Summer is preparing to turn to fall, and as the seasons change, one of autumn's greatest rituals will begin anew as another exciting season of college football gets underway.
From the country's biggest cupcakes to the nation's most dominant powerhouses, every team will enter the 2012 season facing questions all their own, and as we get ready for an opening weekend highlighted by Michigan vs. Alabama, here's a look at some of the most important questions facing America's top college football programs this year.
Will LSU get improved play from the quarterback position in 2012?
As good as the Louisiana State University Tigers were in 2011, the Achilles' heel of the team was undoubtedly the shaky play of the quarterback position, and nowhere was that more plainly evident than in the team's 21-0 loss to Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game.
LSU enters the season perched atop the USA Today Coaches' Poll, according to ESPN, but if the Tigers are going to stay there and once again play for the crystal football next January then they are going to need to get better under center, beginning with starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
The 6'5" junior, who was third on the depth chart in Baton Rouge last season, knows he'll be squarely in the spotlight this season, but as Mettenberger recently told USA Today, he's ready to be the center of attention this year after watching from the sidelines in 2011.
"I'm definitely excited," he said. "It's going to be a huge step going from third to first string. It's something I look forward to. That's why I came here. I'm not going to be in there to hand the ball off or take a knee. I actually think I led the NCAA last year in knees taken. I'm not very proud of that record."
Can Alabama replace key losses in the secondary this season?
The Alabama Crimson Tide were the champions of college football last year, and that achievement was reflected in the 2012 NFL draft, where four Alabama players were selected in the first round, including cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and safety Mark Barron.
These losses have left a huge hole in the Alabama secondary, and it will fall on players such as junior college transfers Deion Belue and Travell Dixon to pick up the sizable slack left by Barron's and Kirkpatrick's departure.
Belue and Dixon will join an Alabama defensive backfield that returns only All-American safety Robert Lester as a starter, and as head coach Nick Saban recently told The Montgomery Advertiser, one of the priorities of Alabama's fall practices has been getting those youngsters up to speed.
“It was good in the old days when you could practice with the freshmen for a few practices so that you could sort of teach them and sort of eliminate some of their anxieties about going out to practice the first time,” Saban said after the morning practice. “Being around those older guys they didn’t know very well ... they ended up in the back of the lines. They didn’t maybe get as many turns because they’re in the back of the lines. This way ... the focus of our attention will be on those young players.”
Will USC's lack of depth become an issue this season?
After spending the past few seasons under the crushing weight of NCAA sanctions imposed as a result of the Reggie Bush saga, the University of Southern California is ready to return to the national spotlight, and led by quarterback Matt Barkley and wide receiver Robert Woods, the Trojans have as much talent in their starting lineup as any team in the nation.
However, the aftershocks from those sanctions are still reverberating across Southern California. Scholarship restrictions over the past several years have left USC with a troubling lack of depth, especially along a defensive line that features three new starters in 2011.
With a November 3 matchup looming against the Oregon Ducks that will go a long way toward determining whether USC remains in the national title hunt, it's essential both that the team stay relatively healthy and that it gets strong play from that revamped defensive front.
This depth on the defensive line is already being tested thanks to the torn pectoral muscle suffered by senior defensive end Devon Kennard last month, and as fellow senior Wes Horton recently told The Orange County Register, that means that some youngsters are going to have to grow up fast.
“It’s just going to be a faster turnover,” Horton said. “You’re just not going to have as much time to be a pup. You’re going to have to grow up fast. I just feel like everyone’s looking at the D-line as a big question mark,” Horton said. “I don’t want that to be a question mark.”