Each of the past two years, before the last piece of title-game confetti had fluttered to the ground and while the corpse of the previous season was still somewhat warm, we dusted off the trusty crystal ball and flung a few predictions up against the next season’s wall with the hope that something, anything, would stick. Hilarity ensued when we asked things like “Can Texas Two-Step Back to Its Rightful Place?” — eight wins coming off a five-win season says no — and picked Virginia Tech as one of the five teams that would stumble in 2011 — all the Hokies did was win 10-plus games yet again and another ACC divisional title.
Yet here I am a year later, ready to once again expose my utter lack of prognosticating abilities for all the world to see with another round of what may or may not happen in 2012.
So, without further ado, here’s what I think may — or may not — happen during the 2012 season:
FIVE COMPELLING STORYLINES
1. HAVE THE MUSICAL CONFERENCE CHAIRS STOPPED?
Unlike the 2010 edition, the 2011 version of Expansionapalooza took place during the course of the season, with — take a deep breath — Texas A&M and Missouri announcing they would be leaving the Big 12 for the SEC in 2012; West Virginia (maybe) and TCU for the Big 12 from the Big East the same year; and Boise State and San Diego State from the Mountain West and Houston, UCF and SMU from Conference USA all announcing they are moving to the Big East in 2013. And that’s without even mentioning Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada all announced last year they were leaving the WAC for the Mountain West this year.
So, have we seen the last of expansion? The Big 12 currently sits at 10 members for the 2012 season, pending the resolution of the West Virginia situation, and may want to get back to 12 members and stage a conference championship game. There continue to be rumblings that the SEC, which will move to 14 members this year, wants to become the first BcS “superconference” consisting of 16 schools, possibly at the expense of the ACC.
The good news is that there doesn’t appear to be any new movement that could even be remotely considered remotely imminent. The bad news is that’s exactly the way it was at the end of July last year and before all expansion hell broke loose. Regardless of what does or doesn’t happen on this front, it’s a topic that will never be far from the mind and represents a constant threat looming on the horizon.
2. URBAN’S RENEWAL IN HIS HOME STATE
Were it not for the expansion elephant squatting in the middle of the room, Urban Meyer‘s return to coaching would arguably be the most compelling storyline heading into the 2012 season. Not only is Meyer returning from a one-year “sabbatical” from coaching, but he’s returning to one of the most storied football programs in the country, one that’s spent the past year mired in off-field controversy that cost Jim Tressel his job and the university a sizable dent in its reputation.
While the hiring of Meyer was a no-brainer and an absolute must for the Buckeyes, it does come with some uncertainty and myriad question marks. Will OSU be getting the pre-2010 Meyer, the one who won two BcS titles — one at the expense of the Buckeyes — and helped build Utah into a BcS contender, all the while coaching with inordinate and inhuman amount of fire and focus? Or will they be getting the 2010 Meyer, the one who admittedly left the Gators football program in disarray in the post-Tebow era?
It’s impossible to answer the question of which Meyer the Buckeyes will be getting, but the start he and his new coaching staff have gotten on the recruiting trail portends a return to national prominence for the Buckeyes sooner rather than later.
3. BEGINNING THE HAPPY VALLEY REBUILDING PROJECT
For the first time since I was negative-three years old, Penn State will have someone other than Joe Paterno patrolling the sidelines — or the press box — on Saturdays. That someone is New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, named as the 15th head coach of the Nittany Lions over the weekend and now charged with the monumental task of navigating the football program through the maelstrom of off-field scandal. Aside from that, O’Brien will be responsible for bringing a BC (Before Christ) offense into the 21st century as well as maintaining the defensive dominance that’s been the hallmark of Penn State football. In relation to the latter, hiring a high-quality defensive coordinator will be the single most important development for O’Brien in the coming months. Well, that and holding together some semblance of a 2012 recruiting class.
O’Brien’s hiring was far from a popular one, but he deserves the opportunity to put his own stamp on a football program that’s had “Paterno” written all over it for nearly a half a century. Anything other than the full support of the alumni, boosters and others connected to the university will doom this move before it ever really gets the chance to get going.
4. IS THIS THE YEAR THE SEC STREAK STOPS?
Six straight years, the college football season has ended with a team from the SEC hoisting the crystal coaches’ trophy. After about Year Two or Year Three of the streak, the same questioned has popped up: is this the year some team other than one from the SEC wins the title? Based on past precedent, as well as the returning talent, the answer is a resounding “probably not”. This streak will have to come to an end at some point — probably — but the year-in, year-out strength of the conference makes it difficult to project exactly when this dominance will end. If the streak does come to an end this year, though, it could very well come at the hands of the storyline right below this one, with a program that was the SEC of individual schools in BcS play prior to their Bush-league off-field issues doing the honors.
5. TROJANS RISING FROM THE NCAA ASHES
Slapped with arguably the harshest NCAA sanctions since SMU’s “death penalty” in the mid-80s, USC has been a non-entity on the national stage the past two seasons — three if you count Pete Carroll‘s final season in 2009. This year, that should change. While still on probation, the two-year bowl ban has been served, setting up a talented returning team for a run at a spot in the Pac-12 title game, a BcS bowl berth and, quite possibly, a BcS title game appearance. And that would be a “good” thing because, let’s face it: as hated as the Trojans are by a sizable segment of fans of the sport, college football is a better game when programs like USC are relevant and playing in meaningful games.
EARLY-BIRD TOP FIVE
With the unexpected return of quarterback Matt Barkley for another season, the Trojans will see 18 of the 22 starters listed on their final depth chart and 35 players total from the two-deep come back in 2012. Couple that returning talent with a 10-win 2011 season that resulted in a No. 6 AP ranking, and USC’s first season post-bowl ban has all of the makings of a special one in Los Angeles. Perhaps the most glaring concern for the Trojans, at least at the moment? The running back position or at least depth-wise for what’s famously known as Tailback U. Then again, with Barkley and Robert Woods and Marquise Lee leading the passing game, that may be picking nits more than anything.
Not only is the Crimson Tide the 2011 BcS champs, the Tide is in fine shape for a run at a third title-game appearance — and title — in four years in 2012. The loss of Trent Richardson (probably) to the NFL will undoubtedly have an impact, but there’s plenty of talent at the position to fill the void. Add in AJ McCarron in his second year — coming off a tremendous title-game performance — and what should once again be a dominating defense, and fans of the Tuscaloosa can take heart in the fact that the 2012 cupboard will be far from bare. They can also take heart in the fact that they didn’t fall prey to the dreaded “JT Preseason Jinx” and yes I pulled a muscle patting myself on the back thank you very much.
Losing the nation’s leading rusher in LaMichael James the past two seasons to early entry into the NFL draft? And starting quarterback Darron Thomas to the pros as well? No problem for the loaded Ducks, who can simply plug in De’Anthony Thomas and/or Kenjon Barner in the backfield, and Bryant Bennett under center, and probably not really skip a beat offensively. With no LSU on their 2012 schedule, their season could very well come down to one game: a Nov. 3 trip to Los Angeles to face the Trojans.
The downside for the Tigers? They were absolutely dominated and exposed offensively in the title-game loss to SEC West rival Alabama. The upside? 15 of the 22 starters listed on the final depth chart will return in 2012, with a total of 30 players on the 44-man two-deep returning as well. In fact, both of the top two quarterbacks being among the handful of players leaving due to expired eligibility is, from this vantage point, a huge plus heading into the offseason. So, yeah, the Tigers should and will be one of the favorites.
After three years of no hope at all under Rich Rodriguez, the Wolverines suddenly have a ton of Hoke. One could easily argue that teams like Arkansas or Oklahoma State deserve loftier spots, but the former still has to prove it can get past LSU and Alabama and the latter has to replace its record-setting quarterback/wide receiver combination. I may end up looking foolish for buying in so high this early — wouldn’t be the first time, certainly won’t be the last — but that remains to be seen. Of course, we should get a very good gauge on UM’s 2012 fortunes early on — the Wolverines will square off with the Tide in a neutral site season opener.
Teams outside the final Top 10 that could surprise
After winning at least 10 games every year between 2001 and 2009, the Longhorns have totaled as many wins the past two seasons as they did during that 2009 season — 13. Surely this is the year Mack Brown turns the listing UT ship around, right? That could very well be, provided Brown & Company has some semblance of the next Vince Young or Colt McCoy at the quarterback position at their disposal. Above all else, getting consistent play — at bare minimum — from that position will be the key to turning things around in Austin.
Two subpar back-to-back seasons that saw just 14 total wins and head coach Mark Richt‘s backside firmly planted on a seat of varying degrees of warmth gave way to 10 wins and a berth in the SEC championship game in 2011. With returning talent such as Aaron Murray, Jarvis Jones and Isaiah Crowell, and avoiding the two best teams in the SEC for the second straight season, there’s no reason to think this upward trajectory that began in 2011 won’t continue into 2012.
3. Ohio State
The Buckeyes stumbled its way to the football program’s first sub-.500 season since 1988, and just its second since 1966. Under first-year head coach Urban Meyer, that shouldn’t happen again. Yes, it will take time for “The Urban Way” to truly take root in Columbus, but a six-win season is simply not in Meyer’s DNA, not with a personnel cupboard that is far from bare. In particular, the presence of true freshman quarterback Braxton Miller has Meyer salivating over his new team’s prospect’s early on. The Buckeyes may be a year away from contending for the top spot in the Big Ten — I wouldn’t bet the house on that, incidentally, even as they are ineligible for the conference title game and a bowl thanks to NCAA sanctions — but they will be a vastly improved team both record-wise and performance-wise than they were in the first post-Vest season.
Teams inside the final Top 25 that could struggle
Is this the point in the process where I’m obligated to say “the Cardinal will be out of Luck in 2012″? As trite as that may be, it’s absolutely the case. A team simply doesn’t lose a talent like Andrew Luck at the most important position on the field and not feel it. One thing is certain: the Cardinal will need someone from the trio of redshirt freshman Brett Nottingham and sophomores Josh Nunes and Robbie Picazo to emerge as a viable replacement at quarterback. Although they don’t need whichever player emerges from the spring practice/summer camp battle to be the next Luck, they do need one of the contenders to grab the job by the throat and run with it with some consistency. Or pass with it, as the case may be. Oh, and there’s the little matter of the Cardinal losing two of their starting offensive linemen to early entry into the NFL draft. That surely won’t help the transition for the new starter in the post-Luck era.
2. Boise State
Smurf Turf haters rejoice! Much like Stanford, Boise State will charged with the task of replacing a seemingly irreplaceable quarterback. Kellen Moore‘s departure leaves a gaping hole both on the field and in the locker room. How the Broncos replace the winningest QB in college football history will go a long way to determining whether the Broncos reach the 10-win mark for the seventh straight season, and the 12th time in the last 14 years. Then again, Chris Petersen and his coaching staff have the uncanny ability to simply reload at every position year after year, so I’m not going to be the one to bet against yet another challenge for a BcS bowl berth.
Prior to the “free-agent” signing of Russell Wilson, there was serious concern as to what exactly the Badgers would have at the quarterback position. With Wilson’s one-and-done in Madison, that concern has returned. Additionally, UW lost their offensive coordinator to the head-coaching job at Pittsburgh, with Paul Chryst taking three of Bret Bielema‘s assistants along with him. All told, Bielema will be forced to replace five of his assistants. Certainly the return of running back Montee Ball for another season helps Bielema’s cause, what direction the Badgers go under center will likely determine whether a Big Ten title repeat is in the offing.
RON ZOOK MEMORIAL COACHING HOT SEAT
1. Derek Dooley, Tennessee
This is not the best of times for the Son of Vince, whose wise-cracking, lawyerly act is beginning to wear thin as the losses have mounted. Taking over after Lane Kiffin bolted following just one year in Knoxville, Dooley’s Vols have totaled just 11 wins and one Music City Bowl appearance in his two seasons on Rocky Top. The cries have already started for Dooley’s head on a platter; a repeat of Years One and Two in 2012 and there likely won’t be a Year Four.
2. Frank Spaziani, Boston College
Three years into his tenure at BC, and already the seat on which Spaziani resides is growing warmer. That’s what happens, though, when you regress every year, going from eight wins in the first to seven and four the past two seasons, respectively. BC’s odds of improving on any level in 2012 decreased significantly with the early departure of stud linebacker Luke Kuechly. Also decreasing significantly? Spaziani’s chances of surviving a season similar to 2011.
3. Joker Phillips, Kentucky
Were it not for a season-ending win over Dooley’s Vols — snapping a 26-game losing streak to UT, the longest such skein in the country — Phillips likely wouldn’t have even made this list; instead, he likely would’ve found himself in the unemployment line. That temporary reprieve notwithstanding, Phillips needs a quick turnaround in order to be around beyond 2012, especially as it appears in-state rival Louisville has struck coaching gold in Charlie Strong. The comparison may not be fair when viewed through prism of the conferences in which the schools compete, but it’s being made and, right now, Phillips is failing miserably in comparison.
4. Randy Edsall, Maryland
A two-win season in his first year with the Terrapins. Players defecting in droves. A fan base already turned off after one season. Yes, these are very uncertain times for the Terrapins, and the onus falls squarely on Edsall to turn things around post-haste. One thing to keep an eye on as it relates to the Terps and Edsall’s fate? Mike Leach. The new Washington State head coach interviewed for the job that ultimately went to Edsall and, if he can turn things around immediately in Pullman, expect the howls to increase exponentially in College Park.
5. George O’Leary, UCF
It’s been a yo-yo tenure for O’Leary with the Knights, with eight or more wins in 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2010 as well as four wins in 2006 and 2008 and five in 2011. With UCF moving to the Big East, the expectations will only increase on O’Leary. Given the state of Florida talent at his disposal — even if it’s leftovers from the Big Three — and the money the university has put into facilities for the program, another five-win season could sound the death knell for O’Leary’s tenure.
WAY-TOO-EARLY HEISMAN ROLL CALL
1. Matt Barkley, QB, USC — Last year, Barkley was our bonus pick in the way-too-early Heisman roll call, and probably should’ve been one of the finalists for the 2011 award. This year, thanks to his surprising decision to return to the Trojans for another season, he will likely be the Andrew Luck of the 2012 season, entering the new football year as the Heisman front-runner. Not only is it the talent he possesses that will make him the favorite, but it’s the talent around him as well — the combination of Robert Woods and Marquise Lee is the most athletically-gifted receiving duo in the country. Add in what will likely be a preseason Top 5 placement in the polls, and there’s no reason for anyone other than Barkley to sit atop any preseason Heisman poll, especially one that’s coming out 11 months ahead of the next trophy presentation.
2. Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin — The bowling ball of a running back will be the only finalist for the Heisman Trophy from the offensive side of the ball who will return for another season in 2012. With the departure of standout “free-agent” quarterback Russell Wilson, Ball figures to become even more of a focal point for the Badgers’ offense than he was in 2011. That departure also means he will become more of a focal point for defenses as well. The impact that has, as well as the performance wins-wise of the Badgers, will determine where Ball belongs in the Heisman discussion.
3. Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia — Surprised he’s this high on the list? You shouldn’t be. Quietly, the sophomore has put together back-to-back impressive seasons, throwing for nearly 6,200 yards and 59 touchdowns in that span. The 14 interceptions in 2011 are a concern, but isn’t something that’s not correctable One significant factor that favors Murray’s chances? For the second straight year, he will avoid facing the stifling and suffocating defenses of LSU and Alabama thanks to a scheduling quirk that heavily favors the Bulldogs. If Murray can sustain the progression each year he’s been a starter, and if the Bulldogs can match a 2011 season that ended with a spot opposite the Tigers in the SEC title game, the junior-to-be could/should find himself in the thick of the Heisman discussion throughout 2012.
4. Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan — Compared to his breakthrough 2010 season, Robinson’s 2011 season was rather ho-hum and seemingly a step back in his progression as a quarterback at this level. Don’t buy that logic for even a nanosecond, however. Robinson, one of the most electrifying and athletic players in the country, was in his first year under a new coaching staff and new offensive system. With that year under his belt, Robinson will be poised to make a significant run at the Heisman, especially if the Wolverines can either repeat or exceed their 10-win success of 2011 in their first year under Brady Hoke.
5. Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson — Despite a tough stretch over the last quarter or so of the season, Boyd unexpectedly burst onto the scene thanks to Chad Morris‘ fits-like-a-glove offense and the explosiveness of true freshman Sammy Watkins. With both Morris and Watkins returning — as well as the expected return of 1,000-yard rusher Andre Ellington — Boyd’s second year as a starter sets up to be a more prolific encore to his unexpected 2011 performance.
6. Keith Price, QB, Washington — OK, the Alamo Bowl performance sold me. In that thrilling loss to Baylor, Price actually outplayed 2011 Heisman winner Robert Griffin III, accounting for seven touchdowns — four passing, three rushing — and 477 yards of total offense. While it was far and away Price’s best performance of the season, it was the capper to a solid, under-the-radar year for the first-year starter. Thanks to the new television contracts for the Pac-12, Price should get some additional, much-needed exposure on the national scene. Of course, an improvement from the Huskies seven-win 2011 season wouldn’t hurt Price’s Heisman chances, either.
7. Tyrann Mathieu, CB, LSU — Honey Badger wasn’t even the best corner on his own team, but his uncanny ability to make game-changing plays seemingly on a weekly basis earned the sophomore a trip to New York City for the Heisman presentation. Mathieu, however, has two strikes against him for a return trip: one, he’s a defensive player and Heisman bylaws state those types of players are not permitted to be given serious consideration (not really, kinda) and, two, it would seem to be next to impossible for the defensive back to repeat his otherworldly 2011 season, if for nothing more than every single ball won’t bounce his way a second straight season right? Regardless, a player as instinctive and athletic as Mathieu puts himself in the right position to make plays, so don’t bet against a second straight trip to The Big Apple for the junior-to-be.
8. Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia — By the end of the 2012 regular season, I could very well regret having Smith this low on the initial list. In his first year in Dana Holgorsen‘s offense, Smith led the Big East in passing efficiency, passing yards per game, passing touchdowns and total offense. With a firm grasp of what Holgorsen expects offensively, one can only expect those numbers — and thus his Heisman chances — to drastically increase.
9. Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma — Like Barkley, Jones unexpectedly returned for another season. Unlike Barkley, Jones is coming off an uneven 2011 season that left many members of Sooner Nation bemoaning the fact that he did return. Jones will be losing his passing-game security blanket, Ryan Broyles, and true freshman QB Blake Bell saw increased playing time as the season progressed. In fact, over the final four games of the season, Jones threw just one touchdown pass while Bell accounted for 10 scores on the ground. If that trend continues into 2012, Jones will become a mere footnote in the Heisman discussion. For now, however, he has to be considered at least on the periphery of the stiff-armed talk.
10. Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina — Were it not for a torn ACL that prematurely ended his 2012 season, the junior-to-be likely would’ve been higher on the list. Because of that injury, his positioning is likely too high as it is. Still, if Lattimore is healthy, he’s one of the most talented and gifted backs in the country. How he returns from the devastating injury will, obviously, determine his placement in the Heisman race.
MATT BARKLEY BONUS PICK: AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama — Thanks to the domination of the Tide’s defense, McCarron’s performance in the title game will likely get overshadowed, or not get nearly as much credit as it deserves. Still, if what he did on that Superdome field Monday night is an indicator of what’s in store for the future, the soon-to-be redshirt junior will make some noise in the race for the 2012 Heisman. Especially as the quarterback of what’s expected to be one of the top teams in the country. Again.