After tearing through the SEC a year ago with a 13-0 record, LSU fell short of winning a national title by losing to Alabama 21-0 in the BCS Championship Game. Armed with a seasoned offense, a loaded defense and a coach who oozes confidence, the Tigers will try to finish what they started last year in 2012. That is why LSU is Lindy’s top-ranked team.
Ready to stick the landing
LSU did everything except stick the landing last season. The Tigers, kings of the comebacks and lords of one of the finest college football seasons ever for 13 games, had to swallow a goose-egg omelet, eagerly fed by league rival Alabama. Too bad it was in the BCS Championship Game. Talk about all the motivation they need for this season. “Fire back” mode describes LSU perfectly after the sting of the title game. No one doubts the Tigers’ ammunition. The big boys on both sides of the line are nasty and among the nation’s finest — the best way to be when setting out to hunt down the national championship. Size, speed and athleticism fill the roster — just your typical SEC championship team — plus these Tigers are led by a Honey Badger loaded for bear.
OUR CALL: It’s insanity to bet against the SEC winning its seventh consecutive national title. LSU gets Alabama in Baton Rouge for what should be the defining game of the college season. No team in the country looks better in its uniforms than LSU, and this time when the Tigers run out the clock at the end of the season, it will be to celebrate their third national championship in 10 years.
Talented roster returns to glory
Matt Barkley confounded the draftniks and disappointed the rest of the Pac-12 by staying for his senior season, just like Matt Leinart did for the Trojans in 2005. Coach Lane Kiffin will forever be in Barkley’s debt as the 37-year-old coach now sees his career really taking off after whatever that was with the Oakland Raiders, a false start at Tennessee, and two years of a postseason ban at USC.
OUR CALL: The Trojans re-turned a corner last season by winning at Oregon in mid-November and are hitting the accelerator back to the glory days. The offense will be flat-out unstoppable … a nice contrast, wouldn’t you say, to LSU’s defense in January?
Restocking … repeating not out of the question
The easy way to get another national championship trophy is to spend $30,000 on a new Waterford crystal football to replace the one that was shattered when a player’s parent accidentally knocked it off its perch in the spring. The hard way is to earn it on the field after losing half of your starters on offense and defense, including Heisman finalist running back Trent Richardson, while trying to steer through the swamps of the SEC West — and win in Baton Rouge.
OUR CALL: The Tide will play hearty defense, run the ball, gain field position through special teams, and not turn it over. It will work. Again. We have them No. 3 … so we’re seeing only one L — at LSU.
Bouncing back is Sooners’ strong suit
It wasn’t just the injuries. It wasn’t just the late-season flameout. It wasn’t just booting a chance at an eighth conference title in 13 seasons under Bob Stoops. It was that Oklahoma State capitalized on it all to win its first Big 12 championship. You can bet 2011 isn’t sitting lightly in the OU craw. How do we know? Following seasons in which the Sooners haven’t won a conference title under Stoops, they are 50-8.
OUR CALL: The record-setting Jones will rebound in a big way. So will RB Dominique Whaley, a walk-on who was poised to lead the team in rushing before being injured. A national title might be possible if OU can win at West Virginia and TCU in the final three weeks.
Flying as high as a kite
The Ducks came out ahead in offseason transactions, with quarterback Darron Thomas making the dubious decision to leave early for the NFL, while coach Chip Kelly kept his feet on the ground in Eugene after flirting with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Replacing Thomas, while unexpected, is relatively easy — plug in Bryan Bennett or Marcus Mariota. Kelly is proving to be one of a kind, going 36-6 in three seasons with three conference titles and one national title game appearance.
OUR CALL: Who’s going to beat these guys except for USC? Yeah, nobody. The Ducks have averaged 43 points per game under Kelly and continue to live in the fast lane.
Big-time defense and big-time schedule
Coach Mark Richt distanced himself from the hot seat with a 10-game winning streak and an SEC East title last season. He’s averaged 9.6 victories across 11 seasons in Athens, so any knocks on him mostly have to be chalked up to the hyperventilation of SEC fans. Richt will keep on keeping on (and, perhaps, then some) with QB Aaron Murray, plenty of playmakers, and a hulking, talented and veteran defense.
OUR CALL: One SEC assistant coach told Lindy’s that, “Georgia,
to me, is the most talented defense in the league, no question.” That’s good enough for us to predict an East title and a close SEC championship game this time around.
Sudden rise has Big Blue thinking bigger
Going 11-2 and winning the Sugar Bowl in his first season wiped away much of the frustration from the three-year Rich Rodriguez era, but it sure didn’t do Brady Hoke any favors going forward. Any patience the Wolverines’ faithful would have extended is gone now, given that smashing debut. Despite the record, he’s still scrambling to cover some deficiencies in depth and talent. But if teams are going to make Michigan pay, they better hurry before Hoke’s recruiting success takes hold.
OUR CALL: Michigan opens against Alabama in Dallas and plays three of its first five away from Ann Arbor. The season-finale at Ohio State is no picnic, either, but the Wolverines should be able to outscore a lot of their problems.
8. FLORIDA STATE
‘Noles entering now-or-never territory
Waiting for the tide to rise again after repeated epic recruiting hauls, Florida State has needed only ankle waders under Jimbo Fisher. The promise of a return to prominence has seemed realistic; there are enough blue-chip recruits on the roster that last season’s 9-4 record can be classified as an unmitigated disappointment. The potential of Signing Day can only carry a coach so far; it’s time for Fisher to change the discussion back to championships. We’re thinking 11 wins should do it.
OUR CALL: Manuel need not be a Heisman Trophy candidate. He just needs to let the weapons around him work for him and count on a cutthroat defense to be the team’s meal ticket to the BCS.
Which way, Hogs? Tough to say
Arkansas built a bridge to 2013 by bringing back popular assistant coach John L. Smith on a 10-month contract, but there still could be troubled water below the wake of Bobby Petrino’s career face-plant. This looked to be the year for the Hogs, but how should we recalibrate expectations with an interim head coach? Will this be a more fragile team? Or could this be a rally-around-the-campfire moment? Hard to say.
OUR CALL: We like the hiring of Smith, who will retain the meeting of the minds between the players and coaches. But the Hogs have hit the SEC West glass ceiling, not breaking through, even with home games vs. LSU and ‘Bama.
10. WEST VIRGINIA
Mountaineers Have Muscle to Take Big 12
Leaving the Big East for the Big 12 is not a lateral move, rather a major jump in class based on the offense and NFL-caliber talent on the other sideline every week. Second-year head coach Dana Holgorsen, formerly the coordinator at Oklahoma State, knows his offense works here. Whether the defense gets enough traction with its new-look 3-4 against the likes of Oklahoma and TCU is the great unknown entering 2012.
OUR CALL: Unlike the Big East, October and November in the Big 12 bring few breathers, but it looks as if the Mountaineers are conditioned to be marathon runners, as well as sprinters.
11. SOUTH CAROLINA
Poised for a run at East title
It only took 20 years, but South Carolina looks like an honest-to-goodness SEC program, built on first-round defensive talent, a punishing ground game, and one of the best coaches money can buy. You can make the case that no coach in the SEC has squeezed more out of his talent the past few years than Steve Spurrier, especially last season when he reversed course at quarterback and lost his star running back at midseason … and still won a school-record 11 games.
OUR CALL: The Gamecocks haven’t lost in the past two years to annual rivals Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, and Clemson. Maybe only the Dawgs get them this season.
12. MICHIGAN STATE
Young, talented, and making titles a habit
The return of 17 starters, only five of whom are seniors, suggests more success is on the way after coach Mark Dantonio guided MSU to consecutive 11-win seasons, including a share of the Big Ten title in 2010 and a Legends Division crown last year. More such good times should lie ahead, given the talent and experience Dantonio has returning. We’ll know early one way or another, as Sparty takes on Boise State, Notre Dame and Ohio State — all at home — before the end of September.
OUR CALL: The Spartans are salty on defense, led by rush end William Gholston, and have a run game built for Big Ten success. That’s got to be worth at least nine regular-season wins.
Tigers look to get tougher on D
Set aside the perspiration on coach Dabo Swinney’s brow over the prospect of replacing three starting offensive linemen and focus on what he cares about most — defense. Former Oklahoma coordinator Brent Venables was brought in to help Clemson not just repeat as conference champions, but to become a wrecking-ball group akin to the edgy Sooners’ defenses of yesteryear. That defense will be tested every day in practice by better skill players than it will see on Saturdays.
OUR CALL: Clemson’s talent level rates with the elite in the conference. That’s nothing new. But the defense has to improve for the Tigers to be more than just a fun team to watch.
14. OHIO STATE
Meyer’s arrival has Buckeyes smiling
Urban Meyer’s return to the sideline and to OSU, where he started his career as a graduate assistant coach in the 1980s, immediately erased the lingering bitterness among those too thick to understand that Jim Tressel’s lies to the NCAA and to his own school couldn’t be tolerated. Buckeye fans are all-in with Meyer, whose pursuit of a third BCS title ring must wait until the expiration of a one-year bowl ban left by Tressel.
OUR CALL: A friendly schedule and the euphoria over Meyer’s arrival should work for a nice bounce-back from OSU’s 6-7 finish. If the Buckeyes can add some element of the pass, and Miller can stay healthy, a 10-win season isn’t far-fetched.
Move up to the Big 12 offers big opportunities
A new stadium, a new conference, a new outlook. All of it can’t come fast enough after an offseason drug scandal that resulted in the arrest of four players for alleged dealing. As the most overachieving non-automatic qualifier of the BCS era, the Horned Frogs know the schedule is getting tougher in the Big 12, but they’re ready. TCU specializes in slaying bigger, badder opponents … and it gets Oklahoma at home.
OUR CALL: Patterson’s 4-2-5 stack defense gets the toughest season-long test of his TCU career. Playing at Oklahoma State and West Virginia in back-to-back games will be the difference in the season. Ten wins aren’t out of the question.
16. OKLAHOMA STATE
Gundy has Cowboys maturing into a real power
How do you follow the best season in school history? Coach ‘em up. Part of the story of Oklahoma State’s near-BCS title game season was the maturation of coach Mike Gundy. The Eddie Robinson National Coach of the Year also cashed in on a lot of T. Boone Pickens’ cash, so Oklahoma State isn’t going away as Gundy enters the prime of his career as a recruiter, play-caller, and coach. The Cowboys are no longer Texas and Oklahoma’s little brother.
OUR CALL: Gundy has proven himself. The pipeline is rolling at Stillwater, and as long as Texas is on the rebound, consider Oklahoma State the second-best program in the Big 12.
Major roster turnover doesn’t dim hopes
Consecutive trips to the Rose Bowl and a resulting pair of excruciatingly close losses have ratcheted up the hunger for a BCS bowl win. Ohio State’s one-year bowl ban will only help Bret Bielema coach his team back to the league championship game in Indianapolis and continue its recent dominance of the conference, as he sticks with what works: Running the same off-tackle play over and over.
OUR CALL: It’s impossible to overlook a team planning to play Montee Ball and James White together in the backfield, given their combined 4,700 rushing yards the past two years. Wisconsin can ground and pound its way to the Big Ten title game if O’Brien makes a relatively smooth transition.
18. VIRGINIA TECH
Supremely talented Thomas leads youthful Hokies
Junior QB Logan Thomas, as naturally gifted as they come with his defensive end body type (6-6, 262), can do a little bit of everything. He has electrifying ability and should elevate the offense in critical junctures until the supporting cast can be identified. The Hokies enter the season with a depth chart pocked with inexperience around Thomas; four offensive linemen, RB David Wilson, two wideouts and lead tight end were replaced from the 2011 group.
OUR CALL: Frank Beamer’s postseason record has fallen into a 1-for-5 slump since 2004. But Thomas and a salty Bud Foster defense will tee up another good opportunity.
From back-of-pack to return of the Mack?
Texas was 8-5 in 2011, a respectable rebound from a losing 2010 season, but the Longhorns were outclassed by Oklahoma State, Baylor and OU in a season in which coach Mack Brown never found that easy-chair level of comfort he’s been accustomed to. With a more seasoned roster and relative stability at quarterback, the Longhorns are contenders because they’ve rediscovered trademark strengths — big, powerful and deep along the offensive line and nasty on defense.
OUR CALL: UT doesn’t need the next Vince Young or Colt McCoy. But if Ash is a capable manager, the Longhorns will survive tough times — ike a three-game stretch against OSU, West Virginia and Oklahoma.
If the QB position settles down …
A 7-6 record won’t earn Will Muschamp many celebratory chomps in The Swamp. Gainesville expects championships, not fringe bowl bids. To restore Florida atop the SEC pecking order, the defense-fueled coach has to figure out the offense. Which is to say: UF can’t catch Alabama and LSU unless sophomore QBs Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel exceed expectations. “I’m not really looking for style points. I’m looking for production,” Muschamp said.
OUR CALL: Muschamp needs more fireworks to give the people what they come to see. The spring signs were mostly positive, but if one or both quarterbacks prove to be duds, Florida’s title chances go up in smoke. Florida remains a rung (rungs?) below Alabama and LSU.
Unlucky, but still dangerous
The two men most responsible for 31 victories over the past three seasons are gone — coach Jim Harbaugh left after the 2010 season, and two-time Heisman runner-up Andrew Luck became the first pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. David Shaw made a seamless transition last year to the head coach’s headsets, retaining all of Harbaugh’s brawny style on a campus known for brains. Luck has run out (OK, we can finally put those to rest), with sophomore Brett Nottingham or junior Josh Nunes poised to take over.
OUR CALL: Shaw signed the fifth-best class in the nation, according to Rivals.com, and this golden age of Stanford football isn’t over. In 2012, the ground game and ferocious front seven keep Stanford relevant and dangerous.
22. KANSAS STATE
Finding a way despite tiny margin for error
Doubt Bill Snyder at your own risk. At age 71, he’s as savvy as ever. With a roster picked near the bottom of the Big 12 in 2011, he won 10 games. The Wildcats should have played in the Sugar Bowl. K-State is the anti-Big 12 in a league that is famous for its quarterbacks and offense. The Cats squeeze out enough offense (only 337 yards per game last year) and make enough big defensive plays to be pesky.
OUR CALL: Another 10-win season? Not quite. The secret to their success just might be pulling a repeat of 2011, when they were ninth in turnover margin.
Best of a weak Big East good enough
Coach Charlie Strong knows respect is a reach given the recent collective product the Big East placed in the BCS, and he spent the offseason doing a Dangerfield act to Kentucky media, which he felt paid too much attention to the Final Four basketball team. Now that West Virginia calls the Big 12 home, Louisville has the muscle to win a conference title in Strong’s third season with the core of the 2011 team back and QB Teddy Bridgewater leading a balanced offense.
OUR CALL: The schedule reads like a queue of weak sisters. Don’t expect the Cardinals to be relevant nationally — this is the Big East — but look for this to be a title season that trampolines Louisville into top 15 consideration in 2013.
24. BOISE STATE
Adding a MWC trophy on their way out?
You gotta go with the odds — the Broncos have finished in the Associated Press Top 25 in eight of the past 10 years, and they would have been ranked in those other two seasons if they had made one more play in the final minute of bowl losses. This is, no doubt, a reloading year for the Program That Chris Petersen Will Never Leave, but it’s a good time for a transition, with thorn-in-the-side TCU off to the Big 12 and Boise State revving the engines for the Big East in 2013.
OUR CALL: We’d expect one stumble somewhere after losing an opener at Michigan State, but that’s it. Clear room in the trophy case for
a MWC crown.
Tough schedule makes more wins unlikely
The Cornhuskers rooted around in their new conference last season, digging up a couple of highlights to go with three Big Ten losses. Anybody will take a win over Ohio State whenever they can get it, and knocking off Michigan State was a nice feather. The lopsided road losses to Wisconsin and Michigan were another matter. Nebraska knows what it has to do, but upward mobility depends on QB Taylor Martinez, whose spring footwork in the passing game was said to be much improved.
OUR CALL: Nebraska went 9-4 last season and finished No. 24 in the AP poll after a Capital One Bowl loss to South Carolina. Sounds about right again this season.