The sad reality for college football fans is that most of the big-name players from the 2011 season have moved on to the NFL. The good news, though, is that the sport still has plenty of up-and-coming players who are ready for the spotlight in 2012.
Last year at this time, nobody was hyping up Robert Griffin III, Tyrann Mathieu and Montee Ball as legitimate Heisman Hopefuls, but all three rose to prominence to become some of college football’s biggest celebrities of the 2011 season.
Every year, there are always new breakout stars who capture everyone’s attention, and the 2012 season should be no different.
We already know about heralded players such as Ball, Matt Barkley, Manti Te’o, Sam Montgomery, Robert Woods and the rest of the elite players who have graced the covers of this year’s college football preview magazines and appeared on preseason ESPN specials.
Now it’s time to take a look at 40 potential breakout stars who are ready to do what Ball, RG3 and the Honey Badger did in 2011 and become some of the most highly publicized players of the 2012 college football season.
WR Odell Beckham will be the MVP of the LSU offense in 2012
The sad reality for college football fans is that most of the big-name players from the 2011 season have moved on to the NFL. The good news, though, is that the sport still has plenty of up-and-coming players who are ready for the spotlight in 2012.
LSU ranked 106th in the nation in passing offense in 2011, averaging just 152 yards through the air per game. However, that's surely going to change this season now that new starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger has taken control of the offense.
Mettenberger may not have the chance to throw to last year's leading receiver Rueben Randle, who left school a year early for the NFL, but he still has another very dangerous weapon at his disposal in WR Odell Beckham.
Beckham hauled in 41 passes for 475 yards as a true freshman last year. Now, the explosive 5'11'', 183-pound pass-catcher will be looking to build on that success and from one of college football's strongest passing combinations with Mettenberger in 2012.
James Franklin had some big shoes to fill taking over for QB Blaine Gabbert, who was the No. 10 overall pick of the 2011 NFL draft. Franklin didn't seem to be phased at all by the pressure, though, as he stepped in and showed college football fans that there was a new dual-threat quarterback to get excited about.
Last year, the 6'2'', 225-pound junior completed 63 percent of his passes for 2,865 yards and 21 touchdowns, and he also added 981 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground as well.
No one seems to be giving Missouri much of a chance in the SEC East this season, but if Franklin steps up and becomes a true offensive leader, the Tigers could be one of the big surprise teams of 2012.
Versatile do-it-all defensive tackle Melvin Ingram was the shining star of South Carolina's stingy defensive line last season. However, now that Ingram is gone, it will be up to defensive ends Devin Taylor and Jadeveon Clowney to be the difference-makers in the trenches in 2012.
Taylor seemingly got pushed to the back burner due to the celebration surrounding Clowney, who arrived at South Carolina as one of the most hyped up recruits in college football history. The 6'8'', 267-pound senior still managed to put together an impressive 2011 campaign, though, as he racked up five sacks and seven tackles for loss.
Given his type of rare size-speed combo, Taylor has the potential to emerge as one of college football's top edge-rushers in 2012, and he could finally breakthrough and have a double-digit sack season in his final year.
Justin Gilbert was the only cornerback in college football last season who could make the claim that he picked off passes thrown by both of this year's top two overall NFL draft picks—Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III.
Overall, Gilbert finished his strong sophomore campaign with five interceptions, 59 tackles and 10 pass breakups. Plus, he also proved to be one of the most dangerous returners in the nation, averaging 27 yards on kickoff returns and bringing two of them all the way back to the house.
Gilbert has the size, speed, coverage ability and ball skills to be one of the showcase defenders in college football in 2012, and he should help the Cowboys improve on their lackluster pass defense numbers from a year ago.
For the past three years, Kenjon Barner has had to live in the shadows of his All-American backfield mate LaMichael James. But now that James has moved on to the NFL, Barner will finally get to spend one full season as the main man in the Oregon backfield.
Although he had to defer carries to James throughout his career, the 5'11'', 192-pound senior has still managed to rush for 1,856 yards on just 304 touches and he's scored 27 total touchdowns.
Barner is the type of speedy and shifty back who is built to excel in Oregon's spread offense. With both him and fellow back De'Anthony Thomas returning to Eugene, the Ducks should still have one of the most powerful and potent offensive attacks in the country in 2012.
E.J. Manuel's first season as a full-time starter at Florida State didn't exactly go as well as planned.
The Seminoles were one of the most disappointing teams in college football in 2011, finishing just 9-4 after starting off the season ranked in the top 10 in both major polls. Manuel certainly wasn't fully responsible for the team's struggles, though, as he actually did turn in an overall decent effort.
The 6'5'', 240-pound senior completed 65 percent of his passes for 2,666 yards and 18 touchdowns, even though he was banged up in the middle of the season.
Manuel is a former 5-star rated recruit who obviously possesses the physical ability and the potential to be a star signal-caller in 2012. He just has to prove that he can handle the pressure of leading a team that will be the favorite to win the ACC this season.
Ohio State has produced plenty of notable linebackers in recent years such as A.J. Hawk, James Laurinaitis, Brian Rolle and Bobby Carpenter.
Now, it looks like the next star Buckeye 'backer will be Ryan Shazier.
Shazier is a former 4-star rated recruit out of Florida's Plantation High School, who made an instant impact in Columbus as a freshman in 2011.
Last year, the highly athletic and instinctive weak side linebacker was a key playmaker for the Ohio State defense, finishing sixth on the team with 56 tackles and also adding three sacks.
Look for Shazier to now become one of the true standout stars of the Ohio State defense in 2012.
Last year, it didn't take very long for Keith Price to have Washington fans asking "Jake who?"
After taking the offensive reigns from his predecessor Jake Locker, Price stepped into the lineup and looked like a natural offensive leader in 2011.
The 6'1'', 202-pound junior threw for over 3,000 yards and 33 touchdowns in his first season as a starter. His most memorable performance came in the Alamo Bowl, when he out-dueled Heisman-winner Robert Griffin III and tore the Baylor defense to shreds, totaling 477 yards of offense and accounting for seven touchdowns in the 67-56 defeat.
Price has the arm strength, athleticism and the passing prowess to develop into an RG3-type of impact player for the Huskies offense this season.
Ultimately, it will be interesting to see if coach Steve Sarkisian can do a better job of getting the most out of Price's natural physical ability than he did with Locker.
Freshman sensation wide receiver Sammy Watkins was the face of Clemson's offensive attack last season. However, Watkins better be prepared to share some of the spotlight with some of his talented teammates in 2012, especially RB Andre Ellington.
After sitting behind former mentors C.J. Spiller and Jamie Harper for the first few years of his career, Ellington finally got his shot to prove that he could carry the load in 2011, and he certainly made the most of it. The 5'10'', 190-pound senior rushed for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2011, but he was largely overshadowed by Watkins, who was soaking up most of the attention and publicity.
That will definitely change this year, though, since Ellington will be such a crucial and vital part of Clemson's ACC title defense campaign in 2012.
All-American candidates such as linebacker Jarvis Jones and safety Bacarri Rambo will likely be the most talked-about players on Georgia's defense this season. If the Bulldogs truly want to compete for a national title, however, then they're going to need mammoth nose tackle Jonathan Jenkins to have a huge season as well.
Jenkins is a former highly touted JUCO prospect who stepped into the middle of Georgia's defense last year and proved to be one of the top run-stuffers in the country. The 6'3'', 351-pound senior can eat up blockers and clog up running lanes snap after snap.
With Jenkins and fellow huge nose tackle Kwame Geathers alternating again this season, Georgia should once again have one of college football's strongest run defenses in 2012.
Malcolm Brown was forced to sit out three games due to injury during his true freshman season in 2011, but that didn't stop him from making his presence felt in the Big 12 last year.
Brown had high expectations to live up to as a 5-star rated blue-chip recruit, but he had no trouble showing the same type of flashes in Austin that made him a star at Texas' Cibolo High School.
The 6'0'', 223-pound sophomore ran for 742 yards and five touchdowns in 2011, but that may have just been an appetizer for what he has planned for his second season.
The big, powerful and physical runner should help to take a lot of the pressure off the shoulders of starting quarterback David Ash, as opposing defenses will be forced to stack the box in order to slow him down in 2012.
Tyler Bray has only played in 16 games during his college career, including just 12 total starts, but he's still been able to show plenty of glimpses of his outstanding passing ability during his few games of action.
Bray has already thrown for over 3,800 yards and 35 touchdowns during his time in Knoxville.
Now, it will be very interesting to see what kind of numbers he can put up in a full season's worth of action.
The 6'6'', 215-pound junior will have two of the most talented receivers in the country—Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter—at his disposal this year. That means he'll have the supporting cast he needs to guide the Volunteers back to the postseason in 2012.
Sharrif Floyd was one of the most heralded prospects in Florida's top-ranked 2010 recruiting class, and he now seems like he's finally ready to fully live up to his 5-star recruiting label.
Floyd really made some big improvements from his freshman season to his sophomore season, and he showed flashes of true dominance in 2011. The 6'3'', 305-pound junior totaled 46 tackles, including 6.5 stops behind the line, as well as 1.5 sacks.
The athletic and powerful lineman is versatile enough to line up all over Florida's defensive front, and he'll once again be one of the most important members of what should be a top-10 ranked defense in 2012.
QB Brandon Weeden and WR Justin Blackmon were the two players who received most of the accolades and recognition for Oklahoma State's dominant offensive performance in 2012. However, running back Joseph Randle also played a key role in the unit's success as well last year.
In his first season as a starter, Randle rushed for 1,248 yards and 24 touchdowns and caught 43 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns.
Now that both Weeden and Blackmon have moved on to the NFL, the 6'1'', 200-pound junior will be the focal point of the Oklahoma State offense this season.
If Randle can continue to progress as a runner and match his sophomore exploits, he should finally receive the type of credit he deserves in 2012.
Arkansas lost its three top receivers from last season—Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Greg Childs, who were all fourth-round picks in this year's NFL draft. Luckily for the Razorbacks, they'll have one of the SEC's most talented receivers, Cobi Hamilton, returning to lead the inexperienced receiver corps in 2012.
Hamilton only caught 34 passes and four touchdowns in 2011, but that's because he was often the third or fourth option on passing plays.
This year, the 6'3'', 209-pound senior will now be QB Tyler Wilson's most trusted target, and he'll have plenty of opportunities in 2012 to show SEC defenses what type of difference-maker he really is.
TCU's defense lost three of its top four tacklers from the 2011 season, which obviously isn't good news, especially since the Horned Frogs will now be making the transition to the Big 12, a conference loaded with great offenses.
Thankfully, Gary Patterson is one of the smartest defensive minds in all of college football. Plus, it's not as if TCU's defense won't have the talent to compete. The unit's spotlight player this year will be DE Stansly Maponga, a 6'2'', 265-pound junior, who racked up nine sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss in 2011.
Maponga may not be a household name just yet, but that's because he simply hasn't had the chance to prove himself against BCS caliber competition.
That will change in 2012.
Brady Hoke has built Michigan's defense into a formidable unit after a dreadful few years during the Rich Rodriguez era.
The Wolverines should now have one of the Big Ten's strongest defenses in 2012, and one of the key impact players will be linebacker Jake Ryan.
Ryan finished his impressive 2011 campaign with 37 tackles, including 11 tackles for loss, as well as three sacks.
The 6'3'', 242-pound redshirt sophomore is an absolutely perfect fit for the strong side linebacker position in Michigan's 4-3 defense, and he'll be looking to really carve out a name for himself in the conference in 2012.
Florida State and Clemson will enter the 2012 season as the two clear-cut favorites to win the ACC Atlantic division this year, but the Seminoles and the Tigers better not sleep on N.C. State. That's because the Wolfpack will once again be led by one of college football's top passers, quarterback Mike Glennon.
Last year, Glennon had the unenviable task of trying to replace Russell Wilson, but he handled it about as well as anyone could have hoped. The 6'6'', 232-pound senior completed 62 percent of his passes for over 3,000 yards and 31 touchdowns in 2011.
Glennon has the type of prototypical size, arm strength and accuracy that NFL scouts are looking for and his name could go flying up draft boards if he puts together a solid senior season in 2012.
Illinois has produced a defensive lineman who turned into a surprise first-round NFL draft prospect in each of the past two years, and it looks like defensive end-outside linebacker hybrid Michael Buchanan may be able to keep that streak going.
Buchanan didn't receive much national publicity last year, since his teammate Whitney Mercilus was the one being praised for his outstanding All-American campaign. Nevertheless, the 6'6'', 240-pound senior still had a terrific season of his own.
After notching 64 tackles and 7.5 sacks last year, the long, athletic edge-rusher will now be looking to compete for the Big Ten's sack title in 2012.
Taylor Martinez has already solidified his status as one of college football's most athletic and mobile running quarterbacks. The problem is, he's yet to take the next step as a passer that many Nebraska fans have been waiting for.
Martinez has rushed for over 1,800 yards and 21 touchdowns over the last two years, but his 57 percent career completion percentage is an obvious concern.
The good news is that the 6'1'', 200-pound junior will now enter his third season as a starter with plenty of experience . Plus, with weapons like RB Rex Burkhead and WR Kenny Bell surrounding him, he'll have all the help he needs to finally become a true dual-threat quarterback in 2012.
Jeremiah Attaochu is probably best known right now as the player who punched Virginia Tech QB Logan Thomas and opened the door for the Hokies to beat Georgia Tech last season.
One single mistake does not truly define a player, though.
Besides that one costly personal foul, Attaochu actually had a tremendous 2011 season—The 6'3'', 240-pound junior racked up 59 tackles, including 11.5 tackles for loss, and six sacks.
Attaochu has the perfect physical makeup and skill set to flourish as an outside linebacker in the Yellow Jackets' 3-4 front, and he should emerge as one of the elite edge-rushers in the country in 2012.
Alabama has produced back-to-back running backs who have turned into first-round NFL draft picks, and the Tide may just make that three in a row if new starter Eddie Lacy lives up to expectations in 2012.
Lacy had to defer most of the carries to Trent Richardson last season, but he still managed to average 7.1 yards per carry and score seven touchdowns on just 95 touches in 2011.
Like his predecessors Richardson and Mark Ingram, the 6'1'', 220-pound junior is a big, physical downhill runner who should thrive behind college football's strongest offensive line in 2012.
Florida State has produced plenty of terrific linebackers in recent years.
Now, it appears that Christian Jones is ready to be the next star linebacker in Tallahassee.
After notching 56 stops in 2011, Jones will be the leading returning tackler for the Seminoles this year.
The 6'4'', 240-pound junior is a remarkable athlete for his size. With the way he glides around the field and knocks ball-carriers around, Jones has the chance to be a standout player for what is shaping up to be one of the best defenses in the country in 2012.
Any time a team loses two first-round draft picks such as Heisman-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III and explosive receiver Kendall Wright, its offense is surely going to take a step back the following season. Still, the Bears have some great talent and speed on the offensive side of the ball for 2012, and one of their most dangerous players is RB Lache Seastrunk.
Seastrunk was forced to sit out last season after transferring from Oregon, but with last year's starting running back Terrance Ganaway gone, the former 5-star recruit will have the opportunity to be the featured back this season.
Blessed with track star speed, Seastrunk is the type of home run threat that can really add an explosive element to Baylor's backfield.
Linebacker Sean Porter may have led Texas A&M with 9.5 sacks in 2011, but Porter wasn't the one who led the Aggies with 17.5 tackles for loss—that was defensive end Damontre Moore.
Now that the team has switched from a primarily 3-4 scheme to a 4-3 system, Moore will make the move from his hybrid "Joker" position and stick his hand in the ground as an outside 7-technique end.
The 6'4'', 250-pound junior may be undersized, but that shouldn't stop him from being a handful for SEC offensive tackles to deal with in 2012. Moore is a smart and instinctive defender who certainly knows how to hunt down quarterbacks and running backs.
QB Collin Klein was the face of the Kansas State offense last season, and he was really the only Wildcat who gained much publicity during the team's surprising 10-win season.
Klein wasn’t the only one doing some heavy lifting in 2011, though. RB John Hubert also contributed in a big way to the offense, rushing for 970 yards.
If Klein shares a few more carries with Hubert this season, the junior back should have no problem breaking the 1000-yard rushing mark in 2012.
Losing defensive end Aaron Lynch, the team's sack leader in 2011, this offseason was a tough blow for Notre Dame's defense.
The good news is that the Irish are lucky enough to have another young stud pass-rusher, Stephon Tuitt, that they can groom in the coming years.
Like Lynch, Tuitt was one of the most highly touted prospects that coach Brian Kelly has ever signed during his time in South Bend, and he managed to make an immediate impact as a rotational player during his freshman season in 2011.
The 6'6'', 303-pound sophomore totaled 30 tackles and two sacks in nine games last year, but his production should go way up in 2012, since he'll now be a full-time starter.
USC's secondary has been the team's weak spot for the past few years, but with most of the key pieces returning for the 2012 season, including future high NFL draft pick safety T.J. McDonald, the defensive backfield should be much stronger this season.
One Trojan defensive back to keep an eye on is cornerback Nickell Robey.
Last year, Robey only had two interceptions, but he did break up nine passes and he did take one of those picks back to the house against Stanford.
The 5'8'', 165-pound junior may not be the biggest corner on the field, but he's a tenacious player who fears no one and he plays with the type of attitude that his fellow defenders can feed off of.
LSU may have lost the All-American leader of its offensive line, guard Will Blackwell, this offseason. Luckily for the Tigers, though, right tackle Alex Hurst seems like he's ready to step up and become the line's new linchpin in 2012.
Hurst may have been embarrassed by Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw on a few occasions during the BCS championship game, but that doesn't change the fact that he's still one of the strongest overall tackles in the country.
The 6'6'', 331-pound senior has a future playing on Sundays, but first, he'll be looking to snatch away the Outland Trophy from defending champ Barrett Jones of rival Alabama in 2012.
Washington's two most productive receivers from last year, Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar, are both gone. That means that quarterback Keith Price is going to need a new top target in 2012.
The most obvious candidate is Kasen Williams, who's one of the fastest and most explosive players in the entire Pac-12. Williams hauled in 36 passes for 427 yards and scored six touchdowns as a freshman in 2011, but now that Kearse and Aguilar are gone, he's sure to see a lot more passes thrown his way this season.
The 6'2'', 212-pound sophomore is one of the most decorated recruits that coach Steve Sarkisian has ever signed. If the former 5-star prospect can live up to his potential, he's got the chance to be one of the conference's best receivers for the next couple of years.
Ryne Giddins is considered to be the most highly rated recruit to ever sign with South Florida. However, he has yet to live up to his potential and develop into a Jason Pierre-Paul clone like some fans thought he would.
Still, even though Giddins hasn't delivered on his exciting promise just yet, he still has two seasons left to make it happen. Plus, it's not exactly as if he had a bad season last year, given that he ended up finishing with 5.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss.
The former 4-star prospect has the type of talent and physical ability to be the best pass-rusher in the Big East—he just has to make the most out of his skills and make sure his engine is running right on every play.
When you happen to play in the same backfield as college football's biggest star, you're not going to receive the type of attention you truly deserve, which is exactly what RB Stepfan Taylor found out.
Since he's had to play in the shadow of Andrew Luck, Taylor has been one of the most underrated and undervalued running backs in the country since stepping into the starting lineup back in 2010.
During that time, the 5'11'', 208-pound senior has combined to rush for more than 2,400 yards and score 28 total touchdowns.
Taylor is without a doubt one of the most talented running backs in the country, and now that he'll be the focal point of the Stanford offense this season, he should finally receive the national recognition he deserves in 2012.
Teddy Bridgewater would probably be starting for the Miami Hurricanes right now if it wasn't for the firing of coach Randy Shannon.
Shannon's termination opened up the door for Charlie Strong and Louisville to swoop in and snatch up the talented former 4-star recruit from Miami's Northwestern High School.
It seems that landing Bridgewater may turn out to be the most important event of Strong's tenure with the Cardinals.
The athletic 6'3'', 218-pound sophomore has the look of a future star, and this year, he has a great chance to lead Louisville to just the second BCS bowl game in school history.
Texas may have lost its two leading tacklers from last season—linebackers Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho, but the Longhorns defense still has enough talent to be one of the top units in the country in 2012.
We already know what to expect from players such as defensive ends Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat, cornerbacks Carrington Byndom and Quandre Diggs and safety Kenny Vaccaro, but the real defender to watch this season could be linebacker Jordan Hicks.
Hicks compiled 64 tackles last year, and he proved that he could be huge factor against the run.
Now, it's time for the 6'2'', 235-pound junior to show that he can follow in the footsteps of Robinson and Acho and become the leader of the linebacker corps in 2012.
After watching Giovani Bernard miss his entire first season with a serious injury, it was hard to tell just how quickly the former highly touted 4-star rated recruit would regain his form.
Once Bernard scored two touchdowns in each of his first two games, though, it was easy to see that there was no rust to worry about. When the season had finally concluded, the 5'10'', 205-pound sophomore had totaled 1,253 yards on the ground, caught 45 passes for 362 yards and scored 14 total touchdowns.
Bernard will now once again be the most valuable weapon for a Tar Heels offense that should be one of the most lethal units in the ACC in 2012.
Watch out for Utah this season!
The Utes may have struggled through a mediocre and largely forgettable first season in the Pac-12 last year, but now that they have starting quarterback Jordan Wynn back, they could put a major scare into the conference's top teams.
Wynn's career has been marred by injuries up to this point, but when he has been healthy, he's shown flashes of exciting potential.
This season, the 6'2'', 208-pound junior will be surrounded by the conferences' leading returning rusher, John White, as well as one of the league's most dangerous receivers, DeVonte Christopher.
Ricardo Allen has already returned three interceptions for touchdowns during his career at Purdue, which is pretty mind-boggling considering he's just now entering his junior year.
At 5'9'', 186-pounds, Allen certainly isn't the biggest cornerback in the country, but he's a true ball-hawk who knows how to stick to receivers like glue and knock away incoming passes.
Allen is a special talent who hasn't received much national attention since he plays for one of the most off-the-radar BCS programs in college football.
Even though the Boilermakers won't contend for a Big Ten title in 2012, that won't stop their potential All-American corner from causing quite a buzz around the conference this season.
The Big 12 may have lost its two most dangerous receiving threats from last season with the departures of first-round NFL draft picks Justin Blackmon and Kendall Wright. But the conference picked up a new showcase star receiver when TCU made the move into the league this offseason.
That receiver is Josh Boyce, who has the type of skills to take the conference by storm in 2012.
Just like Blackmon and Wright, Boyce is a home-run threat that has to be accounted for on every snap.
Last year, the 6'0'', 203-pound junior caught caught 61 passes for 998 yards and nine touchdowns, and it should be interesting to see how he fares against BCS caliber competition this season.
Michael Dyer was one of the most productive backs in the SEC in each of the past two seasons, and his presence in the Auburn backfield will undoubtedly be missed. However, Dyer's absence will give Onterio McCalebb the opportunity he's been waiting for to show just how much of a game-changer he really is.
McCalebb has had to defer a lot of carries to Dyer over the past few seasons, but he's still managed to make a big impact for the Tigers offense. The 5'11'', 173-pound senior totaled 985 yards of offense and scored eight touchdowns last season, even though he was primarily used as a complement to Dyer.
The versatile playmaker may not have the size to bang inside the tackles on a consistent basis, but he's a truly dangerous and dynamic threat as both a runner and a receiver.
Virginia Tech not only lost last year's ACC leading rusher David Wilson, the Hokies will also have to figure out how to replace their two leading receivers from 2011—Danny Coale and Jarrett Boykin.
The receiver who appears most ready to become QB Logan Thomas' new No. 1 target is Marcus Davis.
Davis only caught 30 passes and five touchdowns in 2011, but expect his numbers to skyrocket this season.
The 6'4'', 228-pound senior is a huge target who possesses the explosiveness and route-running instincts to create a matchup nightmare for opposing cornerbacks.
If Davis can handle being Thomas' new go-to receiver, and if RB Michael Holmes can successfully replace Wilson , Virginia Tech has the talent everywhere else to compete for a BCS title this season.