|ESPN.com: NCF Preview 12||[Print without images]|
We'll start the countdown to a legitimate college football playoff when the 2012 season opens in a couple of weeks.
Of course, we'll have to wait two more seasons to see it.
But there's still plenty of intrigue heading into the upcoming season.
Is Florida State finally back? Is Texas? Is Florida? We know Southern California is back among the sport's elite programs.
Here's a closer look at what's hot and what's not in college football in 2012:
|Playoff: College football's commissioners and presidents approved a seeded, four-team playoff to determine the sport's national champion, but we'll have to wait until the 2014 season to see it. We'll get semifinal games on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day and then the first national championship game on Jan. 12, 2015. Can't wait.||BCS: The current and much-maligned method for deciding the national championship gets a two-year reprieve from its death. The top two teams in the final BCS standings will play in the Discover BCS National Championship Game in Miami on Jan. 7, 2013, and then at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 7, 2014. Will those titles come with an asterisk?|
|SEC: College football's 900-pound gorilla has won the last six BCS national championships, after Alabama defeated LSU 21-0 in the title game in New Orleans on Jan. 9. Five SEC teams are ranked in the top 10 of the preseason coaches' poll: No. 1 LSU, No. 2 Alabama, No. 6 Georgia, No. 9 South Carolina and No. 10 Arkansas.||Big East: After TCU and West Virginia bolted for the Big 12, and with Pittsburgh and Syracuse leaving for the ACC, the Big East has been relegated to the ranks of the non-BCS conferences. Its champion still gets a guaranteed spot in a BCS bowl game the next two seasons, but none of its teams are ranked in the preseason coaches' poll.|
|USC: After a two-year bowl ban, USC enters the 2012 season as the Pac-12 favorite and a legitimate BCS bowl contender. With quarterback Matt Barkley bypassing the NFL draft to return for his senior season to throw to receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, the Trojans are back among the sport's heavyweights.||UNC: The Tar Heels are among a handful of high-profile teams that are ineligible for the postseason this year, along with Central Florida, Ohio State and Penn State. New UNC coach Larry Fedora will eventually produce a winner in Chapel Hill, N.C., but his first season figures to be a long one, especially with an ongoing investigation into academic irregularities.|
|Badgers: Wisconsin, the defending Big Ten champion, brings back Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball and another transfer quarterback, former Maryland starter Danny O'Brien. With the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions ineligible to play for a Big Ten title, the Badgers might be smelling roses again on New Year's Day.||Honey Badger: Former LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, who was a Heisman Trophy finalist last season, was dismissed from the team earlier this month by Tigers coach Les Miles. Mathieu, who scored four touchdowns last season, was booted after reportedly failing multiple drug tests.|
|Realignment: College football keeps spinning its realignment wheels, as several teams are playing in new leagues this season. Along with West Virginia and TCU moving to the Big 12, Missouri and Texas A&M jumped to the SEC. The ACC and Big East get face-lifts over the next couple of seasons, too.||Rivalry games: One of the consequences of conference realignment was the loss of several traditional rivalry games. Games we won't see this season (or in the near future): Texas vs. Texas A&M; Pittsburgh vs. West Virginia; and Missouri vs. Kansas.|
|Hello, again: Several big-name coaches are back in the sport after short hiatuses. Among the coaches returning to college football this season: Urban Meyer (Ohio State), Rich Rodriguez (Arizona), Mike Leach (Washington State), Bob Davie (New Mexico) and Terry Bowden (Akron).||So long: Here are a few of the big-name coaches we'll miss seeing on the college sidelines this coming season because they retired, were fired or jumped to the NFL: Howard Schnellenberger (Florida Atlantic), Dennis Erickson (Arizona State), Pat Hill (Fresno State), Rick Neuheisel (UCLA), Mike Sherman (Texas A&M) and Greg Schiano (Rutgers).|
|Kickoff games: The first weekend of the regular season offers a buffet of intriguing, neutral-site games. Notre Dame plays Navy in Dublin, Ireland. Alabama plays Michigan at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. NC State plays Tennessee and Auburn plays Clemson on consecutive nights at Atlanta's Georgia Dome.||Kickoff returns: In an attempt to keep players safer, the NCAA moved kickoffs from the 30- to the 35-yard line starting this season, which it hopes will lead to more touchbacks. Players on the coverage team will get only a 5-yard running start, and touchbacks will move from the 20- to 25-yard line.|
|Uniform changes: Teams from coast to coast are breaking out new uniforms this season. Among the wardrobe changes we can't wait to see: Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Northwestern, Penn State, Rutgers, West Virginia and Wisconsin.||Flying helmets: Under new NCAA rules, any player who loses his helmet will have to spend the next play on the sideline. The only exception is when a player's helmet is ripped off as the result of a penalty, like a face-mask infraction. If a player's helmet comes off, the play is immediately whistled dead.|
|Transfers: Along with O'Brien, several high-profile players changed schools during the offseason: QB Dayne Crist (Notre Dame to Kansas), QB Garrett Gilbert (Texas to SMU), QB Ryan Williams (Memphis to Miami), RB Silas Redd (Penn State to USC) and QB Ryan Katz (Oregon State to San Diego State).||Dismissals: Along with Mathieu, here are a few of the players we won't see this season because of their off-the-field issues: FSU CB Greg Reid, Georgia RB Isaiah Crowell, Auburn (and Arkansas State) RB Michael Dyer, TCU LB Tanner Brock, Michigan WR Darryl Stonum and Ohio State LB Storm Klein.|
|Clowney: After being named SEC Freshman of the Year by the league's coaches in 2011, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney seems ready to explode in an expanded role this season. He had 36 tackles, eight sacks and 12 tackles for loss as a freshman.||Clowns: With coaches like Bobby Petrino (Arkansas), Ron Zook (Illinois) and Mike Locksley (New Mexico) getting fired since the end of last season, who are college football fans going to pick on now? At least Arizona State's Todd Graham is still working.|
|Week 10: Circle Nov. 3 on your calendar. That's the weekend the BCS national championship race will really begin to take shape. Alabama plays at LSU. Oregon plays at USC. TCU plays at West Virginia. Go ahead and set your DVRs.||Week 2: With most of the sport's powers playing FCS or directional opponents, there's only a small handful of intriguing games: Florida at Texas A&M, Georgia at Missouri, Oklahoma State at Arizona and Washington at LSU.|
|Ego Ferguson: LSU's deep and talented defensive line is a big reason it enters the season ranked No. 1 in the coaches' poll. Ferguson, a 6-foot-3, 308-pound sophomore, was a backup last season but steps into a bigger role this season. Also returning are Barkevious Mingo, Sam Montgomery and Bennie Logan. The Tigers will be nearly impossible to block.||Ego: There's no other explanation for Petrino's boorish off-field behavior, which led to a motorcycle wreck, infidelity and his firing as Arkansas' coach. Petrino leaves behind a top-10 team to interim coach John L. Smith, who will try to close the gap between the Hogs and Alabama and LSU in the rugged SEC West.|
|Shoelaces: Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson enters the season as a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate after throwing for 2,056 yards with 18 touchdowns and running for 1,163 yards with 16 scores in 2011. His goal this season: a Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl trip.||Irish shoes: Notre Dame will wear special shoes that are designed to look like Ireland's flag in its opener against Navy in Dublin. While we're all for fashion and tradition, the green, white and orange stripes seem to be a bit much. Are the Irish playing football or sprinting in the Olympics?|
|Pac-12 coaches: The league's roster of coaches is a lot more colorful after Washington State hired Leach, Arizona snagged Rodriguez and UCLA landed former Atlanta Falcons coach Jim Mora Jr. They join, of course, USC's Lane Kiffin and Oregon's Chip Kelly. The Pac-12's weekly coaches teleconference might be full of sound bites.||Hot-seat coaches: Among the coaches who need to win this season: Tennessee's Derek Dooley, California's Jeff Tedford, Boston College's Frank Spaziani, Central Florida's George O'Leary, Maryland's Randy Edsall, Central Michigan's Dan Enos, Idaho's Robb Akey, Kentucky's Joker Phillips and Texas Tech's Tommy Tuberville.|
|Quarterback battles: A handful of teams are still trying to determine their starting quarterbacks in preseason camp. Notre Dame has a four-man race between Tommy Rees, Everett Golson, Andrew Hendrix and Gunner Kiel. Sophomores Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel are battling for Florida's starting job, and Joe Southwick and three other players are vying for the unenviable task of replacing Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore.||Quarterback injuries: Maryland hasn't even played a game yet, but the Terrapins are already scrambling in Edsall's second season. After going 2-10 in the coach's first season, Maryland lost starting quarterback C.J. Brown to a season-ending knee injury in practice earlier this week. With O'Brien leaving for Wisconsin, freshmen Perry Hillis and Caleb Rowe are left to start under center.|
|Notre Dame's schedule: The Fighting Irish might be better in coach Brian Kelly's third season, but their results might not improve. Notre Dame plays arguably the country's most difficult schedule, with road games at Oklahoma, Michigan State and USC, home games against Michigan, Stanford and BYU, and neutral-site contests against Navy and Miami (in Chicago).||Georgia's schedule: The Bulldogs' soft schedule is a big reason they enter the season ranked in the top 10 and as favorites to repeat as SEC East champions. The Bulldogs' nonconference schedule includes games against Buffalo, Florida Atlantic and FCS foe Georgia Southern, and it doesn't play Alabama, Arkansas, LSU, Mississippi State or Texas A&M from the SEC West.|
|Comebacks: Several top players are coming back from injuries that caused them to miss all or most of last season, including: South Carolina RB Marcus Lattimore, Arkansas RB Knile Davis, Tennessee WR Justin Hunter, Pittsburgh RB Ray Graham, Washington State QB Jeff Tuel and Texas A&M RB Christine Michael.||Season-ending injuries: A handful of important players have already been lost for all or most of the season, including Florida DE Ronald Powell, Missouri RB Henry Josey, Oklahoma G Tyler Evans, Oklahoma C Ben Habern, USC DE Devon Kennard, Georgia Tech LB Julian Burnett, Louisville WR Michaelee Harris and Ole Miss DT D.T. Shackelford.|
|Impact freshmen: A large number of freshmen might play big roles on championship contenders, including RB Jonathan Gray (Texas), RB T.J. Yeldon (Alabama), RBs Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley (Georgia), WR Dorial Green-Beckham (Missouri), RB Michael Holmes (Virginia Tech), WR Trey Metoyer (Oklahoma), OT D.J. Humphries (Florida) and QB Wes Lunt (Oklahoma State).||Impact suspensions: More than a few teams will play the first few weeks short-handed because of suspensions. Among the significant players expected to miss action: Clemson WR Sammy Watkins, Boise State WR Geraldo Boldewijn, Georgia CB Sanders Commings, Michigan RB Fitzgerald Toussaint, Notre Dame QB Tommy Rees and Ohio State TE Jake Stoneburner.|