The game is simple folks: Will all 120 FBS teams finish higher or lower in 2012?
By higher or lower I mean just that. It isn't necessarily if the team will be better or worse next season.
That is a big part of it, of course, but not the lone factor.
All factors will be taken under consideration in an attempt to determine who will finish higher or lower next season.
The season isn't 100 percent over, but it's close enough. Figure that winners of bowl games will move up a maximum of 3-5 spots, while losers will move down 3-5 spots. Those will be our starting points. Then, we can go from there.
Air Force had a bit of a disappointing year this season. Some figured they would be one step below TCU or Boise in the Mountain West, but it turns out they were a few steps behind.
With losses to QB Tim Jefferson and leading back Asher Clark, Air Force may have to get lower before they rebound and get better.
Akron finished 1-11 and 0-8 in the MAC. Unfortunately (or fortunately) there isn't anywhere to go but up.
They should do that easily, though. They suffered from close losses this season; EMU by eight and CMU by one. With nearly all their skill positions on offense back, including freshman RB Jawon Chisholm, Akron will finish higher.
They're currently playing for the National Championship behind the talents of many players who will most likely leave for the NFL.
Trent Richardson, Dre Kirkpatrick and Dont'a Hightower will all have decisions to make. Mark Barron, Courtney Upshaw, Mark Barron and Marquis Maze will all be gone.
That is a lot of talent to replace. Alabama can and will eventually replace them, but it's unreasonable to think they'll be in the Top Two again next season.
Arizona staggered to the finish line and ended with a 4-8 record. Their early-season futility cost Mike Stoops his job, but the program received a boost with the hiring of Rich Rodriguez.
Nick Foles and Juron Criner will be gone, but most of the offensive line returns. That will be enough for RichRod to start building.
Their defense ranked 110th in total defense, but will have more experience in the secondary and along the front line.
I don't expect the Wildcats to be great next season, but they should win more than four games.
ASU finished the season on a disappointing note, losing their last four games. They were the favorites to represent the Pac-12 South in the inaugural Pac-12 title game, but instead finished third in the division.
The Sun Devils have yet to name a new head coach to replace Dennis Erickson. They will most likely lose standout linebacker Vontaze Burfict and their other top six tacklers. Those are some massive holes on defense.
QB Brock Osweiler and RB Cameron Marshall will be back, but not many weapons at receiver.
Next year is going to be a down year for the Sun Devils.
Arkansas has had an incredible two-year run. Last year they made the Sugar Bowl, this season they finished in the Top 10 and would have made a BCS bowl if not for the two-teams-per-conference rule.
Next year they'll return Tyler Wilson and presumably RB Knile Davis (if he's healthy). They will lose all their top receivers, though (Jarius Wright, Joe Adams and, to a lesser extent, Greg Childs).
The Hogs will lose most of their best defensive players, including Jake Bequette, who leads the team with eight sacks.
Arkansas will most likely be good again next year. Just don't expect them in the Top Seven.
I love what Arkansas State has done this season. They're 10-2 with their only losses coming to Illinois and Virginia Tech, and they ran the table in the Sun Belt.
They will return quarterback Ryan Aplin next season, but lose their top five defenders. They'll also lose star wide receiver Dwayne Frampton, and they have already lost their head coach, Hugh Freeze, to Ole Miss.
Expecting another 10-win season and Sun Belt title next year would be asking too much.
Army played a tough schedule this year; squaring off against seven bowl teams. Combine that with an inexperienced defense, and a drop-off from a seven-win team was expected.
Next year they will have 18 of their top 21 tacklers back! They'll also have a more experienced offensive line and their entire backfield returning. You know, the same backfield that already ranks No. 1 in the nation in rushing.
Expect the Knights to improve drastically on defense. Combine that with their already-solid rushing game, and expect them back in a bowl game next year.
Not much was expected out of the Tigers this season. Sure, they won the National Championship last year, but some predicted that the Tigers would not even make a bowl this season.
They proved doubters wrong and won seven games, and are playing in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. That is reason for celebration, but the Auburn faithful should be even more excited about the players returning.
The Tigers will return somewhere in the neighborhood of 9-10 starters on defense. Star running back Michael Dyer will return. All of their quarterbacks will return.
But who will play QB for Auburn? Will it be Trotter, Moseley or maybe even the freshman Frazier?
Whoever it is, the Tigers will have a summer to figure it out. And whoever lines up under center will do so with a more experienced team and a better defense behind him.
Expect Auburn to make a consistent appearance in the Top 25 next season.
Ball State had a surprising year this season and finished 6-6. Despite being eligible, they will not go to a bowl.
The Cardinals are going to lose five of their top 11 tacklers and their two leading receivers. They were 5-1 in games decided by seven points or less.
With so many players leaving and a fortunate trend destined to reverse itself, don't expect the Cardinals to be .500 again.
This was one of the harder teams to judge.
It's hard to finish higher than where the Bears are now, especially when you consider that this is their first nine-win season since 1986. Additionally, leading rusher Terrance Ganaway and leading receiver Kendall Wright will be gone.
That said, most of their defense will be back.
It may all come down to Griffin and coach Briles returning. If both return they could be a Top 10 team, even with the losses.
I can't speculate over Briles or Griffin. Fair or not, it's safer to say that Baylor will regress than it is to say that they'll improve.
Fading or going against Boise State isn't a healthy endeavor. They have shown the propensity to reload and win under any circumstances.
Still, with Kellen Moore, Doug Martin and most of the defense leaving, combined with improved competition in a new conference, it's tough to figure how Boise will go 11-1 and finish in the Top 10 next season.
They will be great again eventually. A move to the Big East benefits them as it should make them an automatic qualifier for the BCS (although who knows, since the landscape is always changing). It's just that they'll have a tough time making a BCS bowl next year.
My hope is that Frank Spaziani is kept on as BC's head coach next year. That's because the Eagles will have a lot of players back and could be much improved next season.
Sure, the nation's leading tackler, Luke Kuechly, figures to leave for the NFL, but every other player on the defense will be back. All of their skill position players on offense will return, including QB Chase Rettig, who improved as the season went on.
BC had one of their worst seasons in 2011. Star RB Montell Harris was injured a few weeks before the start of the season, and they could never recover. Next year they'll have plenty of players back and will easily improve.
Bowling Green displayed an impressive rushing attack this season, which led them to a surprise 5-7 season. I expect the improvement to continue next season.
They will return their top three rushers and QB Matt Schilz. Schilz threw for more than 3,000 yards this season.
While they lose their top two receivers, the offense has a chance to be more balanced. Defensively they will return 10 of their top 11 tacklers.
The Falcons won two games last season and five this season. Don't be surprised to see six or more next season, and to see them in a bowl game in 2012.
I'd love to see Buffalo improve. They finished with a disappointing 3-9 record, which was highlighted by a win over Ohio.
Next season they will only lose two of their top tacklers, so their 80th-ranked scoring defense should improve (it already showed improvements in the final third of the season.).
They will have to break in a new quarterback since they lose Chazz Anderson. RB Branden Oliver should help ease the acclimating process; the sophomore rushed for 1,395 and 13 touchdowns this season.
This verdict is mainly based on hype.
Did you know that BYU is 9-3 this season? Have you ever seen a less-publicized 9-3 team?
Apparently their move to independence backfired, as they are currently less notorious than they were in the Mountain West.
All of their top offensive contributors will return, along with their top four tacklers.
The Cougars currently have received zero votes in all of the polls combined. If they win their bowl game against Tulsa they will have 10 wins and be highly considered entering 2012. Even if they lose to Tulsa, bank on this team getting more coverage next season.
As a result, they'll be rated higher come season's end.
Cal's improvement in the second half of the season makes this a harder decision. They finished 7-5 and are attending the Holiday Bowl; such a great finish is going to be difficult to match next season.
They will return QB Zach Maynard, who improved over the course of the season. Star wide receiver Keenan Allen and running back Isi Sofele will return, along with most of the offensive line.
That said, their top two sack leaders and their four leading tacklers for loss are all gone. Marvin Jones and some other key receivers are gone, which may lead to defenses focusing in more on Allen.
I'd like to see Cal continue to improve. They had a good second half of the season in 2011. They lose too much, however, and will be hard-pressed to improve to eight wins next year.
Central Michigan had an uncharacteristic down-year, finishing 3-9.
Don't expect that to continue.
Next year they'll return 13 of their top 16 tacklers on defense. They'll also return most of their linemen and key offensive personnel. QB Ryan Radcliff threw for 3,266 yards this season as a junior and will return his best receivers, Titus Davis and Cody Wilson.
Cincinnati won a share of the Big East championship this season, their third in four seasons. Unfortunately, they won't be representing the conference in the BCS.
Worse yet, they will lose a lot of talent next year.
QB Zach Collaros is gone. The team struggled mightily without him (if he didn't get hurt they probably would have won the conference outright). They also lose star running back Isaiah Pead, wide receiver D.J. Woods and most of their defense.
With the amount they are losing and where they are at now, it's easy to expect the Bearcats to regress a bit.
Clemson is a two-sided coin. On one hand they will return QB Tajh Boyd, RB Andre Ellington, WRs Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins, and TE Dwayne Allen.
That should be a loaded offense, right?
On the other hand, they lose a lot defensively. They lose their three leading sack-men, including their best player, Andre Branch. They will lost five of their top 11 tacklers overall.
The Tigers could be better on offense, but will be worse on defense. The fact that they already won the ACC and are attending the Orange Bowl is the tiebreaker. I expect them to finish slightly lower than they did this season.
It was a tough inaugural season for Colorado in the Pac-12 and a tough inaugural season for coach Jon Embree.
The Buffaloes were decimated by injuries, so much so that at times they were playing converted wide receivers at defensive backs (converted as in they were wide receivers a week or two previously).
The Buffaloes will return a majority of their defense, and that alone is enough to celebrate. They will lose QB Tyler Hansen and RB Rodney Stewart, along with most of their offensive line, so we shouldn't be making postseason plans quite yet.
Still, with a full season under Embree's belt and a majority of the defense back, this team should show some improvement.
Colorado State had an extremely disappointing season. After starting 3-1 they lost eight in a row to finish 3-9. As a result, head coach Steve Fairchild was fired.
CSU will have QB Pete Thomas, RB Chris Nwoke and their top three receivers returning. They also have nine of their top 11 tacklers back, including surprise star Nordly Capi (9.5 sacks).
CSU suffered from losing several close games. The Rams lost three games by exactly three points and four games by less than seven points. A few of those close games should go the other way next year, and the Rams will have too much talent back to finish with three wins or less.
This team finishes higher.
UConn figured to slide a little bit following their Fiesta Bowl berth from a year ago. They finished a mediocre 5-7 under first-year head coach Paul Pasqualoni (first year for UConn).
They will return quarterback Johnny McEntee and RB Lyle McCombs, but will lose most of their receivers and line. They will have most of their key contributors on defense back, though.
The Huskies already made significant strides throughout the 2011 season. With a more experienced defense and quarterback under the second year of Pasqualoni, expect the Huskies to be back in a bowl in 2012.
Sooner or later it has to happen for the Blue Devils. I'm guess it's going to be sooner.
Duke showed initial improvements under David Cutcliffe, but have been unable to take the next step and make a bowl. They won four games in 2008, five in 2009, three in 2010 and three this season. This season was marred by three losses by four points or less.
Next year they will return QB Sean Renfree, WR Connor Vernon and all of their running backs. Defensively, the Blue Devils return nine of their top 11 tacklers.
There will be no excuses coming out of Cutcliffe's fifth season. The Devils have to win in 2012.
I expect them to do so and make a bowl game.
ECU has struggled under Ruffin McNeill. After winning consecutive C-USA titles in 2008 and 2009 the Pirates have suffered through back-to-back losing seasons.
QB Dominique Davis will be gone, but the rest of the contributors on offense will be back. The Pirates will also return 12 of their top 15 defenders. The defense has been slacking under McNeill, which is an oddity since McNeill made his bones as a defensive coordinator.
I expect the defense to be much stronger with so many returning starters. Even without Davis the offense should be solid enough to win some games.
The Pirates struggled through a difficult schedule early on and improved throughout 2011. I expect the improvement to continue. ECU will be in a bowl game next year.
EMU made significant strides in 2011, finishing 6-6. Despite being .500, the Eagles are ineligible for a bowl since two wins were against FCS opponents.
They got it done on the ground and on defense. Dual-threat QB Alex Gillett will return next year in addition to all the other key contributors on offense. The Eagles will lose some key players on the defensive side of the ball, but Coach Ron English is known for his defense.
Whoever plays for the Eagles will improve, and this team will get to a bowl next season.
It's hard to imagine the Gators doing worse than 6-6. Even with a new head coach and several injuries they were able to finish .500 this season.
UF has done a good job getting QBs Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel some snaps to prepare for the departure of John Brantley. The Gators will lose their two best athletes in Rainey and Demps, but return enough of their defense to offset offensive losses.
It has just recently been announced that Charlie Weis will take the head coaching job at Kansas. They will have to find a new coordinator and style of play.
It isn't going to be easy to replace legendary Howard Schnellenberger, but the Owls have nowhere to go but up. They finished 1-11 as they opened up their new stadium, appropriately named FAU Stadium.
The Owls will have most of their defensive starters back, along with QB Graham Wilbert. The Owls finished in triple-digits in nearly every statistical category in 2011.
As I said—nowhere to go but up.
Many would expect this team to dip with the departure of QB Wesley Carroll and star WR T.Y. Hilton. Those will be major losses, no doubt, but the defense will return virtually intact.
That has been the strength of the Panthers. They finished ranked 16th in the nation by allowing just 19.4 points per game. All their defenders coming back offsets the loss of Hilton and Carroll.
The Seminoles were preseason Top Five this year and finished a disappointing 8-4. This should be a team that wins around 10 games every year.
They have had consecutive strong recruiting classes (No. 1 in 2010, No. 6 in 2009). E.J. Manuel will be back, along with a majority of the skill players on offense.
All that remains is the status of the defensive line. They're loaded with young talent, but many may decide to leave early for the NFL. If Cornellius Carradine and Brandon Jenkins return, then expect the Seminoles to be rated highly again once the season begins.
Next year I say that they live up to the hype.
It was one of the worst seasons in recent memory for the 4-9 Bulldogs. As a result, long-time coach Pat Hill was fired.
The defense was abysmal this season, allowing more than 35 points per game. They will lose their best defensive player, Logan Harrell, but return other key contributors.
The Bulldogs were young on offense, led by QB Derek Carr. He'll be back, along with RB Robbie Rouse, who rushed for 1,544 yards on the season.
Even with a new coach, the Bulldogs will have enough coming back to improve on a poor four-win season.
Georgia improved throughout the season and finished with 10 wins, securing Mark Richt's job in the process. Next year they will return QB Aaron Murray, and nearly all of their wide receivers and running backs. If RB Isaiah Crowell can get it together, then this can be an explosive offense.
More importantly, the Dawgs will return nearly all of their defense. You know, the one that held No. 1 LSU to zero first downs in the first half of the SEC championship. Save for Brandon Boykin, they'll all be back.
UGA benefited in part from an easy schedule this year. They didn't play Arkansas, Alabama or LSU out of the West. Even if their schedule gets harder, I expect the team to be much better and finish higher.
Tech fizzled out down the stretch in 2011, mainly due to their inability to stop anyone on the ground (or the air, for that matter). The defense will be better in 2012 since they return their entire linebacking unit and most of the secondary.
QB Tevin Washington and the entire backfield return. They will be good running the ball again, too.
Expect the defense to improve and Tech to compete for the ACC the entire year, not just in October.
Hawaii was unable to win two of their final three games to become bowl-eligible and finished a disappointing 6-7. Now they enter a potential rebuilding year.
QB Bryant Moniz and star WR Royce Pollard will be gone next year. It isn't that Hawaii doesn't have talent on offense, they just haven't had the opportunity to prove it yet.
More concerning is that the Warriors will lose seven of their top 11 tacklers. Art Laurel is turning into a nice pass-rusher, but he is the only star on the defense coming back.
All signs point to a down year for Hawaii next season.
This should be pretty obvious.
Houston reached the Top 10 after winning their first 12 games of the season. Had they beaten So. Miss in the C-USA title game, they would be in the Sugar Bowl right now.
They'll lose QB Case Keenum, RB Michael Hayes and their top three receivers. Worse yet, they may lose their coach, Kevin Sumlin. Sumlin is a target of many big-name schools, and it seems to be not a matter of if, but where the coach will go.
Idaho finished 2-10, but had two losses in overtime and another by two points. The team wasn't great, but they were better than their record indicates.
They're going to graduate most of their skill positions on offense, which may be a good thing since the Vandals finished 107th in the nation in points scored. Defensively they lose their best player in Korey Toomer, but should return around seven starters regardless.
I'd like to see this team get back to basics. A stronger defense and some new faces should give the program a boost. They'll finish higher.
It's difficult to asses the Illini this season. They started 6-0, finished 0-6, looked awful down the stretch offensively and fired their head coach.
Despite all that, they'll be playing in consecutive bowl games for the first time in 18 years.
The Illini will lose their two leading rushers (not counting QB Nathan Scheelhaase) and their only good wide receiver, A.J. Jenkins. This is a team that averaged 11 points per game in their last six contests, and they could struggle again next year.
They'll miss the senior leadership of Ian Thomas and Tavon Wilson. They'll get a big boost if national sack leader Whitney Mercilus decides to return. If he does, they can build a nice front seven with Michael Buchanan and Johnathan Brown contributing.
Overall, with a new coach and the personnel losses on offense, expect this to be a down year.
Year 1 under Kevin Wilson did not go according to plan. The offensive guru had a stagnant offense, averaging just 21 points per game.
Whether or not Gunner Kiel comes to the campus is irrelevant for this discussion. Indiana will be improved. They will return QB Edward Wright-Baker, most of their receivers and all of their backs. They were young up front on defense this year, but will be one more year experienced next season.
There is no way this team wins one or less games again next year.
Iowa is one of the harder teams to predict.
I like that they are returning QB James Vandenberg and RB Marcus Coker. They should be better on offense next year even with the loss of Marvin McNutt.
The Hawkeyes were not the same team defensively that they've been in years' past. They're going to have to replace a lot of their defensive line, and they lose 84 percent of their sack totals from this season.
They could be very weak up front on defense once again. I think they played well beyond their means to get to 7-5 this season, and could take a step back next year.
Paul Rhoads has done an incredible job getting the Cyclones bowl-eligible for the second time in three years. ISU finished 6-6 this year, headlined of course by their upset win over Oklahoma State.
ISU may struggle next season, however, as they have to rebuild their offensive and defensive lines. They will lose half of their starters on defense, a unit that was improving as the season went on.
I'd like to see ISU get to another bowl game next season, but with new lines on both sides of the ball, they'll probably take a small step back.
Kansas struggled on both ends this year, finishing 95th in the nation in offense and dead last in defense.
You can only go up, right?
They should. They have most of their offensive line and all of their skill players on offense back. I'd like to see them continue to improve on that rank of 60th in the nation in rushing.
The Jayhawks will return close to nine starters on the defensive side of the ball. I expect the Jayhawks to be much improved next year.
BREAKING: Since the publication of this article, Charlie Weis has been named head coach of the Kansas Jayhawks.
One can't say enough about what Bill Snyder and KSU did this season. Just a few years into his second stint in Manhattan, Snyder has the Wildcats improving once again. They finished 10-2 and were robbed of a BCS bowl.
They will have everyone back on offense, and they will have a majority of their front seven back. The only concern comes from their secondary, where they will lose most units.
Another year of experience and another year working under Snyder will only help. It may be hard to believe that the Wildcats could improve on this incredible season, but don't consider KSU a one-hit wonder.
Kent State did the impossible and won five games despite finishing 110th in passing and 104th in rushing.
How was this remotely possible?
Because the defense finished 49th in the nation and improved drastically.
They will have nearly everyone back on defense. They will return QB Spencer Keith and freshman RB Traylon Durham. They should continue to get better on defense and could only go up on offense.
You heard it here first. I got Kent State in a bowl game next year.
Kentucky had a stronger second half to improve to a respectable 5-7. They have their defense to thank for that, as they allowed only 19 points per game over the last four games.
They will lose a majority of that defense, though. Four of their top seven tacklers will be gone, including linebacker Danny Trevathan.
Offensively the Wildcats struggled. They have to rebuild most of their offensive line and lose most of their wide receivers.
With the holes on defense, expect the Wildcats to take a small step back.
La-Lafayette exceeded everyone's expectations this season, winning eight games and making their first bowl game ever.
Next year they will lose nine of their top 11 tacklers from a strong defense. The offensive line and some skill players are back, but to expect a similar finish would be asking a lot.
Louisiana Tech was a very surprising team as well. They won their first WAC championship and are in only their third bowl game since 1998. They won in Reno as 7.5-point underdogs to beat the presumed favorites, the Wolfpack, and win the title.
Defensively they will lose a lot of their tacklers, along with a lot of skill on offense, but the offensive line should come back intact.
As is the case with La-Lafayette, expecting a repeat WAC title would be too much to expect.
Louisville came out of nowhere to tie for the Big East championship despite going 7-5. The defense is fantastic under Charlie Strong, and they will return most of their starters (minus a few players on the line).
The Cardinals struggled offensively, but will have most of their players back. QB Teddy Bridgewater was only a freshman and showed improvement throughout the year.
The defense will be solid again under Strong—that's his forte. Expect the offense to improve and for Louisville to finish higher next season.
This one isn't really fair.
The Tigers can't finish higher, and finishing at the same rank would be a tremendous accomplishment. So obviously it's easy to say they'll finish lower.
That said, it is possible that the Tigers are as good next year. They'll have all their backs and receivers back, but they'll need a new quarterback.
Defensively they'll return Sam Montgomery, Tyrann Mathieu, Barkevious Mingo, Michael Brockers and Eric Reid. In other words, all major contributors other than Brandon Taylor and possibly Morris Claiborne; Claiborne figures to be a Top 10 pick in the draft if he wants to leave.
Either way, LSU should be preseason No. 1 next year. Whether or not they stay there will be dependent on intangibles such as chemistry and drive—not talent.
Marshall exceeded everyone's expectations by finishing 6-6 and making a bowl game. They were able to accomplish this despite being very young on offense, rotating a freshman and sophomore quarterback.
Almost the entire offense will be back.
Defense is another story. The Herd will lose standout DE Vinny Curry to the NFL draft. They'll lose seven of their top nine tacklers overall.
That may be too much to make up on defense. I expect Marshall to regress slightly.
Things couldn't get much worse in College Park in the first year under Randy Edsall. The Terps won their first game against Miami, then went 1-11 to close.
Their finale was highlighted by giving up 35 points in the fourth quarter.
Maryland will have both quarterbacks back next year (and should probably pick one and stick with it) and will have most of their defensive starters back.
They can only improve, and they will.
It remains to be seen who will coach the Tigers next year, but it has to be an improvement over Larry Porter. The much-maligned coach went 3-21 in two seasons at Memphis.
That isn't a lot of time, but the university decided to cut ties right away before things got worse.
QB Taylor Reed will return, but the Tigers will have to replace the small contributions they had. The Tigers are going to return a majority of their defense and should be improved in this regard.
I expect a new coach to inject some new energy into the program. That might be enough to improve on a paltry two wins.
Assuming the NCAA doesn't interfere and make things worse in Coral Gables any time soon, the Hurricanes should finish higher next year.
They'll lose longtime QB Jacory Harris, but will return RB Lamar Miller and most of their receivers. They'll miss Sean Spence and Marcus Robinson on defense, but will still return most starters.
Despite losing some of their best players the Canes were pretty young this year. They'll be better next year as Al Golden enters his second season.
Miami University has one of the nation's best passing games (14th), but the worst rushing offense. Next year most of their line will return, along with QB Zac Dysert and WR Nick Harwell. I expect the offense to click on all cylinders next season.
They'll miss defenders Jerrell Wedge and C.J. Marck, but still return a handful of starters.
Expect steady improvement from Miami OH. They won 10 games last season and only four this season. Next year I see them back in a bowl game. They won four out of five at one point this season before losing their last three by a combined 13 points.
Michigan will return nearly every single key contributor from their Sugar Bowl team this year. Back will be Robinson, Toussaint, Vincent Smith, Roy Roundtree and Jeremy Gallon.
The only significant losses come up front on defense. Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen will be missed. Still, the defense showed significant improvements this year, and will return Jordan Kovacs, Craig Roh and Jake Ryan.
There is an outcry over Michigan being in the Sugar Bowl this season. Next year they will be ranked high to begin the season and will make a BCS bowl without any fuss or controversy.
You have to feel for Michigan State to a certain degree.
Last year they finished in a three-way tie for the Big Ten title and were not selected to go to the Rose Bowl.
This year, had it been any other year in the history of the Big Ten, they would have won the championship and gone to the Rose Bowl. Instead, they lose to Wisconsin, a team they already had beaten, and will go to the Outback Bowl.
And now it looks like the window of opportunity has been closed. MSU will lose Cousins and their top four receivers. RB Le'Veon Bell will have to carry Sparty early on.
Defensively they'll lose Kevin Pickelmen and presumably Jerel Worthy to the draft. The defense should be good again with Denicos Allen and William Gholston, but the Spartans as a whole will have a tough time finishing in first and winning 10 games once again.
MTSU finished 37th in the nation in passing and 73rd in rushing, but somehow only 96th in points scored. They can thank turnovers for that—they turned it over 28 times for 109th in the nation.
QB Logan Kilgore will be back, and the Raiders may be more balanced with their running backs returning. Their top four tacklers and most of the secondary will be gone, but they return a few key players on the front seven. They should improve on defense, and if they cut down turnovers, that will be enough to improve.
Minnesota suffered through one of their worst seasons ever. Even still, they improved throughout the season, picking off Iowa before dominating Illinois in the final game.
Dual-threat QB Marqueis Gray will be a senior and should have a great year. He'll lose his go-to guy, Da'John McKnight, so someone needs to step up to fill his void.
The Gophers are going to return a majority of starters on defense and should be improved. I like the way this team went out and competed every week down the stretch despite being eliminated.
I expect the improvement to continue into next season.
Ole Miss inexplicably fell onto hard times under Houston Nutt. After making consecutive Cotton Bowls in 2008 and 2009 the Rebels fell way below .500 the past two seasons.
Ole Miss already made a big splash by hiring Arkansas State's Hugh Freeze to take over in Oxford. He should bring a strong attitude to the program and have it turned around soon.
The Rebels were incredibly young on defense and should have most starters back. They were hurt by the injuries/suspension of star Brandon Bolden this season, and Bolden will be gone next year.
In his absence, however, other young players got a chance to play. Ole Miss will return all their skill players (save for Bolden), along with both QBs, Randall Mackey and Zack Stoudt.
I expect the Rebels to be much improved next year. They had a bad season with injuries, and it snowballed from there.
After two breakout seasons, Mississippi State came back to Earth this season. They suffered from inconsistent play by both quarterbacks and were unable to put points on the board.
Next year they'll lose RB Vick Ballard and QB Chris Relf (although Tyler Russell got plenty of snaps throughout the year).
Next season's front seven should be fantastic. Fletcher Cox, Johnathan Banks, Josh Boyd and Cameron Lawrence are all back for the Bulldogs.
They're still going to have trouble putting up points, though. If Russell can improve and they can find any semblance of a running game, then the team will be very successful. The return of the starters up front, however, is enough to consider them an improvement next year.
Missouri made drastic improvements throughout the season and could have been better than their 7-5 final record. They looked lost against Miami (Ohio), blew a game against ASU and lost three games by seven points or less.
The maturation of QB James Franklin has a lot to do with this. He'll be back, along with impressive running back Henry Josey. WR T.J. Moe should return—now he just needs to stay consistent.
The defense is what stole the show for the Tigers in 2011. They'll lose Jacquies Smith, Dominique Hamilton and Luke Lambert, but return Zaviar Gooden and Andrew Wilson. It should be a good unit again.
If a few balls bounce their way next year and they can avoid off-the-field distractions, then this team will improve.
This was the first losing season for Navy in nearly a decade. They ran the ball fine as they always do, but the defense struggled mightily. That was to be expected, though, as the Midshipmen only returned three starters.
There will be a lot of turnover on the offense next year, but the defense will return close to eight starters.
Navy will always be able to run the ball. They won five games this season, and they ran the ball just fine.
It's the defense's promise of improvement that is encouraging. I expect Navy to easily make a bowl again next year.
To me, Nebraska was the same consistent team they've been the past few years. They just found life a little harder in the Big Ten (not to say Big Ten is better than Big 12 this year—the Big Ten this year is better than the Big 12 two years ago).
Regardless, Nebraska should be better next season. They'll have Martinez and most of the offensive line back. Rex Burkhead should return, making this one of the better rushing attacks in the nation.
They will lose Lavonte David and Jared Crick (who missed most this season regardless) next year, but will be loaded elsewhere. Cameron Meredith, Will Compton and Eric Martin are just a few names in what should be a loaded front seven.
Nebraska is going to get back to doing what they do best: running the football and stopping the run.
When they do this they'll have a very realistic chance of winning the Big Ten.
Nevada was far and away the favorites in the WAC this season, but mediocrity and an eventual loss to Louisiana Tech in Reno saw the Wolf Pack finish second.
QB Cody Fajardo will be back (he was only a freshman this year), along with RBs Mike Ball and Stephon Johnson. They will lose leading rusher Lampford Mark, though.
(I had to triple check that this was his name and wasn't written backwards like you would write on a tax return).
The defense is going to be decimated with loss. Brett Roy, Kaelin Burnett, Brandon Marshall and James-Michael Johnson will all be gone from the front seven. The positive is that they will return with their secondary intact.
I'd like to rank the Wolf Pack to improve with some solid backs returning and another year of experience for Fajardo. But with the losses up front on defense, I want to wait and see. I'll expect them to dip slightly.
Getting rid of Mike Locksley should be reason enough for improvement in Albuquerque. The Lobos made an interesting move by signing Bob Davie, a man who has spent the last nine seasons in the broadcast booth instead of the sidelines.
The Lobos will return 16 of their top 20 tacklers and most of their skill on offense. With most of their offensive line returning, a new coach could be the right jolt the team needs.
They can't really go down, and with their experience, the Lobos should improve slightly.
DeWayne Walker has New Mexico State headed in the right direction. No one expected four wins out of the Aggies, but sure enough they got them, including wins over Fresno State and Minnesota.
While I like what they did this year we need to realize that they will lose a lot of players. QB Matt Christian and WR Taveon Rodgers will be gone, along with seven of their top eight tacklers.
That is simply too much to replace and compete for a bowl game again. Expect a slight slip, but good things two years from now.
Larry Fedora is likely headed to Chapel Hill, giving the Tar Heels their third coach in three years. Everett Withers started off strong at UNC, but the team faded down the stretch.
The defense overall should be down, losing Quinton Coples, Charles Brown, Zach Brown and most likely Donte Paige-Moss.
Offensively, they should be much stronger. Bryn Renner has been a nice surprise and freshman RB Giovani Bernard is unheralded.
I don't know how Renner is going to fit with what Fedora wants to do or if that will matter. Austin Davis was capable of running the ball at So. Miss under Fedora, but Renner has shown no propensity to run.
With a few losses on defense and a potentially new offensive scheme, I expect UNC to go back slightly. In a couple of years they'll be back.
N.C. State was lucky to win seven games, having played two FCS opponents and then coming back from 20-plus down in the fourth quarter against hapless Maryland.
The Wolfpack finished 111th in rushing offense this season. Next year their QB and two of their top three receivers will be gone. Where is the offense going to come from?
They will return around eight starters on defense, including their secondary. This was a unit that improved throughout the year, holding UNC to zero and Clemson to 13.
Still, the offense is going to struggle mightily. I don't see them winning seven games again.
North Texas finished a surprising 5-7 this season. Their success came from limiting turnovers (only 17), having a low yards per point rating (13.78) and playing solid defense.
Dan McCarney has them headed in the right direction. They'll lose leading rusher Lance Dunbar, but return a majority of their line and skill players.
Defensively they'll lose Brandon Akpunku, Julian Herron and Forlando Johnson from the front seven, along with most of their secondary.
That means they'll only return, at most, half of their defensive starters. If they can fill in those holes and continue to improve and play disciplined football, then I like them going forward in McCarney's second season.
Call it optimistic, but I expect them to be higher next year.
NIU is already at the top, going 10-3 and winning the MAC championship.
They are going to lose senior leader Chandler Harnish. How much will that hurt?
Consider that Harnish threw for 2,942 yards, 26 touchdowns and five interceptions. All impressive.
Now throw in that he rushed for 1,382 yards! That's incredible.
The Huskies will also lose their next leading rusher, Jasmin Hopkins. They're losing 2,942 yards of passing and more than 2,000 yards rushing. That will be tough to replace.
They won the title by returning only two players on defense. Next year they will return eight of their top 11 tacklers and five of their front seven.
The defense should be improved, but Harnish and Hopkins will be too much to replace. Given that they are already at the top, it's safe to say they'll finish lower next season.
Every year we go through the same thing with Northwestern.
Someone picks them as Big Ten sleepers (or they launch a Heisman campaign for Dan Persa), and then they finish 6-6. Along the way they lose to a team they shouldn't (Army) and beat someone they shouldn't (Nebraska), which reminds everyone in the first place of their promise.
Persa will be gone next year, along with Jeremy Ebert and Jake Dunsmore. Kain Colter will take over QB duties. Colter had seen some action with Persa out and fared pretty well, but it's still a drop-off. RB Mike Trumpy should return from injury.
The Wildcats are going to lose almost their entire defensive line. Jack DiNardo, Vince Browne and Niko Mafuli are all gone, along with Bryce McNaul from the linebacking unit.
Northwestern was mediocre this year and is losing their three best players (Persa, Browne, Ebert). I see them taking a step back next year.
This was supposed to the big year for the Irish, but two quick losses squashed any hopes of a BCS berth, much less a National Championship.
Next year will be a mixed bag for coach Brian Kelly—who will be one year closer to having all "his players," so that should be good, right? Michael Floyd, Jonas Gray, Harrison Smith and Darius Fleming will be gone, along with Manti Te'o (most likely).
The Irish will have some weapons on offense,—Cierre Wood, Tyler Eiffert and Theo Riddick—but with so many holes on the defense and a track record of inconsistent play, I expect the Irish to finish lower next year.
Ohio was on the verge of winning the MAC championship, but a 20-point blown lead to NIU cost them their dream. They have to settle for a trip to the Potato Bowl with a chance to win 10 games.
Those are still major accomplishments. This is a team that had not been to a bowl since the 1960s prior to Solich taking over. I expect the team to continue to improve.
The Bobcats will lose WR LaVon Brazill and RB Donte Harden, but will return most of their line and QB Tyler Tettleton.
Their defense will be the best in the MAC, hands down. They figure to have 10 starters back from an already-solid unit.
With two strong lines, the skill players will fall into place. I fully expect Ohio to win the MAC next season and finish higher than they did this year.
Forget about Urban Meyer for a second.
This Ohio State team improved throughout the season. They struggled through suspensions and off-the-field issues, but found a quarterback in Braxton Miller and the defense improved. In the middle of the season, they were playing as well as anyone in the Big Ten and even defeated eventual champions Wisconsin.
They will have everyone back on their defense, save Andrew Sweat. They will have Miller as the starting QB entering the season. They'll have all of their wide receivers back.
Okay, now remember that Meyer will be coaching there.
This is an easy choice: higher.
We've already seen the beginning of the decline in Norman. A loss to Baylor didn't cost the Sooners the Big 12 title, but they acted as if it did.
They were in Stillwater in body but not in spirit, and were totally destroyed by their "little brother."
Now they have to go on without Frank Alexander, Ryan Broyles, James Hanna and Travis Lewis. Will Landry Jones and Ron Lewis follow? Both men could be high draft picks in the NFL.
If they lose all that talent, then clearly they will have a major rebuilding effort on their hands. OU will always have talent, but a down year should be expected. You can't just lose the all-time leading receptions leader and move on the way the Sooners lost Broyles. They already found that fact out the hard way.
Unfortunately, an easy choice.
The Cowboys were one upset away from playing for the National Championship, but still won the Big 12 title—their first ever.
As a result, they will take on Stanford with a chance to prove the BCS wrong.
WR Justin Blackmon has already announced he is pretty sure he will go to the NFL draft. Brandon Weeden is gone too, along with defensive players Jamie Blatnick, Richetti Jones and James Thomas.
It was one of the best seasons of all time for the Cowboys. They have been able to build a program with a team that consistently wins eight-plus games and competes for a conference championship.
I don't expect them to fall out of the national landscape next year, but they will go back slightly.
It's hard a call with Oregon.
On one hand, they should have LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner, De'Anthony Thomas and Darron Thomas back on offense.
In other words, they'll continue to run the ball well—what else is new.
On the other hand, the Ducks are going to lose a majority of their front seven, including Josh Kaddu and Terrell Turner. They'll also lose Eddie Pleasant in the secondary.
I'm going to pick lower for Oregon simply because they won the Pac-12 title. I expect them to compete for the title once again next year, but their front seven will need to be replaced.
If they do that, they can be as good or better than they were this year. If not, they will dip.
Since they are at the top, it's safer to say they'll dip slightly rather than improve.
Oregon State improved slightly throughout the year, beating Washington and competing with Oregon for a while.
The Beavers were ridiculously young on offense, starting a freshman QB, freshman running backs and underclassmen at receiver. They will have nearly everyone back, save for James Rodgers.
Oregon State will have their entire defensive line back and most of their linebackers. They'll also have a majority of their secondary back.
The defense should be much improved, and now that all the young guys on offense have a year of experience, they should improve too. Don't be surprised if the Beavers compete for a bowl game next year.
It remains to be seen what the long-term effects of the Jerry Sandusky episode are. Let's try to look at PSU in a vacuum first, and look at their personnel.
I prefer Rob Bolden at QB, but both he and McGloin will be back. Also back will be RB Silas Redd, and receivers Justin Brown and Devon Smith.
Defensively the Lions lose a lot. Devon Still, Jack Crawford and Nathan Stupar are gone from the front seven. They'll still have some talent in Gerald Hodges and Jordan Hill, but those are some major losses.
The Nittany Lions should be a lot better on offense next year, and could produce similar numbers over time on defense. This team won a lot of close games this season to get to nine wins.
With a slight regression on defense, a new head coach (TBD) coming in and all that is surrounding the program, this is an unfortunate "lower" ranking. Don't be surprised if they hang around and compete, though.
The offensive line has to be better. It just has to be. The Panthers allowed a nation-worst 56 sacks on the year.
QB Tino Sunseri will be back and could benefit from some extra time in the pocket. The Panthers will welcome back Ray Graham, who was the nation's leading rusher when he was lost for the season with an injury. They'll also return all of their receivers.
They're going to lose almost their entire front seven, headlined by Brandon Lindsey and Chas Alecxih. Pitt still has some playmakers in Aaron Donald and Todd Thomas who can help ease the transition.
Still, this is going to need rebuilding.
This was a disappointing season for Pitt. The defense is going to need to be rebuilt next year, but the offense should be much improved in the second season under Todd Graham. If they can fix the offensive line then they could compete for the Big East title.
A 6-6 record is unacceptable in Pitt, and they should be better.
Purdue is a surprise 6-6, bowl-eligible team this year.
Despite peaking, I expect them to continue improving and finish even higher next year.
They'll have QB Caleb TerBush, RBs Ralph Bolden and Akeem Shavers, and WR Antavian Edison will be back.
If they can get Kawann Short to come back on defense then they could be special. They'll lose Gerald Gooden, but return the rest of their line, most of their linebackers and almost all of their secondary.
This is a young team that has already improved and made a bowl game. Next year they can take the next step.
The Owls were disappointing this season. They came in with 17 returning starters and pulled an early upset against Purdue. A tough schedule after that saw them finish 4-8.
They will lose their quarterback and running back. They'll lose their two best defensive players, Scott Solomon and Justin Allen, and three of their top five tacklers overall.
Rice could be deeper on defense next season, but will miss Solomon and Allen. Their loss, coupled with the loss of Tyler Smith on offense, and the Owls are going to have trouble matching four wins.
Rutgers came within one game of the Big East championship despite not having one senior at any skill position on offense. If WR Mohamed Sanu comes back (109 catches), the Knights could have a really good offense next year.
They'll lose some players on the defensive line, but should return most of their linebackers and secondary. This defense finished 12th in the nation in points allowed (18.8). They're going to miss Justin Francis, but there are other stars on this side of the ball.
The Knights have two pieces they need back. One is WR Sanu. The other is coach Schiano.
Schiano is a great coach who has been the target of big-name programs in the past. So far he has stayed at Rutgers. If he stays then the team will continue to improve and could be a sleeper in the Big East next year.
SDSU didn't take the step back many expected with the departure of coach Brady Hoke. The Aztecs won eight games and are headed to the New Orleans Bowl.
The offense may be better next year, even with the loss of QB Ryan Lindley. All of their receivers will be back, along with superstar Ronnie Hillman.
Defensively they will lose a lot. Miles Burris, Jerome Long and Demetrius Barksdale are the team's three leading sack-getters, and they'll all be gone.
Hillman can keep the team afloat. Still, having to break in a new quarterback and replace key pieces along the front seven should indicate a small rebuilding year for the Aztecs.
SJSU returned all 11 starters on defense this season, but still gave up 30.3 points per game. Next year they'll only have a few starters back.
Offensively they will lose QB Matt Faulkner (who threw for more than 3,000 yards) and running back Brandon Rutley. No one else on the Spartans has much experience.
SJSU played through a large amount of close games this year. Six games were decided by three points or less, they went 3-3.
This ranking is contingent on June Jones staying in Dallas. ASU apparently had interest in Jones, but withdrew their offer.
Now we'll wait and see if any other teams come calling.
SMU was disappointing this year. They started 5-1 and beat TCU, but finished 2-4, beating only Rice and Tulane.
They'll have to get by with QB Kyle Padron or someone else. They started the season with Padron, but quickly went to J.J. McDermott. McDermott is gone. They'll have RB Zach Line and half of their receivers back.
Defense is where the Mustangs figure to improve. They will have all of their linebackers back and most of their defensive line. Half of their secondary will be back, too.
If Jones returns and they can find a QB, SMU can compete. The defense figures to be much better. If Jones leaves it will be devastating for a program that has a long history of such.
Tough call with South Carolina.
Marcus Lattimore, Connor Shaw and Brandon Wilds will all be back on offense. It should be much improved (and has to be). Alshon Jeffrey has a decision to make as to whether or not he will come back. Even if he leaves, South Carolina will return the rest of their receivers.
Their defense is going to be hurting. Melvin Ingram and Antonio Allen will definitely be gone, while Devin Taylor may decide to leave early. They will still have superstar Jadeveon Clowney, Shaq Wilson and Quin Smith back, but this front seven was great this past season. They will lose some big games.
I expect South Carolina to continue to compete and most likely improve on offense. Still, they'll lose too much on defense.
Additionally, they won 10 games in a single year for just the second time in school history! Can Spurrier keep up that unprecedented level of success?
Southern Miss was already dealt a blow when it was announced coach Larry Fedora would be leaving for UNC.
Unfortunately, he won't be the only one.
QB Austin Davis, who threw for 3,300 yards and has been a long-time starter, is gone. The Eagles also lose their top two receivers.
Southern Miss also figures to lose more than half of their front seven. Cordarro Law, Ronnie Thornton, Deddrick Jones and Terrence Pope are all gone. Jamie Collins may decide to leave early for the NFL.
That's just simply too much leaving for the Eagles to match their success from this season.
The Eagles won the C-USA championship and won 10 games! That will be tough to match with a new coach, a new quarterback and an overhauled defense.
This one may be obvious to some, as the Cardinal figure to lose Andrew Luck to the NFL draft.The Cardinal are also going to lose their three leading receivers: Griff Whalen, Coby Fleener and Chris Owusu. Standout tackle Johnathan Martin is also headed to the NFL draft.
Chase Thomas and Matthew Masifilo will be gone on defense, but they could get an improvement with the return of Shayne Skov from injury. If anything, the defense could be improved next season.
Still, that isn't enough to offset the loss of Luck and the receivers. Stanford is going to rely heavily on the bevy of running backs they have next year. They are still going to be good, just not double-digit-wins good.
To be fair, the Cardinal have lost twice in the past two seasons. A regression is natural.
Syracuse finished 2011 in a disappointing fashion, losing five in a row after defeating West Virginia. It's hard to figure how a team can go from 5-1 to ineligible for a bowl, especially when they defeated the conference champion, but Syracuse pulled it off.
They're going to lose a lot on offense: RB Antwon Bailey and QB Ryan Nassib. Their backups have combined to attempt three passes, and their backs combined to rush for 394 yards. Those are some huge holes to fill.
The defense is going to return a lot. The Orange were playing with mostly freshman and sophomore linebackers, who will obviously return. But they still lose their best players along the line in Chandler Jones and Mikhail Marinovich.
The defense has a chance to show some improvement, but until the offense fills its holes, we have to assume Syracuse is going to finish lower next season. They've surprised before, though, notably last year with their berth in the Pinstripe Bowl.
Quite a down year for the Frogs, huh?
TCU followed up a Rose Bowl win by going 10-2, running the table in the Mountain West and involving themselves in the conversation for a BCS bowl.
Again, this was supposed to be a rebuilding year!
Next year they will have all of their skill players back. QB Casey Pachall, RBs Waymon James, Matthew Tucker and Ed Wesley, and all of their wide receivers return. Incredible.
Defensively they lose Braylon Broughton and Tank Carder—the latter they'll especially miss. Everyone else will be back.
If TCU did not have a controversial loss to SMU, then they would be playing in the Sugar Bowl right now. They will join the Big 12 next year, and I don't expect the increase in competition to affect them much. They have shown they can play with anyone.
TCU has already shown they can win through rebuilding years. Next year they are going to be loaded. They will be a Top 10 team in the preseason and will have a legitimate shot at a national title.
Temple does two things particularly well: They run the ball and play defense. It's that simple.
Bernard Pierce is only a junior and should return, though he may want to test the draft waters. They will lose their quarterback and all of their major receivers.
The Owls finished third in the nation in points allowed this past season. They are going to miss players like Tahir Whitehead, Adrian Robinson and Morkeith Brown on the front seven. They are going to lose half of their secondary.
Bernard Pierce is a great running back. Even if he comes back the Owls are going to need to find balance on offense. The defense is going to be hurting, so the Owls figure to go back slightly.
Tennessee had a disappointing season that started with injuries and snowballed into poor play. The final blow was a 10-7 loss to Kentucky that knocked the Vols out of a bowl game.
The Vols will get an immediate boost with Tyler Bray playing fully healthy. If they can find a way to rotate in Justin Worley, they could be dangerous. Worley didn't play especially well this past season, but he was thrown into the mix after the Vols had to burn his redshirt. The Vols will have all their weapons at receiver back, too.
Tennessee will lose Malik Jackson up front, but return the rest of their defensive line and linebackers. The defense improved as the season went on (save for a loss to Arkansas) and will benefit from having more experience up front.
The Vols were ravaged with injuries this season. On top of it, they were young. Both factors will work better in their favor in 2012, and they will improve.
If Mack Brown sticks around he can have a solid team next year. Texas had to deal with injuries and drama when QB Garrett Gilbert first went down and then left the program.
They are going to have a solid backfield with star freshmen running backs Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron returning. Case McCoy should improve after having a baptism by fire this season.
Texas should have a good secondary with Carrington Byndom and Kenny Vacarro back. Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat also return up front; the two combined for 12 sacks this year.
Simply put, Texas is going to have a lot of starters coming back—and, they're Texas. They have too much talent to finish 7-5. They better finish higher...
Texas A&M turned into one of the bigger disappointments this season. The Aggies went from preseason Top 10 to 6-6, and fired coach Mike Sherman.
They had a solid running game throughout, but are going to lose RB Cyrus Gray and QB Ryan Tannehill. Jeff Fuller is going to be gone, and junior WR Ryan Swope may consider the NFL.
The main problem with the Aggies was the defense. They squandered several second-half leads and finished 76th in the nation in points allowed (28.4 points per game).
Sean Porter, Damontre Moore and Spencer Nealy will be back up front and should improve the defense. They'll lose some of their secondary, but that could be a good thing at this point.
With a new coach, new quarterback and new running back, it's hard to see how the Aggies get better. It's possible since they have a lot of returning starters coming back on defense.
That said though, the defense wasn't very good this season.
It's safe to say the Aggies are going to enter a rebuilding year. Houston coach Kevin Sumlin is reportedly a target of the Aggies. If he comes in, they will need to rebuild their offensive identity, one from a predominant rushing team to a passing one.
Texas Tech seemed to be on the right track following a win against Oklahoma. Then they lost five straight, including a 60-point loss to Oklahoma State.
Next year they will have QB Seth Doege, all of their running backs and all of their wide receivers back (save for Adam James).
The Red Raiders are going to lose Scott Smith on the defensive line, but should return the rest of their front seven. They will return around eight starters in total and should be much improved.
If they can find a semblance of mental toughness, the Raiders can be much improved next year. With all the returning starters they have, this team can win 7-8 ballgames.
Toledo had a great season. They gave Ohio State a run for its money, played back-to-back games in the 60s and finished 8-4.
Next year they are going to lose their top two running backs, Thomas and Williams, who combined for 1,634 yards. Terrance Owens and Austin Dantin will return at QB.
Toledo's defensive line will need to be nearly entirely rebuilt; Ben Pike figures to be the only returnee. They will also lose a majority of their secondary.
The defense wasn't the strength this year (as mentioned earlier, they allowed 60-plus in back-to-back games). So maybe some fresh faces is what the doctor ordered.
Still, with all the running backs leaving and a new defensive line needed, it's fair to think Toledo will regress slightly next year.
Troy had an uncharacteristic off-season this year. The Trojans finished 3-9 for their first losing season since 2005. It's expected that they will bounce back, though.
QB Corey Robinson threw for 3,400 yards this season, and he will be back. With him will be all of the Trojan running backs and receivers. They will be absolutely loaded on offense.
They figure to lose only one defensive lineman, no linebackers and they are going to have around 7-8 starters back on defense.
This was the first time Troy didn't win or share the Sun Belt Conference championship since 2005. They were incredibly young and suffered through some growing pains.
Expect a resurgence next year and possibly a chance at Sun Belt glory once again.
Tulane couldn't make the turn under Bob Toledo. They suffered through offensive ineptitude for a while, trying to attempt to run an odd pelican-style offense.
They're going to have all their skill players back on offense and should only lose a couple of players from their front seven. The defense struggled going against high-powered offenses in C-USA. They finished 115th in the nation in points allowed.
Toledo is a good coach, but perhaps a change in leadership is what Tulane needed. They haven't been to a bowl game since 2002, and I'm not calling for one next year, but new coach Curtis Johnson will be inheriting plenty of experience. Johnson served as the New Orleans Saints' WR coach the previous six seasons.
Tulsa has built a nice program the past few seasons. They are competing for C-USA championships and are scheduling big-name opponents such as big brothers Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.
Next year QB G.J. Kinne will be gone, along with Tyrunn Walker on defense. Other than that, however, the Hurricane will have several key positions back. They will get an additional boost if WR Damaris Johnson is reinstated by the program.
Tulsa will have all their running backs back and several great receivers to throw to. The new QB will inherit plenty of talent.
UAB figured to be improved this season, but as it turns out they may have been one year away. The Blazers are going to have all their key offensive personnel back next season.
The Blazers played several sophomores and freshmen along the defensive line. They may have struggled this season, but it will all go down as a learning experience. With a year of experience under its belt, I expect UAB to improve next year.
UCF has developed an odd trend of alternating winning and losing seasons. Last year they won the C-USA championship, so naturally, they fell off and lost this year.
I don't believe in such trends, but UCF should be better regardless. they're going to return QB Jeff Godfrey and two 500-yard rushers in Latavius Murray and Brynn Harvey.
They still played great defense this year, despite being young up front. They allowed only an average of 18.3 points per game for 10th best in the nation.
The Knights also suffered through some close losses. They played six games decided by seven points or less, losing all six.
This team will be much better next year and will finish higher.
Rick Neuheisel didn't have the best luck at UCLA. He had to deal with injuries and coordinator changes, and, as a result, he's out—despite "winning" the Pac-12 South.
Next year the Bruins will return Johnathan Franklin and most of their receivers. Perhaps the next coach can pick a QB more easily than Neuheisel did, but he'll have Kevin Prince, Richard Brehaut and Brett Hundley to choose from.
UCLA is young on defense. They will lose LB Sean Westgate and safety Tony Dye, but that is about it.
I don't think UCLA is going to win the Pac-12 South again next season. Whoever takes over at coach will inherit an experienced team that has already been through the worst. I expect UCLA to improve next year.
ULM returned 17 starters this season and were a trendy pick to win the Sun Belt. They didn't come close to achieving that, but they will return almost everyone again.
The Warhawks will have half of their offensive line back, along with all of their skill position players back. They will lose their two best defenders in Troy Evans and Ken Dorsey, but should return around seven defenders in total.
It wasn't entirely ULM's fault this season. They played a difficult schedule that included FSU, TCU and Iowa. Beyond that, ULM lost three games by five points or less.
This will be an experienced team that has already lined up with the big boys like TCU. This team will finish higher next year.
UNLV has struggled the entire century, not having made a bowl since 2000. This past season they finished 2-10, but played plenty of underclassmen.
Next year they will return their QB, RB and most receivers. They'll also return most of their line, and they will be entering the third season under Bobby Hauck. The time to improve is now.
The Rebels will be more experienced up front on defense. No one is calling for a bowl game, but they should be able to finish higher than they did this year.
I'll go out on a limb and call for it.
This was inevitably one of the harder selections to make given the speculation of whether or not several juniors will return for USC. We already went over the disaster plan for USC, and it isn't that bad.
No one expected the Trojans to finish 10-2 and make the Top Five of the AP. Even with possible losses of Matt Barkely, Matt Kalil and T.J. McDonald, I expect the Trojans to place in the Top 10 once again. If any of them come back, they could be competing for a National Championship.
They'll still have Curtis McNeal, Robert Woods, Marqise Lee, Randall Telfer, Xavier Grimble, Dion Bailey, Hayes Pullard and Nickell Robey. The only sure losses are Marc Tyler, Rhett Ellison and DaJohn Harris.
In other words, USC will be loaded no matter what.
USF was one of the most disappointing teams of the season. They started 4-0, including a win over Notre Dame, but finished 5-7 and will not be attending a bowl.
B.J. Daniels will be back next season (making him the player you feel has been in college for eight years), along with all of the Bulls' running backs, receivers and the entire linebacking corps. They have a few playmakers on the defensive line returning as well.
They'll be entering the third season under Skip Holtz. Enough is enough. If they don't compete for the Big East championship next season, when will they?
It was unacceptable that they finished 5-7 this season. With most of their players returning, the Bulls should use it as a learning and growing experience, and build off of it. I expect them to finish much higher next season.
The Utes should be beneficiaries of getting QB Jordan Wynn back to full health. Along with John White IV and the receiving corps full of underclassmen, the Utes should be much improved on offense next season.
Their defense kept them alive this season, holding opponents to just 19.7 points per game. They'll return around seven starters on defense, including linebacker Trevor Reilly.
The Utes should consider this season as a success overall. They transferred over to the Pac-12, took some early licks, lost their quarterback and still made a bowl game. Granted, they did not have to play Oregon or Stanford, but they showed improvements throughout the year.
With so many players returning, expect Utah to improve and finish higher next year.
Utah State is one of the surprise teams this year, and I don't expect that improvement to stop any time soon.
The Aggies finished 21st in the nation in scoring and will return a majority of their offensive line, along with almost all of their skill positions. RB Robert Turbin rushed for more than 1,400 yards this season.
Bobby Wagner and Levi Koskan will be gone from the defense, but a majority of starters return.
You could be looking at a team that improved to win seven games and make a bowl, and returns somewhere in the neighborhood of 14 starters next season.
A WAC championship next year should not be out of reach. The Aggies lost a few close games early this season that they learned from and improved upon. Expect the improvement to continue.
UTEP narrowly missed out on a bowl game, finishing 5-7. They have become a perennial bowl team under Mike Price, and I expect them to return to one next season.
They are going to return their entire offensive line next season. QB Nick Lamaison, a few of the same receivers and a new backfield will also return, but all of that pales in comparison to an intact offensive line.
Only three of the team's 24 sacks came from seniors. They'll return around nine starters on defense.
With solid lines on both sides of the ball, this team will make a bowl next year.
Vanderbilt is one of the surprise teams and showed significant improvement throughout the year. If not for a blown call against Tennessee or close losses to Arkansas, UGA or Florida, Vandy could be in a New Year's Day bowl.
They'll return QB Jordan Rodgers, RB Zac Stacy and WR Jordan Matthews. This offense will continue to improve (the difference between Rodgers at the beginning and end of the season are night and day).
Vanderbilt returned 10 starters on defense this year and will lose most of those players. They are going to end up returning only around five starters on defense, and will lose Tim Fugger and Chris Marve.
I am a firm believer that coach James Franklin will get some quality replacements on defense. With a constantly improving offense, the Dores will win a few more close games and improve on their six-win total from this year.
Virginia had a tremendous year, defeating FSU and Georgia Tech. They were rewarded with a berth in the Chick-fil-A as a result.
I love what Mike London has done with the team, but the Cavaliers were also the beneficiaries of having experienced players. They will return QB Mike Rocco and RBs Perry Jones and Kevin Parks.
The main problem will be the loss of talent on the defensive front.
They're going to lose Matt Conrath and Cam Johnson on the line, along with Chase Minnifield in the backfield.
There are still plenty of juniors on Virginia. Will Hill, LaRoy Reynolds and Steve Greer all made significant contributions on the defensive side of the ball.
I think Virginia is going to miss Conrath and Johnson, and finish slightly lower than they did this season. I hope I'm wrong, but I don't see an experienced offense negating a few tough losses on defense.
I don't think anyone is sure of how Virginia Tech got into the Sugar Bowl, but they did. That's that.
Many have anticipated a drop-off from Virginia Tech for years, and it has never happened. If you're a Hokie hater, then I hate to say it, but it isn't going to happen next year.
VT will return QB Logan Thomas and could return RB David Wilson. Getting Wilson back will be integral, as they lose their top two receivers.
Now for the good part. Two of the top 30 tacklers on the team are juniors or younger. Two! Every major contributor on defense will be back.
VT got into the Sugar Bowl on a technicality and because of their popularity, not necessarily because of merit. Next year they will be able to compete for a BCS bowl and get there based on their accomplishments (though to be fair, they did lose to one team this year—Clemson—twice).
Wake Forest was one blown game against Clemson away from winning the division. Instead, they staggered into the gate with a 6-6 record.
Next year they should have the personnel to finish the job.
They'll return QB Tanner Price and a majority of their skill players, but lose almost their entire offensive line and their two top tacklers on defense.
There are still a few playmakers in the front seven on defense to keep them competitive, and I expect improvement under coach Jim Grobe.
I think they take this disappointing season as a lesson and finish next year. Expect slight improvement.
I expected Washington to finish higher this season, but they crumbled down the stretch, coinciding with the injury to QB Keith Price. Price will be back next season, along with RB Chris Polk. They'll lose their two top receivers, but should be solid on offense once again.
Their defense was relatively young this year and is returning many starters. Josh Shirley led the team in tackles for loss and sacks as a freshman, while a majority of the linebackers will return.
With the talent they have back, guided under coach Steve Sarkisian, I expect Washington to continue to improve. They'll finish higher next year.
This team was headed in the right direction even before Mike Leach took over. Then, Leach took the job and had the greatest quote in press conference history.
In response to what he says when asked why he took the Wazzu job, his initial response is, "Well that's a stupid question."
That tells you all you need to know about Leach and the attitude he's going to bring. Why not Wazzu?
They're going to have QB Jeff Tuel coming back (who was injured most of 2011), all of their running backs and superstar WR Marquees Wilson back. If you don't know Wilson's name now, you will after Leach is done working with him.
This team is headed in the right direction. There is no reason why one can't win in Pullman.
West Virginia has a chance to be special on offense next year. They will have QB Geno Smith back, along with Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and all contributing running backs. They'll be entering the second season under coach Dana Holgorsen, and they'll have a chance to really light up the scoreboard.
They'll be hurt up front on defense. Bruce Irvin, Julian Miller and Najee Goode will be gone from the front seven. Players like Will Clarke and Tyler Anderson are going to have to step up and fill some voids.
West Virginia already won the Big East this year, but lost three games in the process. They are ranked the lowest of the BCS teams. I expect them to win double-digit games next season, even with the losses on defense, and be in contention for another BCS bowl.
WMU already had a successful 2011. They finished 7-5 and averaged 328 yards per game for eighth in the nation.
Next year they will return QB Alex Carder, all of their running backs and most of the offensive line, but the Broncos will be decimated at receiver. The top three will be gone, including all-star Jordan White (127 catches).
The defense is going to be much better, however. Drew Nowak is going to be missed, but the Broncos will return approximately eight starters on defense.
Call me crazy, but I think this team finishes higher next season. It's hard to believe considering they will lose their two best players (White and Nowak), but I think more overall depth on the defense will make up for any losses. I like WMU going forward.
The Badgers have been on a tear recently, winning the Big Ten in two consecutive years. Even with Russell Wilson leaving, I expect that trend to continue and for the Badgers to be better next season.
That is, if Montee Ball returns.
The Badgers will return nearly their entire offensive line, plus Ball, White and WR Jared Abbrederis.They may not be as balanced as they were with Wilson, but the Badgers could go back to having the nation's top rushing offense.
They will have all major contributors back defensively. Chris Borland, Beau Allen, David Gilbert, Mike Taylor and Shelton Johnson will all be back.
If not for two Hail Marys, Wisconsin could be in New Orleans right now getting ready to square off against LSU. Even with Wilson's departure, I expect the Badgers to compete for a National Championship next season.
WKU overachieved massively this season and deserves a ton of credit.
They were expected to finish near the bottom of the Sun Belt. Instead they went 7-5, a fact all the more surprising considering they started 0-4.
RB Bobby Rainey is what makes the offense go, but he will be lost next year. The Hilltoppers are going to miss his 2,000 all-purpose yards.
They will only return around half of their defensive players. I love what WKU did this year, and would love to see them continue to improve and make a bowl game. But with some significant losses on defense and the huge loss of Rainey, it will be hard for them to match.
Wyoming had a great season this year, winning eight games. They will be attending just their third bowl game in 18 seasons.
How did they do this? Surprisingly, with plenty of youth.
Freshman QB Brett Smith threw for 2,495 yards and 18 touchdowns. They'll return all of their running backs and almost all of their receivers.
They're going to lose some players along the defensive line and some key players in the secondary, but should return a majority of their starters.
Wyoming has gotten better every single game and notched wins over Air Force and SDSU. I expect the improvement to continue. If they successfully plug some holes on defense, they could compete for a MWC title (given that TCU and Boise are gone).