College football is back. Teams have been putting in final game plans and tweaks during practices, and the countdown to kickoff is close to single digits. We are about to find out which programs improved since last season, and which ones are still struggling. But for now, every fan cheers for an undefeated team. Here is a look at what fans should expect in 2012.
Will the SEC rule?
The Southeastern Conference has reeled off an unprecedented six consecutive BCS National Championship Game victories. Last season, the outcome wasn't ever in doubt, as LSU faced Alabama in an all-SEC rematch. Can another conference end the streak? Leading contenders are Oregon and USC from the Pac-12, Oklahoma from the Big 12 and Wisconsin from the Big Ten.
Which two teams earn national-championship berths always is a dominant theme, capable of driving conversations from the opening kickoff. Expect more of the same this season, with two more years scheduled under the BCS system. Also expect to hear unending chatter about how the situation will be different in 2014 under a playoff system, and how that system would have affected this year's outcome.
Last year, the season's kickoff was greeted with an onslaught of conference realignment rumors. Texas and Oklahoma were potentially going to the Pac-12, and the Big 12 was in danger of disappearing. Now, the Big 12 again will be under scrutiny, along with new members TCU and West Virginia. Texas A&M and Missouri are now in the SEC, which also will draw attention. The slightest hint of instability in a conference could set off another realignment scramble.
RB Montee Ball, Sr., Wisconsin When Tyrann Mathieu was kicked off LSU's team, Ball became the only returning Heisman finalist this season. Ball eschewed the draft to lead a Badgers team that should have one of the nation's best running attacks.
RB Kenjon Barner, Sr., Oregon The Ducks know running, and Barner is a speedster who will put up his share of highlights. But sophomore De'Anthony Thomas, another fast running back, will steal some of Barner's carries. What will be great for the Oregon offense could hurt both players' Heisman hopes.
QB Matt Barkley, Sr., USC Barkley, like Ball, declined to enter the draft for a chance at a final, fairy-tale season. USC is entering the season with championship hype, which will bring pressure. But all of the hype could help Barkley's campaign. It's all about getting your name out there.
QB Geno Smith, Sr., West Virginia Smith is a dual-threat quarterback who can put up big numbers passing and rushing. With the Mountaineers changing conferences, Smith should grab enough of a spotlight to make his case.
QB Landry Jones, Sr., Oklahoma Jones may not be as flashy as some of the other quarterbacks on the list, but his numbers (nearly 4,500 yards and 29 touchdowns last season) make him one of the top passers in the country. He will have to cut down on the interceptions (15 last year).
QB Denard Robinson, Sr., Michigan If Robinson stays healthy, he should have a highlight collection ready for the finalist show. Like last season's winner, Robert Griffin III from Baylor, Robinson is lightning on the field. He can lead a quick scoring drive, with his legs or arm, from any yard line.
RB Marcus Lattimore, Jr., South Carolina It's tough to become a Heisman candidate at running back in the SEC because of the pounding defenses, but Lattimore has the toughness to stay on the field. He is physical runner who will carry the load for the Gamecocks.
QB Collin Klein, Sr., Kansas State Klein might not have the preseason hype, but at the end of the 2011 season, he was drawing comparisons to another Heisman winner: Tim Tebow. Klein has the same hard-nosed running style that produces lots of touchdowns on the ground (27 with 1,141 rushing yards). He also has the passing ability (1,918 passing yards and 13 touchdowns, six interceptions) that could put him over the top.
QB Tyler Wilson, Sr., Arkansas With all of the drama surrounding the exit of former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, the Razorbacks have been written off as a championship contender. But with Wilson leading the offense, Arkansas still has the talent to contend with the best in college football. And Wilson has the weapons around him for a huge senior year.
More big-name programs are signing up to play high-profile nonconference games. Last season, LSU faced off with Oregon at Cowboys Stadium in the opening week. A look at some of this year's biggest nonconference games:
Boise State at Michigan State, Aug. 31 Year after year, Boise State has to prove it belongs with college football's elite. The Broncos haven't been afraid to take on, and beat, teams such as Georgia and Virginia Tech. This year, Boise State will have to get past a strong Michigan State team.
Michigan vs. Alabama, Sept. 1 It doesn't get much bigger than this year's Cowboys Classic at Cowboys Stadium: Defending champion Alabama goes against Big Ten power Michigan. This game is in the first week, but the result could impact the title hopes of both. Plus it's a matchup of the program with the most wins, Michigan, against the school with the most championships. What's not to like?
Auburn vs. Clemson, Sept. 1 Not to be outdone by in-state rival Alabama, Auburn signed up for a big-time opening week game, too. It will be a matchup of two talented Tigers, also played at a neutral site: the Georgia Dome.
Arizona State at Missouri, Sept. 15 With Missouri now in the SEC, the Tigers will need all of the nonconference wins they can get. A home win against the Sun Devils would be a great confidence boost heading into conference play. For Arizona State, beating an SEC team on the road would also boost its program.
California at Ohio State, Sept. 15 Is Ohio State back with Urban Meyer coaching? This matchup against Cal will give us a glimpse at how the Buckeyes will look under Meyer, who is expected to help Ohio State return to the top.
Miami vs. Notre Dame, Oct. 6 It's not exactly the "Catholics vs. Convicts" clash of 1988, when No. 1 Miami lost to No. 4 Notre Dame 31-30, a game that propelled the Irish to a national championship. But this rematch at Chicago's Soldier Field should fire up both fan bases.
Notre Dame at Oklahoma, Oct. 27 Notre Dame has been trying to climb back into the BCS mix, and playing the Sooners on the road is a big risk for the Irish. But the game should be entertaining with two of the best programs in history squaring off.
Brent Shirley, 817-390-7760