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Conference Previews

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

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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

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

Michigan State defensive end William Gholston (Matthew Mitchell, MSU Athletic Communications)

                                        Projected Order of Finish

Leaders Division                                                           Legends Division

1. Wisconsin Badgers                                               1. Michigan Wolverines

2. Ohio State Buckeyes                                             2. Nebraska Cornhuskers

3. Purdue Boilermakers                                            3. Michigan State Spartans

4. Penn State Nittany Lions                                      4. Iowa Hawkeyes

5. Illinois Fighting Illini                                               5. Northwestern Wildcats

6. Indiana Hoosiers                                                   6. Minnesota Golden Gophers

Conference Champion: Michigan Wolverines

Offensive Player of the Year: Quarterback Denard Robinson – Michigan

     No player in the Big 10 demands more attention from a defense than Robinson, who ran and threw for a combined 3,349 yards and 36 touchdowns a season ago. Despite his flaws, “Shoelace” has true game-changing ability that can be unleashed on every single play.

Defensive Player of the Year: Defensive End William Gholston – Michigan State

     This 6’7 275 pound monster is the best player on a Spartan defense that could be the Big 10’s best in 2012/2013. The junior had 67 tackles and 5 sacks last season.

Surprise Team: Purdue Boilermakers

     The Boilers return a ton of skill position talent on offense including wide receivers O.J. Ross and Antavian Edison, and running backs Ralph Bolden and Akeem Shavers. Seven starters, including All-Conference tackle Kawann Short, return on a defense that should be much improved.

Best Game: Ohio State at Wisconsin – November 17th

     Both teams should still be in the running for the Leaders Division title by the time November 17th rolls around. Wisconsin will be out for revenge after a last second loss in Columbus last year.

     Honorable Mentions: Michigan State at Michigan – October 20th

     Nebraska at Michigan State – November 3rd

     Michigan at Ohio State – November 24th