Sizing up the conferences
After another offseason that was unforgettable for all the wrong reasons, the 2012 college football season is finally here.
You might need a map to follow the action, which starts with 17 games Thursday night, including No. 9 South Carolina playing its SEC opener at Vanderbilt.
Missouri and Texas A&M are playing in the SEC; TCU and West Virginia are members of the Big 12 (which still has only 10 teams); Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada moved to the Mountain West; and Temple is back in the Big East.
Say hello to four new FCS programs: Massachusetts (Mid-American), South Alabama (Sun Belt), Texas State (WAC) and Texas-San Antonio (WAC).
High-profile coaches also moved: Urban Meyer is coaching at Ohio State; Mike Leach is at Washington State; Rich Rodriguez landed at Arizona; and Charlie Weis is at Kansas.
The SEC remains on top, as the sport's 900-pound gorilla will try to win its seventh BCS national championship in a row.
Here's a closer look at how each of the BCS conferences shape up for this season:
Atlantic Division champion: Florida State
Coastal Division champion: Virginia Tech
Conference champion: Florida State
Dark horse: NC State
Offensive player of the year: Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson
Defensive player of the year: Brandon Jenkins, DE, Florida State
Freshman of the year: J.C. Coleman, RB, Virginia Tech
Coach of the year: Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech
Coach on the hot seat: Frank Spaziani, Boston College
1. Miami won't play in a bowl game because it won't reach 6-6 in coach Al Golden's second season, and the Hurricanes will self-impose a one-year postseason ban on themselves before they're hammered by the NCAA in the fallout of the Nevin Shapiro scandal.
2. Virginia Tech will defeat Virginia in its Nov. 24 regular-season finale to win 10 games or more for the ninth consecutive season. Despite losing star tailback David Wilson and most offensive firepower, the Hokies will finish 10-2 and earn another trip to the ACC championship game.
3. Florida State will finally emerge as a BCS national championship contender under coach Jimbo Fisher and will play in the Orange Bowl. The Seminoles have too much talent, especially on defense, to limp through another mediocre season.
Conference champion: West Virginia
Dark horse: TCU
Offensive player of the year: Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia
Defensive player of the year: Jackson Jeffcoat, DE, Texas
Freshman of the year: Wes Lunt, QB, Oklahoma State
Coach of the year: Bill Snyder, Kansas State
Coach on the hot seat: Tommy Tuberville, Texas Tech
1. West Virginia will win the Big 12 championship in its first season in the league. The Mountaineers figure to only be better in their second season using Dana Holgorsen's fast-paced offense, and their defense might be better under new co-coordinators. The Mountaineers will upset Texas on the road and Oklahoma at home, but then they'll inexplicably lose to a team they should have defeated (at Iowa State on Nov. 23), just as they did in the Big East.
2. A Texas quarterback will throw for more than 10 touchdowns in a season, something the Longhorns haven't done since Colt McCoy threw 27 in 2009. Sophomore David Ash won the starting job in preseason camp, and coach Mack Brown will stick with him as he leads the Longhorns to a 9-3 record in the regular season.
3. Bill Snyder's second edition of the "Miracle in Manhattan" will continue, as Kansas State will finish 9-3 in the regular season. Quarterback Collin Klein, who accounted for more than 3,000 yards of offense and 40 touchdowns in 2011, will be a Heisman Trophy finalist this season.
Conference champion: Louisville
Dark horse: Pittsburgh
Offensive player of the year: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
Defensive player of the year: Khaseem Greene, LB, Rutgers
Freshman of the year: Keith Brown, LB, Louisville
Coach of the year: Charlie Strong, Louisville
Coach on the hot seat: Doug Marrone, Syracuse
1. New Rutgers coach Kyle Flood will have the Scarlet Knights in the Big East title hunt until the end of the season. Flood, who took over the program when former coach Greg Schiano left for the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers in late January, will still have the Scarlet Knights chopping wood.
2. Connecticut will purchase a fleet of private jets to prepare for life in the Big East in 2013. Next season, the league will lose Pittsburgh and Syracuse to the ACC and add Boise State, Central Florida, Houston, Memphis, San Diego State and SMU.
3. New Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst, a former Wisconsin offensive coordinator, will have the Panthers in the Big East title mix in their last season in the league. With tailbacks Ray Graham and Rushel Shell, the Panthers will look a lot like the Badgers on offense.
Leaders Division champion: Wisconsin
Legends Division champion: Michigan
Conference champion: Wisconsin
Dark horse: Illinois
Offensive player of the year: Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan
Defensive player of the year: Denicos Allen, LB, Michigan State
Freshman of the year: Michael Thomas, WR, Ohio State
Coach of the year: Bret Bielema, Wisconsin
Coach on the hot seat: Danny Hope, Purdue
1. Wisconsin will win a shootout over Michigan in the Big Ten championship game to earn its third consecutive trip to the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio. The Badgers will lose the Rose Bowl for the third straight time, falling to Pac-12 runner-up Oregon. On the flight back to Madison, Wis., Bielema will begin his search for another transfer quarterback.
2. Michigan will end its four-game losing streak to rival Michigan State but will fall to Ohio State in new Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer's first appearance in "The Game." The Buckeyes are ineligible for a bowl game because of NCAA sanctions, but Meyer will have them motivated to beat the Wolverines.
3. New Penn State coach Bill O'Brien will somehow lead the Nittany Lions to a 7-5 record in his first season. Penn State's offense remains a mess, but its defense will give it a chance to be competitive in every game.
North Division champion: Oregon
South Division champion: USC
Conference champion: USC
Dark horse: Utah
Offensive player of the year: Matt Barkley, QB, USC
Defensive player of the year: Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah
Freshman of the year: Arik Armstead, DT, Oregon
Coach of the year: Lane Kiffin, USC
Coach on the hot seat: Jeff Tedford, California
1. Washington State will lead the Pac-12 in scoring -- and points allowed. With quarterback Jeff Tuel and a deep receiver corps, former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach has all the pieces in place to build another potent passing attack. But Washington State's defense is still a work in progress.
2. Southern California will defeat Oregon twice, first in the regular season and then in the Pac-12 championship game. Matt Barkley will have his Heisman Trophy moment in the rematch with the Ducks and will become the third USC quarterback to win college football's most coveted individual award.
3. Stanford will lose four games without quarterback Andrew Luck. With a rugged running game and defense, the Cardinal won't fall off the map completely. But quarterback Josh Nunes will struggle early behind an inexperienced offensive line.
East Division champion: Georgia
West Division champion: Alabama
Conference champion: Alabama
Dark horse: Florida
Offensive player of the year: Tyler Wilson, QB, Arkansas
Defensive player of the year: Jarvis Jones, LB, Georgia
Freshman of the year: Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia
Coach of the year: Will Muschamp, Florida
Coach on the hot seat: Joker Phillips, Kentucky
1. Alabama will defeat LSU in Baton Rouge, La., on Nov. 3 to win the SEC West -- and will actually score a touchdown in the process. Running behind what might be the best offensive line in school history, the Crimson Tide will be difficult to stop as their rebuilt defense improves from week to week.
2. Tennessee coach Derek Dooley will save his job. Dooley isn't the most popular guy in Knoxville, Tenn., but he's due to catch a break at some point. Dooley will guide the Volunteers to eight victories this season, and they'll upset South Carolina on the road on Oct. 27, the first of five straight victories to close the regular season.
3. Texas A&M will fare better than Missouri in their first season in the SEC. The Aggies seem better equipped on both lines of scrimmage to handle the rigors of an SEC schedule, and they'll finish 8-4 in coach Kevin Sumlin's first season. The Tigers will finish 7-5 after losing at Texas A&M in their Nov. 24 regular-season finale.
TideNation: Still searching
No quarterback in school history has thrown for 3,000 yards in a season. Not Ken Stabler. Not Joe Namath. Not Greg McElroy or John Parker Wilson. AJ McCarron couldn't do it in his first year starting in 2011, falling 366 yards short. If McCarron can build upon his 234-yard performance against LSU in New Orleans, he could be the first to break through and become Alabama's first Mr. 3,000.
-- Alex Scarborough, TideNation
GatorNation: More turnovers
One of Florida's biggest areas of emphasis during the offseason was forcing more turnovers. The Gators forced just 14 in 2011, which was the lowest single-season total in school history since the school began keeping fumble stats in 1950. UF forced just eight in SEC play, four of which came against Kentucky. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn talks about turnovers in every meeting and has devised a reward system for players who force turnovers in practice. -- Michael DiRocco, GatorNation
NoleNation: Protect the QB
Florida State has the talent and the depth to be a legitimate national championship contender in 2012, but step one in meeting expectations will be the improvement of the offensive line, which allowed an ACC-high 40 sacks last season. Last season, FSU used 10 different starters on the offensive line -- including four freshmen in its bowl win over Notre Dame -- while quarterback EJ Manuel was constantly under pressure and the running game was stuck in neutral. Converted defensive lineman Cameron Erving and junior college transfers Daniel Glauser and Menelik Watson offer reasons for optimism, but the biggest key will be the continued development of all the freshmen who endured the trial by fire a year ago. -- David Hale, NoleNation
DawgNation: Hold the line
If Georgia is to live up to its championship aspirations, its offensive line play will be a key factor to watch. The Bulldogs surrendered 33 sacks last season -- the SEC's 10th-worst total, ahead of only Kentucky and Ole Miss -- and struggled mightily in their season-ending loss to Michigan State.
-- David Ching, DawgNation
GeauxTigerNation: Just for kicks
Last season, LSU punter Brad Wing pinned opponents inside their 20 on 27 of 59 (46 percent) punts and inside their 10 on 22 percent (13 times) of his boots while hitting just five touchbacks. On a team built on defense, the field position he provides is crucial.
-- Gary Laney, GeauxTigerNation
WolverineNation: Century mark
Michigan fares much better when quarterback Denard Robinson gains more than 100 yards rushing. In 18 wins as a starting quarterback, he has gained 117.44 yards per game. In eight losses, 95.5 yards per game. In four of eight losses, Robinson failed to gain 100 yards rushing. In eight of 18 wins, he didn't gain 100 yards but missed parts of at least two of those games thanks to injury.
-- Michael Rothstein, WolverineNation
BuckeyeNation: Hit the target
The knock on the quarterback Ohio State coach Urban Meyer was inheriting when he arrived wasn't a secret. Braxton Miller wasn't the most accurate passer as a freshman (54.1 percent), and he has the statistics to prove it. But the Buckeyes already have seen him develop -- and they'll need a higher completion percentage to keep the up-tempo spread offense humming.
-- Austin Ward, BuckeyeNation
SoonerNation: D it up
The Sooners have ranked outside the top 50 in total defense in each of the past two seasons. Coach Bob Stoops even has admitted that the Oklahoma defense has not been up to its traditional standards lately. He's hoping his brother, Mike Stoops, as coordinator can resurrect the OU defense to the level it played with in the early 2000s.
-- Jake Trotter, SoonerNation
NittanyNation: We are young
One. That's the number of returning offensive players who started at least six games last year. Center Matt Stankiewitch -- who started every game in 2011 -- anchors an inexperienced offense that struggled last season and must improve for Penn State to find success. -- Josh Moyer, NittanyNation
HornsNation: Money passes
To improve its record, Texas must improve its red zone passing efficiency. In 2011, Texas' rating of 66 was the worst-ever for any Big 12 team. Additionally, in Big 12 play, Texas was 1-for-11 passing on third down in the red zone. That was the worst completion percentage for any Big 12 team in eight years.
-- Carter Strickland, HornsNation
GigEmNation: Air it out
It seems everyone wants to know: Will the wide-open, air-raid-style offense that Kevin Sumlin and Kliff Kingsbury employed at Houston work for Texas A&M in the SEC? This year, we'll find out. The Aggies weren't bad themselves offensively last year, setting school records in total offensive yards per game (490.2), passing yards per game (291.1) and points per game (39.1).
-- Sam Khan Jr., GigEmNation
We Are SC: No big plays
USC's pass defense will need to give up fewer big plays in 2012. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Trojans have allowed 284 pass plays to gain 10 yards or more over the past two seasons. Only Tulsa has allowed more completions of 10-plus yards than USC in that span.
-- Garry Paskwietz, We Are SC
HuskyNation: Tightening up
After giving up a little more than 450 yards of total offense per game in 2011 -- Washington allowed a total of 5,893 yards in 13 games -- the Huskies are dedicated to defense in 2012 under new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. If Washington wants to become an elite team this season, that number needs to drop -- drastically.
-- Mason Kelley, HuskyNation