It's been a little over five months since Cam Newton led Auburn to an improbable national championship win in a thrilling battle over Oregon.
That means two things.
First, the new season is slowly but surely approaching, bringing with it the joyous sounds of pads cracking, blowing whistles and fight songs.
And two, it's time to forecast who will face off in New Orleans on Jan. 9, 2012 for the right to take the Tigers' crown.
As with every new season, hopes of BCS glory are running rampant across campuses across the nation—with varying degrees of plausibility.
Among that core group of legitimate championship contenders, let's examine the 10 biggest and most interesting potential championship game matchups for 2012. Whether it's a similar or contrasting style of play, the next chapter in a heated rivalry or a matchup rooted in history, these 10 games would all be sure-fire blockbusters.
As a special bonus, we'll also add another that includes two darkhorse teams that have the potential to take the college football world by storm, much in the way Auburn did last season.
Is your favorite matchup not listed? Post it in the comments and let the debate begin.
Could this be the year that Boise State finally makes good on its title game promise?
It very well could be and in the process setup a rematch of one of the most exciting bowl games of all-time.
The Broncos lost two dynamic wide receivers in Austin Pettis and Titus Young, but quarterback Kellen Moore returns and has proven to be able to thrive regardless of who is on the receiving end of his throws. In addition, running back Doug Martin and his 1,260 yards from 2010 return as well.
If Boise State can fill their holes—a skill they've proven to have—they should be in good shape to take down Georgia on the road to open their season. After that, their major games in their debut season in the Mountain West Conference—Tulsa, Nevada and TCU—are all at home.
The other half of this matchup is the near consensus preseason No. 1 team in the nation, the Oklahoma Sooners.
Led by Heisman candidate quarterback Landry Jones, the Sooners return 17 starters from last season's Fiesta Bowl championship team.
This matchup would certainly possess the potential to meet the excitement of their epic 2007 Fiesta Bowl meeting, with last season's fourth (Oklahoma) and sixth (Boise State) ranked passing offenses taking center stage.
With Moore and Jones throwing the ball, this could easily take the national championship into a "first team to 50 wins" free-for-all.
The state of Alabama is home to the last two national champions. The Crimson Tide have their sights set on making it three-for-three, and they certainly have the talent to do it.
Despite losing four first-round picks to the NFL, Nick Saban's team is still ridiculously loaded, especially on defense.
Linebacker Dont'a Hightower and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick are two of four returning All-SEC defenders that led the Crimson Tide defense to top five national rankings in both fewest points (14.1) and yards (286.4) allowed per game in 2010.
That unit would attempt to stop one of the most explosive offense's in the nation in Oklahoma State in a matchup of the oft-cliched "unstoppable force versus the immovable object".
The Cowboys posted the third highest scoring offense (44.9) in the country last season, spearheaded by Brandon Weeden's 4,277 yards passing and 34 touchdowns. The passing attack received a major boost when wide receiver Justin Blackmon and his Arena League-like 111 receptions, 1,782 yards and 20 touchdowns passed up the NFL to return for another season.
Both team's will face tough roads to the title game.
Alabama faces the annual gauntlet of SEC competition, while OSU faces a still potent Big 12 lineup capped by a season-ending game at home against Oklahoma that could have a national time game appearance on the line.
Each of these team possesses such strength on one side of the ball that they can certainly run the table and reach New Orleans for this must-see game.
Notre Dame and Florida State—it's like the early 1990s never left.
After some turbulent times, it seems that head coach Brian Kelly may actually have the Fighting Irish back on track.
In his first season in South Bend, Kelly guided the shaky Irish ship through the troubled waters of poor play and injuries to finish strong on a four-game win streak, in which his maturing defense—which returns nine starters—allowed a total of 39 points.
The biggest question going into the season may be choosing between talented quarterbacks Dayne Crist (pictured) and Tommy Rees, who both played well in 2010. If star wide receiver Michael Floyd returns from suspension and the Irish's lack of running back depth doesn't deepen, the Irish will be an aerial force in 2011, both due to talent and necessity.
This upstart Irish squad would face another former powerhouse who may be finishing their long climb back to the nation's elite.
Florida State surpassed expectations in Jimbo Fisher's first season as head coach, winning 10 games, including a Chick-fil-A Bowl win over South Carolina.
The Seminoles return 16 starters, including the heart of ferocious defense, led by defensive end Brandon Jenkins, who finished third in the nation in sacks with 13.5.
Whether FSU can return to the apex of college football this season will rest on how well quarterback E.J. Manuel handles his first season as starter. Manuel played well in spurts in his time in Tallahassee and has immense talent.
If he delivers on it in 2011 and Florida State can topple Oklahoma at home on Sept. 17, they should find themselves in legitimate national title contention.
With two teams on the rise, a rematch of this past season's Cotton Bowl could contain significantly higher stakes.
He may not know the difference between George and Thomas Jefferson, but LSU senior quarterback Jordan Jefferson's play may very well determine if the Tigers will be moving on up to the national title game in 2011.
Jefferson failed to live up to his breakthrough 2009 season, as he posted a negative touchdown-to-interception ratio (7-10) and was often pulled in favor of backup Jarrett Lee.
Despite that instability at quarterback, LSU was still talented enough to win 11 games. With an extremely talented group of wide receivers, Jefferson has the ability to duplicate his three touchdown Cotton Bowl performance with regularity in 2011.
If so, there may be no stopping the ultra-loaded Tigers from making a run at their first BCS berth since their 2007 national championship.
The team that LSU beat in the 2011 Cotton Bowl was Texas A&M, who rode a late season six-game win streak to become one of the most talked about teams headed into this season.
The Aggies' fortunes turned when they handed their offense to quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who tossed three touchdowns in his first game and never looked back en route to leading the nation's 20th ranked passing offense. With All-Big-12 running back Cyrus Gray behind him, the Aggie offense should be among the nation's elite.
Even without Von Miller, the second overall pick in April's NFL draft, Texas A&M's defense should remain strong. The eight returning starters will now have a full season of experience in the recently installed 3-4 defense, which will only make the Aggies all the more formidable.
This national championship matchup would be an examination of two talented quarterbacks who couldn't be much further apart in both their on and off field approach.
On one hand, there is the Stanford Cardinal and their All-American quarterback Andrew Luck. Luck passed up a chance to enter the NFL draft when he surely would have been the first overall selection to return to Stanford, a program he and now departed head coach Jim Harbaugh helped lead into prominence, as the Cardinal finished last season ranked No. 4 in the nation.
In comparison to other teams on this list, Stanford lost a lot of key players—10 starters, to be precise. Yet as long as Luck is under center, they should remain an elite team. Helping their cause are two All-Pac-10 offensive linemen, running back Stepfan Taylor (15 touchdowns in 2010) and an experienced secondary on defense. They even get their most important game, against Pac-12 North division rival Oregon, at home.
However, nothing compares to having the best quarterback prospect in arguably a generation on their team.
On the other end of the spectrum is South Carolina's talented yet beleaguered Stephen Garcia. The senior plays with a reckless abandon both on and off the field, evidenced by his 14 interceptions and five suspensions.
However, the Gamecocks' talent pool is much deeper than Garcia.
Offensively, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and running back Marcus Lattimore are NFL-caliber players who combined for 3,126 yards from scrimmage and 26 touchdowns. On defense, the other USC has two All-SEC defenders in defensive end Devin Taylor and cornerback Stephon Gilmore who may be joined by the nation's top recruit Jadeveon Clowney.
Of course, standing in the way of South Carolina becoming the sixth straight SEC champion is the SEC itself. Thankfully for Steve Spurrier's squad, their schedule doesn't include Alabama or LSU.
The rivalry between these two former conference rivals is among the most heralded in college football history.
During the old Big Eight Conference's 89 year history, one of these two schools won the conference title 71 times. That's dominance.
The rivalry was tempered a bit when they were split among the Big-12's North and South divisions and destroyed when Nebraska left for the Big Ten after last season. However, their final game as conference foes ended in classic fashion in last season's Big-12 championship game, a hard fought 23-20 Sooner victory.
As covered earlier, Oklahoma enters the season as the No. 1 team in the nation behind a bevy of returning playmakers and their Heisman-caliber quarterback Landry Jones.
Nebraska doesn't have such certainty at their quarterback spot.
After a dynamic seven-game stretch to open the season, Cornhusker quarterback Taylor Martinez ended his freshman season in disarray, only rushing for 79 yards and throwing four interceptions and a single touchdown over his last four games.
Nevertheless, head coach Bo Pelini has the Huskers stockpiled with talent on both sides of the ball that should be able to alleviate the losses the team suffered over the offseason. If Martinez can recapture his Heisman-caliber form, Nebraska should be the favorite in the Big Ten.
Additionally, their toughest game in their debut season in the Big Ten got a whole lot easier with the turmoil surrounding Ohio State, which now makes their Oct. 1 road trip to Wisconsin their defining game.
One of the most profound ways to make a football game compelling is to pit one team's strength against that of the other.
In this case, it would be the nation's top quarterback, Stanford's Andrew Luck, again one of the toughest secondaries, that of LSU.
Luck has been touted as the best quarterback prospect the college game has seen since fellow Cardinal alum John Elway dominated Palo Alto in the early 1980s.
His on-field brilliance will be tested as the still mighty Cardinal will be replacing key loses along the offensive line and at wide receiver, but as has been proven in the past (see the 2000 Purdue Boilermakers), an elite quarterback can elevate a solid team into greatness.
That quarterback will be tested by a secondary that may be unmatched in the nation's toughest conference, the SEC.
Despite losing All-American cornerback Patrick Peterson, LSU returns three starters to a defense that ranked 12th overall last season. As always, LSU brings in an outstanding recruiting class to bolster their ranks.
Seeing a quarterback the caliber of Luck match wits against the ballhawking LSU defensive backs with the national championship on the line would be quite a treat for fans of football everywhere.
The top offense in both points and yards the nation.
A top five defense in both points and yards allowed in the nation.
What happens should they meet?
If Oregon and Alabama, both certain pre-season top five ranked teams, can make it to New Orleans on Jan. 9, the world will find out.
The Ducks came within a two minutes of a national title this past January and return the core of that squad.
Led by the nation's leading rusher LaMichael James, Oregon plays with an unmatched offensive tempo as the aim to "win the day" on each play. More often than not, they do.
Standing in their way would be one of the toughest and most talented defenses in the nation that would have been hardened by the fires of SEC play.
Alabama's defense returns four All-SEC players that will form the foundation of a team that is in prime position to win its second national title in three years.
As the Crimson Tide break in a new quarterback, they will have the luxury of handing the ball to running back Trent Richardson, who many argue was more talented than departed Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram.
With the terrific finish to the 2010 title game, the 2011 edition would have the potential for another classic between the Ducks and a team from the state of Alabama.
The Sunshine State could very well play host to both participants of this year's national championship game—should a few things fall the right way.
The Seminoles seem to have turned the corner in Jimbo Fisher's first season, with 16 starters returning from last season's 10-win squad.
The hype surrounding Florida State will make the transition into reality if they can topple Oklahoma at home.
In stark contrast to the hopeful Seminoles, the atmosphere around the Florida Gators would seem to indicate a two-win season, rather than an eight-win season capped with an Outback Bowl victory.
The duo will have a ridiculous amount of talent to work with, but the season's primary challenge will center around Weis rebuilding once-promising quarterback John Brantley into a top-flight SEC signal caller.
As is custom, these two teams will meet in the final week of the regular season, meaning that for this scenario to occur, one team will have at least one loss.
Given the hotly contested title games in the SEC and ACC, a rematch could very well occur should the BCS ball bounce the right way.
We'll dub this matchup the "Defense Optional" Bowl.
What makes this offensive battle all the more intriguing is that each team executes their dynamic gameplan in entirely different ways.
For the Ducks, their vaunted ground game is led by LaMichael James, who led the nation is rushing a season ago with 1,731 yards, despite missing the season opener. He was the catalyst behind Oregon's fourth ranked rushing attack, which in turn sparked the nations's top offense in both yards and points.
While Oregon is gashing their opponents on the ground, Oklahoma is carving up their opponents through the air.
No player threw more passes last season than the 615 thrown by Oklahoma's Landry Jones. In addition to that quantity, he had an overabundance of quality as well. Jones completed a stellar 65.5 percent of those passes for 38 touchdowns and only 12 interceptions.
With both the turf and the air ablaze, this would be arguably the most exciting matchup of elite teams in 2011 that would almost certainly come down to which team had the final possession.
With the hype-hogs out of the way, it’s time to examine some lower ranked teams that have the potential to shock the college football world en route to crashing the BCS party.
Arizona State has long been pegged as a potential power on the national landscape, yet have never fulfilled those expectations.
This may be the year.
The Sun Devils return 20 starters from a team that far exceeded expectations in 2010. Their 6-6 record was deceiving, as they arguably should have beaten Wisconsin, Oregon and Stanford, if not for a blocked extra point, three fourth quarter interceptions and another missed extra point, respectively.
ASU has an explosive offense that should improve in their second season under offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone’s up-tempo attack, but it will be on defense where the Devils make their mark.
The have arguably the best defensive player in the entire nation in linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who heads a unit that has playmakers on all three levels.
A manageable schedule adds to the expectation that ASU should make an appearance in the inaugural Pac-12 championship game.
Georgia’s 6-7 record last season was their first losing mark since 1996, and it should prove to be a fluke rather than a the beginning of a trend.
The primary reason for that is standout quarterback Aaron Murray, who figures to be among the best in the SEC in his sophomore season.
Eight returning starters on defense and perhaps the best kicker/punter combination in the nation also are in the Dawgs’ favor, but perhaps the greatest boon to their hopes is the schedule—no Alabama, Arkansas or LSU.
If the can start 2-0 against Boise State and South Carolina, we will know that Georgia is back.
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