Thursday, May 24, 2012

2012 NCAA Football – Preview Tour

Ah yes folks, my favorite sport is approaching quickly – actually exactly 99 days before the season kicks off – and I absolutely love doing my prep work for college football.  I typically start this process in early May, and it lasts till we kick-off in early September – it’s not all I do, I do plenty of work on the NFL, as well as continuing to work hard on the active sports like NBA and NHL – but I spend a ton of time reading team previews from multiple sites, taking notes, visiting team message boards, etc…really using every single avenue of information I can to feel comfortable with all 120+ teams that plays in the FBS.  There is a reason that I consistently year after year absolutely hammer college football – and it’s because I put in the time and work before the season starts to be more prepared than our friends in the desert.
This offseason I am going to do something new – I am going to post entries here to the blog summarizing teams following my initial review of their prospects for the upcoming season.  I do not know how many teams I will be posting here, or how much time I will have when we really get deeper into the summer and there is more and more work to do combined with less and less time.  But for now, since I have some time, I will post about some of the teams I have studied to date – with more to come in the following weeks and months. 
The breakdown will be as follows:
·         State of the Program (SOP)
·         Strongest unit
·         Biggest area of concern
·         Upside
·         Downside
·         Bottom Line
Michigan: in the interest of full disclosure, I am a big Michigan fan
  • SOP: I am not so sure this team last year was as good as their 11-2 record indicated.  Denard Robinson is back hoping to finally at least reach the Heisman Trophy ceremony, while the defense returns a lot of pieces especially in the back seven to make a definite push towards a Big Ten title in a down year across the conference.
  • Strongest unit: backfield, including the aforementioned QB Robinson, starting RB Touissant, and the depth behind both players including QBs Gardner & Bellomy, and RBs Smith, Rawls & Hayes.  This group should be near the top of America in rushing, and DR has a chance at winning the Heisman – especially if he can pull off a win over Alabama in the opener.
  • Biggest area of concern: both lines have holes to plug, but its Michigan and they have the talent and size to fill those needs in short time.  I see the WR position, which was a strength last season, as the big question mark this year.
  • Upside: a Big Ten Title.  I think it’s just too much to ask to win the National Title just yet as the schedule features a neutral field game vs. Alabama, and roadies at ND, Nebraska and Ohio State is just a lot to overcome for a team that will not be as balanced offensively as they hope to be one day in the very near future.
  • Downside: 8-4, missing the Big Ten title game for the second straight year, and losing to Notre Dame, Michigan State & Ohio State – their three chief rivals.
  • Bottom Line: it’s all there for the taking in 2012 – the Big Ten title that is.  Wisconsin isn’t on the schedule, Michigan State is rebuilding after the loss of Cousins, Ohio State will not be eligible for a Big Ten title this season due to NCAA sanctions – so its title or bust for the boys in Ann Arbor.  Their opener with Alabama comes at a decent time – if there ever is a decent time to play Alabama – as the Tide will be working a lot of new pieces into their defense, and they will be raw and untested obviously in the opener.  If they somehow won that game, a national title special season could be in the cards as they would certainly have more wiggle room – even possibly being able to absorb a loss somewhere along the way and still get into the mix purely based off that big opening win.
  • SOP: 2011 was a good year, which had the potential to be one of the best of all time had the Tigers found a way to win the National Title game over Alabama.  But alas, that did not happen after a brutal offensive performance, but do not fret too much for LSU – they will be in the mix once again in 2012.
  • Strongest unit: in the trenches on both sides of the ball.  There isn’t a better position on the field to have your strongest area than the offensive and defensive lines, and that is just what LSU has.  Their offensive line will probably be the best in the country, while their defensive line will be in the mix as best in the country.
  • Biggest area of concern: QB.  Once again, seemingly the only area holding LSU back from potentially being a dynasty in college football in that position.  The OL and RBs are in place to crank out 2k+ yards rushing, but balance will be needed to achieve their lofty goals – as they learned the hard way in the BCS Championship Game last season.  This year former Georgia Bulldog and blue chip recruit Zach Mettenberger will be taking over the position – he has much more passing skills than Jordan Jefferson, but he also didn’t exactly light it up earlier in his career at UGA.
  • Upside: Undefeated season & National Title.  With all the talent at LSU, literally having amongst the best units in the country at OL, RB, DL, DB, ST – the only goal is winning it all, and that could be a real possibility with only four road games, of which they likely will be favored in.
  • Downside: the new QB doesn’t blossom into the passer the Tigers hope, and the overall grind of an SEC schedule wears them down to the neighborhood of 9-3 without an SEC West title.  Could happen, after all this is the best division in the best conference in college football – but I wouldn’t bet on it.
  • Bottom Line: once again LSU enters a season as a national title contender.  After falling just short last year, and with little turnover besides the big one at QB, I certainly feel LSU will at worst still be alive for the whole ball of wax come their November 3rd meeting in Death Valley vs. Alabama.
  • SOP: Mike London has certainly done a good job, not great however, at putting Virginia back on the map as far as college football goes.  That isn’t an easy accomplishment by itself, clearly playing second fiddle in their own state to big brother Virginia Tech, whom they have lost 8 straight to.  However, coming off an 8-5 campaign and with a team facing a lot of turnover in the trenches and the secondary, can he keep the boat afloat this season before possibly challenging for an ACC title in 2013?
  • Strongest unit: running game.  Led by RB Perry Jones and bookend tackles Aboushi & Moses, the rushing attack should be in fine hands.  There is also a lot of depth at RB led by Parks, Richardson and Shepherd, and overall the OL should be one of the stronger units in the ACC so long as the two new pieces in the interior do a decent job at replacing the two all-stars that graduated – they certainly have the size across the board.
  • Biggest area of concern: defense sans the LB position.  UVA has to replace 3 DL and 3 DBs this coming season, which clearly will not be an easy task.  There are at least some upper classmen that will be in the rotation up front, but the defensive backs are very green with not one Sr. likely to garner playing time.  Matter of fact, of the 12 defensive backs on the depth chart, 10 are either freshmen or sophomores.
  • Upside: bowl game.  There is just too much turnover on defense to expect a challenge by UVA for even the Coastal division of the ACC.  And with FBS OOC games hosting Penn State, @ TCU, and hosting LA Tech, along with road conference games at Georgia Tech, NC State and Virginia Tech, reaching 6 wins would be a good season for the Hoos.
  • Downside: 3-9.  It’s a tough slate in 2012, with really no sure fire wins – even Richmond is a strong FCS club that will be an in-state battle.  The ACC overall should be up some this year, and UVA could potentially struggle early and often this coming season.
  • Bottom Line: London is doing a good job down in Charlottesville, but this year may be that old saying of taking a step back for possibly two steps forward in the future.  A lot of young guys will get broken in, and Jr. QB Rocco can get even more familiar with the offense during his second season in charge for hopes of potentially making a Coastal or even ACC Title run in 2013 if all goes according to plan.  This season is just about keeping the momentum going and not falling completely off the map.
  • SOP: LWORG3.  Or, “Life Without Robert Griffin III” begins in 2012 – and how will that life be for a Baylor program that has grown leaps and bounds over the last few season under reigning Heisman Trophy winning QB RG3?  There are still a ton of weapons offensively that will put up big numbers and be successful in Art Briles system – as long as the new QB, Nick Florence, can perform and not make too many mistakes.  But there are massive question marks on defense – a unit that was not very good last year and will struggle to even be that strong in 2012.
  • Strongest unit: offensive weapons.  To help breaking in the new QB, Briles has a stable of weapons chomping at the bit to get their shot led by WRs Terrence Williams & Tevin Reese, along with RBs Lache Seastrunk & Jarred Salubi.  Williams is a first round talent, Reese is a big play waiting to happen, Seastrunk is an Oregon transfer who could turn into the most exciting player in the Big 12, while Salubi is the workhorse back.  If Florence can play well, the offense will remain near the top of the conference.
  • Biggest area of concern: defense.  On the flip side of the great offense is a poor defense.  There really is no other way to put it – they do not have an anchor at any level, and the front 7 is of particular concern.  Good thing for them is they reside in the Big 12 where there are more passing offenses than rushing ones, but expect similar results from last year when the Bears allowed 37+ ppg.
  • Upside: 8-4.  The OOC portion of the schedule is manageable and in most cases they will go 3-1 there.  Since this is the “upside” projection there is no reason they couldn’t go 4-0 at home in Big 12 play, and win @ Iowa State for their 8th overall win.
  • Downside: missing a bowl game invite.  Three of their four road games in Big 12 play are tough, while home dates with Kansas State and Oklahoma State will not be easy.  If they do not get any breaks a 2-6 Big 12 season could be in the cards with wins over Kansas and Texas Tech at home.
  • Bottom Line: this is a year of transition for Baylor in some ways, but to be honest I am not sure 2013 looks any better than 2012.  Florence is a Sr. and this is his moment to shine, while the offense could certainly lose a few skill position pieces after the ’12 campaign.  I feel strongly this is a critical year for Baylor to build off the success of the past few years because if they do not, things could start trending downhill very fast.
  • SOP: the seat is officially hot for Jeff Tedford as a 36-28 record since 2007 in Berkeley including six straight years of a fourth place or worse finish in the Pac 12 is just not gonna cut it anymore – especially with the way rival Stanford has taken off recently.  Quite frankly, this may be his last season as the head man in Berkeley as I just do not see many things going well enough for them to challenge in the Pac 12 North – and in reality they probably need to win that this year for him to keep his job, unless rookie QB Zach Kline plays and looks like a franchise QB.
  • Strongest unit: secondary.  All 4 starters are back from a unit that was slightly erratic in 2011, but overall solid ranking 2nd in the Pac 12 in opponents completion %, and third in yards per pass attempt.  The Bears play a lot of press man to man coverage, and with the team losing its two best pass rushers, the last line of defense will need to be stout – and should be just that.
  • Biggest area of concern: QB.  Zach Maynard failed to reach the expectations of Jeff Tedford and Company in his first year on the left coast, and will need to significantly improve in 2012 for Cal to accomplish even just receiving a bowl invite.  I am not bullish on him succeeding one bit, and would not be surprised if Tedford went to rookie Zach Kline by early in the Pac 12 slate.  Kline has a world of potential and was one of the top QB recruits last year.
  • Upside: bowl game invite.  Yeah, that’s it for upside in my opinion.  I just do not like Maynard, and even if Cal went to Kline, he is a wet behind the ears rookie who will no question struggle in his first go around.  With brutal road trips to Ohio State and USC before September even expires, I see Kline seeing action by early October when the schedule does ease up some.
  • Downside: 2-10.  If this did happen Tedford may not even make it through the season.  In a worst case scenario, which this is, I could see Cal only beating Southern Utah and Arizona State.
  • Bottom Line: Maynard better play well from the get go, even with those road trips vs. top ten type team in September or Kline will get the call.  That may not be a bad thing because the Golden Bears aren’t going to accomplish anything of note with ZM under center.  Let the kid play early, and reap the benefits later.
  • SOP: year one didn’t go so well for new HC Kevin Wilson – frankly, that didn’t surprise me one bit as I did not understand basically everyone who writes about college football saying how great a hire it was.  Then again, when is the last time you read anywhere about a hire being a bad move – not often.  But reality hit Mr. Wilson like a ton of bricks to the grill as the Hoosiers weren’t able to muster one win vs. FBS competition – and quite frankly this year doesn’t seem to be a whole lot better, although I do expect at least a couple wins, and think they could be moderately profitable ATS wise.
  • Strongest unit: PK Mitch Ewald.  Sadly, that is true.  Ewald is a diamond in the rough at Indiana, connecting on 29 of 35 FG attempts over the last two years.  Setting aside special teams, RB has the potential to be a strong suit as the best offensive player on the team is Stephen Houston who managed to rush for over 800 yards on a team that couldn’t block or do much else right on offense.  Wasn’t Kevin Wilson suppose to be an offensive guru?
  • Biggest area of concern: quite frankly there are quite a few options that you could put here and not get an argument, but I will single out both lines – this team year after year is not tough enough up front, especially in the rugged Big Ten to truly put together any sort of challenge.  There is plenty of experience returning to both lines, and actually some decent size, but talent continues to be a question mark – and pass blocking and pass rushing remain huge issues that are unlikely to be solved in 2012.
  • Upside: 4-8.  Yeah, that is about the best possible scenario for the Hoosiers this coming season, winning their first three games of the year and pulling off an upset in Big Ten play, or at Navy.
  • Downside: another 0-fer the FBS.  With the easiest games appearing to be home vs. Ball State (whom they lost to last year), and @ Navy – there could seriously be the chance Indiana goes back to back seasons without one win over an FBS opponent – forget about winning a Big Ten game.  From a pure odds perspective I doubt that happens again.
  • Bottom Line: this still has all the look of the worst team in the Big Ten, and possibly by a decent margin – even in a rebuilding Big Ten.
Texas A&M
  • SOP: Mike Sherman is out, Kevin Sumlin – the offensive guru from Houston – is in; the Big 12 is out, and the SEC is in.  Not exactly an offseason of no news for the Aggies who are in major transition mode in basically all facets of the program as we head into the 2012 season.  But even with all that, make no mistake about it – this year’s Aggies are legit, if they can find some QB play from one of their talented, but green youngsters.
  • Strongest unit: offensive line.  A&M returns all 5 starters to a line that was great last year finishing 4th in nation in sacks allowed and blocking the Aggie rushing attack to 200+ yards per game, and will without question be one of the best in the country this season.  There is a distinct possibility the three best OLs in college football will not only reside in the same conference, but the same division within that conference in A&M, LSU, and Alabama.  There are multiple NFL prospects on the line, and even with the adjustment in scheme from a pro-style offense to more of a spread attack, the line should be able to quickly adjust and be just as productive as 2011.
  • Biggest area of concern: secondary.  There are clear questions as far as who will take over at QB, but there is also clear talent and whoever it is, most likely Jameill Showers, will take some lumps especially vs. SEC defenses – but will also make their fair share of plays.  The secondary however is a huge issue, but at least this unit will no longer be facing the robust passing offenses of the Big 12.  Right now the starting CBs are both sophomores, while the safeties do not have a senior in the mix.  I would expect an offset of sorts – last year Texas A&M led the country in sacks, yet the back four still struggled – this year they will not put as much pressure on up front, but also the opposing QB play will not remain at the high level they often faced in the Big 12.
  • Upside: 9-3.  Yeah, that may look like a great record for Texas A&M joining the SEC – and with a pair of road OOC games, unlikely for BCS conference teams – that may be dreaming some.  But this roster is loaded with talent, especially in the trenches where it is most valued – so there is no reason they couldn’t win all 4 OOC games, and finish 5-3 in the SEC with losses vs. LSU, @ Auburn and @ Alabama.
  • Downside: missing a bowl invite.  While there is talent, there will no question be a big adjustment to the more physical, defense oriented football that is played in the SEC.  They could certainly struggle and lose 3 of 4 road conference games, while being tested by Florida, Arkansas, LSU and Missouri at home.
  • Bottom Line: this could be a sleeper team of sorts, especially ATS wise.  I feel they will match up very well with their new competition – even better than their Big 12 days.  Their real weakness last season, when they went 7-6 but 5 of the 6 losses were by a TD or less, was pass defense, most notably weak secondary play.  This season that will not be as much of a concern – and their front 7 will be among the best in the SEC, including perhaps the best LBs in the league.  How will their offense perform, especially breaking in a new QB, and the unknown status of RBs Michael and Williams will be the key to their season.
Ole Miss
  • SOP: Houston Nutt is out, and Hugh Freeze, whom was the head man at Arkansas State last year, takes over a program that is really a flat out disaster currently.  Nutt was never able to maximize the talent he brought in, and there were even effort questions towards the end of last season.  Freeze has an enormous rebuilding task in front of him, not made any easier with the Rebels residing in the SEC West.
  • Strongest unit: special teams.  Ole Miss boasts a P and return man whom will be in the mix for All America status, while their PK is also solid.  Outside that unit, the LBs in the 4-2-5 alignment they will run most of the time have the potential to be very solid if DT Shackelford can return from his knee injury to join Jr. Mike Marry.
  • Biggest area of concern: offensive line.  The entire offense for the most part is a big question mark, but their OL is perhaps the biggest issue especially considering it wasn’t very good last year, and it has lost its two best prospects for 2012.  There is size with most of the potential starters checking in above 300, but there isn’t a lot of athleticism or experience to rely upon.
  • Upside: 4-8.  With a relatively light OOC schedule featuring Central Arkansas, UTEP, and Tulane they could possibly get off to a 3-1 start – on the upside remember.  I wouldn’t say that’s likely however.  In conference play they could potentially steal a win at home vs. Vanderbilt or Mississippi State – a win over the Bulldogs in the Egg Bowl would make this year a success in my opinion by itself.
  • Downside: 0-fer the FBS.  It could happen, could being the key word.  Their best chances for wins are over UTEP at home in Wk2, and @ Tulane in Wk4 – but I certainly would not say the Rebels are locks to win either.
  • Bottom Line: there is just too much cleaning up to do by the new coaching staff from the mess inherited to expect any favorable results in 2012.  The key is to start getting some of the right players in the right spots, and perhaps pick up some recruiting momentum by beating rival Mississippi State in their last game of the season.
  • SOP: Charlie Weis is back on the scene, this time in Lawrence, Kansas to try and revive a program that hasn’t had any success since firing Mangino a few years ago.  At this point, to be fair, one really has to question the coaching acumen of Weis – he failed to turn ND into anything whatsoever after having one strong season with the prior coach’s players; he then went to Florida with a ton of talent on the offensive side of the ball, and the Gators promptly turned in their worst offensive production in quite some time.  Now he shows up in Kansas where it isn’t easy to win – and considering Bill Snyder is back at Kansas State and that program is on the rise for now, where will Kansas wind up in 2-3 seasons?  I frankly am not sure it will be any better than where it stands today.
  • Strongest unit: QB.  Dayne Crist comes over from ND to team up with Weis for one more season, but how healthy will he be and remain during the season – especially considering Kansas has one of the worst offensive lines in the conference?  Jake Heaps, the stud recruit who was a complete flop at BYU also joined the Jayhawks, but he will not be eligible to play until 2013.    Then there is Turner Baty, a JUCO transfer who led his team to an undefeated season last year and has both the arm, and the legs to make plays.  Crist clearly has the inside step on the starting gig, for now…but I highly doubt he holds up for an entire season.
  • Biggest area of concern: defense overall, but in particular the secondary.  Outside FS Bradley McDougal, there aren’t any solid players in the entire secondary for first year DC Dave Campo to rely on.  And that is a big issue in the pass happy Big 12, and a big reason Kansas has struggled mightily over the last few seasons.  There isn’t much size, as no player that figures to get time outside JUCO transfer CB Nasir Moore is taller than 5’10.  There isn’t any speed whatsoever.  And although there is some experience, this same group allowed nearly 70% completion rate last year, with 28 TD passes.
  • Upside: 5-7.  I just cannot see Kansas reaching bowl invite status even on an upside evaluation.  I could see 3-0 in OOC play, but have a hard time seeing better than 2-7 in Big 12 play with wins over Iowa State at home and possibly one of @ Baylor / @ Texas Tech.
  • Downside: let’s be honest here, even with Crist and some of the other talent that has transferred in, this will be a tough season.  And on their worst day they could go 1-11 because even games hosting South Dakota State who is the defending FCS champs won’t be a cake walk, Rice at home will not be a snoozer as the Owls have some talent on offense, and @ Northern Illinois will not be easy as they lost to them last year!  In a worst case scenario they win one of those games and go 0-9 in Big 12 play.
  • Bottom Line: although Weis is now in charge, and a lot of “big name talent” has transferred into Lawrence, there is a reason all those options were available this past offseason.  Weis hasn’t got the job done at any of his stops in college football, and the same can be said for every guy that transferred into this program.  They are all likely to be upgrades over what was there prior, but how much remains to be seen.  Even if Weis does a fine job I do not see him doing a good enough job in his tenure to overtake Bill Snyder and make the Jayhawks the best program in Kansas once again.
  • SOP: another coaching change for the Panthers, this time the short lived tenure of Todd Graham ends – thankfully to most Panther fans – and in steps Paul Chryst, former OC for the Wisconsin Badgers.  This move seems like a much better fit, especially football style wise, as Chryst will bring in more of a blue collar, rushing oriented pro style offense back to the Steel City.  There is a decent amount of returning talent to work around, especially on offense as the skill positions, but how long will the transition take? 
  • Strongest unit: RBs – if all everything RB Ray Graham can return 100% in time for the opener, this unit will be all set to shine – and it’s a key unit for the ’12 Panthers.  Backup Isaac Bennett impressed this spring in place of Graham, and 5 star rookie Rushel Shell is also pressing for playing time.  If Graham doesn’t come back fully healthy it will still be a talented group, albeit greener & less experienced.  The secondary is also extremely solid returning 3 starters and welcoming a pair of former Michigan Wolverines in S Ray Vinopal and CB Cullen Christian.
  • Biggest area of concern: LBs.  On a positive note, with the defense shifting back to a 4-3, only 3 LBs will be needed – however, they head into this season losing 4 seniors from last year including all-star and leading tackler Max Gruder.  There is also a serious lack of size in the unit, with nobody in the rotation checking in north of 220lbs.  That could be a huge issue, especially with a DL that isn’t known for being stout vs. the rush, and in a conference like the Big East.
  • Upside: I do feel there is serious upside for this year’s Panthers, as the new coaching staff by itself will add value and strengthen some of the team’s weaker areas, such as the OL.  In a season where this team got the breaks and played consistent, I could see them winning the Big East.  But keep in mind during OOC play they face Virginia Tech at home, and travel to Notre Dame so a dream season where they win double digit games is not going to happen – not yet.
  • Downside: the team takes a little longer than hoped adjusting to the massive scheme changes and they miss out on a bowl invite.  There is too much experience, especially at key positions such as QB, to have this occur in a likely scenario, but this is the “downside” projection so it is possible, but I wouldn’t say probable.
  • Bottom Line: Pitt is finally on the right track after a series of errors hiring head coaches.  Chryst will bring the team back to the city, and the city will resume backing them.  This year we should see a competitive Panther team that will be in the mix for a Big East title when November rolls around – so long as they can get solid production from Graham, and they buy into the new system.

1 comment:

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