by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

1-OREGON...The only school to participate in BCS games the past three seasons? Oregon. And while most of the West Coast hype is centered around Southern Cal, the Ducks have been plotting their revenge ever since being ambushed by the Trojans last November in Eugene. Remember, after getting nailed by a few haymakers early in that game, Oregon had all the momentum in the 4th Q and had SC on the ropes in the late going, only to be denied an OT by a last-second missed field goal. Had the teams met in a rematch in the Pac-12 title game (which didn’t happen because the Trojans were ineligible), the Ducks would have been solid favorites.

Pac-12 sources believe Oregon will lose nothing offensively in transition from Darron Thomas to either Bryan Bennett or touted RS frosh Marcus Mariota at QB, and the Ducks are so loaded at RB (Kenjon Barner, De’Anthony Thomas) that LaMichael James’ departure for the NFL will hardly be felt. Regional scouts also believe this will by far be d.c. Nick Aliotti’s best stop unit in Eugene since his long-ago “Gang Green” platoon in the Rose Bowl year of 1994; speed and playmakers galore dot the “D” that welcomes perhaps the nation’s best frosh lineman, DT Arik Armstead. Oh, and the schedule looks better-suited to a national title run, too, with no opener vs. LSU at Jerry Jones Stadium to worry about; instead Arkansas State, Fresno State, and Tenenssee Tech visit Autzen Stadium before Pac-12 play begins. The Ducks might have to beat USC twice (including a regular-season showdown November 3 in Los Angeles before a likely rematch in the Pac-12 title game) to get to the BCS finale, but those appears to be the only potential detours on the 2012 road map after Oregon has clearly outclassed the rest of the conference (Stanford included) the past two years.

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2-LSU...SEC sources tell us that Les Miles seriously considered using QB Zach Mettenberger last fall, especially with Jordan Jefferson on suspension to start the season and the limitations of Jarrett Lee. But “The Hat” believed Mettenberger needed a year to mature after a bumpy ride that took him from Georgia to the JC ranks before enrolling in Baton Rouge. Now they’re talking about Mettenberger being good enough to perhaps start just one year at LSU before entering next April’s NFL Draft.

If Mettenberger is indeed that good (as regional insiders have indicated), then the Tigers could have a serious upgrade at QB from the modest Lee-Jefferson tandem from last fall. Perhaps the nation’s top OL (returning four starters) will ease Mettenberger’s transition to the starting role, and several playmakers already populate the lineup including a stable of workhorse RBs led by Michael Ford and Spencer Ware. And speaking of playmakers, there are none any better in the country than the Tigers’ all-everything CB Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu, who was a Heisman finalist last December and spearheads a stop unit loaded with NFL prospects. Update August 10: Mathieu suspended for 2012 season, but regional sources believe his absence will be overcome by the blue-chip level depth just waiting for a chance to shine. Don’t forget that LSU was the only team to defeat eventual BCS title winner Alabama last term (although, at least in Baton Rouge, the less said about the BCS title rematch, the better), and gets the Tide at Tiger Stadium on November 3.

3-ALABAMA...Nick Saban lost a lot of prime talent from last season’s BCS winner, but they reload rather than rebuild these days in Tuscaloosa, so even replacing seven starters from last year’s airtight stop unit that led the national in all pertinent categories (rushing, passing, total, and scoring) will not be as daunting as it seems. Brutish, run-plugging 319-lb. NG Jesse Williams might be the nation’s best defensive lineman, once again tying up blockers and allowing Saban’s linebackers to make plays. Watch soph OLB Adrian Hubbard, the next Bama defensive superstar.

Our lone concern with the Tide is the BCS hangover that has somewhat dulled the efforts of several recent teams looking to repeat, and certainly hit Bama two years ago when Nick Saban lost three times when trying to defend the 2009 BCS crown. Still, Bama will be hard to beat, especially with QB A.J. McCarron having emerged as a mostly mistake-free leader offensively and ready to expand his role as pilot of the Tide strike force. A stable of RBs that has produced Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson the past few years has several eager sorts ready to emerge, including punishing jr. Ken Lacy, a bit more of a power-back than either Ingram or Richardson, and ballyhooed true frosh T.J. Yeldon, who will be hard to keep off the field. There are some land-mines on the schedule, however, beginning with the opener vs. Denard Robinson and dangerous Michigan at Jerry Jones World in Arlington, plus road games at Arkansas, Mizzou, and the big one at LSU. We’re just not sure the Tide could get back to the BCS title game if it loses the regular-season meeting vs. the Baton Rouge bunch as it did a year ago.

4-OKLAHOMA...Unlike the winners of the SEC, Pac-12, Big Ten, and ACC that must survive conference title games before securing passage to the BCS, all the Sooners must do is win the Big 12 (still at ten teams for the second straight year) for a ticket straight to the BCS...and perhaps a return to Sun Life Stadium for the finale, where OU lost in its last two title game attempts (2004 season vs. Southern Cal, 2008 season vs. Florida).

We have some legit concerns about the OU chemistry after a few shocking defensive meltdowns derailed last year’s edition and contributed to a postseason letdown when the Sooners ended up in the Insight Bowl after dreaming about the BCS all autumn. That disappointment, however, ought to fuel the charge this fall. Bob Stoops thinks he might have found an answer to his stop unit issues by enlisting brother Mike (who was on the job market again after being dismissed as Arizona’s HC last fall) as the new defensive coordinator; Mike’s intensity is several levels higher than the man he replaces, Brent Venables (now Clemson’s d.c.). Remember, too, how key injuries to skill position weapons knocked last year’s Sooners off course, but sr. QB Landry Jones returns as a peripheral Heisman threat, the receiving corps remains wildly talented, the backfield mix intriguing, and the OL virtually intact from a year ago. The schedule is also built for a run to the BCS, especially if OU gets past you-know-who at Dallas on October 13, and survives back-to-back tests vs. Big 12 newbie West Virginia (at Morgantown) and a revenge battle vs. Oklahoma State in the Bedlam game at Norman the following week. No one has to remind the Sooners how OSU laid a 44-10 licking on them last December.

5-SOUTHERN CAL...By the end of last season, SC could have competed with anybody in the country, as the Trojans emerged with only a few bumps and bruises from the bowl-ban portion of their heavy NCAA sanctions incurred in the wake of the Reggie Bush fiasco a few years ago. Bypassing a shot to be selected high in last April’s NFL Draft, sr. QB Matt Barkley also returns for “unfinished business” and a clear shot at the Heisman that will be assisted by an NFL-caliber group of wideouts led by Robert Woods and Marqise Lee. There is further intrigue at Jefferson & Figueroa now that Penn State’s star RB Silas Redd has enlisted for what will likely be a four-month rental by Lane Kiffin (Redd has two seasons of eligibility remaining, though most expect him to declare for the NFL next spring) after being allowed to escape the Nittany Lions program following their own recent bowl ban. Remember, however, that Troy already had an electric ground threat in Curtis McNeal. It's too bad the Trojans can only play with one football this fall.

Blue-chip talent bursts at almost every position, and the “D” in particular seemed to be getting the hang of sage d.c. Monte Kiffin’s complex “Tampa Two” schemes by the end of last season. Still, better offenses have been able to move freely vs. the SC stop unit in the post-Pete Carroll era, and the DL must be completely rebuilt. Although the Trojans did manage that upset win at Oregon last November, SC was hanging on for dear life in the late going of that one, and the Trojans, despite a heroic effort, were still beaten by Stanford a couple of weeks earlier. Every SC team since Carroll’s Bush-Matt Leinart 2005 powerhouse has also slipped on at least one Pac-12 banana peel on the conference trail (several similar tricky dates await this fall), and the Trojans are probably going to have to beat Oregon twice to reach the BCS title game. But last fall’s developments do indicate that the younger Kiffin will not hold back if he has a chance to run up scores to curry favor with pollsters, or pad Leinart’s stats in a Heisman bid.

6-SOUTH CAROLINA...Looking for a stealth BCS entry? Consider Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks, who, unlike LSU or Bama, have the decidedly softer Eastern half of the SEC to deal with this fall, not to mention a manageable schedule save for a couple of obvious trap doors at Baton Rouge in mid-October and Clemson’s Death Valley in late November. Carolina, however, will not be facing Alabama unless it's in the SEC title game a Atlanta...where we expect the Gamecocks to reach.

Rid of the distractions surrounding disruptive (and now departed) Stephen Garcia, look for jr. Connor Shaw to blossom into the sort of playmaker that Spurrier has curiously lacked at the QB position in Columbia since taking over for Lou Holtz in 2005. Remember, SC lost only twice a year ago despite the issues involving Garcia and losing star RB Marcus Lattimore to a knee injury midway through the campaign. Lattimore is now back and ready for a Heisman run, while true frosh WR Shaq Roland is the latest “Mr. South Carolina Football” to enroll at Columbia; SEC insiders believe he will ease the departure of WR Alshon Jeffery, now with the NFL Chicago Bears. Mostly, however, we love the speed-based Gamecock “D” that ranked third nationally in total defense in 2011 and features future NFL DEs Devin Taylor and Jadevon Clowney. New d.c. Lorenzo Ward worked under predecessor Ellis Johnson (now the Southern Miss HC) and will wisely not alter the defensive recipe much except for perhaps a few more blitzes. We suggest keeping a close watch on these guys.

7-MICHIGAN...With a clear opening in the Big Ten due to bowl probation at Ohio State and Penn State, and some rebuilding needed at top contenders Wisconsin and Michigan State (each breaking in new QBs), the path is wide open for Brady Hoke’s Wolverines to burst through the conference and get back to the BCS, where Michigan, somewhat fortunately, won the Sugar Bowl over Virginia Tech last January.

On any short list of Heisman candidates, electric jr. QB Denard Robinson is included, and provides a dynamite 1-2 punch for the offense along with RB Fitzgerald Toussant (check status regarding possible early-season suspension). An experienced secondary should also plug some of the leaks on last year’s defense that was otherwise quite stingy, allowing only 17 ppg (ranking sixth nationally). There are some hurdles to overcome on the schedule, starting with the opener vs. defending BCS champ Alabama at Jerry Jones Cowboys Stadium, and annual tests vs. Notre Dame and Ohio State are both away from Ann Arbor. The dynamic Robinson, however, gives the Wolves a legit puncher’s chance in every game.

8-VIRGINIA TECH...Frank Beamer has done some of his best work at Blacksburg when flying a bit under the radar. Which appears to be the case this fall with nine starters needing to be replaced on offense. But one of those is not at QB, where 6'6 Logan Thomas is now an experienced offensive leader, and ACC sources report little or no drop-off can be expected from the new strike-unit starters, many of whom already gaining experience in backup roles a year ago and others promising big things (such as RS frosh RB Michael Holmes and true frosh whippet RB J.C. Coleman, who will ease the departure of NFL first-round draftee David Wilson).

What we really like about the Hokies, however, is the return of nine starters from what some regional observers believe could be longtime d.c. Bud Foster’s best-ever VPI stop unit (which is saying something), and one that completely throttled Denard Robinson and the Michigan offense in a deceiving Sugar Bowl in which the Hokies were terribly unfortunate not to win. The platoon is filled with mobile playmakers on each line of defense, headlined by DE James Gayle, LBs Tariq Edwards and Bruce Taylor, and big-play CB Kyle Fuller. If Beamer can get his special teams back to their old tricks after a surprisingly ineffective performance last fall, the Hokies will have more ways to win games. The schedule breaks well, too, with key ACC battles vs. Georgia Tech (in an ACC Coastal showdown) and Florida State both at Blacksburg. If nothing else, the Hokies will also be full of incentive for the October 20 trip to Clemson after losing twice to the Tigers a year ago.

9-ARKANSAS...Not exactly a calm offseason in Fayetteville, with HC Bobby Petrino dismissed in April after being caught with his hand in the cookie jar regarding an ill-advised affair with a Razorback football staffer Jessica Dorrell, who, to make things more interesting, had long blonde hair and was about 25 years Petrino’s junior. Who needs to watch SOAPNet, anyway?

Petrino’s ouster created a vacancy that was deftly filled by hiring vet HC John L. Smith, who had been on the Razorback staff before taking a head coaching job at Big Sky Weber State. Smith is only on a ten-month contract, but the chance to coach an SEC team with a peripheral Heisman candidate at QB (Tyler Wilson) was too much to bypass. SEC sources suggest, however, that Petrino’s shrewd game-planning and play-calling acumen could be missed, putting lots of pressure on his bother Paul (who remains as the o.c.). The Hogs also get back slashing RB Knile Davis, who gained 1322 YR in 2010 but missed last year due to a broken ankle. The Arkansas “D” is solid but a step behind those at other SEC contenders LSU, Alabama, and South Carolina; still, watch juco DE Austin Flynn, who so impressed in spring that returning starter Tenarius Wright was moved to MLB from his old DE spot. The Hogs also get both Bama and LSU at home this fall, although they have a series of treacherous SEC road assignments, including their “crossover” game at South Carolina.

10-FLORIDA STATE...Many ACC observers believe that the national media simply jumped the gun when pegging FSU as a potential BCS team last fall. This is the year that many regional observers believed would be a more-likely breakthrough for Jimbo Fisher’s Seminoles.

The defense should be as formidable as it was a year ago when almost Alabama-like good; sr. DE Brandon Jenkins’ decision to stay in Tallahassee for one more year rather than test the NFL Draft was cause for celebration by d.c. Mark Stoops. But it’s not the stop unit, which returns seven starters (including Jenkins) from last year’s platoon that ranked 4th nationally in both scoring and total defense, that concerns us. Rather, it’s an offense that again regressed in its ability to run the ball (ranking a poor 104th last year) or protect sr. QB EJ Manuel, who missed a few critical early-season games last fall due to a wrist injury. And with four new starters to be plugged into the new-look OL, we are reserving judgement on the Noles as a BCS entry. The defense is good enough to get FSU to Miami. The offense? Not sure.

11-BYU...Looking for a stealth BCS contender? How about BYU, which will have to go the independent route a la Notre Dame if it wants to reach the promised land. And if the Cougs don’t make the BCS, they’re not going to do any better than the Poinsettia Bowl, to which they are contractually obligated unless they get the BCS call.

But regional sources believe this is likely Bronco Mendenhall’s best team in Provo, which says something after all seven of his previous Cougar editions since taking the job in 2005 have gone bowling. Mitt Romney’s alma mater has playmaker deluxe sr. Riley Nelson back at QB for what seems to be the umpteenth season (Nelson began his college career in 2006 at Utah State!), and it was Nelson who led a spirited charge down the stretch last fall when the Cougs won 9 of their last 10 and prevailed in an exciting Armed Forces Bowl vs. Tulsa. Nelson welcomes back lethal pair of big receiving targets in 6'4 Cody Hoffman (who caught the last-second game-winning TD in the bowl) and 6'3 Ross Apo. The RBs are said to be the fastest in school history. And Bronco, a defensive mastermind and his own d.c., welcomes back a “D” with several established playmakers and a likely first-round NFL draftee at NT in the punishing 321-lb. Romney Fuga. The schedule is filled with several tricky road dates (at Utah, Boise State, Notre Dame, and Georgia Tech), but the Cougs have better than a puncher’s chance in all of those, and if they can run that gauntlet will have a legit case for BCS inclusion.

12-GEORGIA...While Mark Richt appeared to climb off of the hot seat last fall when his Bulldogs won ten games in a row after an 0-2 start to claim the SEC East, the season ended on a sour note with a blowout loss to LSU in the SEC title game and a disappointing defeat vs. Big Ten Michigan State in the Citrus Bowl. Chemistry issues were being whispered in the Peach State after the late-season downers.

Distractions continued in the offseason when star RB Isaiah Crowell was dismissed from the program due to an arrest on three weapons charges (two of them felony-level); Crowell has since enrolled at lower-level Alabama State of the SWAC. It is hoped that true frosh RB Keith Marshall can have some of the same impact that Crowell did two years ago when named SEC Frosh of the Year. Richt is comfy at the QB spot with jr. Aaron Murray beginning his third year as a starter, and there are an abundance of established receiving targets led by sr. Tavares King. Nine starters also return from a fierce defense that ranked fifth nationally a year ago. But do the Dawgs have the chemistry right to make a serious move in the national rankings?

13-OKLAHOMA STATE...On the surface it might seem as if Ok State is due for a big dropoff after losing offensive linchpins WR Justin Blackmon and QB Brandon Weeden, both NFL first-round draft picks. But Mike Gundy has been upgrading the Cowbooy recruiting for years, and thanks to the Boone Pickens-financed facility upgrades, OSU can now go toe-to-toe with the big boys for top prep talent. One of those, true frosh Wes Lunt, will be taking the place of Weeden at QB. Lunt, more than ten years Weeden’s junior (that must be some kind of age-difference record for successive college football QBs, no?), impressed enough in spring that Gundy gave him the keys to the offense prior to fall camp. He will have support from the Big 12's top RB last season, Joseph Randle (1216 YR), and a bevy of potential playmakers who have been waiting for their chance to shine while Blackmon stole most of the recent thunder.

The Cowboys also return the bulk of a big-play defense that helped them to a nation’s-best +21 TO margin and features three-fourths of a ballhawking secondary that contributed 24 interceptions to a top-ranked 44 forced TOs in 2011. Corners Justin Gilbert and Brodrick Brown combined for 10 picks themselves last fall, while juco DT Calvin Barnett could be one of the top defensive newcomers in the loop. Do not expect OSU to drop too far from last year’s BCS Fiesta Bowl winner.

14-STANFORD...We remember long ago when Stanford was expected to fall back to the pack after the graduation of Heisman Trophy winner Jim Plunkett following the 1970 season. But the then-called Indians had upgraded their talent base considerably under HC John Ralston and returned most of a very underrated “Thunder Chicken” defense from the previous year. With sr. QB Don Bunce proving a serviceable successor to Plunkett, Stanford returned to the Rose Bowl, and for good measure pulled another upset after beating Ohio State the previous year, scalping perhaps Bo Schembechler's best Michigan team in the final seconds by a 13-12 count.

So, with the battle cry of “Remember 1971" ringing throughout Palo Alto, don’t expect the Cardinal to fall too far following the departure of all-everything QB Andrew Luck, the first pick in last April’s NFL Draft. Recruiting upgrades which began in the Jim Harbaugh era have continued to the regime of successor David Shaw, and the “D” returns six of seven starters across an underappreciated front seven that contributed heavily to the nation’s third-best rush defense last year. True, there are other holes to fill besides at QB on offense (linemen David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin were high NFL draft picks, and new receivers must step into place), but established infantry threat Stephan Taylor (1330 YR in 2011) returns, and three starters are back from last year’s big, road-grading offensive line. As long as new QB Josh Nunes (who beat out soph Brett Nottingham in a crackling race for the starting job) isn’t a liability, the Tree doesn’t fall too far this fall.

15-WISCONSIN...They’re getting adept at taking advantage of this graduate transfer rule at Madison. First, Russell Wilson shows up last fall from NC State and promptly leads the Badgers to the Big Ten title and Rose Bowl before being taken by the Seattle Seahawks in last April’s NFL Draft. Then, ex-Maryland QB Danny O’Brien (who actually has two years of eligibility remaining) shows up this spring to be Bret Bielema’s new signal-caller.

There has been some admitted talent drain in Madison after two straight Rose Bowl trips, but the Bielema system, mimicking predecessor Barry Alvarez’ that stresses a physical, ground-oriented offensive dimension with playmakers to take advantage, remains intact. Senior RB Montee Ball (1923 YR and an astounding 39 TDs last fall!) returns to the fold after many expected he would bolt for April’s NFL Draft, meaning the Badgers are loaded again at TB (James White added another 713 YR in 2011, and RS frosh Melvin Gordon will be hard to keep off the field). As long as Bielema and co-d.c.’s Chris Ash and Charlie Partridge can relocate a pass rush, the Badgers (with “Leaders Division” rivals Ohio State and Penn State both bowl-ineligible) look a good bet to at least get back to the Big Ten title game at Indianapolis.

16-TEXAS...Mack Brown is on the hot seat in Austin after a 13-12 mark the past two seasons. Despite past accomplishments that include a BCS title in 2005 and advancement to the title game three years ago, Brown knows that predecessors such as Fred Akers, David McWilliams, and John Mackovic were dismissed for less. Mediocre doesn’t wear well for long in Austin.

Brown hasn’t been able to get the QB situation right since Colt McCoy departed after the 2009 campaign, and therein lies the key to the Horns perhaps getting back into the national discussion this season. Garrett Gilbert, who failed in his chance two years ago, has transferred to SMU. David Ash and Colt’s brother Case McCoy both showed promise as frosh a year ago, but neither is likely to excel if constantly looking over their shoulders. Texas will support its QBs with perhaps the deepest stable of RBs in the country, augmented by ballyhooed true frosh Johnathan Gray, perhaps the top-rated prep runner in the land last season. He'll join sophs Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron, who combined for 1205 YR as frosh in 2011. Meanwhile, d.c. Manny Diaz might have one of the best secondaries in the Big 12 with all starters returning from last year; Carrington Bryndon and Quandre Diggs might be the top pair of cover-corners in the country. But Mack’s fate might rest with solving the QB dilemma, which threatens to keep the Horns far away from the BCS for a third straight year.

17-WEST VIRGINIA...The Mountaineers could have the element of surprise on their side as they switch affiliation from the Big East to the Big 12 this fall. And HC Dana Holgorsen is plenty familiar with the midlands territory after working as Oklahoma State’s o.c. before taking the job at Morgantown last fall.

When last seen, WVU was dropping a 70-point bomb on Clemson in the Orange Bowl, and many of the key offensive components return, led by sr. QB Geno Smith, who set a school record with a whopping 4385 passing yards last fall, with key targets Tavon Austin and Steadman Bailey also back in the fold. With another year in the uptempo Holgorsen offense, Smith could post even bigger numbers, although some observers are cautioning that he’ll be running into more-athletic stop units than he saw on a weekly basis in the Big East. The key to a possible BCS run likely rests with a defense that has reconfigured since last season after a slew of assistants joined former Mountie coach Rich Rodriguez in Arizona. Holgorsen thus enlisted more of “his guys” to run the stop unit, including former Ok State comrade Joe DeForest, who takes over the “D” and has ditched the old 3-3-5 “stack” looks for a flexible 3-4 scheme that can morph into a 4-3 if needed. But in a higher-powered offensive league, WVU’s “D” could miss a playmaking force such as DE Bruce Irvin, a first-round pick of the Seahawks in last April’s NFL Draft.

18-NC STATE...We’re so used to seeing Jim O’Brien’s NC State close the season with a rush that we sometimes forget to pay attention to the Wolfpack until mid-October. But if NC State can start quickly for once (which means getting past a desperate Tennessee side in the August 31 opener at Atlanta), then O’Brien might have a legit contender on his side, and one that could get into the school’s first-ever ACC title game appearance.

O’Brien suspected the Pack could weather last year’s departure of QB Russell Wilson; it took a while, but by the end of the season then-jr. Mike Glennon had emerged into a confident offensive pilot who finished with 31 TD passes. The Pack will be looking to upgrade its infantry after ranking 109th in national rush stats, and big-play WR T.J. Graham (Buffalo Bills draftee) will have to be replaced, but most of the key offensive linemen return. And O’Brien’s secondary might be one of the nation’s best after recording 27 picks a year ago (tops in the country). Why any opposing QB throws the way of ball-hawking CB David Amerson (ACC record 13 picks last year!) is beyond us. If the Pack can find some offensive balance, this could be O’Brien’s best season yet in Raleigh.

19-MICHIGAN STATE...Mark Dantonio has progressed the Spartan program to the point where it is a bowl regular and annual contender in the Big Ten. And after seamlessly replacing several productive QBs in recent years, MSU should survive after the graduation of the decorated Kirk Cousins (now in the Washington Redskins camp). Junior Andrew Maxwell knows the offense, although expect the Spartans to lean a bit more on the infantry with a new collection of wideouts also needing to emerge. Junior Bernie Fowler is a possible breakthrough WR, but he missed most of spring work due to foot surgery. For the moment, the “O” will likely revolve around punishing 238-lb. jr. RB La’Veon Bell (948 YR LY).

But Dantonio’s specialty is defense and MSU returns eight starters from a robust platoon that ranked sixth overall (only 277 ypg) and tenth in scoring (mere 18.4 ppg) a year ago. The strength of the stop unit is likely to be a fierce LB corps that returns all starters and is headed by sr. OLB Chris Norman; along with jrs. Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, the starting Spartan LBs recorded a whopping 248 tackles in 2011, more than the returnees at the position for any Big Ten team. The schedule is demanding, however, and it gets tougher as the season progresses; how far Maxwell and the “O” have progressed by late October/early November when Michigan, Wisconsin, and Nebraska wait in succession will be key in Sparty making another run at the conference title game out of the Legends Division.

20-CLEMSON...The Tigers were looking like a stealth BCS title game candidate until their defense fell apart down the stretch last fall and disappeared completely in the Orange Bowl bombardment conducted by West Virginia. How the Tigers bounce back psychologically remains to be seen.

Head coach Dabo Swinney, never far from the hot seat, responded by ditching d.c. Kevin Steele and heisting Brent Venables away from Oklahoma in hopes of fortifying the stop unit. Venables inherits an experienced back seven but must rebuild a DL that returns only one starter and was not getting in the way of many foes down the stretch a year ago. Which means that Clemson might have to resort to shootout mode to survive this fall, which it did for a while a year ago as first-year o.c. Chad Morris was able to ignite jr. QB Tajh Boyd. Boyd welcomes back playmakers such as RB Andre Elllington and homerun WR Sammie Watkins, who emerged as the ACC’s most-dangerous threat in 2011. Boyd, however, regressed late last season as his mechanics fell apart and turnovers piled up, and the Tigers have two major tests away from Death Valley (vs. Auburn in Atlanta and at Florida State) before September is complete.

21-BOISE STATE...The remnants of Boise’s all-time recruiting class following the January, 2007 Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma finally left the program after last fall in a hard-to-match stretch of victories. In particular, QB Kellen Moore exited as the all-time winning college QB after losing only three games in four years as a starting QB.

The Broncos are expected to slip, but hardly fall of the map, in their last season of Mountain West play before moving to the Big East (and yes, that move is still on) for next season. Moore and first-round NFL draft choice (Bucs) RB Doug Martin have departed, but seven others return on offense including almost the entirety of a punishing OL. New QB Joe Southwick has been in the program for three years and has a lot more mobility than Moore, although lacking similar passing touch. T.J. Harper has also run with plenty of flair in the past and should minimize Martin’s departure. More questions exist on defense where nine starters must be replaced from a very underrated platoon, but where juco DE Demarcus Lawrence could be the top defensive newcomer in the Mountain West. We respect HC Chris Petersen too much to rule out another longshot BCS run, but the Broncos might have to be satisfied with just another MW crown before moving leagues next year.

22-TCU...Speaking of moving leagues, TCU has done it for this season, leaving the Mountain West and landing in the Big 12, reuniting with several former rivals from the days of the old Southwest Conference. Only now, the Frogs are an established national power under HC Gary Patterson instead of an also-ran as they were in the former days of the SWC.

But dominating in the Big 12 might not be as easy as it has been in the Mountain, and it was a disturbing offseason in Fort Worth with a handful of players involved in academic issues and a campus-wide drug bust that has cost Patterson three key cogs (top returning LB Tanner Brock, plus starting DT D.J. Yendrey and promising young OLB Deryk Gildon). Keep in mind, however, that sage d.c. Dick Bumpas’ stop units have led the nation in total defense three times in the past four years out of his pet and now much-mimicked 4-2-5 alignments. The offense will miss RB Ed Wesley, who dropped out of the program in spring, but 6'5 jr. QB Casey Pachall turned into a big-time leader by late last season, and returns a slew of complementary weapons led by dangerous WR Josh Boyce (15 TD catches the past two seasons) and slashing RBs Waymon James and Matthew Tucker. It will be harder for the Frogs to stand out in the Big 12, but Patterson’s program has reached a level where it should compete for conference honors every year, no matter what the loop.

23-LOUISVILLE...We get the idea that Card HC Charlie Strong knows what he’s doing, having led unheralded ‘Ville editions to bowls the past two seasons. Rest assured others have taken notice, too; Strong is rumored to be on short lists for any number of high-profile openings that are likely to occur within the next few months (Arkansas and Tennessee among them).

Strong started 11 true frosh at various times last season, and the Cards are still young (indeed, there are only nine seniors on the roster), but they’ve at least got a bit more experience in key spots such as QB, where Miami-area product Teddy Bridgewater emerged as a gamebreaker last fall. Strong, a longtime defensive coordinator, might not have to call as many blitzes this fall with all of his secondary returning intact from 2011. Could be the team to beat in the Big East...which the ‘Ville hopes will get it noticed by the Big 12, where the program really wants to land in the near future.

24-GEORGIA TECH...Some ACC observers believe Paul Johnson’s Yellow Jackets peaked three years ago when advancing to the Orange Bowl; Tech has been so-so since (14-12 SU) as conference foes get a bit more keen to the option-based offense that has been a Johnson staple since his days at Navy.

For the Jackets to forge a real breakthrough, they’ll need QB Tevin Washington to continue developing the aerial diversion that was improved a year ago (well, from 119th to 112th nationally) and hit several more big plays in the first half of the season before fading later in the fall. A new group of wideouts might make aerial progress difficult, however, so instead count on Washington and RBs David Sims and Orwin Smith to again help the Ramblin’ Wreck to near the top of national rush stats. Vet defensive coordinator Al Groh is also under the gun to get his stop unit performing as it was expected to do upon his hire two years ago, but has been decidedly average since. Groh even tweaked with alterations in spring away from his favored 3-4 alignments (don’t be surprised to see Tech in some 4-3 deployments this fall), with do-everything OLB Jeremiah Attaochu offering lots of possibilities for different variations to the base sets. Still, we're not sure how far Tech can climb in the rankings unless just a bit more of an aerial diversion emerges for the offense.

25-KANSAS STATE...Never underestimate wily Bill Snyder, now into his 70s but having succeeded in re-establishing K-State as a gridiron force in his second tour of duty in Manhattan.

What we’re not sure about is if the Wildcats can expect to survive as many hair-raisers as a year ago when winning eight games by a TD or fewer. But rough-hewn sr. QB Collin Klein, who plays the position as a rodeo cowboy might, is a fearless leader who set an FBS record for a QB with 27 rush TDs a year ago, and almost all of the skill-position talent returns. A deep stable of RBs is led by small but slashing RB John Hubert (970 YR in 2011), and WR Chris Harper leads an established receiving corps augmented by touted juco addition Marquez Clark. But Snyder did lose three key offensive linemen, and the “D” ranked only in the middle-of-the-pack nationally a year ago. Can the Cats continue to survive in as many nailbiters again this fall?

26-UTAH...The Utes are looking forward to having a healthy QB Jordan Wynn this fall after yet another shoulder injury (this one to his non-throwing left side) KO’d him in late September a year ago. But Wynn has had past problems with his right shoulder, too, and was passing almost side-armed before getting hurt again a year ago. Fortunately, the “O” can lean on former juco RB John White IV (school-record 1519 YR last fall), but upside is limited unless the Utes discover a downfield passing threat, which Wynn might not be able to deliver. No-nonsense HC Kyle Whittingham nonetheless cobbled another bowl team out of the attack-end limitations caused by Wynn’s injury last fall, thanks mainly to a stop unit led by punishing 325-lb. DT Star Lotulelei, who routinely occupies two and sometimes three blockers in the defensive middle. There’s enough “D” in Salt Lake City to get the Utes to another bowl...perhaps a pretty good one if QB Wynn is back near 100%.

27-OHIO STATE...Urban Meyer is being expected by some to work miracles immediately in his debut season at the Big Horsehsoe, but keep in mind that the Buckeyes will be on bowl probation this season and were hardly a finished product a year ago when limping home at 6-7 in the wake of Jim Tressel’s controversial departure. Soph QB Braxton Miller hinted at bigger things to come last fall and presents intriguing possibilities for Meyer’s version of the spread offense that will incorporate elements of OSU’s more-traditional power ground game. Remember, however, that the passing game was one of the nation’s worst a year ago (ranked 115th), and Miller might need some time before becoming the sort of pilot that Meyer envisions. A veteran “D” should keep the Buckeyes in most games, but in an adjustment year at Columbus and with no bowl carrot for Meyer to dangle, we’re not sure how much upside is within this OSU edition.

28-NEBRASKA...The Huskers handled their move to the Big Ten fairly well last season but were outclassed when stepping up vs. Wisconsin, Michigan, and South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl, outscored an aggregate 123-47 in those games. Which has reinforced a growing perception among NU backers that there is only so far that HC Bo Pelini can take the program. Fifteen starters are back in the fold including jr. QB Taylor Martinez, beginning his third year as the starter and hopefully beyond some of the maddening inconsistencies that have marked his play the past two years. The Huskers can still bully lesser foes with slamming RB Rex Burkhead, but might miss several playmakers who have graduated from last year’s defense. Nebraska makes a move up the rankings only if QB Martinez smooths out the rough spots in his game.

29-MISSISSIPPI STATE...After being mentioned for seemingly every high-profile job opening in the country the past two years, Dan Mullen remains in Starkville for at least another season. As has been the case the past couple of campaigns, the Bulldogs are hampered by their membership in the brutal SEC West, but sources beleive that by finally committing to jr. QB Tyler Russell, the "O" will improve efficiency that waned at times a year ago. And SEC scouts say Mullen is cautiously optimistic that the offense can move adequately as long as a rebuilt OL jells; fortunately, most of the SEC West showdowns are in the second half of the schedule after which the “O” should have been able to get its bearings. There are still plenty of playmakers on the Bulldog defense, with juco DE Denico Autry promising to make an immediate impact. We’re just not sure the Maroon has enough offense to move beyond minor bowl territory while competing in such an unforgiving league.

30-MISSOURI...We might rate the Tigers higher if they were still campaigning in the Big 12; switching to the SEC is akin to jumping into an alligator pit. Still, we don’t think the Tigers (who have been placed what is, for the moment at least, the more-forgiving Eastern half of the league) are going to be outclassed by any means, with playmaking, dual-threat QB James Franklin (assuming he’s beyond shoulder woes) still in the fold and plenty of deep-threat receiving targets when Franklin slings the ball out of four-and-five receiver sets. Senior wideout T.J. Moe has led the Tigers in receiving the past two years, and frosh Dorial Green-Beckham might have been the nation’s top WR recruit, although the O” might miss RB Henry Josey, a big-play threat but likely on the shelf after last year’s serious knee injury. Meanwhile, Gary Pinkel’s defense at least doesn’t figure to be facing as many no-huddle spread offenses in the SEC as it did in the Big 12. It would be a surprise if Mizzou can't compete favorably in its new environment, and another bowl for Pinkel should be on the horizon.

31-NOTRE DAME...They’re beginning to wonder if the party is over in South Bend, but someone should tell the Domers that it has been for a while; the Fighting Irish haven’t won a national title in almost a quarter-century (1988), and haven’t contended for national honors since Holtz’ last days leading the program in the early and mid ‘90s. The Brian Kelly regime has yet to detonate, bumping its head on 8 wins the past two seasons, and Kelly had yet to decide upon a QB from four candidates (including returning starter Tommy Rees) after spring workouts. At least star LB Manti Te’o decided to return for another year rather than come out early for last April’s NFL Draft, but until the Notre Dame offense begins to function smoothly, the Irish will be hard-pressed vs. another rugged schedule (top ten-types Michigan, Oklahoma, and Southern Cal, plus six other bowl reps from last season).

32-TENNESSEE...Looking for the hottest seat in the country? Try Tennessee, where HC Derek Dooley almost didn’t get invited back for a third season after an unsightly 10-7 season-ending loss to Kentucky (which used converted WR Matt Roark at QB) that denied the Vols a chance to play in a bowl game. Dooley had some legitimate excuses for earlier failures last year after QB Tyler Bray missed much of the season with a hand injury, but Dooley gets no mulligans this fall for a similar collapse. A healthy Bray and deep receiving corps led by Da’Rick Rogers should keep the aerial game moving, but the infantry must resurface after disappearing a year ago when the Vols ranked a woeful 116th in national rush stats. And do the Vols have the defensive personnel to properly deploy the 3-4 looks favored by new d.c. Sal Sunseri? We’ll know by the end of September if Dooley might be in big trouble with early-season games against NC State, Florida, and Georgia all taking place before the calendar hits October.

33-WASHINGTON...The Huskies lost their defense sometime in the middle of last season (it didn’t show up at all for the Alamo Bowl loss to Baylor which more resembled an Arena League game), and HC Steve Sarkisian was forced to make staff changes in the aftermath, jettisoning old pal Nick Holt and luring respected d.c. Justin Wilcox from Tennessee (following an impressive run at Boise State). How the Huskies adapt to his variety of 3-4 looks will determine if they emerge as a serious player in the Pac-12 North, because most of exciting QB Keith Price’s key supporting offensive cast from last season (including RB Chris Polk and wideouts Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar) will have to be replaced.

34-AUBURN...Cam Newton’s brief stopover on The Plains in 2010 must have seemed like a dream to Tiger backers who watched Cam’s successors struggle mightily a year ago as Auburn fell considerably from its BCS title run the previous year. With o.c. Gus Malzahn departing for the HC job at Arkansas State, look for a different sort of Tiger offense this fall that will focus more on the run under new o.c. Scott Loeffler, who turned Temple’s “O” into a ground-gobbling machine a year ago; expect big yards from sr. RB Onterio McCalebb. The D” returns eight starters from a platoon that blooded many newcomers last fall, but HC Gene Chizik still needs more consistency from his QBs, whether it be Kiehl Frazier and Clint Moseley, to make a serious run at LSU, Bama, and Arkansas (which each destroyed the Tigers a year ago) in the SEC West.

35-RUTGERS...Greg Schiano’s surprise departure for the NFL Tampa Bay Bucs forced Rutgers into unexpected scramble mode last winter after the Scarlet Knights rebounded from a disappointing 2010 to a 9-4 mark last fall and a win in the Yankee Pinstripe Bowl. And after the 'Gers couldn’t land its main target (Florida International HC Mario Cristobal), it decided to promote long-serving assistant and OL coach Kyle Flood to the top spot. There is lots of optimism in Piscataway regarding a “D” that returns eight starters from a rock-ribbed platoon that ranked 8th in scoring (18.3 ppg) and 14th in total defense (314 ypg) a year ago and features plenty of playmakers such as LB Khaseem Greene (Big East Co-Defensive MVP), CB Logan Ryan, and FS Duron Harmon. A run at the Big East crown and BCS berth, however, will probably require Chas Dodd or Gary Nova emerging as 'the man" at QB.

36-NEVADA...The Wolf Pack picked a good year to move to the Mountain West, with league power TCU having departed and Boise State is a major rebuild mode. Last fall, HC Chris Ault found a proper QB to run his pet “Pistol” offense and a worthy successor to Colin Kaepernick in electric Cody Fajardo, who took over the QB job at midseason and wound up as the WAC’s Freshman of the Year. The Pack is never short on RBs so we’re not worried about the departure of last year’s top backs Lampford Mark and Mike Ball; Ault has been plugging in different runners with the same results since returning to the sidelines for a third time in 2004, and Stefphon Jefferson looks like a potential feature back. Getting WR Brandon Wimberly, with NFL skills, back in the fold after missing last season following a gunshot wound is also a boost for the offense. The Pack is looking for help from some juco imports on a defense which lost many of its key components (including a handful in NFL camps this summer), but the safety combo of Duke Williams and Marlon Johnson might be the Mountain West’s best.

37-PURDUE...It helps Purdue that the Big Ten might be collectively down this season, and the non-conference part of the schedule (save for a trip to Notre Dame) appears very manageable. Coach Danny Hope, under some fire at this time a year ago, is optimistic that the program turned a corner last fall when getting back to a bowl and winning it (Little Caesar’s vs. Western Michigan), and the Boilermakers should be entering the season with healthy QBs for the first time in Hope’s four years as head coach, with sr. Caleb TerBush the likely starter for the opener vs. Eastern Kentucky. As long as RB Ralph Bolden is recovered from a late-season knee injury, and Hope can get star LB Dwayne Beckford back in the fold after his suspension (and potential reinstatement) following off-field problems, Purdue can get back to another bowl.

38-PITT...The Panthers might have unknowingly walked into a better situation for themselves when HC Todd Graham made a surprise departure (via text message) to Arizona State last winter, and the Panthers ended up with respected Wisconsin o.c. Paul Chryst as the new coach. Hopefully, Pitt now won’t have to worry about looking over its shoulder as any employer of the peripatetic Graham must do. Chryst would like to import the Wisconsin power-based offense to Heinz Field, and Pitt will have more of a pro-style look after Graham’s spread formations last year. All of the key skill-position weapons return, and we’ll see if star RB Ray Graham is back to 100% after last season’s knee injury, but a deep corps of RBs and an excellent run-blocking core seem good fits for the new Chryst offense. Whether much-maligned QB Tino Sunseri is up to the task is another question, and the “D” took plenty of graduation hits in the front seven. There should, however, be several potential wins on the Big East portion of the slate, enough to get the Panthers back to a bowl.

39-VIRGINIA...It didn’t take long for HC Mike London to become a popular name among athletic directors at big-name programs who might be looking for a new head coach after UVa made a surprise run to the Chick-fil-A Bowl last December. Plenty of playmakers return on offense, including an established QB (which the Cavs didn’t have at this time last year) in jr. Michael Rocco, who emerged as a force when passing for almost 2700 yards a year ago. The Cavs are also deep at RB, where Perry “Superman” Jones (1498 all-purpose yards in 2011) rates as one of the ACC’s best. Virginia must replace seven defensive starters, but London’s recipe of balanced offense, aggressive defense, and ability to recruit (the Cavs are now beating Virginia Tech for some preps out of the talent-rich Tidelands area, long a Hokie stronghold) suggest the ‘Hoos get back to another bowl.

40-TEXAS A&M...There are plenty of other leagues that would be easier to move into than the SEC--especially the Western half of the loop. Which is what A&M is doing this fall after its well-publicized trransfer from the Big 12. New coach Kevin Sumlin, however, stewarded prolific attacks at Houston and brings o.c. Kliff Kingsbury with him to install the same spread-based offense at College Station. Unfortunately, Ag QB Ryan Tannehill left for the NFL, but Sumlin inherits one of the nation’s best lines with all five starters returning, and SEC sources say strong-armed soph QB Jameill Showers has many of the same characteristics as Sumlin’s productive Cougar QB Case Keenum. SEC defenses will provide more difficult roadblocks than those in CUSA, but A&M has proven playmakers in RB Christine Michael and wideouts Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu. Questions on defense in a rebuilt line and secondary likely prevent any serious challenge to LSU and Alabama in the West, but as long as Showers is as good as regional insiders suggest, A&M will at least be throwing some haymakers (and maybe landing a few) vs. the SEC heavies, likely doing enough to get bowl-eligible in the process.

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