College Football Teams in the Driver's Seat to Win Their Conference
College football kickoff is 15 days away with a number of storylines still lining the newswires as the first game approaches. Fans and pundits alike are anxiously awaiting first kick. Debates are stirring for which teams are in the driver’s seat to win their respective conference.
Before the season gets started, every team has a statistical shot at winning its conference, but we all know better. With each fanbase making an argument for its team as a conference winner, it is time to put things into perspective.
Every season brings new surprises and sometimes earth-moving shifts—like the Tyrann Mathieu's dismissal from LSU this preseason—but before the season kicks off, these are the favorites to win conference championships this fall.
Mid-American: Ohio Bobcats
The Frank Solich-led Bobcats are far and away the favorite in the MAC heading into the 2012 season.
The Bobcats will be led offensively this season by Tyler Tettelton, a rising redshirt junior that stormed onto the scene last season passing for 3,302 yards and tossing 28 touchdowns. Tettleton also added 666 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns to his stat sheet.
In the backfield, Tettleton will be accompanied by former high school teammate Beau Blankenship—who saw some moderate playing time a year ago—and Ryan Boykin. The backs combined for 897 yards and five touchdowns in backup roles in 2011.
The Bobcats have questions at receiver after losing two major playmakers, but Donte Foster, Tyler Futrell and Mario Dovell are more than able to step into major roles in the passing game.
The Bobcats do lose two tackles along the offensive line, but the entire interior line returns and upperclassmen are set to step in at the open tackle positions.
Defensively, the Bobcats will be very strong in the secondary this fall. The Bobcats have All-MAC corner Travis Carrie returning and stud safety Gerald Moore back in the secondary.
Along the line, the Bobcats have a lot of promise, with returning senior starter Carl Jones beginning his third season as a first teamer. One question along the line will be the progression of sophomore Antwan Crutcher, but at 6’1”, 300 pounds, he is the largest defensive lineman on roster for the Bobcats.
At linebacker, the Bobcats lose star Noah Keller from the middle, who tallied 438 career tackles, but junior Keith Moore is poised for a big season in his stead. Filling out the corps will be Alphonso Lewis and Jelani Woseley, both of whom are seniors.
Add to the Bobcats roster All-MAC kicker Matt Weller, and Ohio has a promising season ahead. The Bobcats have a workable schedule, with the toughest contest coming in the first week on the road at Penn State.
Sun Belt: Arkansas State Red Wolves
Arkansas State has gone through a major transition this offseason, with Hugh Freeze departing to take over the Ole Miss program and Gus Malzahn taking over the Red Wolves program in his stead.
There won’t be a major transition for the Red Wolves with Malzahn, as he will bring an offense that is very similar to the one that Freeze installed in Jonesboro—an offense that has won a ton of games in recent years for the Red Wolves.
Ryan Aplin returns at quarterback—he was the Sun Belt Player of the Year in 2011—and will be prepped for another great year to finish his career.
The Red Wolves have not had a very dangerous rushing attack in recent years, but that will change this season. Returning sophomore Frankie Jackson will be the lead ball-carrier for the Red Wolves, with junior Sirgregory Thornton taking a secondary role from the backfield.
The Red Wolves return their four leading receivers from last season, with Taylor Stockemer leading the charge on the outside.
The offensive line is losing three starters, but there is talent along the line that can replace the lost experience. Former 4-star true freshman Michael Flint will be a player to watch—he could crack the lineup early.
The defense will have some questions along the defensive front, but upperclassmen return to fill the void, and junior Amos Draper will anchor the front at nose tackle.
At linebacker, Nathan Herrold and Nick Nelms provide senior leadership for the defense, with JUCO transfer Eddie Porter providing playing experience at the third linebacker spot.
The secondary returns four players with solid experience, but the Red Wolves lose a group of big-time playmakers that plucked 12 total interceptions from the air a year ago.
Two tough contests early against Oregon and Nebraska on the road have the potential to be heartbreakers, but those games will help gauge this team's standing. Expect the Red Wolves to play well and use those games to vault to the top of the Sun Belt conference when they hit conference play.
Mountain West: Boise State Broncos
Joe Southwick has huge shoes to fill this season, stepping into the starting quarterback role and replacing Kellen Moore as the Broncos' leading signal-caller. Southwick has a great skill set that will help him provide a spark through the air and on the ground—something that Moore didn’t do very well.
In the backfield, two seniors will carry the load, with D.J. Harper and Drew Wright taking the leading running back roles.
The Broncos return a lot of experience and talent at the receiver position, with big-bodied guys Matt Miller—6’3”, 213 pounds—and Geraldo Boldewijn—6’4”, 204 pounds—leading the corps this fall.
The Broncos will return four starters along the offensive line from a season ago and a host of experience to back up the starters at the position set.
The defensive line is one of the biggest questions on the defense, returning no one with solid experience.
That will dump a lot of responsibility on the Broncos linebackers, but seniors J.C. Percy and Tommy Smith should help lighten the load of the defense.
Seniors Jamar Taylor and Jerrell Gavins are lock-down corners for the secondary, but the Broncos will replace both starting safeties with underclassmen this fall—another major defensive concern.
A tough start against Michigan State will show how much the Broncos miss former offensive coordinator Brent Pease—who took the same position at Florida this offseason.
The Broncos have a favorable schedule, but the regular season finale against Nevada will be the game that decides the conference.
Conference USA: Houston Cougars
Houston will step into the 2012 season losing Case Keenum to the NFL and head coach Kevin Sumlin to Texas A&M.
Tony Levine steps in at head coach after studying under Sumlin for the better half of a decade, and David Piland will replace Keenum at the quarterback position.
Charles Sims is a workhorse for the Cougars at running back, earning 7.5 yards per carry last season from the backfield. He will be joined by redshirt freshman Kenneth Farrow, who came on strong this spring.
The Cougars will need to replace a ton of experience at receiver, as the four top targets from a year ago have since departed from the sideline. There are a host of players ready to step in and spread the wealth this fall, helping newly-appointed David Piland ease into the starting quarterback role.
The offensive line is set with four of five starters returning from last season.
The Cougars will move to a 4-3 scheme this fall—a change from the 3-4 that was ran during the Sumlin years. The Cougars will try and piece together a defensive line with only two returning starters, but the linebacker play could help ease the transition.
The Cougars return senior leader Phillip Steward at linebacker, who should lead the defense.
Last season, Houston had one of the best secondaries in the country, and three of four starters will return to the field for the Cougars this fall. Senior D.J. Hayden is the guy to watch in the defensive backfield.
The Cougars are coming off of a huge bowl win over Penn State last season and are poised for another strong year. Their biggest competition for the conference—Central Florida—was recently placed on a postseason ban by the NCAA, launching Houston into the driver’s seat in the conference.
Big East: Louisville Cardinals
Teddy Bridgewater stepped onto the field and stole the show as a freshman quarterback last season for the Cardinals. He returns this season and has huge aspirations this fall.
The Cardinals have a host of backs that will carry the load for the offense on the ground, highlighted by bruising junior Dominique Brown—a 6’2”, 226-pound downhill plowing bowling ball.
The Cardinals return every receiver from a position group that had questions a year ago heading into the season. Those questions are gone heading into this year with experience and talent abundant in the receiving ranks.
The offensive line is youthful for the Cardinals, with three sophomores looking to earn starts upfront, but senior center Mario Benavides will lead the group and keep continuity.
The Louisville defense will be anchored by three returning starters along the defensive line and some very talented linebackers that love to fly around and make snot bubbles pop in the noses of opposing ball carriers.
Two first-team Big East selections—Adrian Bushell and Hakeem Smith—anchor the secondary, and a load of talent fills out the remaining depth in the secondary.
Louisville is the runaway favorite for the Big East heading into the 2012 season. Anything but a BCS-bowl berth would be a disappointment.
ACC: Florida State Seminoles
Florida State was the runaway favorite to win the ACC last season, and the Jimbo Fisher-led Seminoles flopped consistently. This looks to be the Seminoles' year, but this is one of the shakiest picks to win any conference heading into the 2012 season.
The Seminoles are led by E.J. Manuel at quarterback, and despite a season of struggles, he did finish with 2,666 passing yards and 18 touchdowns. He must increase those numbers this fall for Florida State to run away with the league.
James Wilder, Jr., is the front-runner for the primary running back role, with Chris Thompson and Devonta Freeman providing speedy options in reserve to help boost the offense heading into 2012.
The receiver corps returns four of its top playmakers—which will help Manuel to produce—but the big question on offense is the offensive line.
The line struggled mightily last season, but the unit earned experience through the struggles. The offensive line is a tough group, but the majority of the line is composed of true sophomores, and the learning curve has to be over for Florida State to push for the conference title.
The defensive line is led by Brandon Jenkins, who has accumulated 21.5 sacks in the past two seasons. The front four is one of the strongest units on the Seminoles.
The Noles return a lot of talent at linebacker and look set at the position, but the secondary is now a concern.
FSU returns Xavier Rhodes to the fold, but the recent dismissal of Greg Reid will be a blow. Replacing Reid will be freshmen and sophomores—talented but inexperienced—and this could cause some hiccups early.
If the Seminoles can improve offensive line play and help find a second lock-down corner in the secondary, they will take off with the ACC this season and not look back.
Big Ten: Michigan Wolverines
Michigan will get a tough test to start the season when it travels to Dallas to face off with Alabama in the first game of the season, but the Wolverines should be up to the challenge.
Michigan returns arguably the most explosive quarterback in the country in Denard Robinson, who will be leading the offense for the third season in a row. Robinson is a Heisman front-runner entering the 2012 season—for good reason. He is just as dangerous on the ground as he is through the air, shredding defenses for tough yards and touchdowns.
Fitz Toussaint is the leading running back out of the Michigan offensive backfield, and a host of talented options are lined up to help lighten his load this season if needed.
The Michigan receiving corps loses a big playmaker in Junior Hemingway, but there is talent that lines the roster at the position to step into his clutch role this coming year.
The offensive line returns three starters and has a wealth of talented upperclassmen to help ease the transition at the other two positions for the 2012 season.
The defense enters the season with some questions along the line, but all three starters returning at linebacker will help ease the group become a conference-winning squad in 2012.
The linebackers are led by fifth-year senior Kenny Demens who finished the season with 94 total tackles.
Three of four starters return in the defensive secondary this fall, which will be a major positive for the program. Look for Jordan Kovacs to have a huge year, as he flies around the field for the Wolverines defense.
Road games against Alabama, Nebraska, Ohio State and Notre Dame will be tough, but if the Wolverines can navigate those games well, they will lead the Big Ten at season’s end.
Big 12: West Virginia Mountaineers
West Virginia plowed through Clemson in the Orange Bowl at the conclusion of last season, hanging 70 points on the ACC champions in the BCS bowl game. Talk about studly.
Geno Smith led the charge for the Mountaineers and instantly launched his Heisman campaign for the 2012 season in that game. West Virginia has the best quarterback in the Big 12 to start the 2012 season.
The Mountaineers have some questions at running back, but the stud receiving corps will be enough to make that an afterthought and will help ease along a group that has battled inconsistency in the past.
Tavon Austin and Steadman Bailey are the leaders at receiver—both finished with over 1,000 yards last season—and are likely the best receiver tandem in the country for the coming season.
There are three returning starters for West Virginia along the offensive line, and redshirt senior Josh Jenkins brings a wealth of experience to the table to help fill out a group that will lead the Big 12 with experience and talent.
The defense will miss Bruce Irvin—he produced 40 sacks in his time with West Virginia—but a host of upperclassmen will fill the void left by the insanely talented playmaker.
The linebacker position returns a host of experience led by senior Terence Garvin, a transitioning safety for the 2012 season.
In the secondary, the Mountaineers are full of upperclassmen that should make it tough for the pass-happy Big 12 to perform at a top level against them consistently.
Add a manageable schedule—the first real challenge comes against Texas on October 6—to the host of talented playmakers found on the Mountaineers roster, and West Virginia should lead the Big 12 in its first season in the conference.
Pac-12: USC Trojans
Matt Barkley is set as the starting quarterback for USC, and for good reason. The rising senior has led the Trojans since his freshman season and is building steam as a leading Heisman candidate.
Barkley finished last season with a 69.1 completion percentage and 3,528 yards through the air. Did I mention his 39 touchdown tosses?
As if Barkley isn’t enough to convince you that USC will win the Pac-12 this fall, he will be throwing to two of the best receivers in the country in Robert Woods and Marqise Lee.
Running back will be a concern if injuries hit, but the Trojans return two experienced backs in Curtis McNeal and D.J. Morgan. Both will do enough to keep defenses honest and let Barkley do his thing to opposing secondaries.
The USC offensive line returns four of five starters, but the departure of Matt Kalil to the NFL will be a big blow. There is talent that will fill the void, but he will be missed.
The defense is the biggest question for the Trojans heading into the 2012 season. The defensive line is full of inexperience, and the linebacker corps returns three sophomores that started as freshmen last season.
The linebacker unit will be led by Lamar Dawson, but he will need much more production that he had last year (just 25 total tackles).
The secondary is the strength of the defense entering the coming season. T.J. McDonald is the de facto leader, finishing the 2011 season as an All-American selection.
The secondary is full of playmaking upperclassmen and will anchor a defense that will have to grow up fast with a visit to Stanford in the third week of the season.
Back-to-back away games against Utah and Washington will be a challenge, but USC draws Oregon and Notre Dame at home this year. If the Trojans can find continuity early in the front seven of the defense, they will blast through the Pac-12 in 2012.
SEC: LSU Tigers
The SEC is the most difficult conference to project heading into the new season, with a number of teams facing key losses. Georgia is a great pick for the East, but the Bulldogs have not been able to push past the West in year’s past; nothing leads me to believe that will happen this season.
LSU is the front-runner in the West, as it faces the fewest key departures, but there are some concerns with the dismissal of Tyrann Mathieu that can’t be ignored.
Despite his dismissal, the LSU Tigers still have best defense from top to bottom in the conference. Add to that a big-time arm in Zach Mettenberger, and the Tigers are pushing for a second consecutive SEC title.
Zach Mettenberger—a former Georgia Bulldogs signal-caller—will step into the starting role for the Tigers at quarterback this fall after spotty play at the position for two seasons has led to 24 wins over the last two years.
Mettenberger is a major step up from Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson, and Les Miles expects big things from his newly-appointed quarterback.
Assisting Mettenberger in the backfield will be four returning impact running backs led by Michael Ford and his six yards per carry from a year ago. Two other juniors—Spencer Ware and Alfred Blue—will help fill out the balanced rushing attack, with big-bodied sophomore Kenny Hilliard providing some bruising gains this season.
Rueben Randle departs a very talented receiving corps that has severely under-produced the past few seasons, but returnees Odell Beckham, Jr., and Russell Shepard will be enough to fill the void.
The Tigers will have five starters returning along the offensive line, building the best returning group in the conference and arguably the country.
The defense is stacked, and it all starts upfront for the Tigers. Dangerous pass-rushing ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery return after combining for 28.5 tackles for loss and 17 sacks last season.
Helping fill out the end position will be studs Lavar Edwards, Jermauria Rasco and Chancey Aghayere.
The interior of the line is just as stacked, with senior Josh Downs and sophomore Ego Ferguson leading the charge.
The linebacker position is just as stacked as up front, with junior Kevin Minter returning. Juniors Tahj Jones and Lamin Barrow will fill out the remaining positions in the middle of the defense.
The defensive secondary took a blow with the dismissal of Tyrann Mathieu earlier this fall, but Tharold Simon and Jalen Collins are more than capable to fill the void left behind by the dynamic playmaker—they actually will be a step up in pass-coverage skills.
Eric Reid will lead the defense from safety, further solidifying the Tigers' ability to be the best defense in the country for 2012.
The Tigers have a very manageable schedule early; they do have a tough contest coming against Washington at home and a visit to Auburn in Week 3, but they should take care of business against cupcakes Idaho, Towson and North Texas.
The Tigers host Alabama this year in Death Valley, but they finish the season on the road against Arkansas.
The schedule and layers of talent found on the Tigers sideline make them the early favorite to repeat as SEC champions this fall.