The Top 25 Countdown: Who’s NO. 1? The SEC

Who’s No. 1?. The favorites are clear: Alabama, USC, LSU or Oklahoma will get most of the support to be playing in Miami next January.

We’re not  sure yet, but we are almost certain of one thing: An SEC team will be in the mix–the conference has won the last 6 national titles and this year is no different. In fact, it’s so close that we have co-No. 1’s. Five times.

But who will be in the other slot in the BCS title game? Who will be in the other BCS bowls? So let us begin.

No. 25

WASHINGTON—The Huskies will be full of themselves after opening the season against San Diego State—presumably with a solid win. Maybe this will be the year they break through not only into the upper tier of the Pac-12, but also into the Top 25. This is Coach Steve Sarkasian’s fourth season in Seattle and it’s time to make the move. Right? Is it ever. The last conferencetitle for the Huskies was in 2000.

Before you can go all the way forward, Huskies faithful will have to step back for a week. The game in Baton Rouge on September 8 will not be pretty. LSU is not going to lose to many teams this season—if any. And certainly not in Baton Rouge to this group of Huskies.

Sarkasian has 13 starters returning including QB Keith Price, who completed 66.9 percent of his passes last season and is the best QB in the Pac-12 outside of Matt Barkley. Price will have WR Kasen Williams and TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins as playmates. Both are experience sophomores instead of highly touted freshmen.

The problem the Huskies have will be on defense, which allowed almost 36 points per game last season.

Still, other than USC. Stanford and Oregon, Washington looks like it can play with anybody and it gets USC and Stanford at home. That’s the good news. The bad news is that both of those games as well as a game at Oregon on Oct. 6 are all in the first half of the season. Throw in the LSU game and the Huskies might have four losses in their first 6 games. But a long winning streak at the end of the season is very possible, if not probable.

No. 24

NORTH CAROLINA STATE–You could hear the excitement in Tom O’Brien’s voice when he talked about his team and what could happen in 2012. He talked about a team that was 8-5 last season, but finished with three straight wins, including a 31-24 victory over Louisville in the Belk Bowl. He talked about 15 starters coming back, led by fifth year senior QB Mike Glennon, who  O’Brien has said has reminded him of former Boston College and Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan–that is high praise since O’Brien recruited Matty Ice at BC and watched him turn into a first-round quality NFL Player. He talked about a veteran offensive line to not only provide solid protection for Glennon and open holes for RB James Washington. He talked about a core defense which will have four starters returning in the defensive back field, led by cornerback David Amerson, who had an ACC record 13 interceptions last season. How good is this Wolfpack team? Well, O’Brien picked up safety Tim Buckley as a transfer from Penn State this summer and will use him as a back-up. That’s depth That sounds like a team and a program going in the right direction. If the Wolfpack can avoid the injuries which have plagued them each of O’Brien’s first five seasons in Raleigh, they might be more than good.

No. 23

LOUISVILLE–Someone needs to win the Big East and it might as well be the Cardinals. Someone needs to fill the gap left by the departure of West Virginia which jumped to the Big 12 Is is only a touch ironic that Louisville might join them next season? Anyway, back to the present, which means that last season’s 7-6 team should be at least two games better than that this season. Why? Well first of all we have the non-conference schedule–Kentucky, Missouri State, North Carolina, FIU and Southern Miss. That sounds like a solid 4-1. Then there is the soft state of the Big East. Then there is the maturity factor. Cardinal coach Charlie Strong had to start 11 freshmen last season at some point in the year. This year he might not start any freshmen. And then there is QB Teddy Bridgewater, who will be a sophomore starter this season and have a veteran offensive line in front of him. There are some questions on defense which could mean some speed bumps along the way. Overall, however, Louisville looks talented enough  to win the Big East–which means a BCS bid and with any luck at all 10 wins could make Strong a coach of the year candidate.

No. 22

FLORDA–The Gators as a second tier SEC team? Say it’s not so Gator Nation. But when you have defending national champion Alabama, when you have the Tide’s SEC West playmates LSU and Arkansas, when you have Florida’s SEC East travel partners South Carolina and Georiga all ranked ahead of you, sixth place is abou what you get and that’s not the top shelf of the SEC which is going after it’s seventh consecutive national championship.

Still, coach Will Muschamp has 16 starters returning from last year’s 7-6 team, including 10 on defense. He has an offense which will be led by a quarterback combo of Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel and coached by OC Brent Pease, who was last seeon guiding Boise State QB Kellen Moore to all sorts of rscords and wins.  All of that should keep the Gators in the hunt for something for most of the season.

No. 21

NEBRASKA–Are the Huskers ready to make the move? You know which move. After decades of being THE team or one of the teams that was alwayys penciled in as contender for the Big 8, Big 12 title,  Nebraska’s impact as a power in the Big Ten has been sporadic. Last year produced a 9-4 record, but the Big Ten is still Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan State and, perhaps once again, Michigan in terms of BCS bids and titles. Maybe that will change this year for Coach Bo Pellini’s team.  Pellini has 8 starters back on offense including QB Taylor Martinez. He also has 7 starters back on defense, which is in Pellini’s wheelhouse, although there doesn’t seem to be any super star ready to emerge on defense. The schedule is tolerable–Southern Miss, UCLA, Arkansas State and Idaho State are the non-conference match ups. So maybe this can be  a break through Big Ten season for the Huskers.

No. 20

STANFORD–Yes, there is life without Andrew Luck. How pleasant it will be for Coach David Shaw’s team remains to be seen. Replacing Luck will be difficult and either sophomore Brett Nottingham or junior Josh Nunes will emerge as the Cardinal QB. The offense will have to rely on RB Stepfan Taylor, who is more than ready to fill the role of go-to-guy. Oh,  yes,  there is a freshman RB named Barry Sanders Jr. on the roster.  Defensively the Cardinals will need some inspiration. It could come fromm safety Ed Reynolds who missed last season with a knee injury. If  he comes back, if the QBs are at least adequate, the Cardinal will be at least in  the mix with Oregon and USC as a Pac-12 contender.

No. 19.

BOISE STATE–Kellen Moore is gone. And the remarkable run which produced a 73-6 record the past six seasons and thrust Boise from the mid-major into major player role may be slowing down if not coming to an end. But don’t count on it. Coach Chris Petersen has 26 seniors returning as the foundation for this season and then moving into the Big East (still sounds strange) next year. The key for this season will be at QB.  Joe Southwick looks like the odds on  favorite right now to get the job, but watch out for a QB of the future in freshman Nick Patti. The offensive line is solid and deep and RB D.J. Harper is ready to step into a starring role. Defensively, the Broncos have only two starters coming back, but CBS Jamar Taylor and Jerrell Given  can cover up most mistakes committed by inexperience in front of them.  Bottom line:  No BCS run this year, but 8 or 9 wins is definitely a possibility. Watch what happens in the opener at Michigan State for an indication of where Boise is and where it might be going.

No. 18

TEXAS–The Longhorns won 8 games last season which is good right? Well, at many places. But this is Texas and double digit victories are kind of expected from the school which Coach Mack Brown had turned back into  a national power. Well, the Longhorns and Brown are slowly climbing back into the championship hunt ring. Brown has 15 starters returning, including solid players on the offensive and defensive line. Brown has a QB decision to make between David Dash and Case McCoy (Yes, Colt’s younger brother) Ash looks better, but you never know with a McCoy.  Watch out for freshman RB Johnathan Gray and a defense led by DEs Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat. The  Longhorns also have to watch out for a three game stretch which matches them against Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Oklahoma, the powers  in the Big 12 this season. Count on Texas to be good this season. Just how good remains to be seen.

No. 17

VIRGINIA TECH–Make book on this. The Hokies will be better at the end of the season than they are at the start. Frank Beamer coached teams always improve, which might be good news for Georgia Tech, which faces the Hokies in a Labor Day night opener in Blacksburg, but bad news for Florida State which must deal with Tech in Blacksburg on Nov. 8.  The Hokies will rely on the skills of QB Logan Thomas and a tough Beamer-ball type of defense. Everything inbetween is subject to change. Watch out for redshirt freshman RB Michael Holmes. Overall, this looks like a transitional year, which means 8 or 9 wins and a Top 20 type ranking

No. 16

OKLAHOMA STATE—Last year’s dream season (12-1, Fiesta Bowl bid) is history. So is QB Brandon Weeden. That’s the bad news. The good news is that 16 starters return for a team that can win at least 9 games this season. The key question for Coach Mike Gundy is how long he will go with a true freshman–West Lunt–at QB. There will be some setbacks, but with a veteran offensive line and a nasty defense, the Cowboys should play a role in the Big  12 race–perhaps as  spoilers to Oklahoma and West Virginia and maybe TCU. If you want to take a look at a defensive player who might make an impact check out DT Calvin Barnett, who could anchor the Dline after coming out of Arkansas and  JC.

No. 15

TCU–Lots of new stuff with the Horned Frogs. New conference, new stadium. But coach Gary Patterson’s team wants to keep the old time attitude of winnin which TCU developed to another level during its stay in the Mountain West. Leading the way will be QB Casey Pachall who did a nice job of making Frog fans forget Andy Dalton. Throw in some talented playmates in the backfield such as Ed Wesley, Matthew Tucker and Waymon James who produced more than 2000 yards of offense. Off the field drug issues–Pachall admitted he had failed a drug test, but has been cleared to play–could be in issue if depth becomes a problem since 8 players were bounced in the spring. Don’t expect miracles from TCU, but don’t expect a drop into the also ran heap either.

No. 14.

CLEMSON–The Tigers are always an adventure. As talented as almost any team in the country, Clemson can beat–and lose–to anyone on any given day. Prime example of the latter was the 70-33 embarrassment to West  Virginia in the Orange Bowl last season.  That followed an impressive 38-10 rout of a good Virginia Tech in the ACC title game. The bottom line is that coach Dabo Sweeney has 15 starters returning including QB Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins and Andre Ellington, The showdown game will come early with a game at Florida State in September. Win that and anything is possible.

No. 13

WISCONSIN—Didn’t know about Wisconsin and the ACC connection did you. Well, last season, Russell Wilson transferred in from NC State and helped the Badgers make it to the Rose Bowl. Wilson is gone, but former Maryland QB Danny O’Brien is now the QB Jejour in Badger land. Throw in RB Monte Ball, who we assume will have recovered from his mugging, plus a defense that is just nasty enough to get the job done and you have a Big Ten contender at the very least. With a soft non-conference schedule and home games against other Big Ten conteders Michigan State and Ohio State and a three-peat is possible,if not probable

No. 12

MICHIGAN–The Wolverines are back–or almost back. They went to the Sugar Bowl last season as Coach Brady Hoke –more of a Michigan man than Rich Rod?–took Rich Rod’s kids and had them play like, well Michigan men. They are back again-led by QB Dennard Robinson and TB Toussant Robinson–presuming there are no more off the field escapades. But Hoke is bringing in his own players, who are good as well. The opener against Alabama will be tough–probably too tough. But after that, it looks wide open. If they can beat Michigan State on Oct. 20 in the Big House, a trip to the Rose Bowl is very possible. If not, a good bowl berth seems certain–maybe an Arizona vs. Michigan match up.

No. 11

MICHIGAN STATE–Here come the Spartans. Again. With 17 starters returning, Coach Mark Dantonio has the nucleus to make another Big Ten Division, if not title, run. The good news for the offense is that almost the entire offensive line is returning. The bad news is that the Spartans will have a new QB to replace Kirk Cousins. The chosen one is Andrew Maxwell and he will have to be good early since the Spartans take on Boise State, Notre Dame and Ohio State in the first month of the season. Survive that–all the games are in East Lansing–and anything is possible, including a trip  to the Rose Bowl

No. 10

FLORIDA STATE–Here’s the question of the day in the ACC and maybe around college football. How close is FSU to becoming the team that was a  perennial Top 5 (that would be in the country) power? Closer than you think. Coach Jimbo Fisher continues to move ahead into the post Bobby Bowden era with good players, good recruits and good teams. Now he needs to make the jump to the “great” category. QB E.J. Manuel leads 15 returning starters back which makes the Seminoles the favorites to win the ACC. A road game at VTech in November looks like the only real obstacle to an unbeaten regular season. But stuff happens, so we’ll wait and see until its done. But FSU is close, real close to being FSU.

No. 9

WEST VIRGINIA–New Conference. New challenge. New rivalries. The Mountaineers have moved from the Big East to the Big 12.  Can’t imagine the atmosphere for their game at Texas on Oct. 6th or the game in Morgantown against Oklahoma on Nov. 10. Make no mistake, they will be ready. Coach Dana Holgorsen has a Top 10 quality program. He’s got 15 starters returning from  last year’s championship team which ran over Clemson 70-33 in the Orange Bowl.  QB Geno Smith will lead the air/ground attack. Defensively, there may be some holes for new DC Joe DeForest to  plug, but there figures to be enough points on the board to make a serious run at the Big 12 title.

No. 8

OREGON–Chip Kelly flirted with Tampa Bay in the off-season, but passed on the NFL for more glory with the Ducks. Good move. Kelly’s teams are 36-6 in three years, which my jersey math tells me is 12-2. That sounds about right for this Duck  team. Maybe even 13-1 since no one other than USC can really look these guys in the eye. Only 4 offensive starters return, but RB Kenjon Barner is one of them and a defense which has a great linebacking group and six returning veterans on the defensive line should cover up any mistake the offense makes. Even with a loss to USC, Oregon still could make it back to the Rose Bow..

No. 7.

OKLAHOMA–Landry Jones. Landry Jones. Landry Jones. If you want to know how the Oklahoma sooners will do this year, watch what the Jones, the OU quarterback does. If you want to know if the Sooners can make it to South Florida for the BCS title game in January watch what Jones does. Too simple? Maybe. But Jones’ decision not to go to the NFL after last season was the key factor in the Sooners hopes. With 17 starters returning, Coach Bob Stoops team is loaded.  The schedule is managable–a road game at West Virginia in November could be for the Big 12 title. We are guessing there will be one unexpexcted stumble, which  will cost the Sooners.

No. 6

USC* Notice the asterisk. We think USC will be no worse than No.-which means a spot in the BCS title game in Miami. But check below for what USC must overcome. With Matt Barkley and no fewer than 8 potential All Pac-12 players in the starting line up and gthe addition of Penn State RB Silas Redd, there isn’t a weakness to be found and there is also depth.  Lane Kiffin has built and recuited well. Now the Trojans just have to make sure they don’t stumble against Oregon (Nov.3 at the Coliseum) and they will be sailing to Miami.

No. 5, No.4, No. 3 No.2  and No. 1

Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, LSU and Alabama

Since the SEC has won the last 6 national championships and since they have five quality teams ranked in the Top 10, we figure to make an SEC entry-No. 1.

One of these teams will be in BCS title game in Miami, presumably against USC. You make the call.

Let’s look at each of them briefly.

ARKANSAS–No Bobby Petrino, which will hurt since Petrino is a good coach, despite his off the field issues. But John L. Smith knows how to draw some decent X’s and O’s and 17 starters including QB Tyler Wilson and a defense which should mature steadily during the season will make things go smoother.  Alabama and LSU both have to come to Arkansas, so anything is possible.

SOUTH CAROLINA–The old ball coach Steve  Spurrier might have his best team ever in Columbia. He has a quarterback he likes in Connor Shaw and a RB he loves in Marcus Lattimore. Defensively, he has studs on the defensive line and Alabama isn’t on the schedule. Back to back t games against Georgia, LSU and Florida (the last two on the road) will determine Carolina’a fate.

GEORGIA–Remember all that fire Mark Richt talk last season. All the Dawgs did was go 10-4, make it to the SEC title game and re-establish themselves as the team to beat in the SEC East. Not  much has changed this season. QB Aaron Murray has Heisman potential and the Georgia defebse will be meaner than a bunch of junk yard dawgs. A return trip to the SEC title game is likely, Beyond that, well maybe, could be, who knows.

LSU–The Tigers might still repeat as SEC champions, but losing DB Tyrann Mathieu will hurt, no question. But there are still more than a few stars on the defensive unit which may be the best in college football–wagtch out for defensive end Sam Montogomery. Offensively, QB Zach Mettenberger is ready to step up big time and he has a veteran offensive line to protect him.  The Alabama game in Baton Rouge.

ALABAMA–It is always risky business to pick against a Nick  Saban coached team which has talent. Say hello to the 2012 Crimson Tide. Yes, RB Trent Richardson is gone, but QB A.J. McCarron returns and four starters return from an offensive line that could open holes in the NFL. Defensively, there might be a little bit of drop off as new faces take over old places, but not much. It should be Bama and LSU for the SEC West and beyond that….Well don’t pick against an SEC team being in Miami and it just might be the Tide again.


© 2012, Mark. All rights reserved.

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