Who Will Win the SEC and 9 Other Questions for the 2012 College Football Season
We are 48 hours from the first college football game of the year and less than 96 hours from the first Saturday, when Notre Dame and Navy play in Ireland.
Last season produced one of the greatest seasons in recent memory. USC returned to prominence despite not being able to play in a bowl game. Michigan State and Wisconsin gave us two thrilling, down- to-the-wire contests.
Robert Griffin III gave us one of the greatest single seasons by a quarterback on his way to capturing the Heisman Trophy. Oklahoma State finished with the most wins in school history and won a shootout against Andrew Luck and Stanford in the Fiesta Bowl.
Most notably, from the SEC, we saw LSU and Alabama stage two slugfests that determined the national title. Alabama avenged an early-season loss to LSU and won its second national title in three years, giving the conference six straight.
As good as the season was, the offseason saw its fair share of discouraging news, with NCAA sanctions, coaching scandals and player disciplinary issues.
But with all of that finally behind us, here are 10 questions as the college football season begins.
Are you ready for some football?
10. Will Notre Dame Make a Bowl Game?
All the credit in the world must be given to Notre Dame and coach Brian Kelly. They scheduled what appears to be the toughest schedule in college football.
Notre Dame opens the season in Ireland against Navy on Saturday, followed by a home game against Purdue. After that, the schedule heats up in a hurry.
Notre Dame plays at Michigan State and then plays host to Michigan, Miami (Fla.), Stanford and BYU. The Irish follow four straight at home with a trip to Norman to play Oklahoma.
The schedule cools down with home games against Pittsburgh and Wake Forest, with a Boston College road game wedged in between. Then the Irish close with a game in Los Angeles against USC.
There is a possibility Notre Dame could match its eight wins from a year ago, but it is also possible the Irish could regress and finish at 6-6 or worse.
The opener against Navy could go a long way in shaping how the season will go as the Irish fight for relevancy in 2012.
9. Is LSU Still a Title Contender Without Tyrann Mathieu?
LSU seemed like a team of destiny a year ago. The Tigers finished the regular season undefeated and rolled through every team they played with the exception of Alabama.
Then came the national championship game, and everything fell apart for the Tigers. They were the first team to be shut out in the BCS title game, losing 21-0.
This season they return a vaunted defense, several experienced running backs and one of the best offensive lines in the country. The only question was whether new quarterback Zach Mettenberger would be able to avoid costly errors that could derail the team’s title chances.
However, earlier this month, LSU dismissed troubled cornerback and special teams star Tyrann Mathieu. He was the Tigers' best playmaker and without question will be missed.
Even without Mathieu, LSU is scary good, but in the SEC, where games are decided by the smallest of margins, the loss of Mathieu could spell doom for the Tigers' title hopes.
LSU plays at Florida and at home against South Carolina in back-to-back weeks but should win those games. The dates to remember will be November 3, when LSU welcomes Alabama to Tiger Stadium, and November 23, when the Tigers head to Fayetteville to play Arkansas.
Those two games will go a long way in determining the SEC West and the national champion.
8. Can Boise State Go Undefeated After Losing Kellen Moore?
Boise State enters its last season in the Mountain West with a number of holes. Gone is quarterback Kellen Moore, along with four offensive and 10 defensive starters.
The Broncos have long dominated their conference foes, but if there was ever a season when they might be vulnerable, this is it.
Boise State opens at Big Ten powerhouse Michigan State. If the Broncos win that one, there aren’t too many other scary games on the schedule. In fact, Boise should be favored in every other game.
Still, it remains to be seen how this team will react with a new signal-caller and so many missing pieces on defense.
The odds are still in Boise’s favor, but things will be tougher than in years past. Boise State did catch a break in avoiding former conference foe TCU, which is off to the Big 12.
The tipping point for the Broncos will come early in the season against Michigan State. Win that game and it should be smooth sailing, although a trip to Nevada on December 1 could be cause for concern.
7. Can West Virginia Sneak into the BCS Title Game?
The last time we saw the Mountaineers they were rolling over Clemson in the Orange Bowl. The final score was 70-33.
This year, No. 11 West Virginia opens ranked just outside the Top 10. Along with TCU, the Mountaineers are the newest members of the newly designed and geographically puzzling Big 12.
West Virginia is led by quarterback Geno Smith and a bevy of talented offensive players. In all, the Mountaineers return 16 starters from a 10-win team.
The opening month of the season should be easy, but things get tough in a hurry beginning with a trip to Texas on October 6. The next five games consist of a trip to Lubbock against Texas Tech, home meetings with Kansas State and TCU, a trip to Stillwater to face Oklahoma State and a home game with Oklahoma.
If the Mountaineers can survive that, they should have no trouble holding off Iowa State and Kansas in the season’s final two games.
With an offense that can score with the best of them and an experienced defense, don’t be surprised if the Mountaineers are in the BCS title conversation in December.
6. Will the ACC Produce a Real BCS Contender?
The ACC was far from impressive last season. It seemed as though no one wanted to win the conference title. Florida State, Miami, Georgia Tech and North Carolina underachieved, leaving it to Clemson, which twice defeated Virginia Tech, to claim the conference crown.
Clemson was not without serious flaws, however. After winning their first eight games, the Tigers fell apart and dropped four of their last six, including a humiliating Orange Bowl loss at the hands of West Virginia, a game in which they gave up a bowl-record 70 points.
This season, Clemson, Florida State and Virginia Tech are the conference’s only ranked teams, but none of the three are generating much BCS title buzz.
A September matchup between the Seminoles and the Tigers should go a long way in deciding who wins the conference. But with few high-profile games, it isn’t likely the ACC will get anything more than its mandatory Orange Bowl berth.
5. Will Anybody Challenge USC and Oregon in the Pac-12?
If you’re looking for words to describe the Pac-12 in 2012, the best might be “top-heavy.” As of today, the conference looks to be nothing more than a two-team race between Oregon and USC.
USC is led by quarterback Matt Barkley, a Heisman favorite, and the best receiving corps in college football. The Trojans open the season as the top team in the AP poll, and USC’s schedule offers few wrinkles. The Trojans should walk into their November 3 game with Oregon unbeaten.
Oregon is equally as impressive despite losing key players on offense. Still, that unit is full of talent. The Ducks defense should be improved from a year ago as well, meaning there is no reason why they can’t win 11 or even 12 games.
Besides the meeting with each other, the scariest games on both teams' schedules are October dates with Washington. USC has lost two of its last three to UW and must play in Seattle. The Ducks have the fortune of playing the Huskies in Eugene, but it will be no easy task.
Oregon must also make a trip to Corvallis to play in-state rival Oregon State to end the season.
4. Can Oklahoma Get over the Hump?
The Sooners entered last season as one of the teams favored to win the national championship. Oklahoma ended the season with three losses in conference play and finished fourth in the Big 12.
The Big 12 figures to be even more competitive this season with the addition of No. 11 West Virginia and No. 20 TCU, which came after the departures of Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC.
The Sooners are led by quarterback Landry Jones, a Heisman hopeful, and are once again favored to win the Big 12. But they have a tough schedule. A late September game with Kansas State and the Red River Shootout against Texas in early October could prove to be problematic.
A midseason game with Notre Dame could also trip up the Sooners, but it’s the back end of the schedule where things get tricky for Bob Stoops' boys. They play at West Virginia, host Oklahoma State in the Bedlam game and end the season with a trip to Dallas against TCU.
Oklahoma should be favored in every game, but that hasn’t stopped the Sooners from stumbling in the past. It is not inconceivable that they will finish the year unbeaten. It is also not inconceivable that they will finish the year with multiple losses.
3. Which New High-Profile Coach Will Have the Strongest Year?
Several big-name coaches made moves to new jobs this offseason. Out west, the Pac-12 welcomed Rich Rodriguez to Arizona, Mike Leach to Washington State, Todd Graham to Arizona State and Jim L. Mora to UCLA.
Former Houston coach Kevin Sumlin takes over at Texas A&M, and Charlie Weis gets his second head coaching gig at Kansas.
Perhaps no coach has a tougher task than new Penn State coach Bill O’Brien. He must not only turn around the Nittany Lions football team that was hit with serious sanctions, but also try to help the university and community heal.
In Columbus, Urban Meyer looks to recharge Buckeye nation, although he will have to wait a season before his team can play in the postseason.
Nonetheless, look for Meyer to turn the program around and fast. The Buckeyes should win eight games in his first season.
2. Can Anybody Stop the SEC’s BCS Dominance?
You want to talk about dominance? The SEC has won six straight national titles and three of the last five Heisman Trophies. This year, the conference boasts five Top 10 teams in the preseason Top 25.
Needless to say, the Southeastern Conference is loaded with talent. Aside from the favorites, Florida and Auburn are also looking to bounce back and join the conference’s elite.
There is a strong possibility that this year’s SEC might be deeper than last year’s.
We will know early on where the other teams rank in terms of competition. Auburn plays No. 14 Clemson in Atlanta on opening weekend, and No. 2 Alabama plays No. 8 Michigan in Dallas. The following weekend, No. 3 LSU plays host to Washington.
1. Who Will Win the SEC?
The team that wins the SEC wins the BCS, or so it has seemed of late. Last year, the conference left no doubt when it secured both slots in the national title game. There is a strong possibility that could happen again.
It isn’t likely the voters would allow an all-SEC national championship game to happen again, but it is a near certainty that at least one team from this conference will make it to the title game. The question is which one?
Alabama is the highest-ranked team at No. 2 in the AP poll and boasts one of the nation's top recruiting classes. The Crimson Tide are led by quarterback A.J. McCarron, last year’s title game MVP, and an impenetrable offensive line.
LSU is ranked right behind the Tide and has a wealth of talent in the offensive backfield and the best defense in college football. But the loss of star corner Tyrann Mathieu hurts, plus the Tigers have an unproven first-year starter at quarterback in Zach Mettenberger.
South Carolina and Georgia will most likely compete for the SEC East title, but neither appears to be in the class of LSU or Alabama. Georgia figures to be the favorite to win the division, and the Bulldogs do not play the Tide, Tigers or Arkansas.
The dark-horse contender is the Arkansas Razorbacks. The Hogs have a new coach in John L. Smith, but they are highly talented and get to play Alabama and LSU at home.
Still, the game to circle on your calendar is November 3, when LSU hosts Alabama. It should all but determine who wins the SEC West.