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2012 College Football Preview

August 31, 2012

In my opinion there are nine teams – LSU, Alabama, USC, Oregon, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Michigan St., Florida St., and Georgia – who have a shot at winning the national championship.

Can EJ Manuel lead the ‘Noles to a national championship this year? (Ken McKimm/Icon SMI)

LSU’s offense should automatically be better than last year’s with new starting QB Zach Mettenberger, because, well, Tyrion Lannister could play a better quarterback than last year’s LSU’s signal-callers. The Tigers bring back a four-horsemen running game that includes Michael Ford (6 ypc), Spencer Ware (eight TDs), Alfred Blue (6.9 ypc) and Kenny Hilliard (5.4 ypc). Those numbers should be just as good this year, as those backs will be running behind an experience O-line, which returns four starters from last year, as well as Josh Dworaczyk, who was a starter before missing last year with a knee injury.

LSU’s defense could be just as good this year as it was last year, when it finished in the top eight of the four major defensive categories – scoring, rushing, passing and total D. Even with the loss of Tyrann Mathieu, stud D-linemen Sam Montgomery, Bennie Logan and Barkevious Mingo will give opposing QBs nightmares. Future first-round pick safety Eric Reid anchors a strong secondary, also.

Alabama will also be atop the SEC again. The Tide has to replace most of its starting skill positions, but Eddie Lacy (7.1 ypc last year) will run behind a great offensive line, which should allow for AJ McCarron to build off of last year’s success. The Tide only bring back four defensive starters, but won’t face too many explosive offenses (four, at the most) to be exposed too much.

USC is finally bowl-eligible, and that’s a relief for the Trojans and their fans. ‘SC will field its best team since the Bush (Reggie, not George) years this season, led by offensive firepower all over the field. Matt Barkley (3,528 yards and 39 TDs) could be the top pick in next year’s NFL draft, and he’ll be throwing to Robert Woods (111 catches, 1,292 yards, 15 TDs) and Marqise Lee (73, 1,143, 11), who form the best wide receiver duo in the nation. If the passing game gets shut down – which it won’t – all Barkley has to do is hand off to a pair of 1,000-yard rushers – Curtis McNeal and Penn State transfer Silas Redd – who will run behind an experienced offensive line. Last year’s linebacker corps and secondary return intact, led by All American safety TJ McDonald, who will be an early round pick in next year’s draft.

Oregon seems to be the only challenger capable of derailing USC on its way to a Pac-12 Championship. Chip Kelly announced Marcus Mariota had won the starting QB job after Darron Thomas somewhat inexplicably left school early and went undrafted. However, Mariota could be even better than Thomas. ESPN blogger Ted Miller called Mariota “the most physically talented signal-caller Kelly has coached.” Even if he struggles early, the Ducks face their usual cupcake non-conference schedule of Arkansas State, Fresno State and Tennessee Tech. Mariota will be surrounded by several playmakers, two of which could be in New York in early December. Kenjon Barner gained 939 yards rushing and 11 TDs last year as a backup, and he’ll be the main running back for the Ducks. DeAnthony Thomas, who you really, really need to watch, finished seventh in the nation in all-purpose yards last year, racking up an even 1,200 rushing/receiving and 1,035 on returns. He scored 18 total touchdowns, including two on punt returns. Oh, and he averaged 10.1 yards per rush. TEN POINT ONE!!!

The Ducks’ defense is led by senior defensive end Dion Jordan, who had 13 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks last year, and John Boyett, a senior safety. The Ducks’ D should be one of the best in the country, and should be a big roadblock on USC’s path to a championship.

Oklahoma is again favored to win the Big 12, but will face tough competition from newcomer West Virginia. Both teams have studs at quarterback (Landry Jones and Geno Smith) and studs at receiver (Kenny Stills, Jaz Reynolds and freshman Trey Metoyer for OU, and Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin for West Virginia). Both teams also bring back their leading rushers from 2011. OU’s defense will be a bit better than the Mountaineers’, as it’s led by junior linebacker Corey Nelson and Demontre Hurst, a three-year starter at safety. The Nov. 17 showdown in Morgantown should be pivotal for both teams, in terms of conference championships and a chance at a national championship appearance. That game starts a three-game stretch to end Oklahoma’s season that also features games against Oklahoma State and at TCU.

Michigan St.’s offense has its warranted questions, mainly how new quarterback Andrew Maxwell fairs, but the Spartans’ D, which finished in the top 11 of the four major D categories last year, should be one of the best in the country again. Its led by defensive end William Gholston, a junior who had 16 tackles for loss last year, second most on the team to junior linebacker Denicos Allen, who had 18.5 TFL and 11 sacks. The offense will be focused around monstrous running back Le’Veon Bell regardless of how Maxwell performs at QB and the receivers shake out. Sharing carries last year Bell still rushed for 948 yards and scored 13 times.

Florida St. returns its four leading receivers from 2011 and its leading rusher, sophomore Devonta Freeman, as well as Chris Thompson who led the team in rushing in 2010. EJ Manuel returns at QB to spread the ball around to all those weapons, and he’ll be a dual-threat weapon once again. The senior only threw eight interceptions last year, and none in his final five games. The strength of the team will be its defense, which returns several starters including Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner who combined for 15 sacks and 23 TFL.

Georgia is the longest shot on this list, but it’s got a defense that could rival Alabama’s and LSU’s. Its defense finished fifth in total defense last year, and is anchored by massive defensive tackle John Jenkins, who is Todd McShay’s fifth-ranked draft eligible player. Jarvis Jones is the Dawgs’ top LB. He led the SEC in sacks (13.5) and TFL (19.5) last year. Senior safety Bacarri Rambo, an All American, anchors a stacked secondary. Georgia misses both Alabama and LSU in the regular season, and its toughest game will probably be at South Carolina on Oct. 6. They have a chance to either go undefeated or only finish the regular season with one loss, and if the Dawgs make it to the SEC championship game they could upset the SEC West champion and move into position  to play in the national championship game.

I’ve been saying all along that USC-Florida St. is my pick for the national championship game, with USC winning. I believe the SEC West teams will beat up on each other too much, and the same goes for the Big 12 teams. Florida St. has the easiest path to an undefeated season, as it faces Clemson at home and should only have one tough road game, at Virginia Tech. USC or Oregon will probably have to beat the other team twice, once in the Pac 12 Championship game, but I think USC gets it done. I hate to go chalk, but I think Matt Barkley wins the Heisman, too.

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