Louisville sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (Andy Lyons, Getty Images)

Projected Order of Finish

1. Louisville Cardinals

2. Rutgers Scarlet Knights

3. South Florida Bulls

4. Pittsburgh Panthers

5. Cincinnati Bearcats

6. Connecticut Huskies

7. Syracuse Orange

8. Temple Owls

Conference Champion: Louisville Cardinals

Offensive Player of the Year: Running Back Ray Graham – Pittsburgh

     The 5’9 shifty senior was second in the nation in rushing (958 yards) through eight games last season until an ACL injury derailed Graham’s 2011/2012 campaign. With Pitt returning to a traditional pro-style offense under the tutelage of new coach Paul Chryst, opponents should expect an even heavier dose of a healthy Ray Graham in 2012/2013.

Defensive Player of the Year: Linebacker Khaseem Greene – Rutgers

     The returning Big East co-Defensive Player of the Year tallied 141 tackles a season ago; the fifth-highest total in school history. Greene and fellow starters Steve Beauharnais and Jamal Merrell form one of the best overall position units in the entire conference.

Surprise Team: Connecticut Huskies

     Few teams were as bad offensively as UConn was in 2011/2012; The Huskies finished 97th in rush offense, 84th in pass offense, and 108th in total offense. Despite these dreadful numbers, UConn fans have good reason to be optimistic about this upcoming season. 1,000 yard rusher Lyle McCombs returns along with four starters on the offensive line, and three incoming transfers are primed to make a big impact in the Husky passing game. Former Illinois quarterback Chandler Whitmer arrives in Storrs via the junior college route and was a top performer in the spring game. The sophomore will have two potentially dynamic receiving weapons in Boston College transfer Shakim Phillips and Clemson transfer Bryce McNeal. Both players were 4-star recruits coming out of high school. On the defensive side of the ball, eight starters are back from a unit that was third in the nation in rushing. A secondary that was shredded for the majority of last season returns fully intact and looks to be much improved. The Huskies should be more competitive in 2012/2013 than they were a year ago, but a brutal schedule that features road tests at South Florida, Rutgers, and Louisville could prevent UConn from reaching a bowl game for the second straight season under Paul Pasqualoni.

Best Game: Louisville at Rutgers- November 29th

    The Big East conference schedule ends with a bang as arguably the conference’s two best teams face off during the last week of the regular season in a game that could have championship implications. Teddy Bridgewater, Eli Rogers, and the potent Cardinal offense will butt heads with a Scarlet Knight defense that is absolutely loaded with talent in the back seven. Weather could play a factor here too, as late November games in Piscataway have proven to be an adventure in recent years.

     Honorable Mentions: Rutgers at South Florida – September 15th

     Louisville at Pittsburgh – October 13th

     Pittsburgh at South Florida – December 1st


Auburn linebacker Daren Bates (25), ex-wide receiver Darvin Adams (89), and running back Onterio McCalebb (23) (photo credit to Mike Zarilli, Getty Images)

           Projected Order of Finish

East                                                      West

1. Georgia Bulldogs                          1. Lousiana State Tigers

2. South Carolina Gamecocks        2. Alabama Crimson Tide

3. Florida Gators                                3. Arkansas Razorbacks

4. Tennessee Volunteers                4. Auburn Tigers

5. Missouri Tigers                             5. Texas A&M Aggies

6. Vanderbilt Commodores            6. Mississippi State Bulldogs

7. Kentucky Wildcats                        7. Ole Miss Rebels

Conference Champion: Louisiana State Tigers

Offensive Player of the Year: Running Back Marcus Lattimore – South Carolina

     Despite missing half of last season due to a torn ACL, the 6’0 230 pound Lattimore still managed to rush for 818 yards and 10 touchdowns in only seven games. As a freshman two years ago, the Gamecock back ran for nearly 1,200 yards and 17 TD’s en route to second team All-America and NCAA Freshman of the Year honors. The knee apparently is fully recovered, meaning Lattimore should return to pummeling opposing defenses for at least one more season in Columbia.

Defensive Player of the Year: Linebacker Jarvis Jones – Georgia

     The USC transfer posted a team-high 13.5 sacks to go along with 70 tackles a season ago as part of a Bulldog defense that ranked 5th in the country in yards per game. Jones, an All-American last season, should be one of the most fearsome pass rushers in the nation in 2012/2013.

Surprise Team: Tennessee Volunteers

     The Vols have become a trendy pick to make some noise in the SEC East this season thanks to the return of some dynamic offensive playmakers. Junior quarterback Tyler Bray is finally healthy after being sidelined with a thumb injury for a good portion of last season, and the 6’6 Californian will be protected by one of the most experienced offensive lines in the conference. Junior wide receivers Da’Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter form arguably the best receiving tandem in the SEC, and a defense that finished 28th in the country in yards per game last year returns eight starters. Another positive sign for the Vols is that SEC West favorite Louisiana State is absent from Tennessee’s 2012/2013 schedule; a relief to Vol fans who had to sit through LSU’s 38-7 obliteration of UT last year at Neyland Stadium.

Best Game: Alabama at LSU – November 3rd

     It’s a rematch of the BCS National Championship; a game in which the Tide utterly dominated LSU on their way to a resounding 21-0 victory in New Orleans. New Tiger quarterback Zach Mettenberger will be counted on to guide an LSU attack that failed to eclipse 100 yards of total offense in the BCS title game. You can bet the fans in Death Valley will be doing everything they can to cheer their Bayou Bengals on to victory.

     Honorable Mentions: Georgia at Missouri – September 8th

     South Carolina at LSU – October 13th

     LSU at Arkansas – November 23rd

Francis Kallon (Jason Braverman, Gwinnett Daily Post)

      Last night I had the great opportunity to ask Georgia Tech freshman defensive end Francis Kallon a few questions. Kallon was a standout for Central Gwinnett High School in Lawrenceville, Georgia before signing with GT in February. The 6’5 270 pound freshman was a four-star recruit according to all three major recruiting services and was the 18th best defensive end in the country per Rivals.com.

      Kallon’s path to becoming a college football player was an intriguing one to say the least. Francis moved to the Atlanta area from London a little over a year ago and arrived at Central Gwinnett High with zero experience playing American football. Due to some serious convincing from Central Gwinnett’s football coach Todd Wofford, Kallon began practicing with the team during the spring of his junior year. It was clear from the start that Coach Wofford had discovered something special in Francis, and 13 division one colleges would soon agree.

     That’s right, Kallon acquired 13 scholarships before ever playing a down of football. He committed to Georgia Tech in June without ever competing in a real high school game. Despite some major courtship from the likes of Alabama, Notre Dame, and USC during his senior season, Kallon stuck with his commitment to the Yellow Jackets and was one of the highest ranked prospects in Georgia Tech’s 2012 recruiting class. Our interview can be found below.

Kallon earned 13 scholarships before ever playing a game for Central Gwinnett High (Eric S. Lesser, New York Times)

Gridiron Digest: Despite having very little football experience leading up to your senior year at Central Gwinnett High, you managed to pile up some impressive statistics (70 tackles, 7 sacks, 3 fumble recoveries). How difficult was it to learn the rules and skills involved with playing organized football in such a short time?

Francis: At first, it was a little challenging especially having no experience and having to learn all these plays etc. While everybody else was just playing the game, I had to work four times as hard as everybody else because I wasn’t only playing the game but I was learning all at the same time. What actually got me through wasn’t just my size, athletic ability or my faith, but it was knowing that I was allowed to make mistakes as long as they were done 100mph, and I DID MAKE MISTAKES might I add. I believe almost 45% of the 77 tackles, 9 sacks, 3 fumble recoveries and 5 blocked punts  I made were made because I might have ran through the wrong gap or allowed myself to get washed right into the running back.”

Gridiron Digest: You earned scholarship offers from hordes of schools including Arkansas, Auburn, Tennessee, and Stanford. What made you decide to stay in-state and play for Georgia Tech?

Francis: Well, I knew I would be close to church which meant I would maintain a strong spiritual foundation, as well as being closer to the ones I love. Family and friends would be able to watch me play and I would be (in) downtown ATL. What also stuck out to me was that Tech put their academics right on the table before they came to me with football which stuck out to my family and I. Furthermore I would be playing as a Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech a HELLUVA ENGINEER!”

Gridiron Digest: Did you seriously consider attending any other schools after committing to Tech?

Francis: I was always open-minded after I committed, it was the least I could do for all the colleges that still showed interest even after I committed. At the end of the day, college football is a business and you never mix feelings with business and so I had to do what was best for Francis Kallon.”

Gridiron Digest: Roderick Chungong, Pat Gamble, Adam Gotsis, and yourself make up a formidable group of incoming defensive linemen for Georgia Tech and Coach Paul Johnson. Have you had a chance to meet any of these guys yet and talk about playing together for the next four years?

Francis: “Yes I have actually, Patrick Gamble is in fact my roommate, and Rod (Chungong) is always in my dorm room hanging out so we discuss playing together and the possibilities the future holds. My roommates are Pat Gamble, Anthony Autry and Justin Thomas.

Gridiron Digest: You guys open up the season against rival Virginia Tech in Blacksburg on September 3rd. Has this game provided any extra motivation and incentive for the team during the offseason?

Francis: I see it as the winner of this game is practically the winner of the ACC championship. Being at the game last year and seeing the tomfoolery that went on and how we were robbed a victory adds to the motivation and determination to be the last team standing. I know my boy Jeremiah Attaochu is ready!”

Gridiron Digest: Izaan Cross is the lone defensive line starter returning for Tech in 2012/2103. What sort of role do you hope to play in the defensive end rotation this fall?

Francis: My main goal is to contribute in as many ways as possible, somewhat like a Jack of all trades but master of many. If that means I revolutionize the pass rushing game then so be it, or the special teams then I’m down.

Gridiron Digest: Most college football analysts project GT to win around 8-9 games and compete for a division title this season. What goals and expectations do you have for the team and for yourself during your freshman season?

Francis: “All I see is a greater record than last year, a championship over VA tech, yet another bowl game appearance and history being made on North Avenue.”

Gridiron Digest: Finally, what’d you think of the race results between Justin Thomas and Broderick Snoddy? (note: freshman quarterback Justin Thomas and redshirt freshman A-back Broderick Snoddy held a race at GT’s indoor practice facility a little over a week ago to determine who was the fastest Yellow Jacket; both were 100 meter champions in high school. Snoddy emerged victorious)

Francis: “It would have been a tie if Snoody had stopped at 40 yards but he kept going. We also have to put into consideration that Justin has just arrived so he hasn’t been running up until training started a week from the race, Snoody had been working out for months prior to the race. I know that it would have turned out differently if Snoody had been a freshman racing Justin, and I say this because I have played in an All-American bowl game with Justin and seen what he can do.”

Big thanks to Francis for taking the time to conduct the interview! Best of luck to you this year my man

Virginia Tech teammates celebrate their 2009 Orange Bowl victory (Doug Benc, Getty Images)

     On Tuesday morning, the Atlantic Coast Conference signed a 12 year contract with the Discover Orange Bowl set to begin following the 2014 season. The ACC has sent its conference champion to the Orange Bowl since 2006, and the new agreement guarantees that this affiliation will continue.

     This offseason, the BCS announced that conferences with “Automatic Qualifying Status” will be stripped of this privilege. Prior to this declaration, champions from the ACC, Big 12, Big 10, Big East, Pac 12, and SEC were all guaranteed spots in BCS bowl games regardless of ranking and record. This is no longer the case, and all BCS bowl participants will now be hand-picked by the BCS in an “at-large” fashion. By signing this contract with the Orange Bowl, the ACC secured themselves a form of AQ status, as their conference champion will always have a BCS game to participate in regardless of their ranking and record.

     In 2014, when college football embarks on its four-team playoff championship format, the Discover Orange Bowl is destined to be in the rotation to host one of the semifinal games along with five other bowls (likely the Sugar, Cotton, Rose, Champions, and Chick fil-A). According to this contract, during seasons when the ACC champion is not selected as a member of the four-team playoff and the Orange Bowl is a host site for a semifinal game, the ACC champion is guaranteed a spot in one of the five aforementioned bowl games not in the playoff rotation for that season. For example, if the Orange Bowl and Sugar Bowl are hosting semifinal games, the ACC champion would likely play in the Chick fil-A Bowl if they are not chosen to be part of the four-team playoff.

     If the ACC champion is selected as a participant in the four-team playoff, the ACC runner-up would then play in the Discover Orange Bowl (or one of the other major bowls if the Orange Bowl is in the playoff rotation that season). If two ACC teams are selected for the four-team playoff, the conference’s third best team would play in the Orange Bowl.

     It’s unlikely that the Orange Bowl will sign a similar contract with another conference (like the Big East), and the ACC’s opponent in the Orange Bowl for the next 12 years will likely be an at-large team from a different conference or Notre Dame.

     In addition to guaranteed participation in the Orange Bowl, the ACC also will own the television rights for the game and are free to negotiate a deal with any network they choose (ESPN, Fox, CBS, etc.).

     What does this mean for the ACC? It’s a game changer; this agreement gives the ACC a seat at the table along with the four other power conferences (Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12, SEC). Just days ago, the ACC appeared on the verge of oblivion due to the disappointing television deal they struck with ESPN. Following this contract with the Orange Bowl, it’s likely that the conference will remain intact.

     If ACC commissioner John Swofford is able to negotiate a respectable deal for the Orange Bowl with a major television network, it would make up for the lackluster contract he signed with ESPN. This could potentially raise each ACC school’s annual football-related revenue to Big 12/Big Ten type levels, therefore enticing the likes of Florida State, Clemson, and Virginia Tech to remain in the ACC. Also, if Notre Dame does give up its independence and joins a conference, the ACC’s chances of landing the Fighting Irish just increased dramatically.

NC State cornerback David Amerson (photo credit to Andrew Shurtleff)

           Projected Order of Finish

Atlantic                                          Coastal

1. Florida State                             1. Virginia Tech

2. Clemson                                   2. Georgia Tech

3. North Carolina State               3. North Carolina

4. Wake Forest                             4. Virginia

5. Boston College                        5. Miami

6. Maryland                                    6. Duke

Conference Champion: Florida State

Offensive Player of the Year: Wide Receiver Sammy Watkins – Clemson

     This sensational sophomore burst onto the national scene last fall and enjoyed one of the more prolific freshman seasons in ACC history; Watkins finished with 82 catches for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns. Another offseason to gel with quarterback Tajh Boyd and coordinator Chad Morris means Sammy should be even better in 2012/2013.

Defensive Player of the Year: Cornerback David Amerson – North Carolina State

     The junior corner compiled some remarkable statistics last season by finishing with 51 tackles, 18 passes defended, and an FBS-high 13 interceptions. Amerson has the unique combination of size (6’3), speed, and instincts that make him one of the top defensive backs in the country. David was an All-American in 2011/2012 and should contend for these honors once again.

Surprise Team: North Carolina State

     Preseason hype in the ACC’s Atlantic Division has dealt solely with Florida State and Clemson up to this point, and for good reason. There’s a team up in Raleigh, though, that could play a big role in determining who takes home the division crown. The Wolfpack return one of the conference’s best quarterbacks in Mike Glennon, a veteran offensive line, and a defense that brings back seven starters including All-ACC defensive backs David Amerson and Earl Wolff. A favorable schedule void of Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech means NC State could have only one conference loss when the ‘Pack travels to Death Valley to play Clemson on November 17th.

Best Game: Florida State at Virginia Tech – November 8th

     This Thursday night showdown in Blacksburg pits arguably the ACC’s two best teams against each other; both of whom have their eyes on a conference title and a BCS birth. Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas will have to bring his A-game against a Seminole defense that led the ACC in all four major defensive categories last season.

     Honorable Mentions: Georgia Tech at Virginia Tech – September 3rd

     Clemson at Florida State – September 22nd

     Virginia Tech at Clemson – October 20th

USC quarterback Matt Barkley (Joe Raymond, AP)

                    Projected Order of Finish

North                                                               South

1. Oregon Ducks                                           1. USC Trojans

2. Stanford Cardinal                                     2. Utah Utes

3. Washington Huskies                               3. UCLA Bruins

4. California Golden Bears                         4. Arizona Wildcats

5. Washington State Cougars                    5. Arizona State Sun Devils

6. Oregon State Beavers                             6. Colorado Buffaloes

Conference Champion: USC Trojans

Offensive Player of the Year: Quarterback Matt Barkley – USC

     Barkley is simply the best quarterback in the country. He decided to come back for his senior season in order to compete for a Pac 12 title, a national title, and a Heisman Trophy; all of which he has a great shot to win. Barkley threw for 3,528 yards and 39 touchdowns (with only 7 interceptions) last season, and will have two All-American receivers to throw to this year in Robert Woods and Marqise Lee. This is a no brainer.

Defensive Player of the Year: Defensive Tackle Star Lotulelei – Utah

     Lotulelei’s impact on a game cannot be measured statistically (43 tackles,1.5 sacks last season). However, the 6’4 325 pound run stuffer demands double teams on every play and was the main reason why Utah had the nation’s 20th best rush defense in 2011/2012. Lotulelei is the reigning Morris Trophy winner; an award given annually to the Pac 12’s best defensive lineman.

Surprise Team: Washington State Cougars

     Despite their 4-8 record a season ago, it was clear that the Cougars took a big step towards competitiveness in the Pac 12. New head coach Mike Leach will have some impressive offensive weapons to work with in wide receivers Marquess Wilson (82 catches, 1,388 yards) and Kristoff Williams, and both potential quarterbacks (Jeff Tuel or Connor Halliday) have proven themselves more than capable of guiding this potentially potent air attack. Look for Wazzou to end their nine year bowl drought this season.

Best Game: Oregon at USC – November 3rd

     One team will be knocked out of the national title hunt on the first Saturday in November when the Ducks travel to Los Angeles to take on the Trojans. Both teams are likely to enter the game undefeated, creating an absolute monster matchup between these two Pac 12 powers.

     Honorable Mentions: USC at Stanford – September 15th

     USC at Utah – October 4th

     Stanford at Oregon – November 17th

West Virginia wideout Tavon Austin (Getty Images)

Projected Order of Finish

1. Oklahoma Sooners

2. West Virginia Mountaineers

3. Texas Longhorns

4. Kansas State Wildcats

5. TCU Horned Frogs

6. Oklahoma State Cowboys

7. Baylor Bears

8. Iowa State Cyclones

9. Texas Tech Red Raiders

10. Kansas Jayhawks

Conference Champion: Oklahoma Sooners

Offensive Player of the Year: Wide Receiver Tavon Austin – West Virginia

     This 5’9 175 pound burner caught 101 passes for 1,186 yards and 8 touchdowns last season while also starring as one of the Big East’s best punt returners. Barring injury, Austin will have a great chance to win the Biletnikoff Award (nation’s top receiver) at the end of the season.

Defensive Player of the Year: Linebacker A.J. Klein – Iowa State

     Few players have had a more productive Big 12 career than Klein, who has compiled 228 tackles over the past two seasons with the Cyclones (117 last year). Klein, along with fellow senior Jake Knott, form arguably the best linebacking duo in the conference and one of the top units in the country.

Surprise Team: Baylor Bears

     Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III may no longer be at Baylor, but talented offensive weapons still remain plentiful in Waco. Senior quarterback Nick Florence has proven to be effective in spot duty over the past two seasons, and he’ll have three great receivers to throw to in Terrance Williams, Lanear Sampson, and Tevin Reese. Oregon transfer Lache Seastrunk could be the answer at running back, and eight starters return on a defense that should be much better than the 37.2 points per game they allowed last season.

Best Game: Oklahoma at West Virginia – November 17th

     A traditional Big 12 power meets a conference newcomer in a game that could decide the league title. This game has the looks of a classic, high scoring Big 12 shootout as both teams are absolutely loaded with offensive talent.

     Honorable Mentions: Texas vs. Oklahoma (in Dallas) – October 13th

     TCU at West Virginia – November 3rd

     Oklahoma State at Oklahoma – November 24th