Each college football season we tend to see the trend where some team comes from the weeds of the prior season to win a number of games and qualify for a bowl or become a BCS contender overnight. Sometimes it is easy to spot those teams. Other times we’re left at season’s end wondering how the heck that happened and what we missed when looking at them. Lastly you have the teams everyone is on. The “hot pick” to leapfrog others and spring to the top of the polls (Hello 2011 Florida State). Sometimes those teams live up to it. Other times they don’t. Kansas St. in 2011 was a classic example. Most had them anywhere from 5th-8th in the Big 12 last season. By season’s end they were runner-ups in the Big 12 and probably got hosed in the BCS selection. Identifying these teams isn’t always easy and the criteria people like to use to select these teams may vary. When I’m identifying teams I think have a chance to impress the two most important factors I consider are returning starters (the worse the prior year’s record, the more returning starters I hope for) and schedule. Sometimes these two factors interfere with one another. Case in point: Auburn. The Auburn Tigers in 2012 have a bunch of returning starters from a team that won 8 games as is last year. Naturally you would think they might have the opportunity to move up this year. However playing in the SEC West and having an out of conference game vs Clemson likely means at least 3 losses (at best) again in 2012. I’ll certainly be wrong here. I was wrong on a couple last year. I hit a decent amount of those I projected. But it’s 2012, a new season, and a new chance for programs to right the ship that may have sunk some in 2011.
What’s the criteria for a team to be “on the rise?” Great question. There’s no pinpoint number of win increment that I can apply to every team. For some teams it might mean going from a good 8-4 team to a 10-2 BCS contender. For another it could be going from 4-8 to 7-5. For a third it may just be a complete surge of 5-6 wins. By the end you’ll understand why I am selecting each team I am and you’ll all be able to come talk to me in December when I’m either proven an idiot or back up my projections. So for 2012, who is on the rise?
*The order of the teams is completely random and is in no shape or form an indication of a larger improvement that another team.
Also, if you haven’t had the chance yet, check out the preseason top 25 I released a few weeks back after signing classes were finalized post national signing day:
2012′s Teams on the Rise:
Ohio St. Buckeyes
We chronicled Ohio St. already this offseason in the preseason top 25 so for a more in-depth rundown of the reasons I’m high on Ohio St. in 2012 go over there. For starters Ohio State returns a very strong defense from a year ago to a division that only has one good offensive football team in it. With Urban Meyer in Columbus and a monstrous recruiting class accompanying him, fortunes should turn quickly for a program coming off a down year. Even with Luke Fickell this season the Buckeyes weren’t as bad as their record would lead you to believe. The Buckeyes had a number of close contests that with a break or two could have gone the other way. Losses to Michigan St., Nebraska and Purdue specifically were there for the taking all game long and the Buckeyes simply couldn’t deliver. The record says the Buckeyes were 6-7 last year, but they weren’t far off from 8-9 wins. Urban Meyer has won everywhere he has gone. He has won big. There’s little reason to doubt him. I am a firm believer in Braxton Miller and expect him to progress immensely this year under Meyer much like Tim Tebow and Alex Smith flourished under him. For the Buckeyes in 2012, their regular season is their national championship. The postseason ban means no Big Ten title game, no Rose Bowl, no national championship aspirations. Frankly I think you have to make the Buckeyes the favorites in the Leaders division at this point. While the immovable force that is Wisconsin still lingers over that division, with a new sheriff in town, I think we may see a new red and white back atop the Big Ten in a very short time.
The biggest problem for Tennessee in 2011-2012 was simply staying healthy. While most teams improve by replacing talent and developing player growth, Tennessee should rise to a higher level in 2012 simply by getting their talent back on the field. Injuries to Tyler Bray and Justin Hunter last year pretty much ruined any chance the Vols had of being competitive in the SEC East as they were forced to roll out QBs Matt Simms and Justin Worley neither of whom were ready for the challenge and it showed. The offense was a mess and a young defense, that now becomes an experienced one with a ton of rising juniors, couldn’t hold up consistently despite being a pretty talented unit overall. The Volunteers bring back just about everyone from last year’s team with 10 returning offensive starters and 8/9 defensive starters depending on what source you check. The passing game should be one of the best in the SEC, albeit not on Arkansas’ level, and give Tennessee more of a balanced attack. However, the necessity to replace leading rusher Tauren Poole will be a key early season factor to watch out for as Marlin Lane will get the first crack. Last season, though the QB problems late in the year undoubtedly didn’t help, the Volunteers were a dreadful 111th in the nation running the ball and in a league where running the ball and playing defense is the recipe for success, it is no wonder they were so poor. Defensively the Vols return their entire secondary which was terrific a year ago ranking 11th in the country against the pass and could see a player or two contend for all-conference honors. Derek Dooley knows how big this year is to his job security. The Vols schedule and the competition in the SEC will keep them from contending for a conference crown or the like, but they have the talent to win football games and anything less than 8-4 would likely be looked at as a failure. Road trips to Georgia, South Carolina and Mississippi St. will prove to be perhaps the make or break points for the Vols in 2012.
Texas Tech Red Raiders
Gone are the years (albeit brief) of Texas Tech competing atop the Big 12 under Mike Leach and vying for competitive bowl bids, but the Red Raiders of last season were setting the stepping stones in my opinion for a reemergence in 2012. The Red Raiders last season were young and in a league known for its prolific offenses and little defense, they lived up to that billing with the nation’s 12th rated offense and a defense that would make last year’s Alamo Bowl participants cringe. The Red Raiders started the year hot winning their first 4 games and kick started the string of upsets when they went to Norman, Oklahoma and knocked off the Sooners who were #1 at the time, improving to 5-2. At that point the only question was which bowl they’d go to as oppose to whether they’d qualify. Unfortunately the Red Raiders weren’t able to bottle up any of that magic in Oklahoma as they lost the final 5 games on the season, none worse than a 66-6 loss at the hands of Big 12 champion Oklahoma St. Considering I had the Red Raiders finishing 7th last year, I wasn’t stunned to see them struggle, but given the way they started the season, yes it was surprising to see them collapse. In 2012 the Red Raiders return more starters than all but one team (new FBS entrant UTSA) and with the mass defects from the Big 12 this past season, should get back to a bowl game with a shot at 7 wins if they hold ground in the games they should win in league play. Seth Doege is back along with his top 3 WR targets from a year ago while leading rusher Eric Stephens compliments them out of the backfield. The only real area of concern offensively will be replacing two offensive linemen from last year’s team. With Baylor and Oklahoma St expected to take a step back and the jury still out on teams such as Texas and Iowa St this upcoming season, there’s reason for optimism for the Red Raiders that they can recover from last season’s collapse and get back into a bowl game this year while playing a much more competitive brand of football.
South Florida Bulls
The Bulls were a popular pick last year in the Big East. While West Virginia was expected to be the favorite in their last year in the league, when names popped up for teams that could challenged West Virginia for the conference crown, South Florida was one of the first to come up. The Bulls had an experienced defense, a good QB in B.J Daniels and a coach in Skip Holtz who most were talking about as one of the rising names that could make an impact and contend for a BCS bid. However things never really came together and South Florida limped to a 1-6 league mark while missing a bowl game. Frankly, there were few teams who shrunk as far as South Florida did from preseason expectations and perhaps that can be a blessing in disguise for 2012 as nobody is talking about the Bulls in the same light as a year ago, instead pointing to Rutgers and Louisville as the two teams who will compete for the Big East BCS bid with West Virginia having departed to the Big 12. Once again the same reasons that were given by some last year are reasons I’m riding with the Bulls to bounceback in 2012. B.J Daniels will be the best QB in the league with Geno Smith and Zach Collaros gone now and should bounce back from 2011 to end his career on a strong note. Leading receiver Sterling Griffin is back to hopefully improve a passing game that should have more potential than results have shown. The defense will be littered with juniors and seniors in a league that doesn’t provide many offenses that strike fear into defensive coordinators. As they say….if not now, when?
Miami, OH Redhawks
Last year I did a preview on non-AQ teams called “The 5 best not named Boise or TCU”. In that segment I said the Miami, OH Redhawks were the best non-AQ in CFB heading into 2011……that was an epically stupid prediction. Could not have been more wrong. So what better way to follow up that terrible prediction than to state they will be one of the ten teams pin-pointed to rise back up in 2012? Last year I clearly underestimated the loss of head coach Mike Haywood who had left for the Pitt job before problems cost him that job. His impact on the 2010 team clearly was bigger than I expected and we saw that first hand as the Redhawks failed to even qualify for a bowl game, finishing 4-8 and 5th in their division. Despite their finish last year, the division is set up for them to get back into division title contention. Ohio will be the most challenging opposition as they return 6 offensive starters and 8 defensive starters from the team that won the East last year. QB Zac Dysert returns for his senior season and will have leading receiver Nick Harwell back in the fold along with 6 other offensive starters. Defensively 8 players return from a defense that was a modest 47th nationally, despite the never-ending dilemma of #MACtion impacting their performance each week. They’ll be one of the most experienced teams in CFB next year and at worst should get back to a bowl game. But after a disappointing 2011 campaign, with only one true challenger in the division most likely, here’s banking on them competing with Ohio for a spot in the MAC title game.
Washington St Cougars
For years now people have been waiting on the Cougars to recover from their free fall after a 2003 Rose Bowl loss to Oklahoma. In fact since the 2003 Sun Bowl (December of same year), Washington State has failed to make it back to a bowl game suffering through the mediocre Bill Doba conclusion and the miserable Paul Wulff era that just came to an end finally. Though they were able to improve to 4 wins last year, ultimately Wulff simply ran out of lives and the Cougars made the shocking hire of Mike “Mad Pirate” Leach to not only hopefully turn around the team’s performance but to add some life to a program that hasn’t had much to smile about in recent years. Everyone knows I think absolutely nothing about the PAC-12. 2011 saw three strong teams and a bunch of nobodies. Yes, Washington, Cal, Utah and UCLA, all bowl teams….bad football teams. I don’t think much has changed. Oregon and USC will be elite, Stanford should be good again (I don’t think elite) and then I don’t like anyone else. The Cougars #1 priority is fixing a defense that finished 79th in the country a year ago and like you would expect from the 79th ranked defense…couldn’t stop the run or the pass. They return 9 starters from last year’s defense and in a league and offensive system that isn’t conducive to great defense, they have the chance to become a much better football team if they can correct simple mistakes. First off is their turnover margin. Oklahoma St showed last year you don’t have to be a great shutdown defense to be good enough. If you can force turnovers that can go a long way to correct the flaws of your defense. Last year Washington St was tied for 85th in turnover margin, caused much more so by their lack of turnovers forced which rated tied for 95th as oppose to their turnovers lost which were tied for 43rd fewest. Mike Leach will fix the offense. I don’t need to go into great detail about their offense. While they have to replace the QB position, Marquess Wilson returns as one of the best WRs in the conference. They were already a decent enough offense last year (31st in country), but any hopes they have of getting back to a bowl game and pulling out some of the close games they lost last year rely on the defense taking a step forward. The schedule isn’t overly challenging as they miss USC in cross-division play and get CAL and Washington at home.
Louisville very nearly won the Big East last year, losing out on a 3-way tiebreaker which sent West Virginia to the Orange Bow. In fact it was some Louisville players posing twitpics of themselves with Oranges in their mouth that prompted a West Virginia player to ridicule them once WVU wrapped up the BCS bid. Naturally, I took that opportunity to tell him Clemson was going to issue him a beating he’d remember for years. We all know what happened next. Clemson gave up the most points in the history of bowl games. So in theory, if we follow the domino effect, the Louisville players who posted that pic are 100% at fault for my overconfidence. But that’s neither here nor there anymore. Charlie Strong has revived the Cardinal program and has them arguably as the favorites heading into the 2012 season. A top 50 recruiting class that finished 2nd to Rutgers (though Schiano’s departure could change that) in the Big East, the Cardinal appear to be back on the rise and have a lot coming back from last year’s team. 8 starters are back from the offense including just about all their skill position players. Teddy Bridgewater will have to do a better job of taking care of the ball as his 12 INTs to only 14 TDs limited them at times. However it is the defense that is expected to once again carry this team in their quest to get to a BCS game. 8 starters return from the defense including 2 all-conference secondary members, CB Adrian Bushell and SS Hakeem Smith. However, it was their front 7 last year against the run that sparked a defense that ranked 9th against the run. 5 starters from last year’s front 7 return and the two of the 3 highest ranked players brought it will be linebackers. In the non-conference schedule the Ville takes trips to FIU and Southern Miss while UNC comes to town. In league play a trip to Rutgers may be the game of the year in the league however with West Virginia bolting to the Big East it’s hard to feel overly great about any one team’s edge over the others and we should be in for another wild final weekend or two to sort out the league’s BCS bid.
Central Michigan Chippewas
Things can’t sink much lower than they did last year for Central Michigan who limped to a 3-9 record and finished at the bottom of the MAC West division. After winning the MAC in 2009 in route to a 12-2 season, the Chippewas have struggled each of the last two seasons and 2012 may be the year they start to turn things back around again. They return 8 starters from the offense including senior QB Ryan Radcliff while freshman WR standout Titus Davis is back in the fold. A year ago the Chippewas were a strong passing attack with 5 players catching 20+ passes and 4 of those again will return in 2012. The problem offensively and something that undoubtedly will be a point of emphasis in the spring is developing that complimentary run game which was lacking last season. The team ranked 93rd nationally rushing the ball and leading rusher Paris Cotton had a mere 409 yards on the season. With Cotton gone as a senior, Zurlon Tipton and Anthony Garland will enter the spring as the two candidates to earn the starting gig. However the defense was the biggest problem area lat season. If we’re honest with ourselves we can just acknowledge that defense as a whole in the MAC was optional last season and like the Big 12 and PAC 12, having a good defense in the MAC is more than enough. Playing great defense isn’t as necessary in a league where few teams play it. However Central Michigan took poor defense to a new level in 2011 giving up 428 yards per game, ranking 93rd nationally in defense and surrendered 22 or more points in every single game after their opener. When you need 23 points minimum to win football games each week…well…things likely won’t go too well for you more often than not. 8 starters return from the defense including seven of their top 10 tacklers. Northern Illinois and Toledo have quite a bit of turnover this year as well so Central Michigan will be one of the more experienced teams this year. Just a matter of whether that experience will make up for a perceived talent disadvantage.
After a dominant run atop the Sun Belt conference, Troy came crashing back to earth last year with a 3-9 record and 7th place finish in the league they had won 5 straight seasons before last year. Troy was dealing with a ton of youth last season and as such really struggled on both sides of the ball. The thought here is with so much young talent back in the fold, last year should have been the bottom point for this program as they build back up into a Sun Belt contender. Quarterback Corey Robinson had a respectable freshman seasons with all things considered and will be the key returner from an offense that returns 9 starters including its top 5 pass catchers from a year ago and its leading rusher. With another spring under its belt, head coach Larry Blakeney should feel good about the Trojans going into 2012. Defensively they were a train wreck in 2011 and only return 6 starters on that side of the ball. Only ten teams in all of college football could boast a worse defense than Troy last year and their ability to improve and get back to winning football games will be hindered greatly if Troy can’t figure out how to stop anyone, surrendering 465 yards per game last year. Blakeney has shown an ability to win consistently and in a league such as the Sun Belt where no other program has shown the staying power atop the league standings in recent years, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see Troy scoot back up the league standings. It may be a year early for them to reclaim the league title, but the guess is they’ll be back to .500% and depending where they finish could potentially find themselves back in a bowl game.
There’s not a whole lot of reasons for this prediction. Arizona will have quite a bit of turnover from a bad football team and loses its two best players in Juron Criner and Nick Foles. Add in the 2nd worst recruiting class in the PAC-12 and any reason for optimism next year probably seems like a guess. However there’s a few things going in Arizona’s favor heading into 2012. #1 is the hiring of Rich Rodriguez. While Michigan fans may snicker at that and say “what did he do here?”, the fact is the PAC-12 isn’t the Big Ten. The Big Ten requires defense. If you can’t play defense in that league you’re likely going to struggle. In the PAC-12 that’s optional. Hell Oregon has won the league three years in a row with a defense that’s never been better than decent. We know Rich Rod teams can score points. If they get into shootouts in the PAC-12, they likely won’t be short on ammo. #2 is the division they play in. The North has the Ducks, a Stanford team that should still be good, and a Washington team who though I don’t buy as a legitimate team will probably win 6-7 games next year. The south division is well…crap. After USC who will run away with the division there really is nothing left to look at in a positive light. Arizona St was a train wreck underachiever last year and will be decimated by graduation and early entrance. Colorado is terrible. Utah is the team most will have 2nd and they do have some promising parts but they lost to just about every credible PAC-12 team they played last year and beat up on the league’s worst teams. UCLA is as reliable as Jordan Jefferson in a BCS title game. After USC it’s just one giant pile of crap in the PAC-12 and with Rich Rod in the fold, despite a tough league schedule, I’m willing to roll the dice Arizona may be the crap that smells the least by season’s end. 3rd in the division and 6-6 seems possible.