Thursday, June 21, 2012

NCAA Preview Tour - Part II

Here is the next set of teams, a dozen, for our NCAA Football Preview Tour 2012.  As a reminder, these go in no particular order, they are the teams I have had a chance to review thoroughly and write summaries about heading into the new season.  My hope is I will be able to preview all BCS conference teams here, but again, I cannot guarantee that because of time constraints as the season draws closer, and I have to finish my review of all teams and prepare for NFL 2012.  But I will do my best to preview as many as possible.

Without further ado, as a reminder, here is the grid of what I am reviewing here:

·         State of the Program (SOP)
·         Strongest unit
·         Biggest area of concern
·         Upside
·         Downside
·         Bottom Line

  • SOP: FINALLY!  Finally, the TCU Horned Frogs get their wish, first moving to the Big East but before even playing a game joining the Big 12, which is a better fit geographically and as a conference in the long run.  Now, what will Gary Patterson be able to accomplish facing the big boys weekly?  Hey, it’s one thing to play well and rise up to a challenge a few times a year – but how will they handle the need for being “up” just about every week?  That will be the big test, especially on their depth in their first few seasons residing in a power conference.
  • Strongest unit: offensive backfield.  There aren’t many, if any, backfield units in the Big 12 that will feature a QB and the RB depth that TCU will.  Casey Pachall enters his second season as the starting QB, and he had a whale of an opening act completing 66.5% of his passes for 8.5 yards per attempt, with 25 TDs and only 7 INTs.  In a league such as the Big 12 that is absolutely stacked with fine QB play, the Frogs won’t lose a step there.  The three headed RB monster of Wesley, James and Tucker would have easily be the best trio in the Big 12, before Wesley went down for the season.  This still figures to be a solid unit with a pair returning who rushed for 700+ yards last season.
  • Biggest area of concern: size, especially on defense.  While the offensive line surely is not a strength, TCU has plenty of weapons on the offensive side of the ball to try and help a group that will be growing into their roles.  On the other side of the ball, I see a lot of issues, especially with the size of much of the roster that will be key pieces of the rotation.  While players of that size worked well in the MWC, it will not be as easy in the Big 12.  The pair of starting LBs check in at 210 & 235, while 3 of the 5 starters in the secondary are 180 or less.  That could turn into a big problem many ways; testing depth, injuries, and just being overmatched physically against some of the better Big 12 opponents, especially the explosive passing games.
  • Upside: 8-4 including 3-0 in OOC play.  TCU does get the short end of the stick this year having to play 5 road conference games in the new 9 game Big 12 slate, but that will even out over time.  The last five games of the season will be pivotal to their chances at winning the conference, featuring 3 road games and hosting Oklahoma & Kansas State.
  • Downside: .500.  Any way you slice and dice it the Frogs should be 5-0 heading into the October 13th matchup @ Baylor.  But then it gets tough, with the only win that appears to be fairly certain is the following week at home vs. Texas Tech – but even that isn’t a lock considering the high powered TT offense facing a smallish secondary that could start wearing down by that point.
  • Bottom Line: TCU will most likely have their moments in their inaugural season in the Big 12, but they will also struggle some matching the emotions and physicality of their opponents on a week to week basis.  The defense is small, and overall the team is not very deep – the roster depth will come in time, but for this year and the near future that will be an issue.  TCU will likely wind up being involved in a ton of shoot-outs, and a middle of the pack Big 12 team.
  • SOP: the Gators enter 2012 behind second year HC Will Muschamp, and look to bounce back from their worst season since 1987 going just 7-6.  Let’s be honest here – there was and currently is way too much talent in the Florida program for them to be around .500 – and make no mistake, another poor season this year and the natives will certainly get restless about Muschamp, who at times looked in over his head last year.  If it’s possible there seems to be even more questions on offense this year as they have yet to settle on a QB, they lost their two most explosive players in the backfield (Rainey and Demps), and although there is talent on the outside nobody has turned it into consistent production.  The defense should be solid again.
  • Strongest unit: defense, especially the secondary.  There is talent on the DL, which will be boosted a ton if DE Ronald Powell returns from a torn ACL suffered last year, and at LB led by Bostic and Jenkins – a pair of first round talents; but the real jewel of the defense will be the defensive backs, with all 4 starters returning to a group that played well last year.
  • Biggest area of concern: QB.  There is talent as Brissett & Driskel were highly regarded out of HS, and there is experience as both players handled many snaps in 2011 – but will either guy separate enough from the other and take over the starting gig and hang on to it throughout the season?  That is the biggest concern – the Gators simply cannot have their starting QB looking over their shoulder wondering when they will be pulled – pick one guy and run with him, through thick and think has to be the thought process in Gainesville for 2012, even at the risk of a transfer.
  • Upside: 8-4.  The Gators do miss Alabama & Arkansas from the West, get LSU at home, and play Georgia as always on a neutral field – but will the offense be consistent enough especially versus the rugged SEC defenses to compete for an SEC East title.  That has to be the goal for this team, but in a year where Georgia and South Carolina appear more talented than the Gators, it will be an uphill battle they are unlikely to come out on top of.
  • Downside: around .500.  If Florida misses a bowl game invite this year I truly feel Muschamp’s job would be in serious danger – and with a few bad breaks, and inconsistent play at QB – that outcome is “possible.”  3-1 OOC record appears likely in most scenarios with 3 home cupcakes and the finale at Florida State – if that occurred can these Gators go 3-5 in the SEC to reach bowl eligibility is the question.
  • Bottom Line: unless the Gators get significantly better play under center this year it could be another year of struggles for a program that isn’t used to one poor season – let alone back to back seasons of around .500.  Muschamp isn’t a Gator, which will only make the leash shorter on potentially making a coaching change.  I do not see much hope for greatness out of this team, and feel they are unlikely to challenge for an SEC East division crown, let along SEC Championship or National Championship – which is what they are used to and expect in Gainesville.
  • SOP: the Tigers have certainly found their long lost groove once again as they are coming off their first ACC crown since 1991, and they have won the Atlantic division of the ACC in 2 of the last 3 years.  2011 was also their first double digit win season since 1990, and in 2012 they hope to build off that platform and achieve 11+ wins for the first time since they went 12-0 in 1981 and won the National Title.  Yes, there is a lot of talk of Clemson being in the title chase this year, and it is not misguided for once down in Death Valley.
  • Strongest unit: offensive skill positions.  Everyone of note returns to the skill positions led by QB Tajh Boyd, who set multiple passing records for Clemson in his first season as the starter.  It only appears it will get better for Boyd and the offense that averaged 33 ppg and some 450 yards per game.  Not only will Boyd be in the mix for Heisman consideration, but so to will So. WR Sammy Watkins who took the nation by storm last season, turning into one of the best WRs in the country in just his rookie season.  Not to be outdone on the outside is WR DeAndre Hopkins, who is also a first round NFL talent, along with possession guy Jaron Brown.  Joining Boyd in the backfield is big play RB Andre Ellington, who could have been a first round draft pick this past year but opted to return to Clemson for one more run at a title, along with key backups DJ Howard & Mike Bellamy.
  • Biggest area of concern: both lines.  That is a big concern which cannot be understated as above average play in the trenches is absolutely critical to win a national title – and flat out Clemson isn’t sure they will reach that level of play in 2012.  Both lines lost 3 starters, and there will not be an abundance of upper classmen featured in either rotation come Fall.
  • Upside: another double digit win season and Atlantic division title.  After last year, and with all the talent that is returning, anything less than what was accomplished last season will be a disappointment.  Clemson will have to deal with being the hunted more than the hunter this year for once, and that will be key in following how well they play this year.  Bookend OOC games vs. Auburn in Atlanta (to open season) and hosting South Carolina (to close regular season) will be enormous as far as having any hopes at winning the National Championship.
  • Downside: 8-4.  There is just too much talent, and a favorable schedule for anything less than an 8 win regular season – even if they were to lose both SEC OOC games, going anything worse than 6-2 in ACC play will be tough with their only truly tough road test @ Florida State, as Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and NC State all travel to Death Valley.
  • Bottom Line: I am not sure there is enough juice in the tank to run the table as the questions on both lines have me concerned.  But there is also no question Dabo Swinney is doing a fabulous job down in Clemson, and things are clearly on the way up.  If Boyd can play at a Heisman level, and the offense can boost that scoring average up about a TD, they may have a chance at winning it all – but that may be asking too much.
  • SOP: amazingly Kirk Ferentz enters his 14th season as the head man in Iowa City, passing up numerous higher profile gigs along the way to continue building the strong brand of Hawkeye football he took over from his predecessor Hayden Fry.  Since the three year run from 2002-2004 where Iowa won double digit games in each season, and finished ranked #8 after each season, things have dropped some as they have only reached double digit wins once, in 2009, and they have finished the season unranked in 5 of the last 7 campaigns.  Are things trending up, down, or staying status quo .500 in the near future is the biggest question facing Iowa in 2012.
  • Strongest unit: back 7.  There isn’t one truly special unit on this year’s Hawkeyes, but the back 7 should be able to hold its own and be one of the better units in the conference.  Led by new defensive coordinator Phil Parker, the defense overall will look to be more disruptive, active, and make more big plays – but honestly, what defensive unit is not looking to achieve all three of those goals?  It all comes down to the players for the most part, and the LBs and DBs have potential all conference talents in James Morris and Micah Hyde, respectively.
  • Biggest area of concern: RB.  Iowa historically has a RB that is the foundation of the offense, but heading into 2012 that player doesn’t appear to be on the roster as of now.  Currently a pair of sophomores will see time in the rotation and take the lead, with potential true freshmen growing into bigger roles and potentially a workhorse type back as the season progresses.
  • Upside: back to a double digit win season.  This year’s schedule could not get much easier for Iowa as they could very well start 5-0, don’t play a road game until October 13th, and the four road games on the slate are Michigan State, Northwestern, Indiana and Michigan.  There is no reason this year’s Iowa team couldn’t surprise a few folks, as they seemingly do often when they are picked as a middle pack team, and win ten games and show up in Florida on New Year’s Day vs. an SEC team.
  • Downside: 7-5.  Any scenario I run, barring injury, results in Iowa playing in a bowl game, a feat they have achieved in 10 of the last 11 years.  In a downside scenario they lose one of Iowa State/Northern Iowa, and go 4-4 in conference play including 1-3 on road only beating Indiana, and 3-1 at home only losing to Nebraska.
  • Bottom Line: these are typically the seasons when Iowa jumps up and shocks the Big Ten, and make no mistake we could see the same sort of scenario play out in 2012 in a down Big Ten.  Keep an eye on the final two games of the season - @ Michigan and hosting Nebraska as there is a definite chance Iowa could have their destiny in their own hands of sweeping those two and winning the Legends division.
  • SOP: after making the move to the Pac Ten last season the Utes did just fine for themselves considering all the injuries they endured – and this year they look to leverage all that experience the younger players gained last season into a potential Pac 12 South title.  Yes, USC is in that division and they are the favorite – but crazier things have certainly happened as I have a hunch the Trojans are more than a touch overrated heading into 2012.  Speaking of the Trojans, in potentially one of the bigger Thursday night games of the season, USC travels to Salt Lake City on October 4th to face the Utes in what is sure to be a wild wild scene on the Utah campus.  Kyle Wittingham has enjoyed enormous success thus far as Head Coach of Utah going 66-25 in his 7 years on campus, and has leveraged that success and the new Pac 12 conference into one of the best recruiting classes Utah has ever signed – things are clearly looking up for this program, which isn’t a good thing for the rest of the Pac 12 as their style of play will cause a lot of headaches across the conference for years to come.
  • Strongest unit: DL.  Never a bad spot to have your best unit, the Utes DL features sure-fire top 5 NFL pick in NT Star Lotulelei, who looks to parlay his All Pac 12 First Team recognition from last year into an All America 2012 season.  Lotulelei is an absolute beast of a nose, and he will help cover up for the weakest unit on defense, the LB corps.  Along with Lotulelei there is a ton of size along the interior, and some budding young pass rushers looking to make their own mark.  The defense will start and finish with a solid line.
  • Biggest area of concern: QB.  While there are certainly concerns along the offensive line after the loss of a pair of all stars, the health of Jordan Wynn is absolutely critical to the success of the program this coming season.  If Utah is not able to keep Wynn on the field they will really struggle moving the ball and scoring points; on the flip side, if his shoulders hold up well, he is exactly the kind of leader the program craves from the position.  Backup Jon Hayes has a lot of experience seeing action last year when Wynn went down, but he doesn’t appear to be a championship level QB – that starts and stops with Wynn on the Utah roster.
  • Upside: 9-3.  That may be a stretch, 8-4 may be the most upside this team has, but I will give them that one extra game potentially – understanding they would not only need Wynn to stay healthy and play in all 12 games, but a lot of breaks to reach that status.  Utah never plays a cupcake OOC schedule as the rivalries within their state are extremely fierce and full of good competition – Utah State and BYU are on the palate this season, and neither is a layup.  Say 3-0 OOC play, and a 6-3 conference record losing to USC, @UCLA or @ Oregon State, @ Washington gets you to 9-3 – yes, maybe a stretch.
  • Downside: bowl invite.  I cannot see many scenarios where Utah doesn’t at least go .500 and earn a bowl bid – at worst they start 2-1 in OOC play, and I truly believe they will find a way to go at worst 4-5 in conference play – at least, if Wynn stays healthy.  But since he has a penchant for getting injured, taking that into account some, we could see a Ute team that barely stumbles into an early bowl game.
  • Bottom Line: This Utah team could be one of the surprise teams in America – not only because it would be Utah accomplishing lofty goals, but because they are really the only team in the South division of the Pac 12 capable of knocking USC out of the Pac 12 Title Game.  And it could happen, “could” being the operative word there.  Last year when the two met in LA it was a very memorable finish as USC had a 2pt lead in the closing seconds when Utah had a FG attempt blocked and returned for a TD on the last play of the game.  That right there shows Utah has the team, and the confidence to go toe to toe vs. the Trojans – this time around however the game will be in Utah – mark your calendars folks!
North Carolina
  • SOP: finally, the Butch Davis tenure has ended in Chapel Hill – and I think that is to a lot of happy faces in Tar Heel country.  No need to discuss that anymore, it’s time to move on for UNC – and in steps Larry Fedora, whom was the successful Head Coach of Southern Mississippi the last 4 seasons, which followed three seasons apiece of Offensive Coordinator at Florida and Oklahoma State.  If you haven’t guessed by now, judging by his resume, he is known as one of the brighter, younger minds in college football, especially on the offensive side of the ball.  Tar Heel fans are already warming to his program, and I expect this to be a solid hire and pay dividends down the line in the ACC.  He inherits a very solid team, with no obvious weak spots – they could even contend this year for a Coastal division title with a few breaks, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
  • Strongest unit: offense.  Hard to identify one area as a strength for the offense as each position is highlighted by a potential all star, maybe even a few.  QB Bryn Renner returns after having a very solid sophomore campaign which he hopes to leverage into a junior season where he receives All ACC recognition.  Giovanni Bernard returns to lead a deep, nicely mixed RB corps – Bernard was a first team All ACC performer as rookie rushing for over 1250 yards on just 239 carries.  As far as pass catchers go, the top 5 from last season return to Chapel Hill led by senior Erik Highsmith, who has the measurables to potentially be a first round pick in 2012 with a big finale.
  • Biggest area of concern: LB.  A new 4-2-5 scheme will be worked in, but even with only a pair of LBs starting there are certainly questions outside ILB Kevin Riddick.  A pair of sophomores figure to battle it out for the other starting gig, while there isn’t any depth whatsoever to count on behind the top 3 mentioned here.
  • Upside: 9-3, no question in the mix for a Coastal division title.  And that 9 win number could even be a little light on a great season, potentially 10 wins could be in the mix as they will not face any teams this year that have much more talent than they do, especially their road slate – Louisville, Miami and Virginia will be the toughest three road games, but none of those teams will be heavy favorites to beat a fully-healthy Tar Heel squad.
  • Downside: 7-5, but no bowl invite due to sanctions.  This is more a function of the schedule, and playing in the ACC vs. having a national title, top ten type team, but there is enough offense especially to keep this team in every game they play.  A minimum 3-1 in OOC play will lay the foundation for a nice building block season, as UNC will play with a chip on their shoulders facing NCAA sanctions.
  • Bottom Line: the Tar Heels are a sleeper pick to win the ACC Coastal since they host likely favorite Virginia Tech in Chapel Hill.  It isn’t “likely”, but with a strong QB and running game, they could surprise some folks as they attempt to dig out of the mess that was the Butch Davis tenure.
  • SOP: Derek Dooley is entering Year #3 in his rebuilding of the Vol program following the successful tenure of Philip Fulmer, then the cup of coffee Lane Kiffin enjoyed at the expense of Orange Nation.  There are grumblings from Knoxville already about D2’s status as the head man, and if he can get the job done in the brutally competitive SEC.  This could be a make or break year in the sense definite progress needs to be seen – remember, this offense finished 105th in scoring and yards last year, which is completely unacceptable with a potential NFL QB, and definite pair of NFL WR’s in the huddle – even considering the time missed by a few key players, including QB Tyler Bray.
  • Strongest unit: WRs.  The Vols boast a pair of NFL caliber receivers in Jr. Jason Hunter, and Jr. Da’Rick Rogers.  Hunter is coming off a torn ACL that cost him the final 10 games of last season, but that should only help his timetable in recovering close to 100% by the time this season rolls around.  Rogers reached 1,000 yards on the other side despite often seeing double coverage, and the fact his QB missed half of the season with a thumb injury.  Expect both players to have monster seasons if Bray can stay in one piece.
  • Biggest area of concern: OL.  Last season Tennessee was relatively solid in pass blocking allowing only 18 sacks despite playing in the SEC, a conference full of star pass rushers and very talented DLs.  However, blowing their man off the ball and winning the line of scrimmage for their rushing attack was nearly non-existent, as UT only rushed for 90 yards per game, one of the worst marks in FBS.  There is some depth, and a little experience, but there is also a ton of shifting going on as the staff is still attempting to find the right 5 guys for opening day.  Stay tuned, but this area has to improve for the Vols to take a significant leap, possibly the leap needed, for Dooley to hang onto his job.
  • Upside: SEC East title.  Yeah, I said it – that is obviously going out on a limb, but the East is not going to be that strong with Florida still looking to regain its stride, Georgia has a lot of nice pieces but are far from a juggernaut, and South Carolina still having a lot to prove at QB and with Marcus Lattimore returning from his knee injury.  With perhaps the best passing game in the SEC, and avoiding LSU & Arkansas from the West, the Vols could be a solid value play at winning the SEC East – although the fact they have to travel to UGA and USC, the likely co-favorites in the East, will not help matters.
  • Downside: 7-5.  For a Vol program still looking to find its stride and moxie from the 90s, a downside 7-5 year isn’t that awful.  Yes, they are typically only interested in SEC and National Title’s, but to be realistic, the program just isn’t on that level again yet – see Oregon game last season.  That 7-5 mark is counting quite a few games as losses that could very well turn into wins, like the opener in Atlanta vs. NC State, Florida at home, and @ South Carolina / Georgia.
  • Bottom Line: I see this team as sneaky good, especially considering nobody is talking about them.  The SEC is not used to seeing team’s that can throw a forward pass, let alone a prolific high powered passing offense such as what Tennessee will put forth this season.  If they could get off to a hot start including wins over NC State and Florida at home, and be sitting at 4-0, the September 29th game @ Georgia could be a HUGE one for Vol nation, the biggest game in quite some time.
  • SOP: 2011 was not that bad a year in reality.  8-5 following a National Title and losing your All Everything QB is actually quite successful, especially again considering they played in the same conference as BOTH teams who played for the national title.  Auburn’s losses last year were to LSU, Alabama, Clemson, Arkansas and Georgia – not too shabby, eh?  But now the pressure will be turned up a notch, especially considering Alabama just won another national title, so how will the boys from the Plains react in 2012?  There is talent, its Auburn – but it doesn’t appear its National title, or even SEC West title type talent to me.  And remember, AU lost both coordinators from last season so new schemes will be a big piece of the puzzle especially early on.
  • Strongest unit: DL.  After all, this is the SEC, where great DLs just apparently grow from trees.  All the pieces are on the roster for Auburn to have one of the best DLs in the SEC, and perhaps with a few breaks and an overachiever or two, in the country.  Jr. Corey Lemonier will be the leader as he is coming off a monster season, and looks to secure first round draft pick status when the time comes.  Joining Lemonier will likely be Dee Ford, another Jr. that has a ton of talent but has had minor issues staying healthy.  Those two, if healthy, will be absolutely lethal and really open things up for the interior of the line led by Nosa Eguae, who also has NFL upside.  There are also quite a few backups that will chip in, and form a great rotation keeping everyone healthy and the pass rush active.
  • Biggest area of concern: QB.  Let’s be honest, you need a good QB, at the very least a solid game manager that doesn’t make mistakes and makes key passes at the biggest, most critical times to be a contender – and nobody is quite sure if Auburn possesses that player on their roster.  A starter has not yet been named, but the competition is down to two players who both played last season: Jr. Clint Moseley, and So. Kiehl Frazier.  Frazier is the more talented option, while Moseley has more experience and may be a better fit for the pro-style offense new OC Scott Loeffler is installing.
  • Upside: 8-4.  If AU got all the breaks and everything went perfectly for them I could see an 8-4 season.  The consistency at QB has me very concerned; in this scenario I would assume losses to Clemson, LSU, Alabama, along with another game somewhere along the line due to poor QB play, and injury concerns on defense.
  • Downside: missing a bowl invite.  In this doomsday scenario, the Tigers would struggle to an under .500 season, having issues with staying healthy as they did in 2011, struggles at QB, and integration issues with both new coordinators installing their new schemes that are somewhat different from LY.
  • Bottom Line: this year seems to be a transition season of sorts; yes, last year was a transition from the Cam Newton one year era, but this year there are a lot of changes, even at the coaching level which is definite cause for concern.  There is a lot of talent at Auburn, especially defensively, and they will play some very strong games because of that unit, but they are also likely to have a head scratcher or two because of the struggles of their offense.
Kansas State
  • SOP: Bill Snyder enters his fourth season in his second go-around as K-State coach and once again, he continues to overachieve in the Little Apple.  This guy, even at age 73, gets the job done, and does it his way – the right way, after all, the stadium his Cats play in is named after him.  After a brilliant 10 win season in 2011, the cupboard is still stocked, with 14 returning starters, to perhaps make a run to a Big 12 title in 2012.  Snyder also has to start contemplating who his eventual successor will be, someone who can keep the Wildcats challenging in the Big 12, when he steps aside for a second, and final time in the next few years most likely.
  • Strongest unit: offensive backfield.  One of the best leaders in college football, QB Collin Klein, returns for his senior season after a spectacular junior season that seemed to come out of nowhere.  Check out his 2012 stats: 1,141 rushing yards, 27 rushing TDs, 1,918 passing yards, 13 passing TDs with only 6 INTs.  This guy is working his way to legend status in Manhattan, and could be a sleeper Heisman Trophy contender this year.  Joining him at RB are all the pieces from a year ago, led by John Hubert, Robert Rose & Angelo Pease.  Look for one of the best statistical rushing attacks in the country this year from KSU.
  • Biggest area of concern: both lines.  And that is never a good thing, especially in college football where the differences between strong lines and weak lines is extremely drastic, and plays a key part in deciding the outcome of games.  In all fairness, the OL is very solid in run blocking, which is the key piece of the K-State offense; however, pass blocking is another story, a weaker story for certain.  Essentially 3 starters are back, including Foketi who started in 2010 but missed last season with an injury.  On the DL quite a few key pieces were lost, which will cause issues rushing the passer.  Rushing defense should be average, not a liability.
  • Upside: another double digit win regular season, and potential Big 12 title – or at least a tie as remember, in the new Big 12 there will not be a Championship Game this season.  K-State does get unlucky in the sense they will play 5 road conference games vs. 4 home, including trips to Oklahoma, West Virginia and TCU – all three of which are amongst the top half of Big 12 contenders this season at the least.  Due to that trio it will be near impossible for an outright Big 12 title – may even be tough to even tie, but they should contend and be in the mix late.
  • Downside: safely getting a bowl invite, but not the New Year’s Day bowl they are hoping for.  In a downside scenario they could lose to revenge minded Miami, drop three of five conference road games, and possibly the home game vs. Texas.  With the new 9 game Big 12 slate they will only have 3 OOC games, which could cost them a win vs. the typical competition they would play.  Anyway you cut it, barring an injury to Klein, the ‘Cats will certainly be bowling this season.
  • Bottom Line: this team was very good to me last season, and Klein is one of my favorite players to watch in college football.  With a talented defense, and Klein leading an explosive rushing attack, K-State could take that next step and surprise folks with a BCS bowl invite – which they deserved to receive last year.
West Virginia
  • SOP: the Mountaineers finally got their wish, moving to a bigger name, more competitive football conference when they decided to join the Big 12.  Had WVU stayed in the Big East this season they almost certainly would have won that conference, and earned the big pay day BCS bowl invite.  Now, they are just another team in a deep, new look Big 12 conference that has added WVU & TCU from the Big East, but lost Missouri & Texas A&M to the SEC.  Dana Holgerson enters his second season in Morgantown, and should have some knowledge of his new opponents from his days at Oklahoma State.  In a bit of sad news, Bill Stewart, the former WVU coach immediately prior to Holgerson passed in the spring, which will leave heavy hearts in the program for the near future.  Hopefully WVU can use that as a rallying point in 2012.
  • Strongest unit: passing game.  Flat out WVU will fit in very nicely with their new conference rivals, as the Big 12 is known for their high flying aerial assaults, and that is precisely what the ‘Neers bring to the table.  The key cogs to the passing attack are as follows: QB Geno Smith, who threw for 4400 yards last year, 66% completions, and a 31/7 TD/INT split; WR Tavon Austin 101/1,186/8; WR Stedman Bailey 72/1,279/12; WR Ivan McCartney 49/595/3.  Oh, and also, WVU will boast one of the best, if not the best, OL’s in the Big 12.  This will be a prolific passing attack, that shouldn’t see their numbers drop too much even with the uptick in competition.
  • Biggest area of concern: DE.  Generating a pass rush wasn’t an issue last season with Bruce Irvin & Julian Miller pressuring from the outside.  This year that will be a big question mark as both of those players were lost, and not much experience, but some talent, will look to fill those shoes.  WVU may need to leverage the OLB’s more than they like this season to generate enough pass rush, especially in their new conference.  Good thing their secondary is experienced and should be the strongest unit on defense.
  • Upside: 11-1.  If they put forth their best effort each week, and got a few breaks, this team could potentially be in the national title discussion as late as mid November.  WVU doesn’t play a road game till October 6th @ Texas, and only faces 4 all season with the others being Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Iowa State.  Their November 17th home game vs. Oklahoma could have a ton on the line – keep an eye on that date and possible scenario.
  • Downside: 8-4.  They are as close to a lock as possible to go 3-0 in OOC play; with 5 home/4 road conference games, and the layout mentioned above getting most of the better teams at home, there really isn’t much downside to this season for WVU.
  • Bottom Line: It should be a very good year, with the potential to be great with a break or two in their first season as a member of the Big 12.  That transition will only be helped by the experience their HC already has from his Big 12 days.  This offense will be almost unstoppable in 2012 (remember the shredding they did to LSU last season?), and the defense will be just opportunistic enough to put them in the hunt for at the very least a Big 12 title.  This team will clearly fit right in with their new conference.
  • SOP: Steve Sarkisian is entering his 4th season in Seattle, and with a 19-19 mark thru his first 3 years, the pressure is starting to get turned up a notch – I wouldn’t say he is on the “hot seat” yet, but make no mistake – with his very strong junior QB Keith Price under center, and Andrew Luck gone from Stanford, a 2nd place North finish at least has to be the end goal in 2012 – next season should be the target Pac 12 North title in Price’s senior season, and getting Oregon in Seattle.
  • Strongest unit: QB.  Keith Price enters his 2nd season as the starter, following a first year where he set numerous passing records at UW, and led an offense that averaged 33 points and 410 yards per game.  Consider Price is fringe Heisman contender, with the possibility of putting himself squarely in the mix near the top of the ballot if he can go into Death Valley in Wk2 and pull off a win over LSU.
  • Biggest area of concern: Skill positions sans QB & Special Teams.  The Huskies lose both their P & PK this season, with both positions considered unknowns heading into the summer.  Setting that aside, offensively the loss of their top two WR’s, along with stud RB Chris Polk leaves massive holes to fill this year.  There is certain talent at WR – and combined with Price’s passing ability they will find replacements, but the RB position could be a committee and likely to be a question mark all season long, especially considering Price is not a dual threat.
  • Upside: double digit wins, possible Pac 12 North title.  Both are somewhat “longshots” to occur this season, but the possibility is certainly there when you have Keith Price.  Their trip to LSU is the only almost certain loss on the slate, while roadies at Oregon & Washington State will not be easy.  In this upside scenario its realistic to think they run the table at home, and only lose @ LSU & @ Oregon.
  • Downside: .500, similar to the last two seasons.  I find it tough to believe they will not improve their record this season, but there are still a lot of holes on this roster, especially depth wise, to consider them a lock to go above .500 in Pac 12 play.
  • Bottom Line: I like this team heading into 2012.  I am impressed with Price, and think eventually they will find a way to make the ground game work, and he will be very explosive himself through the air.  How well will the rushing defense play?  That will be enormous, along with playing well vs. the three big time teams on the schedule – LSU, Oregon, USC.  Sarkisian has this program headed upwards, and 2012 may be the foundation needed to make a big jump towards national notoriety in 2013.
South Florida
  • SOP: Skip Holtz enters his third season in Tampa, looking to lead his team back from last year’s dismal performance down the stretch where the Bulls lost 7 of their last 8 to finish with their worst record since 2004.  Why are so many people pumped about USF and their chances at challenging for a Big East title in 2012?  First off, even though they were 1-6 in Big East play last year, they actually outgained their opponents by an average of 27 ypg!  Setting aside the Pitt loss which was somewhat predictable as they headed into that game 4-0, their final 7 losses were by a combined 28pts!  They lost to Louisville by 10, while 4 of the other 5 were by a FG, with the last one by 6.  As you can see, few plays here or there and we could be talking about a highly touted Bulls team heading into 2012 – trust me on one thing, the sharp handicappers are well aware of this and will take advantage early on this coming season.
  • Strongest unit: Front 7.  Five of their top 8 DL return, along with all 3 starters on the second level which will lead to one of the strongest front 7’s in the Big East, if not the best.  The unit is led by DeDe Lattimore, a stud WLB who will be on the short list for national awards this year with a strong USF season as he is coming off 94 tackles, 13 tfl, and 7 sacks.  There isn’t a weakness in the front 7.
  • Biggest area of concern: offensive backfield.  Senior QB BJ Daniels is back for one more season, and the hope around Tampa is the light will finally go on, and the talented QB will play consistently well this coming campaign.  Daniels is very talented, but has struggled at times passing the ball – Holtz has worked with him on film study to help his decision making, and drills to improve his accuracy which they both hope pay off when the real bullets start flying in September.  There is perhaps more pressure on Daniels and the passing game because the RB situation isn’t looking strong in the sense of proven returning production – there is talent, but how will they produce is the question.
  • Upside: double digit wins.  Hey, why not?  You saw the #’s from last season, so many close losses – who is to say they will not regress back towards the mean, and get all the breaks in 2012?  Its surely possible, especially considering the talent they have defensively, and at QB – so long as he can realize it all.  Playing in the Big East helps, but playing Miami, FL and Florida State won’t – but USF gets sky high for those matchups and will give both schools all they can handle.  FSU comes to Tampa while they visit Miami – that could not have worked out any better.
  • Downside: 8-4.  Anything less than an 8 win season will have the folks in Tampa grumbling and unhappy.  With 15 starters back, a QB that is entering his 3rd season starting, and all the bad breaks last season, wins are needed and they are needed in bulk.
  • Bottom Line: this has to be the season USF realizes their goals, and wins the Big East and appears in a BCS game finally.  Bully on the block WVU is gone, and most other BE programs are re-tooling to say it nicely – USF is the most talented team in the conference, and has to play like it.

Check back by early July for hopefully the next set of 10-12 team previews.


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

2012 NFL Schedule – Team by Team Analysis: NFC East

The fifth installment of our team by team schedule breakdown is the first of the NFC, the East division.  The NYG are coming off another Super Bowl season, PHI & DAL have their own designs on making a run to a title, while WAS figures to be on the upswing after snagging Heisman Trophy winning QB Robert Griffin III to lead their team.  In an always ultra competitive division, with fierce rivalries, the schedule and its nuances can be that small difference between winning the division or missing a playoff berth - and all the key details are broken down below.

Philadelphia Eagles: wow, where to start.  The Eagles have absolutely drawn the toughest schedule layout in the entire NFL, and it frankly is not even close.  Add on top of that they will face the 3rd toughest opponents according to my 2011 blended numbers, and the 8th toughest slate using initial 2012 numbers, and there just aren’t many good things about it as they head into a critical year for HC Andy Reid.  At least the breakout of home vs. road SOS is favorable as I have PHI facing the 21st toughest road schedule, paired with the #1 toughest home slate - better to at least get a bulk of your tougher games in the friendly confines of Lincoln Financial Field.  The first point to be made, and it is a major one, is the Eagles will face four teams coming off their bye week – one of them however, in Wk8 hosting ATL, is at least when they are coming off their own bye.  Yes, four times this season a team will have had two weeks to prepare for the Eagles – there is no other NFL team that has four instances of this, the only other team with more than 2 is ATL with 3.  That is really a tough break, and frankly seems extremely unfair as there are 11 teams in the NFL that are not facing one team off a bye week all season long.  PHI also faces the toughest NFC East schedule as far as my 2011 figures go; on a good note, using my initial 2012 power ratings, they are tied with Washington for the easiest NFC East slate.  Next major point is their division games – they are very bunched up which is typically looked at as a disadvantage.  Outside a Wk4 meeting hosting NYG, they do not play another game vs. a division rival until Wk10 when they host DAL.  Five of their final 8 are vs. the division, including 3 of the final 4 on the road.  Not only that, they face a divisional opponent back to back in Wks 10&11, then 16&17.  The good part of the closing schedule after Wk9 is they do not face a playoff team from last season until the closing game @ NYG.  On another slightly good note they only play back to back road games once all year (Wks 13&14), and back to back home games once (Wks 15&16).  One quirky point is they do not play WAS until Wk11, giving RG3 9 games of experience before these two teams matchup.  As far as time of games go, like most other big name contending type teams, they will face 5 night games – a pair of SNF & MNF contests, along with their lone TNF contest.  Their TNF matchup comes off a trip to TB, and is followed by a pair of divisional games to close out the season, so that could be placed worse for sure.  Three of their four SNF/MNF games will be played on the road, and three of those four feature matchups in that next game that will be tough to overcome given the short week of preparation: @ PIT, DAL, @ DAL – so both games vs. DAL this season will come off a short week for the Birds.  This is no question a very tough schedule, perhaps the toughest in the NFL overall when taking opponents and layout into the equation – and this will make it very tough to reach their lofty goals in 2012 following a disappointing 2011 campaign. 
Washington Redskins: The Skins check in with the easiest schedule of NFC East teams measured by opponent’s strength using both 2011 & 2012 numbers - and like PHI, they will face the #2 SOS in home games, vs. #16 SOS in road action.  That will help RG3 ease into his NFL career for certain.  Their divisional games, similar to the Eagles, are mostly bunched up late in the season – typically such a bunching is not prime for most teams – but since these games are the most critical ones on the schedule, and the fact they will be starting a rookie QB, it’s probably best to have the biggest games late in the season so the rookie can get his feet wet, and pick up some valuable game experience.  Five of WAS’s last seven games are vs. the NFC East, including a trio in a row following their bye week in Wks 11-13, and a duo to close the season.  The long outlier of sorts as far as divisional contests go is the Wk7 tussle with the defending champs in NY.  The Skins unfortunately do open with 3 of 4 on the road, a baptism by fire of sorts for RG3 – especially the opener in the deafening Louisiana Superdome vs. NFC challenger NO.  One good thing, if there is one, about the opening portion of the Redskins schedule that is very road heavy is the QBs RG3 will be facing – most are also very young with limited experience in the names of Bradford, Dalton, Freeman, and Ponder – four of their first six games.  That should help their chances at winning games, especially considering that leads up to the likes of Eli Manning, Big Ben, Newton, Vick, Romo, and Flacco – you get the point.  WAS has only 1 MNF & TNF game currently on the schedule – and they come in back to back weeks @ DAL on TNF Wk12 and hosting NYG on MNF Wk13.  The short week before the Cowboys game (RG3’s return to Texas) will be tough as the Skins host PHI the week prior – but at least that game is coming off their bye.  They also currently have a trio of 4pm kicks on the schedule, in Wks 2, 4, 6.  Last point on kickoff times, WAS will only play 3 games in a time zone other than Eastern, and all three are Central – so not long road trips to be concerned about.  Overall it’s hard to argue with this schedule if you are a Redskins fan, but it may be asking too much for WAS to challenge for an NFC East title or Wild Card berth just yet.
Dallas Cowboys: like most of their NFC East brethren, DAL’s schedule starts a little slow, and picks up late when the games matter most.  Before their early bye in Wk5, they face four opponents who didn’t rank higher than 15 in my performance stats from 2011, with 3 of the 4 ranked 19 or worse.  However, four of their first six are on the road, and those road games will be tests vs. team’s that believe they have a shot at playing meaningful games in January 2013.  Starting in Wk8, DAL plays 4 of 6 inside the division (3 of 4 at home), with the other two games bookending their season, opening @ NYG (in NY for 2nd straight year to open their campaign, 2011 was vs. Jets), and closing @ WAS.  That will be the critical portion of their schedule, say Wks 7-13 where they will face 4 divisional contests, and key games for potential tiebreaker purposes @ CAR & @ ATL.  Starting in Wk11 they play 5 of 6 at home, with the lone roadie being @ CLE – very manageable.  DAL does unfortunately face two teams coming off a bye week, that same CLE game just mentioned and @ CAR.  With DAL being DAL there are also plenty of primetime games on the schedule – a pair of SNF & TNF games (they have two TNF games because of their annual Thanksgiving tilt), along with a lone MNF contest.  The first TNF game is their opener @ NYG, with the 2nd coming in Wk12/Thanksgiving hosting WAS – and that game comes off a home game vs. CLE, so could be worse.  Their lone MNF game comes in Wk4 hosting CHI, which follows a home game vs. TB and precedes their bye – again, very favorable.  Wk9 is their first SNF contest @ ATL, which is sandwiched around a pair of key, divisional 4pm kicks; their second SNF game is hosting PHI in Wk13 which is off their Thanksgiving game.  As far as mileage goes, they only play one game in the Mountain or Pacific Time zones – Wk2 @ SEA, with the rest of their road games in the Eastern Time zone.  In all there truly isn’t that easy a stretch in the entire schedule and it will be a big time challenge for DAL to contend in the NFC this season based on that fact, along with the split of having the #2 toughest road schedule in the NFL.
New York Giants: the defending champs will face one of the tougher schedules in the NFL this season, which honestly should be the case after winning it all last year.  I have their schedule rated #2 using blended 2011 figures, and #7 using the most up to date 2012 power ratings – which is some difference from what most of the media stories have trumpeted recently listing the NYG as the #1 rated SOS.  As far as the layout goes, not much truly stands out besides the last four games being a brutal stretch facing NO, @ ATL, @ BAL, PHI – all those teams have designs on making the playoffs, at the very least – and typically, the end of the season is when the NYG typically turn it on and make a late run towards a divisional crown.  Four of their first eight games will be inside the division, including the opener in MetLife Stadium vs. DAL.  NYG do not face any teams off a bye week, and only has one instance of back to back divisional contests – Wks 7&8 vs. DAL & @ WAS.  A late bye in Wk11 should help charging the batteries and getting everyone healthy for the key late game stretch, which starts right off the bye week when they host GB in Wk12.  Like DAL, NYG face the same layout as far as kickoff times go – pair of TNF & SNF games, one MNF, and as of now four 4pm.  Their two TNF games comes within the first three weeks of the season, hosting DAL to open then travelling to CAR in Wk3 – sandwiched in between is a tricky game hosting TB.  Wk4 is their first SNF game @ PHI, which is followed by hosting the Browns in Wk5 – manageable.  To close their primetime schedule, they host GB off their bye in Wk12 on SNF, then travel to WAS for a MNF contest before hosting NO in Wk14 for a late afternoon kick.  Layout wise there are not many killer games, and NYG also do not face any teams coming off their bye week.  Because of that, NYG should be well positioned towards the end of the season to reach the playoffs – the last four games could and likely will be the determining factor as far as if they make it, and/or what seed they play from.

Check back next time as we move to the NFC North