, who missed the year with a concussion.

    Admittedly, the offensive line needs some work, especially after losing offensive tackles Zebrie Sanders and Andrew Datko, but there's enough talent returning up front to at least be serviceable enough for success.

    On the other side of the ball, the defense is once again absolutely loaded with playmakers. Nine starters are returning from a unit that ranked fourth in the country in total defense last season.

    The defensive line, which features potential All-American ends Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner, as well as the powerful tackle combo of Tim Jernigan and Everett Dawkins, will be one of the nation's strongest front fours.

    Junior weak-side linebacker Christian Jones, who appears poised to have a breakout season in 2012, will be be the leader of a linebacker corps that certainly isn't short on athleticism and speed.

    In the secondary, Lamarcus Joyner and Xavier Rhodes are two of the best defenders in the ACC, and they're the type of reliable stalwarts that definitely solidify the strong defensive backfield.

    With so many defensive difference-makers coming back, it seems like almost a guarantee that Florida State will once again rank in the top 10 nationally in both total defense and scoring defense this year.

    The big question, though, is what will Manuel do with the offense?

    The 6'5", 245-pound former 5-star recruit has the type of supporting cast at the skill positions that he needs to guide Florida State to an ACC championship and the school's first BCS bowl appearance since the 2005 season.

    All Manuel has to do now is prove that he can handle the pressure and the spotlight.

    If he can do that, the Seminoles should be able to contend for both a conference championship and a national title in 2012.

7. Oregon Ducks

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    Since coach Chip Kelly took over in Eugene in 2009, Oregon has gone a combined 34-6, won three straight conference championships and made three straight appearances in BCS bowl games.

    Kelly transformed the Ducks into a Pac-12 powerhouse with his unique brand of high-tempo spread offense, and the team is now one of the most athletic and explosive squads in the country.

    Oregon's spread system has produced some notable recent stars such as RB LaMichael James and QB Darron Thomas. However, because both players left early for the NFL, Kelly will now have to find some new athletic speedsters to exploit in 2012.

    Luckily for the coach, he's got two of college football's most dangerous running backs—Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas—to feature this season.

    Last year, Barner and Thomas combined for 2,323 yards of total offense and scored 30 total touchdowns, and they both proved that they should have no trouble stepping in for James, who was a second-round pick in this year's NFL draft.

    Barner and Thomas are an absolutely dynamic backfield duo, but there are still questions surrounding the quarterback position, where sophomore Bryan Bennett and redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota will continue their battle in fall camp.

    Bennett and Mariota both seem like they should be capable of thriving in Oregon's scheme, and it will be interesting to see who ultimately gets handed the offensive reins this year.

    No matter who ends up under center, Kelly shouldn't have any trouble putting together another high-powered offensive attack in 2012. However, you have to believe that the defense will be looking to finally earn some recognition of its own as well this season.

    The unit has lost some key players from last year, such as safety Eddie Pleasant and linebacker Josh Kaddu, but it will still have a true difference-maker at every level this season.

    DE Dion Jordan, who earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors after racking up 7.5 sacks in 2011, will lead a defensive line that should be stout both inside and out. Jordan will man the edge, while tackles such as Isaac Remington, Ricky Heimuli and Wade Keliikipi will occupy the interior.

    LB Michael Clay, who notched 102 tackles and three sacks in 2011, will be the much-needed veteran presence in the linebacker corps, where he'll be joined by gritty senior Kiko Alonso and intriguing physical specimen Boseko Lokombo.

    The showcase player of Oregon's defense, though, will once again be safety John Boyett, who might just deserve the title of most underrated defender in college football. Boyett has led the Ducks in tackles in two out of the past three seasons, racking up a total of 276 stops in his career.

    The 5'10", 202-pound senior will once again be the linchpin of a secondary that will also include two very talented sophomore cornerbacks, Terrance Mitchell and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.

    With a schedule that's back-loaded—one that doesn't include any tough non-conference opponents such as Boise State or LSU this year—Oregon shouldn't have a problem making it to November undefeated.

    The Ducks will probably have to beat USC twice, once on Nov. 3 and once in the Pac-12 championship game, if they want to make it to the BCS championship, but after last year's home defeat at the hands of the Trojans, they should be able to find plenty of motivation for both games.

    Even without Thomas and James, a third straight 12-win season is a definite possibility for Oregon in 2012.

8. West Virginia Mountaineers

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    After successful stops as an offensive coordinator at schools such as Texas Tech, Houston and Oklahoma State, Dana Holgorsen had managed to gain a reputation around college football as one of the most innovative offensive minds in the game.

    After spending 18 years as an assistant coach, Holgorsen was finally given the opportunity to prove himself as a head coach at a BCS school when West Virginia AD Oliver Luck decided to bring him to Morgantown to be the head-coach-in-waiting of the Mountaineers.

    After the messy offseason resignation of Bill Stewart last summer, Holgorsen was thrust into the head coaching role a year earlier than expected, but he still managed to guide the team to a Big East championship and back to its first BCS bowl game since the 2007 season.

    Last year, the Mike Leach disciple's Air Raid-style offensive attack helped West Virginia rank sixth in the nation in passing offense, 13th in scoring offense and 15th in total offense. Under Holgorsen's watch, the Mountaineers averaged 37.6 points and 470 yards per game in 2011.

    The highlight of the year came when the offense really kicked into overdrive in a record-breaking 70-33 blowout of Clemson in the Orange Bowl.

    Holgorsen's pupil, QB Geno Smith, proved to be the type of perfect strong-armed decision-maker to lead the offensive assault. Smith completed nearly 66 percent of his passes for 4,385 yards and 31 touchdowns in his first year in the system.

    Given another offseason to learn more of the nuances of the pass-heavy scheme, there's no telling what Smith could be capable of in 2012, especially since he'll have his two favorite receivers, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, back once again.

    Austin and Bailey, who combined to catch 173 passes for 2,465 yards in 2011, are two of the most explosive playmakers in the country, and they should yet again put tons of stress on opposing secondaries this year.

    With running backs like Dustin Garrison, Shawne Alston and Andrew Buie all coming back, as well as four starters on the offensive line, West Virginia surely won't be just a one-dimensional offense in 2012.

    There's no doubt that the Mountaineers should put up plenty of points this season, but what we have to see is if they'll be able to slow down the powerful offensive attacks that they'll now face in the Big 12.

    The team loses five of its top nine tacklers from last year, including NFL draft picks DE Bruce Irvin, LB Najee Goode and CB Keith Tandy.

    Still, with six starters returning, most notably defensive tackle Jorge Wright, linebacker-safety hybrid Terence Garvin and linebacker Jewone Snow, as well as potential breakout players such as linebackers Doug Rigg and Josh Francis and cornerback Brodrick Jenkins stepping into the lineup, the defense should be ready for the tough tests it will face in 2012.

    West Virginia certainly has the athletes it takes to compete for a Big 12 championship this year, but what it will come down to is whether or not the Mountaineers can survive in the trenches against the bigger, stronger fronts that they'll face in their new conference.

    If the offensive and defensive lines are up to the task, Dana Holgorsen's squad should have quite an introductory campaign in the Big 12 this season.

9. South Carolina Gamecocks

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    Since RB Marcus Lattimore is such a rare and special talent, it would have been completely understandable if South Carolina had proceeded to fall apart after Lattimore went down with a serious knee injury midway through last season.

    That's especially true when you consider the fact that the Gamecocks also parted ways with their starting quarterback Stephen Garcia five games into the year.

    Lattimore's absence didn't seem to have much effect on the team's success, however, as Steve Spurrier's squad still finished the 2011 season with a very impressive 11-2 record, which included wins over Georgia, Florida, Clemson and Nebraska.

    The steady play of quarterback Connor Shaw, who took over the starting job full-time in the sixth game of the year against Kentucky, was a big help. However, the real reason that South Carolina was able to pile up victories even without its star running back was the play of its defense, which ranked third in the nation in total defense and 10th in scoring defense, allowing just 268 yards and 18.4 points per game.

    That defense may have lost four NFL draft picks, including two players—CB Stephon Gilmore and DL Melvin Ingram—who were selected in the top 20, but there are still plenty of experienced veterans returning at all three levels.

    Up front, the defensive end duo of Devin Taylor and Jadeveon Clowney is one of the best in college football; they combined to pile up 14 sacks in 2011. The versatile Ingram will be missed in the interior, but the Gamecocks have one of the most intriguing defensive tackles in the country in Kelcy Quarles, who is definitely worth keeping an eye on this season.

    Middle linebacker Shaq Wilson and linebacker-safety hybrid DeVonte Holloman are two talented and sound seniors who know how to roam around the field and find the football.

    The secondary will miss Gilmore, who was a consistent and reliable three-year starter, but cornerback Akeem Auguste and safety D.J. Swearinger are both capable of holding things down in the back end.

    The defense should once again be one of the best in the country, but as with any Steve Spurrier-coached team, the focus will be on the offensive side of the ball.

    Lattimore, who has totaled over 2,600 yards of offense and scored 30 touchdowns in just 20 games of action during his college career, is expected to be ready to return by the time fall camp opens up.

    The 6'1", 232-pound junior is one of the most physically gifted backs to grace the college game in years, and if his knee is ready to go, he could be in store for a monster comeback campaign in 2012.

    This year, Connor Shaw will be aided by the fact that he knows for sure that he'll be the starter this season, and he should benefit from not having to split reps with Garcia this offseason.

    While Shaw is going to miss big receiving target Alshon Jeffery, South Carolina does have some potential breakout stars in the receiver corps such as Ace Sanders, Bruce Ellington and incoming 4-star freshman Shaq Roland.

    It's taken some considerable time for Spurrier to build the Gamecocks into a team that is truly ready for the national stage, but now, the old ball coach finally seems to have the quarterback and the type of athletes on both sides of the ball that he needs to win an SEC championship.

    With a schedule that includes Missouri, Georgia, LSU, Florida, Tennessee, Arkansas and Clemson, there are certainly plenty of tough tests awaiting this season. However, with the type of talent that Spurrier has assembled in Columbia, it appears that the Gamecocks are now ready to make a lot of noise on the national scene in 2012.

10. Texas Longhorns

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    Texas has experienced a dramatic drop-off over the last two years after dominating the Big 12 since the turn of the millennium and piling up double-digit victories in nine straight seasons. After an embarrassing five-win campaign in 2010, the Longhorns won just eight games this past season, which included blowout losses to both Oklahoma and Baylor.

    You won't have to search for many reasons to figure out why Texas hasn't looked like the same juggernaut we saw from 2001 through 2009. This is a team that has seemingly lacked motivation recently, but more importantly, it's also lacked a consistent quarterback.

    After having Vince Young and Colt McCoy, two of the most successful signal-callers in college football history, under center for a seven-year period, over the last two seasons the Longhorns have found out what it's like to have subpar play at football's most important position.

    Former 5-star recruit Garrett Gilbert was supposed to be the team's quarterback of the future, but Gilbert turned out to be a bust, and his two replacements, David Ash and Case McCoy, were far from spectacular last season.

    Ash will now be called on to provide stability at quarterback in 2012, and it will be interesting to see if he's up to the challenge.

    The 6'3", 222-pound sophomore signal-caller will have all the tools at his disposal to build the Texas offense into something special this season.

    The Longhorns have three running backs—Malcolm Brown, Joe Bergeron and incoming 5-star freshman Johnathan Gray—that should provide a powerful rushing attack this year, and they also have a trio of talented receivers in Jaxon Shipley, Mike Davis and Marquise Goodwin.

    Opening up holes for Brown, Bergeron and Gray and giving Ash time will be one of the best offensive lines in the country, led by potential All-Big 12 guards Mason Walters and Trey Hopkins.

    While the Texas offense may have to improve this season, there's really nothing that the defense has to change, as the Longhorns have ranked 11th or better in the country in total defense each of the past three seasons.

    This year's group is stocked with future high NFL draft picks, most notably defensive ends Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat, defensive tackle Ashton Dorsey, linebacker Jordan Hicks, cornerbacks Carrington Byndom and Quandre Diggs and safety Kenny Vacarro.

    The defense will surely miss last year's leading tacklers, linebackers Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson, but with so much elite talent returning, the unit will once again be one of the best in college football.

    Texas will have the defense it takes to compete for a national title this season, but the big question mark remains at quarterback.

    Ash has the offensive talent at his disposal to lead the Longhorns to a conference championship in 2012, but he's still got a lot to prove, and it remains to be seen if he'll indeed be able to handle the tremendous pressure that he's sure to face in 2012.

11. Arkansas Razorbacks

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    At the start of the offseason, it seemed as if Arkansas was going to have everything it needed to compete for an SEC championship and a BCS title in 2012.

    Not only was QB Tyler Wilson, one of college football's best passers, returning for his senior season; the Razorbacks were also welcoming back star RB Knile Davis, who missed all of the 2011 season with an ankle injury.

    Wilson and Davis were set to be the two major centerpieces of coach Bobby Petrino's high-powered offensive attack, one which averaged 36.8 points per game in 2011.

    However, back in early April, a shocking scandal arose involving Petrino and a young female assistant, which ultimately ended up costing the coach his job.

    The fallout has hit the program hard, especially given the high expectations that were placed on the Razorbacks just a few months ago.

    John L. Smith, the 63-year-old former Michigan State coach, is the one who has been given the task of trying to keep the Arkansas train on the tracks this season. Obviously, though, it remains to be seen how Smith, who has a head coaching record of just 79-65 at FBS schools, will fare in the ultra-competitive SEC West in 2012.

    Luckily for Smith, Arkansas' offense has the type of dynamic and explosive weapons to compete with any team in the conference this year.

    Wilson and Davis may be the two big names, but WR Cobi Hamilton and TE Chris Gragg are also two of the top players at their respective positions in the country.

    It also helps that the Razorbacks will bring back three starting offensive linemen from 2011, including potential All-SEC standouts such as OG Alvin Bailey and C Travis Swanson.

    There should still be plenty of offensive fireworks in Fayetteville this fall, even without Petrino overseeing the offense.

    Arkansas will have no trouble scoring points in 2012, but if the Razorbacks want to win the West division this year, they're going to need to step it up on defense, as they finished ranked eighth in the conference in scoring defense and ninth in total defense last season.

    Even though the team lost its two top tacklers from 2011—LB Jerry Franklin and S Tramain Thomas—there are still a few potential star defenders returning to the mix.

    Taking over for Franklin as the new defensive leader will be LB Alonzo Highsmith, who is the team's leading returning tackler after racking up 80 stops last year.

    Highsmith will be joined in the linebacker corps by former defensive end Tenarius Wright and senior Matt Marshall.

    The front four should help keep blockers from getting to the talented 'backer trio. Defensive tackles Byran Jones and Robert Thomas and defensive ends Trey Flowers and Chris Smith should be a handful for opposing offensive linemen to deal with.

    In the secondary, look for sophomore cornerback Tevin Mitchell to break out and become one of the most talked-about defensive backs in the SEC this season. Fellow corner Darius Winston and safeties Eric Bennett and Ross Rasner will also help in the improvement of a pass defense, which ranked 10th in the SEC last season.

    Overall, there's no question that Arkansas has the talent on both sides of the ball to compete for an SEC championship this season. The major uncertainty, though, is how the team will deal with the major offseason scandal and whether or not Smith can keep them focused on the ultimate goal.

    Wilson, Davis, Hamilton, Gragg, Highsmith and Mitchell are some of the most talented players in the SEC. If they all play up to their potential, and if they can get some help from the rest of Arkansas' supporting cast, the Razorbacks will definitely have a shot to win the SEC in 2012, even without their disgraced former head coach.

12. Clemson Tigers

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    "They're not ready yet."

    That was the main thought that crossed my mind after watching an undefeated Clemson team get trampled by Georgia Tech late last season.

    After watching the Tigers rise from preseason afterthought to Top Five-ranked team over the first two months of the season, I began to wonder if they were ready to really make a run at an undefeated season.

    As it turned out, though, youth and inexperience caught up to Dabo Swinney's team late in the year, and after starting off 8-0, they proceeded to drop four of their last six games.

    As if a blowout loss to in-state rival South Carolina wasn't bad enough, Clemson was embarrassed by West Virginia 70-33 in the Orange Bowl in front of a national audience, which overshadowed what was otherwise a very successful campaign.

    Still, why does the disastrous Orange Bowl performance seem to be what many fans remember about the Tigers from last season? There were actually a lot of great accomplishments for the team to build on for 2012.

    The play of the explosive offensive quartet of QB Tajh Boyd, RB Andre Ellington and WRs Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins was definitely encouraging, especially the performance by Watkins, who turned out to be college football's biggest freshman sensation of 2011.

    With Boyd, Ellington, Watkins and Hopkins all returning, Clemson will once again be absolutely loaded at the offensive skill positions.

    Like the offense, the defense is also stocked with athletic playmakers such as defensive end Malliciah Goodman, linebackers Stephone Anthony, Jonathan Willard and Corico Hawkins, cornerback Bashaud Breeland and safeties Rashard Hall and Xavier Brewer.

    The real key to the Tigers' ultimate success this year, though, will be the line play on both sides of the ball.

    Six new faces will be starting in the trenches on the offensive and defensive lines this year, and it remains to be seen how all of them will handle a more pressure-packed role and more responsibility in 2012.

    Clemson will once again be one of the most athletic teams in the country this season, and the team will be playing with something to prove, as last year's slide down the stretch should provide the players with added motivation.

    Boyd, Ellington, Watkins and Hopkins are a truly deadly combination on offense, and they should light up scoreboards on a routine basis throughout the season. Plus, the defense has enough talent in the back seven to go toe-to-toe with any offense that it'll face.

    If the Tigers can get strong enough play up front on both sides of the ball this year, they've got the type of dangerous offensive weapons that they need to repeat as conference champions in 2012.

13. Michigan Wolverines

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    It didn't take long for Michigan to get over Rich Rodriguez's less-than-stellar three-year tenure in Ann Arbor. Rodriguez's replacement, Brady Hoke, stepped in last season and experienced the type of instant success that Rodriguez could never find at the school.

    Hoke managed to tighten up the Wolverines defense, which was something that his predecessor could never figure out how to do, and the result was an 11-win season and the team's first BCS bowl victory since 2000.

    After last year's comeback campaign, Michigan will now once again be mentioned among the Big Ten's top contenders going into the 2012 season, and this is a team that has all the ingredients for another big run.

    It starts with electric dual-threat quarterback Denard Robinson, who has risen to national stardom over the past two years, as he's compiled over 7,600 yards of total offense and accounted for 78 total touchdowns as a starter.

    Robinson is one of the most explosive players in all of college football. After spending a year transitioning from Rodriguez's spread zone-read scheme to Al Borges' more conventional system, he now looks ready to have his best performance yet as a senior.

    The 6'1", 193-pound speedster has all of the offensive pieces that he needs to lead a potent offensive attack in 2012.

    Budding star running back Fitzgerald Toussaint (when he returns from suspension) will once again join Robinson in the backfield; dangerous receivers Roy Roundtree and Jeremy Gallon will provide the proper targets he needs; and a big, strong offensive line, led by future first-round NFL draft pick OT Taylor Lewan, should give him plenty of protection.

    Last year, Michigan ranked second in the Big Ten with an average of 6.2 yards per play, and with so much firepower returning, the Wolverines should be just as productive, if not more, in 2012.

    We know that the offense will be dangerous with Robinson leading the way. However, if the team wants to truly contend for a conference championship this season, it's going to need another big effort out of a defense that returns nine of the top 11 tacklers from a unit that only gave up 17.4 points per game in 2011.

    After losing three starters up front, including third-round draft pick DT Mike Martin, the defensive line will have to be rebuilt over the offseason. Luckily, though, veteran end Craig Roh is back to guide the inexperienced group, which will include intriguing—yet largely unproven—tackles William Campbell and Jibreel Black.

    The linebacker corps, which brings back potential All-Big Ten standouts Kenny Demens and Jake Ryan, will be one of the Big Ten's best.

    The secondary has four players—cornerbacks J.T. Floyd and Blake Countess and safeties Jordan Kovacs and Thomas Gordon—who have starting experience, and the unit should be one of the strongest in the conference in 2012.

    Going up against defending national champion Alabama in Cowboys Stadium on opening weekend will give Michigan the opportunity to make a statement to a national audience right out of the gate.

    Still, whether the Wolverines win or lose that game is inconsequential to the overall Big Ten race. What really counts is how they perform later in the year against Michigan State and Iowa at home and Nebraska and Ohio State on the road.

    Say what you will about Rodriguez, but there's no disputing the fact that he stocked this team with a lot of talent during his short time at the school, and it will be interesting to see what Hoke can get out of all of that talent in his second year in charge.

14. Virginia Tech Hokies

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    How does a team overcome losing a 1,700-yard rusher, its two top receivers and four starting offensive linemen from the year before?

    Well, in Virginia Tech's case, the Hokies are hoping that having a great quarterback and a dominant defense will be enough to offset all that they lost from last year's 11-3 squad.

    Waving goodbye to RB David Wilson, who led the ACC in rushing in 2011, along with receivers Danny Coale and Jarrett Boykin, who combined to catch 121 passes last season, definitely isn't something that second-year starting quarterback Logan Thomas wanted to do.

    Life without Wilson, Coale and Boykin is a reality he must face this year, though, as we'll now find out if Thomas is truly ready to put the offense on his back and guide the Hokies to the promised land in 2012.

    In his first season as a starter, the athletic 6'6", 262-pound dual-threat quarterback totaled over 3,400 yards and accounted for 30 total touchdowns, as he helped guide Virginia Tech to a Coastal division title.

    The junior signal-caller will now be joined by running back Michael Holmes and receivers Dyrell Roberts and Marcus Davis to form what will largely be a new-look offense in Blacksburg this season.

    Holmes, Roberts and Davis may not have the lengthiest college resumes, but all three should be capable of providing Thomas with the help he needs in 2012.

    The athletic, big-armed passer has the type of natural talent to be a special player this year, and if he plays up to his potential, it wouldn't be shocking to see him ultimately climb into the top-10 conversation for the 2013 NFL draft.

    Thomas will be the face of the Hokies this year, but the backbone of this team will be a defense that returns eight of its top 10 tacklers from a year ago.

    The Hokies have their fair share of difference-makers at all three levels of the defense this season.

    The defensive line is led by one of the best pass-rushing pairs in the country, comprised of ends James Gayle and J.R. Collins. The linebacker corps is headed by longtime leader Bruce Taylor and emerging junior Tariq Edwards. The spotlight in the secondary will be shined on the cornerback combo of Kyle Fuller and Antone Exum, two juniors who have an NFL future ahead of them.

    Under the watch of head coach Frank Beamer and defensive coordinator Bud Foster, Virginia Tech has put a strong and capable defense on the field year after year, and that won't change in 2012.

    With a defense that should be one of the best in the nation, and with a quarterback that possesses star potential, Virginia Tech definitely has the reinforcements it needs to overcome some key losses on offense and make it to the ACC championship game for the sixth time in eight years in 2012.

15. Wisconsin Badgers

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    When running back Montee Ball announced that he would return to Wisconsin for his senior year, it shocked many college football fans.

    After a breakout season in which Ball totaled 2,286 yards of offense, accounted for 40 touchdowns and finished fourth in the Heisman voting, pretty much everyone around Madison assumed that he would make the jump to the NFL.

    However, the Big Ten's leading rusher in 2011 made the surprising choice to return to school for his senior year, and Badgers fans couldn't be happier to have him back.

    Ball is the conference's best overall offensive player, and he should really help make up for the loss of his former backfield mate, QB Russell Wilson, who was a third-round pick in this year's NFL draft.

    This season, Ball will now be lining up behind another ACC transfer, former Maryland quarterback Danny O'Brien, a 6'3", 215-pound junior who regressed in 2011 after an impressive freshman performance in 2010.

    O'Brien isn't in the same class as Wilson as far as natural ability and leadership traits are concerned, but fortunately for him, he'll have a much better supporting cast at Wisconsin than he did at Maryland last year.

    Ball and fellow back James White are one of the top one-two rushing punches in college football, while wide receiver Jared Abbrederis and tight end Jacob Pedersen are two of the most skilled pass-catchers in the Big Ten. And as always, Wisconsin will have one of the biggest and strongest offensive lines in the country, led by potential All-Americans OT Ricky Wagner and C Travis Frederick.

    If O'Brien plays like the same player we saw in 2010, Wisconsin should once again have one of the most productive offensive attacks in the country this season.

    The Badgers should have a staunch defense as well, with six starters returning from a unit that gave up just 19 points per game last year.

    Linebackers Chris Borland and Mike Taylor, who combined to rack up an astonishing 293 total tackles in 2011, are two of the best defensive players in the nation, and Borland could end up being this year's version of former Boston College tackling machine Luke Kuechly.

    The defensive line is strong up the middle with big, powerful and physical defensive tackles such as Beau Allen, Ethan Hemer and Jordan Kohout, and defensive ends David Gilbert and Brendan Kelly should be able to apply constant pressure to quarterbacks.

    The secondary lost two key starters, safety Aaron Henry and cornerback Antonio Fenelus, but the return of cornerback Marcus Cromartie and safety Shelton Johnson should help to offset the holes they left.

    Over the last three years, this is a team that has piled up 32 victories, won two Big Ten championships and appeared in two consecutive Rose Bowls.

    You can knock coach Bret Bielema for some of his team's struggles on the road and their penchant for folding in big games, but you have to appreciate the type of standard and the level of consistency that he has instilled in Madison over these past few years.

    With an elite player like Ball leading the way on offense and standout playmakers such as linebackers Borland and Taylor directing the defense, the Badgers have the type of pieces they need to make another run at a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl berth in 2012.

16. Kansas State Wildcats

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    I'm going out on a limb to say that there weren't any analysts who predicted that Kansas State would win 10 games and finish with a Top 15 national ranking in 2011.

    In fact, most of them were probably forecasting that the Wildcats would barely be bowl eligible.

    One player that no one knew about, however, was new starting quarterback Collin Klein.

    Klein turned out to be one of the biggest breakout stars of the 2011 season, as he totaled over 3,000 yards of offense and accounted for 40 of his team's 52 total touchdowns. 

    While he may not be one of the most consistent passers in the country, the 6'5" senior signal-caller is one of the most dangerous running quarterbacks in all of college football.

    What will be interesting to see this season is if Klein's supporting cast will help him out more.

    RB John Hubert and WR Chris Harper, that means you.

    If Klein, Hubert and Harper turn out to be a truly dangerous offensive trio, then the Wildcats will be able to contend with any team in the Big 12.

    That's because the defense, which will be led by All-American candidates LB Arthur Brown, CB Nigel Malone and DE Meshak Williams, will be one of the strongest units in the nation in 2012.

    Brown, Malone and Williams will be joined by the likes of DT Vai Lutui, LB Tre Walker and S Ty Zimmerman to form a defense that will be solid at all three levels.

    When you have one of the top playmaking quarterbacks and one of the top defenses in the nation, you're a team that can compete with anybody.

    Kansas State may not be considered a true threat right now, but this is a team that every other school in the conference will be afraid to square off with in 2012.

17. Michigan State Spartans

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    If the old adage "defense wins championships" is really true, then Michigan State will be right in the mix to make it back to the Big Ten championship game in 2012.

    The Spartans bring back eight of their top 10 tacklers from last year, including All-American candidates such as defensive end William Gholston, linebackers Denicos Allen and Max Bullough and cornerback Johnny Adams.

    Gholston, Allen, Bullough and Adams will be the leaders of a defense that ranked sixth in the country in total defense and 10th in scoring defense last year, allowing just 277 yards and 18.4 points per game in 2011.

    A similar level of supremacy will be expected this season, since Michigan State is once again loaded with defensive playmakers all over the field.

    The same can't be said, however, for an offense that lost three-year starting quarterback Kirk Cousins and its four most productive receivers from last season.

    Now that Andrew Maxwell is taking over, you would have to expect that the Spartans will rely on the ground game, which will feature one of the Big Ten's best backs, Le'Veon Bell, much more often in 2012.

    Bell, a big, powerful 6'2", 238-pound junior, has the physical makeup to be a workhorse in the backfield, but he's got to prove that he can handle a heavier workload this year.

    With fellow back Larry Caper spelling him and helping to keep him fresh, and with one of the league's best offensive lines, led by tackle Fou Fonoti and center Travis Jackson, to run behind, Bell should be able to pile up a ton of rushing yards in his first year as a full-time starter.

    A big reason that Michigan State was able to win 11 games last season was the efficient play of Cousins, who helped the Spartans rank second in the Big Ten in passing offense in 2011.

    Maxwell will have some big shoes to fill, and with so much inexperience at the wide receiver position, he won't have the type of proven go-to target he needs to alleviate the pressure, although incoming transfer DeAnthony Arnett could be capable of eventually developing into that No. 1 threat.

    Still, given the type of running game and stout defense that Michigan State will employ this season, Maxwell doesn't have to be a superstar for the Spartans to win a Big Ten title in 2012.

    If the junior signal-caller can limit his mistakes and make smart decisions, this is a team that has all of the other pieces to once again win the Legends division for a second year in a row and compete for a BCS championship this season.

18. TCU Horned Frogs

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    Here's a little fact I bet you didn't know: Over the last four years, TCU has produced 15 NFL draft picks. The only current Big 12 teams that have had more players drafted during that time are Oklahoma (23) and Texas (17).

    That just goes to show that the Horned Frogs definitely have the kind of talent it takes to compete in their new conference right from the get-go.

    Coach Gary Patterson isn't just one of the best X's-and-O's minds in college football today; he and his staff have also done a terrific job of improving the talent level in Fort Worth over the last few years by recruiting some of the hidden gems in the state of Texas.

    This year's squad lost some key pieces on defense with the departures of linebackers Tank Carder, who was selected in the fifth round of the 2012 NFL draft, and Tanner Brock, who was one of the players that was booted from the team after getting caught up in a school-wide drug raid. However, it's what TCU has returning on offense that should really scare its new Big 12 foes.

    While the team will miss RB Ed Wesley, the Horned frogs will still have some of the most explosive skill-position players in the country in 2012.

    The offensive leader will once again be QB Casey Pachall, who did a terrific job of replacing Andy Dalton last season. In his first year as a starter, Pachall completed 67 percent of his passes for over 2,900 yards and 25 touchdowns, and he helped lead the team to its fifth straight double-digit win campaign.

    The tall Texas native will again be surrounded by speedy playmakers this year. The Horned Frogs welcome back running backs Matthew Tucker and Waymon James and receivers Josh Boyce, Brandon Carter and Skye Dawson.

    All five players should cause fits for defenses in 2012, but the player to really keep an eye on is Boyce, a 6'0", 203-pound junior who should really catch the attention of NFL scouts this year.

    TCU should have one of the most dangerous offensive attacks in the conference this season, but as with any Patterson-led team, the real key to the team's success will be the play of its defense.

    After finishing in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense for five straight years, the Horned Frogs were somewhat soft on defense last season, giving up an average of 21.5 points and 347 yards per game.

    It should be interesting to see how the defense handles the more powerful offenses that it will now face in the Big 12 this season.

    The unit will miss Carder and Brock, but linebacker Kenny Cain, who led the team with 72 tackles in 2011, looks like he's ready to step up and become a true defensive linchpin in 2012.

    The defensive line, which is led by the dominant defensive end pairing of Stansly Maponga and Ross Forrest and sophomore defensive tackle David Johnson, should be one of the best in the conference.

    The secondary brings back talented cornerback Jason Verrett, but it will likely be the weak spot of the defense, as there will be four new starters among the five-man group.

    TCU will probably have trouble slowing down some of the more potent passing attacks that it will face in the Big 12 this season. Nevertheless, with Pachall, Tucker and Boyce back on offense, the Horned Frogs should be able to match up with any team they face in their new conference, and they have what it takes to really open some eyes and surprise some folks in 2012.

19. Florida Gators

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    Florida fans may not know who their team's starting quarterback will be this season, but they do know that the Gators will have one of college football's best defenses in 2012.

    Even if linebacker Ronald Powell isn't fully recovered by the time September rolls around, the front seven should still be extremely imposing. Standout players like defensive linemen Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley and linebackers Jelani Jenkins and Jonathan Bostic are some of the SEC's finest defenders.

    Plus, with one of the best safeties in America, Matt Elam, leading the secondary, the defense as a whole will be truly stacked this year.

    The questions about Florida are mostly related to an offense that ranked 10th in the SEC in total offense in 2011.

    Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel will both battle to start at quarterback.

    Not only will Florida have to replace last year's quarterback, John Brantley, the Gators will also have to figure out how to make up for the loss of the offense's two most explosive weapons, scat backs Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey.

    RB Mike Gillislee, who averaged 5.9 yards per carry in 2011, is loaded with potential, but he isn't the true home-run hitter that Demps and Rainey both were.

    WR Andre Debose is at a crossroads in his college career, and it's time for him to show that he's the dangerous game-changer that many originally touted him as when he first arrived in Gainesville.

    Florida may have some clear uncertainties on offense. However, if the Gators get strong enough play out of the quarterback position, and if both Gillislee and Debose step up their game, this is a team that has the championship-caliber defense to compete for an SEC title in 2012.

20. Utah Utes

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    Utah's first season in the Pac-12 wasn't exactly the school's most memorable campaign. The Utes struggled through a seven-win regular season, winning just four games against their new conference foes.

    A big reason for the team's inconsistent performance in 2011 was the fact that starting quarterback Jordan Wynn appeared in just four games due to a season-ending shoulder injury.

    With Wynn out, Utah turned to running back John White IV to lead the charge on offense, and White actually turned out to be one of the biggest breakout stars in the conference last season. 

    The 5'8", 186-pound senior was the league's second-most productive rusher behind Oregon's LaMichael James, as he finished the year with 1,519 rushing yards and 17 total touchdowns.

    The Wynn-White combo is definitely an intriguing backfield tandem. Plus, Utah brings back its top six receivers from last year, including standout DeVonte Christopher, as well as three starting offensive linemen. That would seem to signal that the Utes offense could definitely be a force to be reckoned with in 2012.

    The defense should also be one of the strongest units in the Pac-12 this season, as there are plenty of playmakers spread all over the field.

    This year, the spotlight will be shined the brightest on monstrous nose tackle Star Lotulelei.

    Lotulelei is a big, powerful 6'4", 325-pound run-stuffer who has already caught the attention of NFL scouts. The intimidating middle man will again be joined up front by the Kruger brothers, Joe and Dave. Last year, the three linemen helped the Utes allow just 3.3 yards per carry.

    Four other returning starters—linebacker Trevor Reilly, cornerback Ryan Lacy, strong safety Brian Blechen and free safety Eric Rowe—will also play a key role in Utah's defensive success in 2012.

    All in all, while Utah may not have made a huge first impression on the Pac-12 last season, this is a team that has plenty of talent on both sides of the ball, and it's also led by one of the most underrated coaches in the country, Kyle Whittingham.

    If Jordan Wynn can stay healthy for a full season, which admittedly is certainly a big if, then Utah may just have the pieces in place to really give USC a scare in the Pac-12 South division this year.

The 10 Fringe Contenders

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    Auburn Tigers

    Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

    Louisville Cardinals

    Mississippi State Bulldogs

    Missouri Tigers

    Nebraska Cornhuskers

    Notre Dame Fighting Irish

    Oklahoma State Cowboys

    South Florida Bulls

    Stanford Cardinal