It is easy to go with the chalk when forecasting the BCS National Championship this year. LSU, Alabama, USC, Oklahoma and Oregon are all loaded and ready to make their run in 2012.
Perched at or near the top of the national polls to begin the season is more than fortuitous, as there is a great track record of national champions beginning the season ranked in the top-five. This deserving quintet won't have far to climb to ascend the college football mountain if they simply stay the course.
However, there is a talented group of teams just below them, a second-tier of contenders that could make some noise if they exceed expectations and get a few breaks along the way.
GEORGIA - After losing its first two games in 2011, Georgia reeled off 10 straight wins and heads into 2012 with its swagger back. Mark Richt has gone from the coaching hot seat, to ready to make a national title run. What makes Georgia a legitimate contender? First and foremost, the Bulldogs have a stud under center in Aaron Murray. Although he isn't the biggest quarterback around.
Murray is a veteran of the SEC, earning all-conference second-team honors in 2011, completing nearly 60 percent of his throws, for over 3,100 yards and 35 touchdowns. The Georgia defense has a leader of its own in All-American LB Jarvis Jones. The 6-foot-3, 241-pounder could very well be the most dominant defender in the country and is on the short list for most defensive awards this year. His first season of action following his transfer from USC couldn't have gone better, as he led the SEC and ranked fifth nationally in sacks with 13.5. He also managed to rack up 19.5 TFLs and a mind-boggling 49 QB hurries.
Despite the star power on both sides of the football, Georgia's greatest asset is its schedule. The Bulldogs will have to travel to South Carolina in early October and to Auburn in early November, but they avoid Alabama, LSU and Arkansas altogether. A second straight SEC East crown is there for the taking and who knows what could happen in the conference title tilt.
FLORIDA STATE - Picked to win the ACC this year doesn't usually translate into national title contender, but the Seminoles are a loaded team chomping at the bit to get back into the national spotlight. Jimbo Fisher's squad was saddled with an overwhelming number of injuries last season, but like most teams, heads into 2012 healthy and with its eyes on the ultimate prize. FSU boasts of eight returning starters on offense, led by QB EJ Manuel and a seasoned offensive line. Eight starters also return to a defense that ranked among the nation's stingiest last year. Fisher recently dismissed big play cornerback Greg Reid from the team. but there are numbers in the secondary to make up for it. Where Reid will be missed most is in the return game. However, Fisher is instilling discipline in Tallahassee and his style of coaching seems to be working. The 'Noles get a tough Clemson squad at home early on and a win could be just what the doctor ordered in terms of momentum late in the year when Florida State must travel to Blacksburg. Getting past one real hurdle at home and one true road test could set up FSU nicely for a shot at the national crown.
SOUTH CAROLINA - The "Ol Ball Coach" has moved the Gamecocks from an "also- ran" in the SEC to a true conference contender over the last couple of seasons. The team won the SEC East two years ago and posted a school-record 11 wins last season. Big things are expected in 2012 as well. Steve Spurrier is hoping that All-American RB Marcus Lattimore's surgically repaired knee holds up and if that is the case, the Gamecocks could be as good as any team in the country, including the other powerhouses in the SEC. After earning All-American honors as a freshman, Lattimore's 2011 season was cut short due to injury. Despite playing in just seven games, he still led USC in rushing (818 yards, 10 TDs). The often weekly distraction that was QB Stephen Garcia's career in Columbia is finally behind the Gamecocks and Connor Shaw is firmly implanted under center. Last season, Shaw completed just over 65 percent of his passes, with 14 TDs against six INTs. He also finished second on the team in rushing (525 yards, eight TDs). The USC defense was good last year, but will need to be great in 2012, especially in road games at LSU, Clemson and Florida, and home dates against Tennessee and Arkansas, all in the second half of the season.
MICHIGAN - The Wolverines might have been the quietest 11-win team in the country a year ago and Brady Hoke's first season in Ann Arbor was a huge success. This year, Michigan won't sneak up on anyone. The team has the ultimate offensive weapon in quarterback Denard Robinson and though he is by no means a threat with his arm, his legs more than make up for it. Michigan's x-factor, Robinson completed just 55 percent of his throws in 2011, with a mediocre TD-to-INT ratio (20-to-15), but did rush for 1,176 yards and 16 TDs on 5.3 yards per carry. The Michigan defense was good last year, but has the chance to be great this season, with seven returning starters, highlighted by a veteran-laden secondary. The schedule is stacked up against the Wolverines in 2012, starting with the season-opener against defending national champion Alabama at a neutral site. The team must also attempt to win tough road games at Nebraska, Ohio State and Notre Dame. The Wolverines can afford one loss if it is early enough in the season, but anymore than that could cause a stall in the Ann Arbor revival.
WEST VIRGINIA - When last seen on the field, West Virginia put 70 points on the scoreboard against Clemson in the Orange Bowl. The team's greatest strength is its passing attack, so what better conference to debut in than the Big 12 this year. Dana Holgorsen is expected to remain in Morgantown for the foreseeable future after recently inking a six-year contract extension. He will have All- American QB Geno Smith under center for one more year and that could be enough to claim a Big 12 crown right out of the gate. In his swan song in the Big East, the 6-foot-3 Smith set the conference record for passing yards (4,385), while tying the league mark for TD passes (31). Also returning to the offensive side of the football is the dynamic receiving duo of Tavon Austin (101 catches, for 1,186 yards, eight TDs) and Stedman Bailey (72 receptions, 1,279 yards, 12 TDs). Both guys have speed to burn and will give Big 12 defenses fits. The Mountaineers get to host Kansas State, TCU and Oklahoma, with tough Big 12 road games at Texas and at Oklahoma State. Smith and company will put up a lot of points and if the defense can hold serve every so often, the wins will pile up.
HONORABLE MENTION: Arkansas, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Clemson.