College Football: National Storylines
New Look Leagues
Conference realignment will yield a lot of changes to the college football landscape this season.
The SEC will welcome Missouri and Texas A&M to its lineup. Both failed to make much noise their last few seasons in the Big XII, so if either can manage a winning record in league play, it'll be a big statement to the rest of the conference. The Aggies, especially, could have a tough time competing in a loaded SEC West division that includes defending national champion Alabama, defending conference champion LSU, 2010 national champion Auburn and the No. 5 team in the final 2011 Associated Press poll, Arkansas.
West Virginia and TCU could make some noise in their first Big XII campaign. The Mountaineers return quarterback Geno Smith to a team that finished ranked No. 17 and obliterated Clemson 70-33 in the Orange Bowl last season. The Horned Frogs return quarterback Casey Pachall, who helped them close 2011 on an eight-game winning streak and completed 66.5 percent of his passes for 2,921 yards, 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
And Temple returns to a weakened Big East after holding opponents to just 13.9 points per game in 2011, an average ranked No. 3 nationally.
It should be interesting to see how these squads transition to their new homes.
The SEC is used to winning national championships. Conference members have claimed the last six BCS titles. But last season, the league placed both championship participants -- Alabama and LSU. Both will begin 2012 ranked atop the polls, too, which begs the question of what teams might be able to challenge them in the national picture.
Pac-12 squads Oregon and USC will have a good shot. The Trojans, looking to return to the postseason after a two-year bowl ban, bring back star quarterback Matt Barkley. After completing a staggering 69.1 percent of his passes for 3,528 yards, 39 touchdowns and seven interceptions last season, Barkley will start out as a favorite in the Heisman race and should make USC's offense tough to stop. The Ducks lose star running back LaMichael James, but should continue to deploy a fast-paced offense and battle the Trojans for the conference crown. It wouldn't be at all surprising if one of these teams emerges with a BCS title game berth.
Oklahoma could be a player on the national scene, too. Quarterback Landry Jones will be back after throwing for 4,463 yards, 29 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. If he can cut down his turnovers, the Sooners could easily sit in the top five as they did through the first half of last season.
If ever there was a season for Big Ten Leaders Division cellar dwellers like Indiana, Purdue and Illinois to make a run at a conference championship, this is it. With heavyweights Penn State and Ohio State both ineligible for the postseason, Wisconsin is the only team that stands in the way of some school in that trio playing a Legends Division foe for a ticket to the Rose Bowl. Admittedly, getting past the Badgers will be tough, but it's certainly better than having to get through traditional powers like the Lions and Buckeyes, too.
Aforementioned signal-callers Jones and Barkley should be in the running to take home the hardware in New York come December, but they won't be without competition.
Michigan's Denard Robinson is a threat in the air and on the ground. His passing numbers—2, 173 yards, 20 touchdowns and 15 picks on 55 percent completion—were modest last season. But combined with his 1,176 yards and 16 touchdowns rushing, they make him the biggest dual-threat in the game. If he can lead Michigan to the Rose Bowl or better, he'll have a lot of support.
Running backs Marcus Lattimore (South Carolina) and Montee Ball (Wisconsin) will have a say in the battle, too. Lattimore was on pace to rush for over 1,400 yards last season before a left knee injury kept him out of the Gamecocks' last six games. And Ball tied Barry Sanders' single-season touchdown record in 2011, finishing with 33 on the ground and six receiving. His 1,923 rushing yards weren't anything to scoff at, either.