The quest for the national championship is really just the Heisman Trophy race writ large, so I would be remiss if I failed to provide the proper, bigger-picture context for my views. For instance, a commentator asked me below “Why not Keith Price for the Heisman?” To which I responded that I do not think that Washington will be good enough for Price to warrant such attention. Which really means that, as good as Price is–and I think he’s very good–he’s probably not good enough to elevate his team to the level that, say, Robert Griffin III elevated his team. Which means he ain’t going to win the Heisman.
That all said, it’s time to put in my two cents on how the team race is shaping up. A lot will change between now and September. Knees will blow out, arrests will be made, tests will be flunked and recruiting classes will be added, thus ensuring that this list changes down the road. But for now, here’s how I see it:
1. USC – The Trojans have the best combination of elite talent and favorable schedule in 2012, so they nab the top spot for now. The roster features the nation’s finest collection of skill players (including what I think is the most talented receiving corps in college football history), plus four returners on the offensive line, a four-year starter and Heisman front runner at quarterback and everyone from the defensive back seven. Add in the likelihood of being favored by double digits in 11 of 12 regular season games and it all points to the kind of season that even Lane Kiffin can’t screw up. Right?
2. Georgia – The Bulldogs return perhaps the SEC’s best quarterback in Aaron Murray. They’ve got perhaps the best defensive player in linebacker Jarvis Jones. The combination of sophomore Isaiah Crowell and freshman Keith Marshall at tailback should be lethal. This is a team that hit its stride toward the end of last year. I think it will carry over into 2012 and, more importantly, there’s no early-season matchup with the likes of Boise State.
3. Clemson – To all those who think that Clemson’s Orange Bowl disaster has any bearing on how it will do in 2012, I say pshaw! Clemson’s 2011 squad was loaded with young and inexperienced talent and managed to win the ACC anyway. I don’t buy the ‘oh, it’s Clemson and Clemson always messes up’ line. The old Tiger choke squads wouldn’t have won the ACC with a first-year starting quarterback and a bevy of freshmen all over the place. Most of those players are back and saltier from the experience. Quarterback Tajh Boyd had a huge year as a sophomore and he’ll be even better as a junior. All the top rushers return. Rising sophomore Sammy Watkins is the nation’s best wide receiver. The defense returns most of its key performers. This is a team ready to move up in class and challenge for the national title.
4. Oregon – The inexplicable entry of quarterback Darron Thomas into the NFL draft will actually improve the Ducks in the long run. Either Brian Bennett or Marcus Mariota will have Oregon at 8-0 heading to the Coliseum for the huge matchup with the Trojans in November. Unfortunately for Oregon, it has no one who can cover USC’s receivers. This will be yet another explosive and high-quality squad led by Heisman candidate De’Anthony Thomas, but the Ducks might be a year away from being truly dominant.
5. Florida State – I’m not a big fan of Jimbo Fisher as a head coach, to put it mildly, but there might be enough talent on hand this time to overwhelm his glaring shortcomings. The Seminoles should field a special defense led by end Bjoern Werner and safety LaMarcus Joyner, while the offense should be solid so long as E.J. Manuel and the offensive line stays healthy. There are a lot of playmakers on hand and if Fisher can finally figure out how to use them with consistency, this team could be special.
6. Oklahoma – The Sooners return everyone on offense except for record-setting wide out Ryan Broyles. Quarterback Landry Jones is back for the umpteenth year, but I’d like to see more Blake Bell, thank you very much. The Sooners defense returns eight starters and the schedule is manageable. This team should hit the ground running.
7. Alabama – Most early polls have Bama and LSU in the top 3. Mine doesn’t. The Tide lost a lot of big-time players on defense and I think Ed Lacy is a clear dropoff from Trent Richardson at running back. The Tide also loses its top four pass catchers. This team is still loaded, but much of the talent is young and will need a learning curve. The schedule includes a neutral site tilt with Michigan and trips to Arkansas, Missouri and LSU. Look out for Bama again in ’13, but this is a bit of a rebuilding year.
8. TCU – If any of the other non-AQ teams were thrust into a major conference like the Big 12, I would worry for them and their ability to adjust. Not so with TCU which, after all, used to be part of the famed Southwest Conference, so this is merely a return to its rightful place in a prominent league. TCU brings a unique style to the Big 12 and I think it’s one that much of the conference will have difficulty adjusting to at first. This is a loaded Horned Frog team coming off an 11-2 season in which it lost two games by a combined 9 points. Things could be even better this year.
9. Michigan – The Wolverines start out the season in an enviable position. To wit, the opener against Alabama is really a no-lose situation. An early loss wouldn’t really ruin the season, while an unexpected win over a Tide team fresh off a national title could spark Michigan to a title run of its own. Brady Hoke has this program on the right track and a top-flight recruiting class should give quarterback Denard Robinson enough support to finish out his career on a high note.
10. Arkansas – The Razorbacks lose some real playmakers at wide receiver, but they do return quarterback Tyler Wilson plus elite running back Knile Davis. Once again, this offense should be quite good. However, question marks remain on defense. If they ever get solved, this could be a dark horse title contender.
On the cusp: West Virginia, LSU, South Carolina, Ohio State, Stanford, Kansas State