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The TSL College Football Preview: SEC Superiority, “Denard or Barkley?”, Pay for Play

If it doesn't yet feel like Groundhog Day, it's because you're vulnerable – we all are.

If it doesn't yet feel like Groundhog Day, it's because you're vulnerable – we all are.

We are all victims of our own self-perpetuating belief in the possible, even if those possibilities do not exist. We don't get it, or don't want to. And the 2012 college football season, more than ever, does not appear to house the uniqueness fans seek in sports.

So little has changed.

The evidence: A West Coast quarterback is a media heartthrob; a Central time zone signal caller possesses the potential to dazzle at any moment; SEC running backs litter the Heisman watch list; College Gameday (for the better); Georgia and LSU are dealing with off-the-field issues; Dana Holgorsen's hair; the Big 12 remains a contest of who can score the most points; the BCS decides the champ; Florida State IS BACK; Nick Saban's process; Texas hasn't settled on a quarterback; scandal and controversy plague the headlines; Notre Dame; Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge are the center of the sport's universe.


The list goes on. "What was once old is new again."


And yet, not one college football fan gives a damn. 

The storylines – within the phenomenon of anticipation – are inconsequential. The fans flock, regardless. Regions unite. Families find common ground. We construct self-centric narratives – "Archie Griffin haunts my dreams" or "Joe Namath, when healthy, was the best I've ever seen" or "Cam Newton ruined my sophomore year"– that stick for life.

The 2012 season will hardly deviate from that set path.


Big games will still involve the recognizable color schemes. Fans will still celebrate the Lattimores and curse the Barkleys. The sports world will still remain transfixed.

College football still roars.


TOP OF THE HILL

In the Southeastern Conference, recent success has transformed a diehard culture into a possessive approach to collegiate athletics: Football belongs to the South, or so say SEC fans…or so they feel. Sure, football is the new national pastime nationwide. But college football, in all its intensity and imperfection, mediates the ebb and flow of emotion during fall Saturdays in towns like Knoxville and Oxford.

What use is an 11-win season if you can’t even reach your conference title game? What difference does it make that you made it to the BCS national championship if you can't even cross the 50-yard line? That Rose Bowl appearance is adorable for the Big 10, but do they even remember what a BCS trophy looks like? Such is the thought process when a conference wins six consecutive national titles. The swagger is evident, earned.

Entering the 2012 season, the two best teams are the same ones that took the field in New Orleans on Jan. 9. The SEC, once again, fills the role of older brother: Bigger, stronger, faster. The other four power conferences, notably two Pac-12 offensive dynamos, are playing catch-up. And until the little siblings can close the gap, Saban and Les Miles rule the roost.

1. Alabama: In a twist of irony, our collective sporting conscious that values championships over all else ("JUST WIN BABY") is somewhat overlooking the Crimson Tide. The AP voted USC as the top team and USA Today's Coaches' Poll tabbed LSU. Only one of these three teams boasts a championship-winning quarterback, a punishing offensive line, five-consecutive top-3 recruiting classes and, above all, Nick Saban. Its three toughest games happen away from home, but Alabama is the best team until proven otherwise. Watch out Tom Osborne, this could be the first program since Nebraska to win three national titles in four years.



2. LSU: The offense will be improved with NFL-caliber quarterback Zach Mettenberger slinging it out to the likes of Odell Beckham Jr., and a reinvigorated Russell Shepard. Tyrann Mathieu's dismissal and the loss of Morris Claiborne will hurt the secondary, but All-America candidates Eric Reid and Tharold Simon should hold down the fort. Add Miles' strange karma and, perhaps, the best pass rush in the country, and the Tigers will give Alabama all it can handle in Baton Rouge on Nov. 3.


3. Oregon: Go ahead, read it again: The Oregon Ducks will be the premier team in the Pac-12. If we've learned anything over the past three years, it's that Chip Kelly hates fan interference and he knows how to win. He's 34-6 as a head coach, refusing to relinquish his stranglehold on the conference. The running game will not miss a beat with Kenjon Barner and speedster De'Anthony Thomas, and all indications are that redshirt freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota is a future star. This might be Kelly's best defense, but will it even matter? Ducks always settle the score.

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4. USC: No question, the Trojans boast firepower. All-Everything quarterback Matt Barkley graces the cover of Sports Illustrated and hangs with Snoop Dogg and Troy Polamalu for a reason. Weapons are everywhere around him, notably receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee and Penn State transfer running back Silas Redd. The defense features some stars too, but Lane Kiffin is working with only 75 scholarship players, and the jury is still out if the guy can, you know, coach (25-13 career record). The non-conference schedule is tougher than Oregon's cakewalk, so that Pac-12 title (not to mention a national championship appearance) is not a given.

5. South Carolina: If each of the next six teams were to meet in a round robin this weekend, nobody would want Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks. Nobody would want to find out if Heisman candidate Marcus Lattimore is back to full speed. Nobody would want to see if Connor Shaw has developed a repertoire with some talented receivers. And nobody — NOT ONE SQUAD — would want to try and block bookends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor. There are some question marks and a tough schedule, but at this moment, the Gamecocks are third best in the SEC.

6. Wisconsin: Hey, that Montee Ball guy is back. He sure can score touchdowns. Hey, a transfer quarterback leads the offense. That's not unusual. Coach Bret Bielema boasts a 60-19 record for the Badgers and it does not look like he will slow down any time soon. Home games against Ohio State and Michigan State will define the season.


7. Oklahoma: On paper, it's tempting. Stat-posting quarterback Landry Jones is back to lead an offense with loads of talent at the skill positions, but losses along the offensive line should hurt, and the nation's 55th-ranked defense in 2011 has plenty to prove. The conference's addition of TCU and West Virginia won't make things any easier. The Big 12, as a whole, is a coin flip.

8. Georgia: Suspensions (and the dismissal of big-time running back Isaiah Crowell) will test the Bulldogs in the early going, but the schedule is once again inexplicably soft. Despite South Carolina's place at No. 5 on this list, Georgia is the favorite to repeat as SEC East champs. Can record-setting quarterback Aaron Murray win a big game? Mark Richt's program has yet to beat a team that finished ranked in the final AP poll since Murray took over for Joe Cox in 2010. That needs to change … and soon.

9. Florida State: Everybody, start sipping that Kool-Aid again. The Seminoles return 15 starters — eight from an explosive defense — and a quarterback (E.J. Manuel) capable of making plays all over the field. What could go wrong in a weak Atlantic Coast Conference?

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10. Michigan State: Quick: Name the top two Big 10 teams over the past two seasons. Chances are you named Wisconsin and forgot all about the Spartans. The nation's sixth-best defense is back, and Mark Dantonio (27-3 in Big 10 play) is doin' work in East Lansing.


 

SLEEPIN' ON 'EM


Boise State: A Chris Peterson-coached team is ranked No. 24 in the country? Good luck with that sticking. Does anyone believe Boise State won't end up 10-2 or 11-1?

Washington: As stated above (See: Sarkisian, Price), the Huskies have the potential to scare the likes of LSU, USC, Oregon and Stanford.

Virginia: Cavaliers' coach Mike London orchestrated a four-win turnaround in his second season. An ACC Coastal Division title is within the program's grasp this season.

MOMENTUM SHIFT

Michigan-Alabama, Sept. 1: A non-conference matchup that could define the national title picture takes place on the season's opening weekend, as Denard Robinson and Michigan will look to legitimize last season's Sugar Bowl win by taking out the defending national champions in Cowboys Stadium. Note to consider: Nick Saban was given seven months to prepare for Shoelaces & Co.



Michigan State at Wisconsin, Oct. 27: A rematch of the 2011 Big 10 Championship, the conference's preeminent teams of late will provide a clash of offense versus defense. 

Oregon at USC, Nov. 3: Points. Points. More points. The two teams most likely to end the SEC's reign of terror will meet in Los Angeles on the biggest weekend of the year in college football, with each looking to take control of the Pac 12 race and stay on course for the BCS national title game.


Alabama at LSU, Nov. 3: Ding ding, round three. Already being hyped as the third "Game of the Century," the rematch of the 2012 BCS National Championship Game will hold animosity, passion, skill, speed and excellent coaching in equal measures. 

Oklahoma at West Virginia, Nov. 17: This game holds the potential to be a late-season thriller, and if both teams hit their strides offensively (as they are wont to do) it could decide the Big 12 and provide a dark horse national title contender.

 

STIFF ARM SUSPECTS



The 2012 preseason Heisman lists are littered with All-Americans and returning stars … so feel free to go ahead and bet the field. It's been a long time since pundits correctly predicted college football's most prestigious award, and this year will likely prove no different.

Andrew Luck and Kellen Moore were favored over Baylor's Robert Griffin III. Mark Ingram and Cam Newton, the 2009 and 2010 winners, respectively, were not even on preseason odds lists. In 2008, future No. 1 pick Sam Bradford trailed the likes of Chase Daniel before the season began.

That said, here are the guys who already have established an advantage heading into 2012:

High Society

Matt Barkley, USC: The Trojans golden boy is surrounded by playmakers and possesses NFL talent. If the offensive line can keep him upright, topping last season's 3,500 yards and 41 total touchdowns will not be an issue.



Montee Ball, Wisconsin: After leading the nation in rushing (1,923 yards) and tying Barry Sanders' record with 39 rushing touchdowns last season, Ball is just 17 touchdowns shy of the all-time FBS record. Setting that mark could give him a leg up during the voting process.

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Denard Robinson, Michigan: Now an established winner, after last season's Sugar Bowl win, Robinson has pieced together two-consecutive 2,000-yard passing and 1,000-yard rushing seasons with 68 total scores. He's a frontrunner and living proof that tying your shoes is overrated, kids.

On The Radar

Keith Price, Washington: Coach Steve Sarkisian has coached the likes of Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Jake Locker. He has another breakout player in Price. The junior from Compton, Calif., passed for more than 3,000 yards and 33 touchdowns last season. If Price can orchestrate some upsets amidst a dangerous schedule, watch out.

Geno Smith, West Virginia: The last time we saw Geno Smith, he put up 70 points on the ACC champs. Playing in a system fit perfectly to his style, 5,000-plus yards passing are not outside the realm of possibility.



David Amerson, N.C. State: Thirteen interceptions will be difficult to top, especially with opposing quarterbacks actively avoiding him, but there's always the chance this future NFL corner finds a way to take advantage of every ball lofted into the air.

Don't Forget: Marquess Wilson, Marcus Lattimore, Knile Davis, Logan Thomas, E.J. Manuel, Jadaveon Clowney, Kenny Stills


SYSTEM FAILURE


Change lurks on college football's horizon, with the Bowl Championship Series serving as a dead entity walking before being replaced, mercifully, by a four-team playoff in 2014.

But its successor, too, is a substandard solution. NCAA president Mark Emmert and the conference commissioners could not cut ties with the outdated bowl system, setting up fan bases for travel difficulties; cutting out college campuses and local economies from a playoff’s financial benefits; and continuing to line the pockets of bowl executives.


Meanwhile, the NCAA continues the charade of amateurism.

The financial benefit of a full scholarship is not lost on anyone familiar with tuition costs. However, the assumption that universities are living up to their side of the bargain and providing these young men — many of whom come from low socioeconomic backgrounds — the necessary tools for success in life after football has been dashed again and again.

Academic pursuits take a backseat in this culture, so why is the NCAA still allowed to control the identities of its athletes, to exclusively sell uniforms with the "anonymous" jersey numbers of Heisman contenders? Why aren't millions of dollars in TV revenue and merchandising profits going into trust funds for the organization's talent to access after graduation?

The concept of the "student-athlete" is a farce; the organizational makeup needs an overhaul.

However, let's not lie to ourselves, this needs to be handled responsibly. Young men on college campuses surrounded by peer pressure do not need an extra $20,000, because that would likely lead to more…


Offseason trouble. The list of dismissed, arrested or suspended players this offseason features more star power than all but 10 teams in college football. A backfield featuring running backs Isaiah Crowell and Michael Dyer would be a nightmare for defensive coordinators. Receivers Sammy Watkins and Da'Rick Rogers are stars. Could anyone throw against a secondary composed of Tyrann Mathieu, Greg Reid, Bacarri Rambo and Ray-Ray Armstrong?


It's a sad situation for all involved. So what's the resolution? Maybe to allow more offseason contact between coaches and players. Maybe there isn't one simple answer.

But, guess what? It's here, now. This offseason spree of trouble and ongoing issues will fade into a background of wins and losses, of GameDay signs and goal line stops and fans cheering/jeering a comeback quarterback. The NCAA and its football-playing institution will be reprieved by the return of its golden egg.