2012 college football predictions
Move toward plus-one, away from AQ status will pick up steam in 2012
SEC team will play for national title yet again; that team will likely be LSU
The Heisman Trophy winner will be someone we're not yet considering
1. Get ready for the playoffs. (Not quite yet, but progress should be made.) This season's Alabama-LSU national title game was the tipping point for the anti-playoff crowd. Several leagues were already leaning in the direction of a four-team playoff -- strategically called a "plus-one" so dim bulbs won't realize it's actually a playoff -- but when voters passed over Oklahoma State for an all-SEC rematch, the momentum finally swung in the direction of a bracketed tournament, even if it is a small one. Barring a major shift, no playoff would begin until the 2014 season, because the current BCS contract runs through the 2013 season. But because such change involves a lot of moving parts, the game's leaders will begin discussing format and execution of the plan in 2012.
Remember, it was in 2008 -- two years before the start of the current BCS contract -- that SEC commissioner Mike Slive and ACC commissioner John Swofford attempted to sell their colleagues on a four-team tourney. The Big Ten, Big East, Big 12 and Pac-10 shot it down that year, and now all those leagues find themselves beneath the SEC's boot on the field. It will be interesting to see if the presidents go against their athletic directors or simply rubber-stamp the playoff. Remember, most of the arguments against a playoff are nonsense. Player safety? The presidents didn't care about that when they passed the 12th regular-season game for every team in a shameless money grab. Professionalizing the sport? The presidents don't worry about that when their softball and volleyball teams play in tournaments at the end of the season.
2. No more AQs. The second major point of discussion in the BCS negotiations will involve the automatic qualifying conference designation beyond the 2013 season. Much of the realignment movement between the Big East, Mountain West and Conference USA was based on the idea of certain conferences gaining automatic entry into favored bowls. Those moves may prove to be in vain, because Conference USA and the Mountain West would like to get rid of that distinction with the hope of eliminating the caste system.
That's fine with the most powerful leagues for a number of reasons. The Big Ten, SEC and Big 12 don't want any restrictions on how many teams they can put into top bowls, so this is the rare case in which the heavyweights and the lightweights agree. Also, dropping the AQ designation and stripping the Fiesta, Orange, Rose and Sugar bowls of the ability to negotiate as a bloc -- or maybe "cartel" is your preferred term -- would eliminate the strongest aspect of any antitrust case against the BCS. All that mess about the national title was meaningless, but a charge of price-fixing by those four bowls could stick. With the bowls negotiating their TV and conference deals separately, there is no antitrust concern. This also would allow other bowls to offer more to jump in the hierarchy. Don't be surprised if the Cotton Bowl bids aggressively for the Big 12 champ.
Hopefully, this will produce better deals for the schools, which get scammed by the bowls thanks to ticket guarantees and required hotel stays. If bowl directors are smart, they'll put together the most attractive packages they can. A cadre of younger, business-minded athletic directors and conference leaders has figured out that schools could make a lot more money if the conferences staged postseason exhibition games themselves, and they have no qualms about cutting out the middlemen in the ugly blazers.
3. An SEC team will play for the national title for the seventh consecutive season. That team will be LSU. I know I'm not exactly going out on a limb here, but after last year's ill-fated South Carolina-in-the-title-game prediction, I need to go with chalk to make sure I get at least one of these predictions correct. LSU will lose quarterbacks Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson, but anyone who watched the Tigers this year realizes this could wind up being a positive development. Assuming junior cornerback Morris Claiborne turns pro, the Tigers will lose four starters from the nation's most ferocious defense. Still, the loss of defensive end Kendrick Adams doesn't sting so much when it merely means more snaps for rising junior and ascendant intergalactic overlord Barkevious Mingo. This team is going to be loaded again.
4. West Virginia will play in the Big 12. Unless a Rhode Island court grants the Big East's request for a preliminary injunction that will force West Virginia to stay in the league for the next school year -- a long shot, because judges typically don't like to force anyone to do anything before hearing the case -- expect the Mountaineers to join the Big 12 on July 1. Big East officials have said they aren't seeking a buyout and this isn't about money, but everyone has a number. The parties will rattle their sabers publically and negotiate privately, and when they agree upon a number, the deal will get done. Neither side wants either of the dueling cases -- West Virginia filed suit in West Virginia, the Big East in Rhode Island -- to go to trial. As a reporter, I'm obviously rooting for a trial, because lots of interesting nuggets come out when parties air their dirty laundry in the public square. I probably won't get my wish, because cooler heads usually prevail. These cases will be headed to trial until they aren't, at which point West Virginia will be merrily on its way to the Big 12 and Pittsburgh and Syracuse will try to slip out the back door to the ACC.
5. USC will win the Pac-12. The return of quarterback Matt Barkley makes the Trojans a preseason top five team. Remember, this is a group that beat Oregon in Eugene and fell to Stanford in three overtimes. Stanford won't have Andrew Luck anymore, and Oregon has to come to the Coliseum at least once -- and twice (for the Pac-12 title) if USC is as good as everyone thinks it will be. Barkely has the luxury of throwing to Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, and USC's defense will be led by constantly improving linebacker Hayes Pullard, who led the Trojans in tackles this season as a redshirt freshman.
6. The Heisman Trophy winner will be someone we're not talking much about right now. This season's Heisman Trophy balloting should have gone a long way toward restoring your faith in the Heisman electorate. Instead of choosing the best player on the best team or the best player who received the most national television coverage, we voters actually selected the nation's best player to win the award. Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III was mentioned as an off-the-radar candidate on some 2011 preseason lists, but no one seriously considered him a contender until after the season began. This is proof that the preseason hype machine doesn't affect voters' choices as much as the public believes. This is a good thing for whichever under-covered candidate emerges in 2012. We might actually get it correct.
7. Texas will finally become a power running team again, and this will work out quite well for the Longhorns. I know, I know. I said Texas and Florida would be back in 2011, and I was dead wrong. The Gators still have their issues to work out, but the Longhorns should have an offensive identity for the first time since Colt McCoy went down in the national title game against Alabama in January 2010. Freshman running backs Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron were as good as advertised this season, combining to average 5.1 yards per carry. Next season, the duo will be joined by freshman Jonathan Gray, who broke the national high school record for career touchdowns with 205. Add the rushing attack to a defense that played well against everyone except Oklahoma and Baylor this season, and Texas should be ready to compete with Oklahoma and Oklahoma State for the Big 12 title.
8. Missouri will compete for the SEC East title. The Tigers might have gotten the luckiest single-game draw on the SEC master schedule. Getting Georgia in Columbia -- the Columbia with Shakespeare's Pizza, not the Columbia with Pawley's Front Porch -- on Sept. 8 gives Mizzou its best shot to insert itself in the division race. Everyone will be fired up for the Tigers' first SEC game, and everyone should be healthy. Even if tailback Henry Josey isn't back from the gruesome knee injury suffered this season against Texas, James Franklin -- the Mizzou quarterback, not the Vanderbilt coach -- and company should have the firepower to make things interesting. If they pull the upset, the Tigers should have as good of a chance to win the East as Georgia or South Carolina.
9. For the first time since it was created, the ACC title game will have national title significance. Clemson, Florida State and Virginia Tech should be talented enough to contend for the national title if things break correctly. I know we say this about Florida State every year, but if the Seminoles can best Clemson for the Atlantic Division title, it will mean FSU won a lot of games. The Tigers seem like the best bet at the moment. Other than Barkley and Woods at USC (or maybe Barkley and Lee at USC), Clemson's Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins are the nation's best returning quarterback-receiver combo.
10. If he's still employed in Columbus, Gene Smith is going to really, really regret not pulling Ohio State from bowl consideration this season. Because while Ohio State might not notch double-digit wins in Urban Meyer's first season, the Buckeyes have the players to come close. Having 15 extra practices to develop a still relatively young team would give Meyer and his staff a huge boost going into 2013. But Smith gambled that the NCAA's Committee on Infractions wouldn't issue a postseason ban. He lost. Now, the Buckeyes will put away their helmets two days after Thanksgiving and won't put them back on until March. All those cards in Smith's mailbox this week? They're thank-you notes from the rest of the Big Ten.