Top 12 in ’12 – No. 1 USC Trojans

By Kolby Paxton

What if Andrew Luck wasn’t Andrew Luck?

I mean, he would still be himself – just a little less Luck-y, so to speak. Imagine that the Stanford graduate was not the Colts’ top pick in April’s draft. Instead, he was merely the first round choice of the Washington Redskins; the next John Elway – not the next Peyton Manning.

Speaking of Manning, he’d still be a Denver-resident, but Robert Griffin III would likely have taken his talents to South Beach. That would have pushed Lauren Tannehill – and husband, Ryan, of course – to… Seattle? Good news for Matt Flynn, who would likely start under center for the Fightin’ Pete Carrolls. Bad news for Russell Wilson who, even with a stellar pre-season, would be holding a clipboard for the Eagles. That is, unless he free-fell to Ken Whisenhunt and Arizona; thus, single-handedly transforming the Cards into a NFC contender.

Ere this sequence of events commenced, however, Trojan gunslinger Matt Barkley brought joy to southern California by forgoing his likely perch atop the 2012 NFL Draft, in favor of sanction-free senior season at USC.

In lieu of this butterfly effect that wasn’t, Barkley is the clear front-runner amid college football’s premature field of Heisman Trophy candidates. He is also the chief reason that Southern Cal finds itself positioned squarely in the BCS National Championship hunt. Barkley tossed for 3,528 yards and a school-record 39 touchdowns a season ago, but found himself peering over the shoulder of Luck, as the Cardinal quarterback rode shotgun in the Pac-12. The Santa Ana, Calif.-native will take a back seat this fall.

When No. 7 drops back to throw, he will have the nation’s top pass catching duo on the horizon. Junior Robert Woods hauled in a USC-record 111 balls last season for 1,292 yards and 15 scores. Woods is also one of college football’s best return man, averaging nearly 25 yards per return over the last two seasons.

Opposite Woods, sophomore Marqise Lee caught 73 passes for 1,143 yards and 11 touchdowns in his first season at Southern Cal, including four consecutive games of eight or more receptions to end the season.

Wide receiver Robert Woods is among the finest pass catchers east of the Pacific Ocean.

The Trojans found greater benefit from a Penn State defection than any other school in the country when they collected standout running back Silas Redd. Redd, who has two seasons of eligibility remaining, ran for 1,241 yards and seven touchdowns last year. He will be joined by incumbent starter Curtis McNeal. The 5-foot-7 McNeal rushed over 100 yards in five of the Trojans’ final seven games of the 2011 season.

Of course, the high-powered Trojans will need to stop opponents from scoring, eventually.

Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin saw substantial improvements in his second season on the job, and the Trojans return the majority of the back seven.

Senior defensive ends Wes Horton and Devon Kennard will be charged with the responsibility of replacing Nick Perry and DaJohn Harris up front, while sophomore George Uko anchors the unit inside. Horton was second-team All-Pac-12 last season after recording 22 stops and four sacks.

The three freshman linebackers who were starting at the end of the year, enter their sophomore seasons with strong résumés. Outside backers Hayes Pullard and Dion Bailey were both Freshman All-Americans, and Lamar Dawson is an active middle linebacker. Bailey is a rising star that should push for All-American honors in 2012. He recorded 81 tackles in 11 starts as a redshirt freshman.

The secondary is a strength, with T.J. McDonald, an All-America free safety, and junior playmaking cornerback Nickell Robey. McDonald (6-3, 205), like Barkley, passed on NFL riches to pursue a national championship in Los Angeles. Robey has started every game since arriving at USC.

Prediction: 12-0 (9-0)

In Lane Kiffin’s first season post-Bushgate, Southern Cal is poised to return to the cream of the Pac-12 crop. As talented as USC is offensively, the Trojans will essentially play a four-game season for the right to challenge for all of the SEC’s marbles – er, the national championship. Its most difficult road challenge will likely come with a Thursday night visit to Salt Lake City, Utah. If (when) USC clears that hurdle, a two-game series with Oregon and the regular season finale versus Brian Kelly’s Fighting Irish are all that stands in the Trojans’ way of a trip to Miami, Fla.

Top 12 in ’12 – No. 2 LSU Tigers

By Kolby Paxton

The Honey Badger doesn’t give a Fig Newton about opposing quarterbacks, ball carriers, punt coverage units – or team rules related to drug use apparently.

Heisman-finalist Tyrann Mathieu was booted off of the Tigers’ roster following his third violation of head coach Les Miles’ substance abuse policy, leaving LSU without a player perceived to be the team’s top cornerback, and one of the most opportune playmakers in all of college football.

The Tigers forced 30 turnovers (+1.43) in 2011. Only Oklahoma State was better. Mathieu ripped away seven of those turnovers, returning four loose balls and two punts for scores. In victories over Arkansas and Georgia, Mathieu single-handedly induced an about-face momentum shift, blowing each game wide open. Subsequent to the Badger Gate saga, the the majority of that well-timed impetus for game change is long gone.

Quarterback Jordan Jefferson is gone, too, but that likely helps the cause. Jefferson was the weakest link in LSU’s championship chain last season. Junior Zack Mettenberger is the guy, and there is no Jarrett Lee in the bullpen for relief. The Tigers will go only as far as the strong right arm of the former-Georgia Bulldog can take them.

The LSU backfield is void of an All-American, but there also might not be a deeper or more talented crew in the country – including the Razorbacks. Three Tigers rushed for at least 500 yards last year — Michael Ford (756), Spencer Ware (707) and Alfred Blue (539) — and a fourth, Kenny Hilliard, may prove to be the best of the bunch.

LSU must find a way to replace one of the most talented wide receivers in school history in Rueben Randle. Such a responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of once-heralded sophomore, Odell Beckham Jr. The New Orleans-native hauled in 41 passes for 475 yards a season ago. Senior Russell Shepard and sophomore Jarvis Landry join Beckham in three-wide sets.

LSU safety Eric Reid will be looked upon to pick up the slack in a Honey Badger-less secondary.

The strength of what should be a dominant offensive line is at the tackles, with Alex Hurst and Chris Faulk, and at center, with P.J. Lonergan. Faulk (6-6, 330) was the SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week after the Tigers piled up 237 rushing yards versus Tennessee last season.

Defensive line depth has been a recent trademark at LSU, and 2012 will be no different, although the group will lack experience. The ends should be dominant, with Sam Montgomery back and Barkevious Mingo on deck to contribute full-time, after previous relegation to third down.

Mingo was excellent in wins over Georgia and Arkansas last season. Montgomery is as good as it gets at the position. Collectively the Tigers have one of the best defensive end tandems in college football. LSU is four deep at tackle, even after the loss of Michael Brockers. Junior Bennie Logan will be expected to anchor the interior after posting 57 tackles and three sacks as a sophomore.

Despite a 13-1 record and a sterling reputation, the LSU defense had a glaring weakness at linebacker in 2011. That could once again be the case, as only Kevin Minter returns. Around him, the Tigers will rely on several true freshman to play immediately.

Morris Claiborne became the second elite-level cornerback to leave LSU for the NFL in as many years. After Mathieu’s dismissal, however, the Tigers are left without any starting experience at the position. Still, the secondary remains a position of strength.

Junior Tharold Simon figures to be next in a line of NFL-bound cornerbacks, and was already a better cover corner than Mathieu. Redshirt freshman Jalen Collins will join him on the boundary. Eric Reid is the best player in the defensive backfield – and maybe the entire defense – at safety. Reid tied with Mathieu for the team-lead in tackles (76) and forced three turnovers during his sophomore campaign.

Prediction: 11-1 (7-1)

There’s been a lot of talk about the difficulty of “finding losses” for this team, thus suggesting that the LSU schedule is relatively favorable. That’s simply not the case. A week two matchup with Washington could prove to be a greater challenge than many are bargaining for. South Carolina and Alabama come to Baton Rouge, but the Tigers must travel to Gainesville, Fla., College Station, Texas, and Fayetteville, Ark., as well.

LSU is good enough to beat every team on its schedule, but it shan’t be easy.

Top 12 in ’12 – No. 3 Alabama Crimson Tide

By Kolby Paxton

On the heels of Alabama’s eighth national title – or 12th, or 14th, or 27th if you ask Dunkel and Helms-touting Tide fans – the angry elephants watched as seven defensive starters graduated to the National Football League.

Doak Walker Award winner Trent Richardson, he of 3,130 career rushing yards, is gone. Wide receiver Marquis Maize and tight end Brad Smelley are also gone; and with them, so goes nearly two-thirds of Alabama’s receiving production from 2011. Even back-up quarterback – and former top-ranked quarterback recruit – Phillip Sims is gone. All told, the defending national champs return only 10 of 22 starters of a season ago.

Roll Tide, y’all.

Of course, quarterback A.J. McCarron is back for his second season as the starter in Tuscaloosa, Ala. He was Greg McElroy-esque in 2011, game-managing his way to 2,634 yards, 16 touchdowns and, most importantly, only five interceptions. There will be schematic adjustments in the wake of former-offensive coordinator Jim McElwain’s departure, but McCarron should continue to improve. A 23-completion effort in the BCS Championship victory over LSU gives the junior signal caller something to build on.

Making matters a little easier, McCarron will take snaps from the premier offensive lineman in the Southeastern Conference, center Barrett Jones. Jones was an All-SEC right tackle in 2010 and an All-SEC left tackle in 2011. If he repeats the feat in 2012, he will become the first lineman in league history to earn all-conference honors at three different positions.

Quarterback A.J. McCarron was outstanding in Alabama’s BCS Championship victory over LSU.er Barrett Jones. Jones was an All-SEC right tackle in 2010 and an All-SEC left tackle in 2011. If he repeats the feat in 2012, he will become the first lineman in league history to earn all-conference honors at three different positions.

The absence of Trent Richardson should have no more detrimental affect on the Crimson Tide offense than Mark Ingram’s exodus prior to last season. It’s “next man up” in Nick Saban’s backfield. Junior Eddie Lacy (5-11, 220) poses an equally impressive pedigree, and a running style conducive to success in Alabama’s pro-style system. If not, well, the Tide backfield is loaded with blue chippers; most notably, redshirt freshman Dee Hart and true freshman T.J. Yeldon.

Wide receiver is a concern, but – excluding the Julio Jones-era – when is it not? The Duron Carter experiment crashed and burned when, after academic ineligibility in 2011, Carter was suspended by Saban in the spring and never returned. Without Maize and Smelley, McCarron will be staring at a trio of ball retrievers with 36 career receptions. Junior Kevin Norwood is the most decorated of the bunch, but McCarron’s eventual go-to-guy is anyone’s guess.

The Tide welcome only five starters back from what was an immensely talented group in 2011. But, just as instability at wideout is a recurring them in Tuscaloosa, so, too, is defensive dominance. The coming autumn campaign is no exception.

Senior Jesse Williams (6-4, 320) figures to anchor the the front at nose tackle. After two seasons at Western Arizona Community College, the Australia-native recorded 24 tackles, four tackles for a loss, and three quarterback hurries last season. Williams will be flanked by senior Damion Square and junior Ed Stinson.

The linebackers, as per usual, are the strength of the unit. Junior C.J. Mosley effectively ended the BCS National Championship with a third quarter interception of LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson. His retribution, of course, was a dislocated hip suffered as Jefferson brought him down awkwardly to end the play, but Mosley is healthy and poised for a break out season in 2012. Senior Nico Johnson figures to assume the leadership role at middle linebacker. With 15 career starts, he is the most experienced backer in the bunch. Sophomores Trey DePriest, Xzavier Dickson and Adrian Hubbard should all have an impact, as well.

Life after Mark Barron begins with senior Robert Lester expected to assume responsibility in the secondary. Lester disrupted seven passes in a win over Arkansas last season. Cornerback Dee Milliner was lost in the shuffle last year, as Dre Kirkpatrick and DeQuan Menzie each enjoyed excellent seasons. Without Kirkpatrick and Menzie, the onus falls on Milliner as Alabama’s top cover corner. Highly-touted junior college standout Deion Belue joins Milliner on the boundary.

Prediction: 10-2 (6-2)

Perhaps no team in college football has a more challenging slate than the Crimson Tide in 2012. The season opener versus Michigan will push Alabama’s new-look defense immediately. Road trips to Fayetteville, Ark., and Columbia, Mo., could each prove perilous, and a night game in Death Valley is the ultimate test. With an inexperienced group, the Tide could conceivably drop three contests by the first week in November. That said, Saban doesn’t rebuild, he reloads. If any team can overcome heavy turnover and a heavyweight schedule, it’s these guys.

Roll Tide, Mama Grey.

Top 12 in ’12 – No. 4 Oklahoma Sooners

By Kolby Paxton

Landry Jones apologists beware. You might want to skip down a few paragraphs.

The senior signal-caller is Oklahoma’s all-time passing leader with 12,379 career yards, and the proud owner of 13 school passing records. In 2011, Jones tossed for 4,463 yards; down from a 4,718-yard sophomore campaign, when he fell two merciful yards shy of breaking Sam Bradford’s mark. If healthy, the Artesia, N.M.-native will double Bradford’s career passing yards (8,403) by season’s end.

He will also quadruple his predecessor’s interception total in what feels like the longest. four. years. ever.

Wait, before you fire your No. 12 jersey in my general vicinity, allow me to play a more coherent version of yourself. “Landry Jones throws for a gazillion yards,” you’ll tell me. “He won the Fiesta Bowl and the Big 12 Championship. He’s 2-0 as a starter versus Texas. He’s a first round NFL Draft caliber talent.”

Crimson-tinted glasses look ridiculous, even on Elton John. They also make it nearly impossible to read and react objectively. So, before you attempt to peruse through the following, you’ll want to remove the nonsensical spectacles and place them upon the brim of your Bob Stoops visor.

Jones is the byproduct of a quarterback friendly system and, more pointedly, abundant volume. You’ve heard it before. But have you really?

Consider: Only Houston’s Case Keenum and Texas Tech’s Seth Doege attempted more passes than Jones in 2011, and the two combined to equal the Oklahoma quarterback’s number of completions to the wrong color jersey (15) – on 622 additional tosses. And, while his total production – the big, shiny, five-digit yards total – dwarfs that of the statues across the street,  the finer details of his stat line do not. For example, his yards per attempt average (7.6) is good for 11th best in school history among quarterbacks with at least 200 pass attempts. Eleventh. The University of Oklahoma has only been throwing the football since 1999, during which time, the Sooners have started only seven different field generals. Holy checkdown, Batman.

Jones’ yards per completion average is percentage points ahead of… Danny Bradley. His career efficiency rating is just behind… wishbone specialist Jamelle Holieway.

Jones’ Big 12 Championship triumph – a feat that he has accomplished exactly once in three years as the Oklahoma starter – came versus the team that used to be Nebraska. Rumor has it, that team immediately defected to the Big Ten, and no one has seen or heard from the Cornhuskers since. The Fiesta Bowl that followed pitted the Sooners with Big East sacrificial lamb Connecticut. The season-ending loss to Oklahoma was UConn’s fifth of the season. That’s the same number of L’s as every other Fiesta Bowl  participant combined (Texas vs. Ohio State, ’08; Boise State vs. TCU, ’09; Oklahoma State vs. Stanford, ’11) since 2008-’09

As for that whole 2-0 record versus the Longhorns, do we really need to discuss the state of the Mighty Mack Browns? Case is not Colt. Suffice it to say that no one in Austin is pointing to the Red River tilts of the early ’90’s in an attempt to validate the quarterbacking prowess of Peter Gardere. And, while he may have an NFL-level skill set versus air, whatever team spends a first round pick on Jones should just be aware that I successfully started a “Go pro Landry” chant during the second quarter of the Bedlam beat down – and that was before he started fumbling footballs over his own head.

Fullback Trey Millard led the Sooners in special teams tackles (14) in 2011, and currently holds the “Good Things Happen When…” distinction.

Making matters worse, the greatest receiver in program history is now a member of the Detroit Lions, starting running back Dominique Whaley is recovering from a not-quite-Patrick-Edwards-but-close broken leg, two offensive lineman have been lost for the season due to injury, and five days ago, defensive tackle Stacy McGee became the fifth suspended Sooner of the off-season.

Having said that, all of that, the Chase for Eight appears to be alive and well in 2012 – thanks, in part, to a FBS field full of flawed contenders, a relatively favorable schedule, and yes, even Landry Jones.

Jones is reasonably adept outside of the opponents 10-yard line, and once the Sooners get within 30 feet of paydirt, well, there’s a Belldozer for that.

On the perimeter, despite the loss of Broyles and mass suspensions, the Oklahoma receiving core is very good. Junior Kenny Stills is among the top pass catchers in all the land when he’s not Tweeting or wearing dresses. His production dropped when Broyles went down with a knee injury last season, but newcomer Trey Metoyer figures to reduce the Broyles-less-induced stress level considerably.

The backfield is deceptively loaded, if void of the feature back for which the program is known. Junior fullback Trey Millard is among the Sooners’ most valuable assets. Someone once coined the phrase, “Good things happen when you go to J.D. (Runnels).” Well, better things happen when you go to Millard.

The ball carriers lining up behind OU’s do-it-all fullback come in all shapes and sizes. From the diminutive Roy Finch (5-7, 175), to Whaley (5-11, 204), to impact freshman Alex Ross (6-1, 208), offensive coordinator Josh Heupel has a wealth of horses in the stable.

Mike Stoops is back, and with him, come expectations of a return to defensive dominance. Big 12 offenses of today are not the Big 12 offenses of 2003, but after a season in which Brent Venables’ group surrendered a combined 89 points in losses to Oklahoma State and Baylor, attaining a considerable level of improvement is well within reach.

The defensive line is in flux as a result of McGee’s suspension, leaving Casey Walker and Jamarkus McFarland as the only true tackles in the rotation. End David King will slide over and start ahead of McFarland in his place. Rarely, in recent history, has the defensive line been a weakness at Oklahoma, but it is in 2012.

The linebackers, on the other hand, are a strength. Tom Wort is hard-nosed and physical, and figures to take the leadership role in his third year as a starter. Corey Nelson had 5.5 sacks in 2011, and is on the cusp of becoming a star.

Previously, under Stoops, the secondary was elite. When he left, the consistency in the defensive backfield left with him. Upon his return – and with Tony Jefferson’s move back to safety – the unit is primed for a resurgence. Demontre Hurst is among the most gifted cover corners in college football. When the Sooners take the field versus UTEP, Hurst will play in his 41st game as a Sooner. Aaron Colvin started at cornerback as a true freshman, but was moved to safety in 2011. Stoops moved Colvin back to corner in the spring, creating the best duo of air traffic controllers in the Big 12.

Prediction: 11-1 (8-1)

Oklahoma should be favored in each of its 12 regular season contests. Texas, inexplicably, cannot seem to find a quarterback. The Notre Dame secondary is vulnerable. Baylor is back to being Baylor and Oklahoma State, well, is back to being Oklahoma State. Only late-season road trips to Morgantown, W.V., and Fort Worth, Texas, appear to stand in the way of another trip to the BCS National Championship. Of course, with Landry Jones under center, Morgantown might as well be Baton Rouge, La.

Top 12 in ’12 – No. 5 Oregon Ducks

By Kolby Paxton

According to Josh Gibson, former Negro League great, Cool Papa Bell, was so fast that “he could get out of bed, turn out the lights across the room, and be back in bed, under the covers, before the lights went out.” Years later, Muhammed Ali plagiarized the same concept with regards to his own speed.

With apologies to Bell and Ali, the assertion that a human being could possess the quickness needed to make it beneath his bedding before a once-lit room vanished into darkness is highly unrealistic. Unless, of course, that human being is Oregon running back De’Anthony Thomas.

Perhaps it’s the electric green, the chrome, or the reflective wings that routinely adorn the University of Phil Knight concept-come-to-life uniforms, but when The Black Mamba moves, he looks less college running back, more Roadrunner – leaving a defense of coyotes in his wake.

Take his 91-yard sprint to cap the first quarter of the Ducks’ Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin, for example. Thomas needed but a small crease, through which he slipped as only a blur, and into the secondary. If you blinked, you missed it, and from there it was over. If the field were 200 yards long, the Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year would have crossed the goal line 100 yards ahead of the nearest Wile E. Defender.

So talented is Thomas, that the Oregon faithful has already forgotten the most decorated running back in the history of its program. So talented is Thomas, that he has upstaged Kenjon Barner – a supremely talented runner in his own right – who was once thought to be the undisputed heir apparent.

Thomas is LaMichael James 2.0, the perfect weapon for Chip Kelly’s high-octane spread option attack. His diminutive stature actually plays in his favor, only adding to his elusiveness. In 2011, the then-freshman racked up 2,235 all-purpose yards and 18 touchdowns, while averaging an astounding 10.8 yards per carry.

As for Barner, all is not lost with the emergence of Thomas. The career backup is a more traditional running back – unlike his backfield mate, who will see time at wide receiver, as well – and will likely receive feature back reps as a result. The 5-11, 192-pound senior is a star-level talent, with an impressive, if limited, resume’ as a starter. In three career starts – in the absence of James – Barner produced 535 total yards and eight touchdowns.

John Boyett leads an uncharacteristically formidable Oregon defense.

The quarterback position remains a mystery, with sophomore Bryan Bennett and redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota vying to replace the enormous shoes of Darron Thomas. With Thomas out due to injury, Bennett engineered two victories for the Ducks in 2011. But, by all accounts, he was badly outplayed by Mariota in the spring game.

Once Kelly decides which quarterback will be delivering the football, it will remain to be seen exactly who will be on the receiving end of said deliveries. Junior Josh Huff (5-11, 205) is the most accomplished pass catcher on the roster, after hauling in 31 receptions for 43o yards and two scores a season ago. He figures to be the go-to-guy in the passing game, regardless of whether Bennett, Mariota, or Donald Duck is under center. Excluding Huff, tight end Colt Lyerla – he of seven receptions in 2011 – appears to possess the most impressive ball retrieving chops of the bunch. Elsewhere, Oregon will expect the emergence of a combination of redshirt freshmen that includes Devon Blackmon, B.J. Kelley and Tacoi Sumler.

At no point since Knight and Mike Bellotti re-invented Ducks football, has Oregon been known for its defense. This particular unit is poised to become an exception. No fewer than six of the team’s 10 best players reside on the defensive side of the football, including senior free safety John Boyett.

One of college football’s best centerfielders, Boyett has started 39 career games at the back end of the Ducks defense. In 2011, he led the Oregon defense with 108 stops and six pass break-ups; every bit as reliable as a certain 1990 Toyota 4-Runner.

Joining Boyett in the secondary is sophomore cornerback Terrance Mitchell. Mitchell started all 12 games a freshman, emerging as the team’s top cover corner in the process. The 6-foot, 190-pound, Sacramento, Calif.-native intercepted two passes and led the Ducks in pass break-ups (10) a season ago, and should press for All-Pac-12 honors in 2012. Fellow-sophomore, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, joins Mitchell on the boundary.

Linebacker is a strength for Oregon, as well, where the Ducks are led by veteran middle linebacker Michael Clay. Clay has started 36 career games at linebacker and, as Boyett leads the secondary, Clay is they key cog of the front seven. Despite relatively modest stature (5-11, 219 pounds), Clay made 102 tackles for the Oregon defense in ’11, including 8.5 for a loss. Clay will be flanked by Rose Bowl MVP Kiko Alonso (6-4, 246 pounds).

If DeAnthony Thomas is not the most talented player in Eugene, then that notation belongs to senior defensive end Dion Jordan. The converted tight end racked up a team leading 7.5 sacks a season ago, while playing the “drop end” spot for the Ducks. His size (6-7, 241 pounds) and versatility has NFL scouts drooling. Junior nose guard Taylor Hart compliments Jordan’s perimeter prowess with stability in the middle.

Prediction: 11-1 (8-1)

Assuming that the Ducks get by the Fightin’ Gus Malzahns, they should roll into the Los Angeles Coliseum with an unblemished record on Nov. 3. Odds are good that, regardless of the outcome, that game will merely serve as the preamble to a Pac-12 Championship rematch in December. The instability at quarterback is cause for concern, but the talent-level elsewhere will push Oregon into title contention.

Top 12 in ’12 – No. 6 Florida State Seminoles

By Kolby Paxton

Are we there yet?

Season after season since the Snoop Minnis-less Seminoles allowed second-year head coach Bob Stoops and the Oklahoma Sooners to “get (their) boy’s trophy back,” the narrative has remained obnoxiously similar: “This is the year that Florida State returns to form.”

No, seriously.

Two years ago, Christian Ponder and his fellow ‘Noles were primed to re-enter the national stage through the same door out which they were so rudely booted; a door occupied by college football’s winningest program of the modern era. Instead, then-sophomore Landry Jones lit up the FSU defense to the tune of 340 yards and four touchdowns. Oklahoma led 34-7 by halftime, coasting to a 30-point demolition.

Last year, it was double-revenge time for the Seminoles. EJ Manuel was assuming his rightful spot at the helm of Jimbo Fisher’s offense, and the Sooners were coming to Tallahassee. Didn’t matter. Oklahoma pounded the Seminole’s into submission, knocking Manuel out of the game en route to a 23-13 road win.

The third consecutive loss to the Sooners sent Florida State into yet another tailspin. Playing without Manuel, FSU dropped its next two contests, falling to 2-3, and extinguishing once lofty expectations for a team that entered the season ranked inside the Top 5.

Never mind the fact that the Seminoles rallied down the stretch, closing the season on a 7-1 run. Never mind Manuel, once considered the next great FSU signal caller, and his impending return. Never mind a roster as talented as any other in college football. There’s an old saying in Tennessee – I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee – that says, fool me once, shame on – shame on you. Fool me – you can’t get fooled again. Florida State can’t fool us again.

Unless, of course, “us” includes college football preview writer Phil Steele. Steele is the most accurate projector of the sport over the past 87 years or something – and he’ll remind you on each of the 344 pages inside of his magazine, just in case you forget while flipping. The Wizard of Gridiron Guesswork has selected the Seminoles as his 2012 BCS National Champion, and he’s never wrong.

“It’s like, when I’m right I’m right,” he said. “When I’m wrong, I could’ve been right, so I’m still right ‘cause I could’ve been wrong, you know, and I’m sorry ‘cause I could be wrong right now, I could be wrong, but if I’m right…”

Assuming that not everyone speaks the language of movie quotes, I will now waste this sentence in order to explain that the above quote was actually derived from 50 Cent’s fictional prison pal “Bama,” though it might as well have been Steele. I digress.

Brandon Jenkins’ decision to return for his senior year instantly bolstered the FSU defense.

The Oracle of collegiate pigskin watches each game on one of his 28 television screens using super powers that one can only surmise he inherited via a Peter Parker-style Plectreuridae injection. In doing so, he cultivates knowledge regarding the upcoming season that is far advanced to the elementary projections you or I might be able to conjure up. So if Steele says that the Seminoles are going to hoist the crystal football, I figured it was worth looking into.

What I found, was a team with many strengths – and the same predictable weaknesses – that competes in an overmatched conference, and could very well be in a position to capitalize on a wide-open field of title potential contenders.

Manuel was one of the top quarterbacks in the Class of 2008, but folks in the Red Hills Region are running low on patience. He has shown flashes, but was limited by a shoulder injury last season. Still, Manuel tallied 2,666 passing yards and 18 touchdowns, while completing his passes at a 65.3 percent clip. A case could also be made that his relative shortcomings have come as a result of poor offensive line play, a lack of a running game, and the absence of playmaking wide receivers. In fact, a seriously good case could be made. So good, in fact, that even Atticus Finch would struggle to argue otherwise.

We’re supposed to believe that senior wide receiver Rodney Smith is a “big play threat,” which should never, in any case, be confused with the term, “playmaker.” A playmaker actually makes plays, hence the term. By contrast, a big play threat, simply has the speed to run by defenders, but lacks the body control and awareness to establish any semblance of consistency. The key to the Florida State passing game is sophomore Rashad Greene. Greene led the Seminoles in every receiving category as true freshman, despite missing four games due to an ankle injury. Through the team’s first five games, Greene had 26 receptions and six touchdowns. Playmaker.

The ‘Noles have what looks to be a quality stable of running backs, led by sophomore Devonta Freeman and senior Chris Thompson. The problem is, you can’t run through a hole that isn’t there, and the FSU offensive line was so bad last season that line coach Rick Trickett went with four true freshmen versus Notre Dame in the Champs Sports Bowl.

Senior Brandon Jenkins (6-3, 260) and junior Bjoern Werner (6-4, 265) book-end one of the nation’s best defensive lines. Sophomore Tim Jernigan (6-3, 301) might be the best defensive tackle in all of college football. As a true freshman, Jernigan recorded 30 stops, 2.5 sacks and six tackles for a loss.

With the departure of Nigel Bradham, defensive coordinator Mark Stoops will rely on junior Christian Jones (6-4, 240) to anchor the FSU linebacking corps. Jones appears primed to do so after racking up 56 tackles, three sacks, and two forced fumbles a season ago.

Senior cornerback Greg Reid was dismissed following a misdemeanor arrest for possession of marijuana. Whether or not he deserved to be removed from the roster is debatable, but the skill-level of the Florida State secondary is not. Even without Reid, it is one of the best. Xavier Rhodes is a lock down corner and a first round NFL talent. He headlines a unit that also includes standout safety Lamarcus Joyner, who earned second team All-ACC honors last season after moving from cornerback.

Prediction: 10-2 (6-2)

There’s a lot to like about the Seminoles. Peter Warrick isn’t walking through that door, but Manuel will still be surrounded by more offensive talent than at any other point in his career. The defense is sound and the schedule sets up favorably until a Nov. 8 visit to Blacksburg, Va. A national title seems a tad far-fetched for such an inconsistent group, but not impossible.

Top 12 in ’12 – No. 7 Georgia Bulldogs

By Kolby Paxton

You might say that it’s been a bit of a roller coaster ride around Athens, Ga., of late.

One year ago, Georgia head coach Mark Richt was positioned squarely upon the proverbial hot seat.

Eleven months, eight days, and a few hours ago, the Bulldogs emerged from the Georgia Dome tunnel dressed in an elaborate Nike creation that included a four-inch red stripe down the center of a chrome helmet. Eleven months, eight days, and a few fewer hours ago, Boise State beat the Dawgs soundly, 35-21 – in spite of the shiny hats.

Eleven months and one day ago, South Carolina dropped Georgia to 0-2 for the first time since 1996.

Eight months and 15 days ago, the Bulldogs defeated rival Georgia Tech in Atlanta; the 10th straight victory for Richt & Co., en route to a division championship and a berth in the SEC Championship game.

Eight months and eight days ago, top-ranked LSU dominated Georgia, 42-10. One month after flopping versus the Bayou Bengals, the Bulldogs lost a triple-overtime Capital One Bowl marathon to Michigan State – thus, opening and closing the season with two consecutive defeats.

Seven months and 28 days ago, junior safety Bacarri Rambo was named to the AP All-American team. Four months and 16 days later, Rambo was suspended for four games after failing a drug test.

One week before Rambo was designated as an All-American, running back Isaiah Crowell was named the Southeastern Conference Freshman Player of the Year. One month and 11 days ago, Crowell was kicked off of the team following weapons charges.

Jarvis Jones leads a potentially dominant Georgia defense into 2012.

The good news for Georgia – for now, anyway – is that, even without Crowell, the Bulldogs are as talented as they’ve been since 2007.

Quarterback Aaron Murray is good, and could be great. A season ago, Murray posted his second-straight 3,000-yard passing season, while setting the Georgia single-season record for touchdown passes (35) and touchdown responsibility (37). Murray – not Matt Stafford, Fran Tarkenton, DJ Shockley, Eric Zeier or David Greene – will, barring injury, own the bulk of the UGA passing record book by season’s end. He was second-team All-SEC in 2011, after leading the conference in touchdown tosses – by 11, no less.

Crowell is gone, along with 850 rushing yards and five touchdowns from a season ago. The defection could cripple the Dawgs running game – and it could have little to no effect. That’s because the majority of the abandoned weight falls on true freshman Keith Marshall. Marshall, like Crowell, was the nation’s No. 1 running back recruit, after racking up 4,452 yards at Millbrook High School (N.C.). In January, Marshall challenged star tw0-way player Malcolm Mitchell to a foot race – filmed by Murray – and won.

Speaking of Mitchell, the sophomore will start at cornerback for the Bulldogs, increasing the likelihood that he will only play part-time at wide receiver. Mitchell was second on the team in receptions (45) and receiving yards (665) as a freshman, and the more he plays on defense, the more Georgia will need help replacing his production. Senior Tavarres King will bear the brunt of the responsibility as the team’s leading receiver a season ago.

Defensively, Georgia will be stellar. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is a rock star in Athens, and he has plenty of tools in the shed – most notably, outside linebacker Jarvis Jones. The former USC transfer was a Butkus Award finalist in 2011, after leading the conference in sacks (13.5).

The linebacking core is led by junior Alec Ogletree. Ogletree racked up 52 tackles despite playing in just eight games a season ago. He led the Bulldogs in tackles in each of their final five contests, including a 13-tackle effort in the Outback Bowl. Unfortunately, he is also an extension of the theme that currently plagues UGA. Ogletree will miss the first 2-4 games of 2012 for a violation of team rules.

Joining Ogletree, eventually, is fellow rule violator Bacarri Rambo. Rambo is an elite safety who picked off eight passes in 2011 – tops in the SEC, second-best in college football. He did that in 13 games after being suspended for the season-opener versus Boise State. Rambo headlines a loaded secondary that features Mitchell and safety Shawn Williams.

Prediction: 10-2 (6-2)

The schedule is a relative cakewalk by SEC standards, void of the western division three-headed monster. The Bulldogs must travel to both Columbias, to visit Missouri and South Carolina. The World’s Largest Cocktail Party looms in late October. But, if the offense can keep up with the defense, Georgia is a very real contender in not only the SEC, but on the national stage, as well.