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College Football Outlook

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Looking forward to another stellar season / By Brian Jones / Photo by Cody Hamilton

Know how you can tell it’s almost college football season? By the amount of nasty tweets that rain down on your Twitter account after posting a Top 25 pre-season poll. That’s right. A college football pre-season poll can cause fans to declare the world is coming to an abrupt end. All because their team is not ranked as high as they would like. It’s a pre-season poll! Last time I checked, they don’t hand out awards for pre-season. Therefore, chill out tweet critics, and trust that your favorite team will match your nonsensical intensity on the field.

Speaking of on the field, it should be another stellar season. Seriously, can anyone stop the SEC from securing a seventh straight national title? The SEC West is just super sick with good teams. Bama and LSU lead the pack, but Arkansas and Auburn will play a big role in determining who wins the West and ultimately, the SEC. Oh yeah, I almost forgot about Texas A&M skipping over to the SEC West. Good job jumping in to the deep end of the pool, Aggies. The SEC East favorite, Georgia, has a defense on par with the big boys in the West. If Florida finds a QB, they could make some noise with many returning on defense. South Carolina gets superstar RB Marcus Lattimore back in the fold and will make a run for the East division title.

Now, if there’s a team that can stave off another SEC title celebration, it’s USC. The Trojans are loaded, off the heels of a 10-win season and the last year of probation. QB Matt Barkley returns, as does the most talented wide-receiver tandem in college football: Marquise Lee and Robert Woods. Former Penn State RB Silas Redd adds depth in the backfield. SC has early tests versus Stanford and Utah, which is very strong this year. Oregon still has much firepower on the offense and a veteran deep defense. Stanford retools at QB with the departure of NFL No. 1 overall pick, Andrew Luck. My former colleague at CBS Sports Network, Rich Rodriguez, is the new head man at Arizona. Todd Graham must keep a bag packed; he’s on the move again to Arizona State. Jim Mora, the son, now leads UCLA, and hooray for having Mike Leach back in the game at Washington State.

The overriding question last year in the ACC was whether Florida State was really back to being Florida State. They weren’t. However, they are loaded again this year. Their defense, despite CB/punt returner Greg Reid’s dismissal, is still one of the best in the country. If they can stay healthy on the other side of the ball, FSU may have a crystal ball in their future. Clemson returns its big three in QB Tahj Boyd, RB Andre Ellington and all-world WR Sammie Watkins. As usual, Virginia Tech will have a say in who wins the ACC. They return QB Logan Thomas and a stacked Bud Foster defense.

The Big Least, excuse me, Big East, has USF garnering all of the pre-season attention. The Bulls have me intrigued as well. Skip Holtz has a veteran QB in BJ Daniels. Now, if Daniels’ play can find some consistency, the Bulls will be Big East Champs. I can hear the Louisville Cardinals contingency balking at that assessment. The Cardinals’ young QB, Teddy Bridgewater, was thrown in to the fire as a true frosh a season ago. He returns with plenty of help on both sides of the ball. Pittsburgh adds a new head coach; Paul Chryst brings his Wisconsin power offense to the Steel City. Rutgers also has a new boss on the sideline; OC Kyle Flood takes over for Greg Schiano. Cincinnati won 10 a season ago, but has much turnover in its starting lineup.

In the Big 10, Urban Meyer has rekindled his fire and now leads my pick to win the Leaders Division: Ohio State Meyer has a QB in Braxton Miller that fits his offensive system. The Buckeyes’ defense is always solid and will be again in 2012. Yes, Michigan fans, while the Wolverines will not duplicate last year’s 11 wins, they will be a major factor. QB Denard Robinson will be minus a few career starters on the front line, but will still be electrifying. The D needs to find replacements on the defensive line. Lil’ Brother Michigan State attempts to replace a record-setting QB and tons of talent at wide receiver.

The Spartan defense is experienced and will have to carry the day early. Wisconsin brings in another free agent QB in former Maryland signal caller Danny O’Brien. But it’s RB Montee Ball that makes this Badgers O click. Ball will try to top his 1,900-yard, 39-TD 2011 season. Nebraska returns one of my favorite RBs in Rex Burkhead. Taylor Martinez is also back. Defensively, they return seven and should have the inside track to the Legends Division.

I would be remiss if I didn’t wade in to the Penn State fiasco. New HC Bill O’Brien has said all the right things as the program picks up the pieces in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal and subsequent NCAA sanctions. I did not believe the Nittany Lions deserved the death penalty and they avoided that fate. Moving forward, decreased scholarships place the program at a disadvantage for the near future. And as expected, some of their players have chosen to transfer. Penn State is a proud institution, with as passionate a fan base that exists at the collegiate level. If any program can navigate such a tragic episode, it’s the one in Happy Valley.

All right, I’m going to do it. I’m going out on the limb and giving the Texas Longhorns a legitimate chance of winning the Big 12 Title. The defense was extremely young and impressive in 2012. Look for more of the same great stingy D in 2012. The running game picked up steam last year, and with a Mason Walters-led offensive line, will only get better. The real question is QB play. No matter who gets the nod, they need to understand that less is more; just drive the damn bus. You do not have to morph in to VY or Colt. New Big 12 member West Virginia brings a high-powered O to the league led by QB Geno Smith. And many think they will win the Big 12. I believe there are question marks at RB and on defense. That being said, the Mountaineers will not be an easy win. Oklahoma returns Heisman-hopeful QB Landry Jones and an experienced offensive line. LB Tom Wort leads a defense that needs to plug holes on the line.

Conversely, Oklahoma State may have its best defense in decades. The offense returns only four, with No. 1 draft picks QB Brandon Weeden and WR Justin Blackmon departing. Kansas State and Bill Snyder will continue to be a thorn in everyone’s side. QB Collin Klein can do it all, first team All-Purpose Big 12. Baylor had a phenomenal run last year and will try to live without RGIII and his favorite target, Kendall Wright. QB Nick Florence did take over for RGIII versus Texas Tech and led the team to victory. The aforementioned Texas Tech had the worst defense in the history of the program last season. That equates to an extremely hot seat for HC Tommy Tuberville this year. Former Notre Dame HC Charlie Weis takes over at Kansas, and of course, Missouri defects to the SEC. As for Weis’ last HC gig, Notre Dame looks to improve on an 8-5 2011 season. In Brian Kelly’s third year at the helm, the Fighting Irish return a 1,000-yard rusher in Cierre Wood, first since 2006. The offensive line is more experienced and the defensive front seven is rock solid. Andrew Hendrix, Tommy Rees and Everett Golson will fight it out at QB.

Top 5 Teams

USC: QB Barkley returning was huge for the Trojans. Another great offensive line, blocking for two proven RBs, best WR tandem in the country and a stacked defense.

LSU: The deepest RB stable in college football and a QB in Zach Mettenberger that can consistently get the ball to swift Tiger receivers. A defense led by the “Honey Badger,” CB Tyrann Mathieu, and DEs Montgomery and Mingo.

Florida State: So what, no Greg Reid? This could still be the top defense in the nation. If they avoid the injuries that derailed their offense last year, FSU might really be back. Someone at RB, please step up!

Oklahoma: Despite QB Landry Jones’ numbers receding last year, especially after his favorite receiver Broyles went down, he remains one of the top signal callers at the collegiate level. The Sooners are deep at the RB position and return Kenny Stills and Jaz Reynolds at wideout. The D has questions on the line but is fast and furious everywhere else.

Alabama: Coming off a second national title in three years, Roll Tide will continue to roll on. Offensive line got a big boost with LT Barrett Jones stiff-arming the NFL and returning for his senior season. QB AJ McCarron got better and better each week last year, culminating in an outstanding BCS Title game performance. He does have a new offensive coordinator in my former New Orleans Saints teammate Doug Nussmeier. D loses quite a bit to the NFL, but will maintain its stinginess.

Five Heisman Hopefuls

QB Matt Barkley (USC): With the best wideout tandem in the game, Barkley will have plenty of opportunities to surpass the 3,500 passing yards and 39 TDs he put up last season. He would have been a firstround draft pick last spring.

QB Geno Smith (West Virginia): QBs often feast on defenses in Dana Holgorsen’s pass-happy offense. Smith set school and conference records a year ago. With his top receivers back, don’t be surprised if he posts a 5,000-yard passing season.

WR Sammie Watkins (Clemson): Mr. Watkins showed up and showed out last year as a true freshman: more than 1,200 yards receiving and 12 TDs. He’s an all-purpose speed demon, a bona fide threat to take it the distance each time the ball is in his possession.

QB Logan Thomas (Virginia Tech): Thomas took the reins of the Hokie offense in 2011 and progressed nicely during the course of the season. He tied the Hokie record for TDs by a QB with 11. While breaking in new RBs and an overhauled O Line, it may be necessary for Thomas to carry more of the load this season. At 6 feet 6 inches and 260 pounds, I think he can handle it.

RB Knile Davis (Arkansas): I had Mr. Davis on my list last year; he broke his ankle during fall camp. He’s back and chomping at the bit to see some action. The 6-feet-2-inch, 220 pounder possesses 4.29 speed and covets contact. With a top-notch QB and passing O, defenses will not be able to just focus on him.

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