Editor's Note: Each year, John Harris compiles his favorites, predictions, and all-around winners for the upcoming college football season. Here are his thoughts on 2012.
East - Georgia
I've never been one to ride the coattails of the Georgia Bulldogs, partly because I don't trust them, honestly. But, the Dawgs are different in my eyes this year due to the combination of the Hit-Dawg defense, led by All-American OLB Jarvis Jones, and QB Aaron Murray.
I do worry about the Gameocks in Columbia, but I think Georgia is just a bit more complete, especially at the quarterback position. If freshman RB Todd Gurley is the real deal, then the Dawgs will have the multi-faceted offense they've yearned to have for years.
West - LSU
LSU is still stacked, even without the myth of the Honey Badger taking what it (bleeping) wants. Furthermore, Alabama is coming to Baton Rouge in 2012, so I'll give them the slight edge to win this heavy hitting half of the SEC. Sure, the Tigers will "road trip" it to Auburn and Arkansas, but I'm not buying the Arkansas hype... as it pertains to the "Hogs are a top eight team" hype. The loss of Bobby Petrino is going to be felt a lot more than most people are letting on. LSU's offense will be more balanced with QB Zach Mettenberger under center and the nation's "ugliest" running games…and ugly is a good thing if you're an LSU fan.
Conference champ - LSU
Those that won't get much acclaim but will impact the 2012 season:
New talent I'm interested in seeing:
I love what James Franklin is doing in Nashville and this isn't to say that Vandy will be in the mix for the SEC East title, but this is a solid 7-8 win team this season. QB Jordan Rodgers must take the next step in his growth as a quarterback, but I believe that'll happen and that should really open up the offense for star RBs Zac Stacy and Warren Norman.
I don't get all hung up on returning QBs all that much, but there are situations in which you have to have SOMEONE take a snap under center that has some ability. LSU found out the hard way that game managers can only take you so far…up to the 50-yard line, mainly. But, that said, if Kiehl Frazier can take over as The Man in Auburn, I think the Tigers could make things very uncomfortable for LSU and Arkansas at home. Having ten returning defensive starters is, well, a start, but having Brian Van Gorder arriving on campus to coordinate that defense might be even more important.
UNDER on Ole Miss 5.5 (under -320 is the favorite)
I don't love favorites, from a value perspective, but there is no way Ole Miss gets to six wins this year. None. Don't believe me?? Okay, say the Rebs beat Central Arkansas, UTEP, Tulane and best case scenario Vanderbilt…and I'm not buying that at all. So, best case scenario, that's four wins. So, that means Rebs have to beat two of the following…Texas, Texas A&M, Alabama, Auburn, Arkansas, Georgia, LSU and Mississippi State (only four of those at home). Go under.
Conference Winner - Texas
I'm feeling a little bit sassy with this one, but I truly can't put my "predictable weight" behind a team that has lost not one, but two potential All-Big 12 offensive linemen. Now, Oklahoma does have Landry Jones and some explosiveness in the defensive back seven, so selecting Texas to win the Big 12 is more of a gut feeling than it is "sure thing".
Texas still has a QB "situation", but if David Ash, the 2011 Holiday Bowl Offensive MVP, can provide just solid play from that position, the Horns are going to be dangerous with one of the best defenses in the nation. If Ash can "win" September, beating Ole Miss and Oklahoma State on the road to close the month, the most difficult road game left on the schedule is at Kansas State on December 1st. As usual, it'll come down to beating OU in Dallas…yet again.
The Cyclones may no longer be a surprise; I guess that little Friday night 37-31 OT win over Oklahoma State last year ruined it for Paul Rhoads' Iowa State squad sneaking up on people in 2012. However, with TCU and West Virginia entering the Big 12, alongside Texas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, it's easy to overlook the pesky Cyclones. LB A.J. Klein and Jake Knott are one of the best LB duos in the nation, while the offense has improved each of the last 3 years, however former OC Tom Herman has moved on to Ohio State.
Regardless, Iowa State's success will come down to the consistent play at the quarterback position and it's imperative that Steele Jantz (named the starter last week) and/or Jared Barnett (led the Cyclones to the aforementioned win over OSU) find that level of play.
OVER Iowa State 4.5 wins (under -135)
Given the above rhetoric, Iowa State is my OVER play in the Big 12. If Iowa State beats Iowa on the road and Texas Tech at home in September, combined with wins over Tulsa and Western Illinois, it'll take one more win to get to five. Don't think it'll be a walk in the park, but this is a five win team at a minimum... and that's all it takes to get to the over.
North - Oregon
There is hardly a year in which a Rose Bowl winning team loses a record-setting QB and the school's all-time best running back and is even better the following season. However, that's the level of success I'm projecting for the Ducks in 2012. With Marc Mariota taking over at QB and Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas seeing the lion's share of the touches offensively, the Ducks may have their most explosive unit since Chip Kelly took over as offensive coordinator in 2007.
However, it's the defensive unit that may surprise teams this season in the Pac-12. DE Dion Jordan is a legit edge player, while the linebacker trio will be the most athletic and productive unit that defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti has put on the field in quite some time. The Ducks get Stanford at home but must go to USC in November for one of two meetings with the Trojans (presumably). Win that one and the Pac-12 championship game will back in Eugene for the second consecutive season.
South - USC
It's clear; this is USC's best team in quite some time. Now, it's easy to get lost in the glut of perimeter player talent that USC possesses, but the key to the season will be up front on both the offensive and defensive lines. C Khaled Holmes leads an experienced group that must find a replacement for All-American Matt Kalil at left tackle.
In addition, the defensive line must find some help for DE Wes Horton, especially so after Devon Kennard was injured early in summer camp. USC has tricky road games earlier in the season at Stanford and at Utah, but pass those tests and the Ducks will arrive on November 3rd for the Pac-12 Game of the Year…well, part one of the two part series.
Conference Winner - Oregon
I know I'm not alone in thinking Utah could be a major surprise in the Pac-12. Now, I don't believe the Utes will challenge USC for the Pac-12 South title, but this is a team with a ton of talent…and if all healthy, it could be dangerous. It starts with the health of QB Jordan Wynn. He missed the majority of the 2011 season, but he's the key to the Utes offense ability to take the next step. But, he has help. RB John White IV ran for over 116 yards per game as a junior and is a beast, even at 5'8" and 186 pounds. The defense has the conference's best player (Lotulelei), two Krugers and 3/4th of last year's secondary returning. The only thing that worries me a bit is the relative lack of experience up front on the offensive line, but there is a lot to like, including the schedule this year in Salt Lake City.
OVER on Utah 7.5 wins (under is the favorite at -130)
Again, my surprise team makes sense as an over play. The Utes have three winnable non-conference games, not to mention a Pac-12 South schedule with highly winnable crossover games with Cal, Oregon State, Washington State and Washington. The only team that I would say will definitively knock off Utah is USC, but that game is still in Rice-Eccles. I could see the Utes at 4-0 going into the open week prior to USC's arrival. Even if Kyle Whittingham's crew doesn't get a W against the Trojans, there should be four more wins the rest of the way against UCLA, Oregon State, Cal, Washington State, Washington, Arizona and Colorado. The Utes have to finish 4-3 with a 4-1 start. I think that can definitely happen.
Legends - Michigan State
Quietly, the Michigan State defense has grown into one of the top four units in the nation and it's that unit that'll carry Sparty through some early season growing pains. QB Andrew Maxwell has been groomed to be The Man for a while and he should be ready for "prime time" as the Spartans leader on offense. But, don't be surprised if the offense becomes the Le'Veon Bell show. The Spartans 6'2"/238 pound hammer will be a load for any defense to handle behind an experienced offensive line, led by one for the conference's best run blocking linemen, Chris McDonald.
Leaders - Wisconsin
Choosing Wisconsin to win the Leaders division is more a default selection, with Ohio State and Penn State serving post-season probation. That said, this is a program primed to win another 10 games under the leadership of head coach Bret Bielema. Now, don't expect a Russell Wilson-like season from 2012 "free agent" Danny O'Brien, but he, at least, has starting experience, having started at Maryland prior to arriving at Wisconsin. Even if O'Brien can't replicate Wilson's success, he'll still be able to hand the ball to Montee Ball as much as the 2011 Heisman finalist can take it. Running behind a tremendous offensive line, Ball should have another successfully productive season in Madison.
Conference winner - Michigan State
Similar to Vanderbilt, I don't foresee Purdue knocking off Wisconsin in October to win the Leaders division, but I do think the Boilermakers are sitting on eight wins on a schedule that is quite fair, to say the least. Even if the Boilers lose to Notre Dame in the second week, they should be 3-1 entering Big 10 play with Michigan and Wisconsin coming to West Lafayette in consecutive weeks. That said, after the Wisconsin-Michigan-Ohio State triple play, the Boilers finish with five highly winnable games (three on the road - Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois and two at home - Penn State and Indiana). With seemingly a harem of quarterbacks that have started or taken snaps under center, the offense should be diverse, to say the least. WR Antavian Edison has a chance to be a true game breaker, but the NFL talent on this team on defense will keep it competitive all season long. DT Kawann Short and CB Ricardo Allen are the two stars on a defense that returns a total of seven starters.
UNDER on Michigan 9 wins (under -140 is the favorite)
I just don't think there is any to WIN this bet by going OVER. You can push or you can lose. I can't truly see Michigan winning 10 games for the second consecutive season, with games against Alabama in Arlington, Notre Dame in South Bend, Ohio State in Columbus and Nebraska in Lincoln.
Of course, I haven't even mentioned a home game with "little brother" (yeah, right) Michigan State, which has beaten Michigan four straight times. To get to 9 wins, the Wolverines can't trip up once against the teams it should beat and it has to beat three of the aforementioned teams. Even with Denard Robinson back at QB, I don't think this team has 10 wins in it. 9 maybe, but that only gets you a push.
Think about it this way: Michigan is the #8 team in the nation, right? Right. Since when does the #8 team in the country ever project to less than 10 wins? Vegas knows something on this one. I agree. Go UNDER.
OVER on Purdue 6.5 wins (under -150 is the favorite)
Seven games is a winner, right? Right. So, given the information above, let's say the Boilers lose at Notre Dame and lose all 3 to Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State. The Boilers need to win four of the final five games, but look above at the final five. There are definitely four wins in that mix. If Purdue "upsets" any of either ND, Wisconsin, Ohio State or Michigan, you'll have a winner by the first week of November.
Coastal - Virginia Tech
The Hokies have been the consistent dominant force in the ACC Coastal Division since the ACC moved to the two division format in 2005. There will be little change in 2012, even though nationally, most are overlooking the Hokies. With QB Logan Thomas leading the offense in his second year as a starter, the offense will work out the kinks as the season progresses. Sure, the Hokies will miss David Wilson, Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale, but don't expect the offense to slow to a crawl.
Defensively, the Hokies have a bunch of lunch pail, hard hat wearing tough guys who play better together as a group. The Georgia Tech opener is tricky, but seeing that option in week one having had all summer to prepare for it might be the best thing for the Hokies pursuit for another Coastal crown.
Atlantic - Florida State
Well, Jimbo, it's time to crap or get off the toilet. If this team isn't going to get it done, it might be time to take a long, hard look at the Seminoles inability to win a championship with some of the best high school recruited talent in the state of Florida. The problem in some sense is that this team has one gaping hole that has me totally and completely concerned - the offensive line. Well, that and the fact that there isn't one offensive threat that concerns opposing defensive coordinators.
But, with Clemson coming to Tallahassee, I'm rolling with the Seminoles knocking them off and taking care of business to meet Virginia Tech a second time in the ACC Champi0nship game.
Conference Winner - Virginia Tech
Man, there is something that I really like about QB Mike Glennon. I wasn't a huge fan of his brother Sean at Virginia Tech, but dadgum, Mike has a cannon for a right arm. He's one of a solid group of quarterbacks returning in the ACC, but I think he's ready to break through in 2012. Defensively, even with the loss of LBs Audie Cole and Terrell Manning, the Wolfpack will be primed to have a strong season. CB David Amerson is the nation's best cornerback and had 13 interceptions last season
UNDER on Boston College 5.5 wins (under -245 is the favorite)
There weren't a ton of totals to get excited about in the ACC, so I don't feel all tingly inside about this one, especially because it's a huge favorite. But, that said, getting six wins is going to be a chore and a half. The season starts with Miami in week one and a trip to Northwestern in week three before the ACC season kicks in. Best case, the Eagles are 2-1, more than likely 1-2, so at best, the Eagles have to come up with four wins over the next ten weeks of the season.
Only Army seems to be a "sure" thing and even that game is at West Point. The Eagles have four other road games - FSU, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and NC State, but the home schedule may be even more difficult - Clemson, Notre Dame, Maryland and Virginia Tech. I'd give them wins over Maine, Army and Maryland and one upset, but that's only four. You need six to go over. Go under. Way under.
Conference Winner - Louisville
This is largely because I'm not totally convinced any team is any better option to win the league. QB Teddy Bridgewater is the best returning offensive weapon in the conference, well, one that didn't tear up his knee last year (looking at you Pitt RB Ray Graham). Head coach Charlie Strong has the Cardinals in position to strike, especially now that West Virginia has migrated into the Big 12.
Any team that can win 10 games in the conference. If any team can do that, then it'll be a huge surprise.
UNDER on Temple 4.5 wins (under -195 is the favorite)
Going back into the Big East, I don't project the Owls to rock the conference with a six win bowl season, or even a five win season that would help you win the over. I don't know that Temple knocks off any team in conference and the out-of-conference match ups include Villanova, Penn State, Maryland and Army. With Penn State's issues, the Owls might knock them off, but the game is in Happy Valley. That said, if the Owls lose to Penn State, the Owls must beat two other Big East teams to get to the over. I don't see that happening.
OVER on Rice 3.5 wins (under -150 is the favorite)
Maybe I'm a little bit of a "city of Houston" homer (yeah, trust me, there are plenty that'll argue against that though), but I like the over on Rice in 2012. The Owls finished 4-8 the past two seasons. Suffice to say, it's a more talented team, playing a more manageable schedule. The Owls' non-conference is, well, fair, is that right word?? UCLA, Kansas, La. Tech and UTSA.
Say Rice gets two of those, which is reasonable, that would mean finishing, at a minimum 2-6 in C-USA play in a year in which there is no truly outstanding program or programs leading the way. I think 5 or 6 wins might be pushing it just a bit, but I could see David Bailiff's crew getting to four wins, which is good value as of this point.