Philadelphia, PA – The 2012 season is about a month and a half away and although there are 120 full-time members in the FBS ranks, there are only a handful of legitimate contenders for the national championship.
Here is an early list of the top teams heading into 2012 season and reasons they can reach the sport's pinnacle when all is said and done.
USC: THE SEC's reign over the FBS could come to an end in 2012, as USC is ready to make a huge statement following its NCAA-mandated sabbatical from the postseason. Lane Kiffin has done his due diligence in terms of recruiting and keeping the cupboard well-stocked and it could pay off this year. The return of Heisman favorite Matt Barkley under center definitely helps. He has matured into the nation's premier signal-caller and has parlayed that into what is expected to be the top-overall selection in the 2013 NFL Draft. With a pair of star receivers in Robert Woods and Marqise Lee on the outside, a veteran tailback in Curtis McNeil and a talented defensive unit, this team has the firepower to run the table. The non-conference schedule consists of Hawaii, Syracuse and Notre Dame, but the Irish come to the Coliseum to close out the year. The Trojans travel to Stanford early on, but the Cardinal no longer have Andrew Luck leading the charge, which should tip the scales in USC's favor. Oregon has been the conference's top team in USC's stead and will be the biggest challenge in 2012. However, the Trojans once again get this game at home and can match the Ducks explosiveness on offense and then some.
LSU: The Tigers found themselves outmatched in the BCS title game last year, getting blanked by Alabama (21-0). That hasn't happened very often to Les Miles' squad and may not happen again for quite a while. The Tigers real strength is on the defensive side of the football. There isn't a defense in the country as loaded as the one in Baton Rouge and it isn't even close in 2012. The Tigers have NFL caliber players at every level and could see four starters go in the first round of the 2013 Draft. It starts with a tenacious pass rush highlighted by ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. The secondary has its own dynamic duo in the form of Heisman finalist Tyrann Mathieu and Eric Reid. As good as the defense is, LSU's offense could be reason for concern, especially in tight games. Unlike USC. LSU lacks a seasoned veteran under center, instead pinning its hopes on Zach Mettenberger, a first-year starter, following a stint at junior college after leaving Georgia. While the non-conference slate is a bit underwhelming (North Texas, Washington, Idaho and Towson), the SEC slate more than makes up for it. Just how well Mettenberger handles the pressure on the road against Auburn, Florida and Arkansas, as well as treacherous home dates with South Carolina and Alabama, will ultimately decide the Tigers' fate.
OKLAHOMA: The Big 12 has a new look for 2012 with the additions of West Virginia and TCU, but there is every reason to believe that when the curtain closes on the 2012 campaign, it will be a familiar face sitting atop the standings in Oklahoma. Bob Stoops' squad is poised for a big season thanks in large part to the return of signal-caller Landry Jones. Like USC's Barkley, Jones passed up the big money of the NFL this year to take one more shot at FBS glory. The Sooners have as much offensive firepower as any team in the Big 12 and lighting up scoreboards should be a common occurrence. The return of a healthy Dominique Whaley in the backfield and the emergence of Kenny Stills on the outside will cause all kinds of problems for the opposition. The defense is in the hands of Mike Stoops again. He was part of the staff that won the national title in 2000 and should return the Sooners to their previous defensive glory. Tony Jefferson will be moved back to his natural safety position in 2012 and should thrive there as the defensive leader. Veteran leadership on both sides of the football is what will separate Oklahoma from the rest of the Big 12. The schedule is daunting, especially in-conference with Texas (Dallas), West Virginia and TCU all coming outside of Norman. The Sooners won 10 games in 2011, after winning 12 in 2010. Getting back to 12 won't come easy, but it is certainly attainable.
ALABAMA: The Crimson Tide have won two of the last three national titles and despite the loss of All-Americans on both sides of the football (Trent Richardson, Courtney Upshaw, Mark Barron), Nick Saban has done a tremendous job at creating a conveyor belt of talent in Tuscaloosa. This season, the team will need to rely more on quarterback A.J. McCarron. Helping McCarron's cause will be a veteran offensive line, anchored by All-American and reigning Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones. Linebacker Nico Johnson is ready to accept the role of defensive leader and will get plenty of support from safety Robert Lester. A star in the making is sophomore linebacker Adrian Hubbard (6- foot-6, 250), who could burst on the scene in 2012, possessing the talent to be one of the most dominant defenders in the country. Alabama opens with a hungry Michigan squad in Arlington, Texas and true road games at Arkansas, Missouri and LSU will be magnified even more with the bull's-eye that comes with being the defending champs. Still, Saban has three titles to his credit and counting him out is certainly not wise.
OREGON: The Ducks have played in four BCS Bowl games since the inception of the BCS (1998) and have certainly benefited from USC's restrictions the past few seasons, winning three straight conference crowns. However, the combination of losing stars Darron Thomas and LaMichael James, along with USC's return to national contention, could force Oregon down the Pac-12 ladder a peg. Still, Chip Kelly has created a juggernaut in Eugene, with Oregon winning 12 games in each of the last two seasons. The Ducks knocked off Wisconsin in a shootout to end the season, capturing their first Rose Bowl victory since 1916. Whether it is sophomore Bryan Bennett or freshman Marcus Mariota under center, they will have huge shoes to fill with Thomas' departure. One would assume the loss of James would be more crippling, but Oregon has more than enough talent in the backfield to assuage that loss. Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas are both ready to come out of James' shadow and prove they are dynamic ball carriers. A veteran offensive line is also a plus for Oregon. The team has posted double-digit wins in four straight seasons and a fifth is almost a lock. The schedule is favorable for the most part, with an early November date with USC at the Coliseum providing the measuring stick and determining Oregon's fate.
GEORGIA - Aaron Murray under center and Jarvis Jones on defense. The Bulldogs avoid both Alabama and LSU in the regular season. Enough said.
FLORIDA STATE - Stocked on both sides of the football. Jimbo Fisher may finally get his team to play up to its talent level.
SOUTH CAROLINA - The Gamecocks won 11 games last year and that is without star tailback Marcus Lattimore for half the season.
MICHIGAN - Strong debut by Brady Hoke. With great success comes great expectations. Opener against Alabama will tell the tale.
WEST VIRGINIA - New environment for the Mountaineers in the Big 12, but Geno Smith is still the man in charge and the wins will pile up in Morgantown.
ARKANSAS - Petrino is gone, but Knile Davis returns along with budding star Tyler Wilson to provide unequaled offensive balance.
OHIO STATE - Don't count out Urban Meyer making an early splash in Columbus.
KANSAS STATE - Collin Klein is the best quarterback you have never heard of. Can Bill Snyder work magic on the defensive side of the football though?
NEBRASKA - Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead are ready to take it to the next level. Remains to be seen if the rest of the Cornhuskers will follow.
WISCONSIN - Montee Ball returns to Madison and while his TDs will not rival last year's eye-popping total, the Badgers may actually rely more on him.