by Jim Feist of VegasTopDogs.com
The countdown continues! Last week we looked at my Top 21-40, this week is my Top 20. The college football season kicks off August 30th and here’s a look at college football’s best!
20. West Virginia: New Coach Dana Holgorsen has turned the Mountaineers into a pass-happy group, averaging 37.6 points and 346.8 yards passing while winning 10 games and whipping Clemson in the Orange Bowl, 70-33. For 2012, 8 starters return on offense, 6 on defense. Senior QB Geno Smith (31 TDs, 7 picks, 4,385 yards) leads one of the top attacks in the country with junior WR Stedman Bailey (1,279 yards) and 5-foot-9 senior playmaking WR Tavon Austin (1,186).
Three starters return on the offensive line and they hope RB Dustin Garrison (742 yards) is recovered from a torn ACL suffered in Orange Bowl practices. New co-defensive coordinators Keith Patterson and Joe DeForest have some rebuilding to do up of with the loss of DEs Julian Miller and Bruce Irvin. That defense allowed 26.8 points per game and surrendered 27 or more in four of its final six. West Virginia moves to the Big 12 this season and is on a 9-2 run over the total.
19. USC: The Trojans have a ton of returning talent on offense, but with only 75 scholarship players the next three seasons one has to wonder about their depth. At least the offense (35.8 ppg) will be humming behind senior QB Matt Barkley (39 TDs, 7 INTs), senior RB Curtis McNeal (1,005 yards, 6.9 ypc) and a pair of dynamite WRs in junior Robert Woods (1,292 yards) and sophomore Marqise Lee (1,143).
Four starters are back on the offensive line, though losing left tackle Matt Kalil to the NFL Draft was a big blow. The defense is a concern, allowing 23.6 ppg and losing three starters up front. Sophomore J.R. Tavai is listed as the starting nose tackle alongside returning tackle George Uko. USC carries a 6-4 over the total run into the new season. Will that continue with their great offense and suspect ‘D’?
18. Tennessee: The Vols (5-7) started 3-1 before injuries decimated Coach Derek Dooley’s squad, but things are bright for 2012. 9 starters are back on offense, 8 on defense. Junior QB Tyler Bray (17 TDs, 6 INTs) has thrown 17 and 18 TDs the last two years and leads a passing attack that is loaded with junior WRs Da’Rick Rogers (1,040 yards) and 6-4 junior Justin Hunter, the latter returning from a serious knee injury.
This offense averaged 242 yards passing and should be one of the most potent in the nation. The defense wasn’t bad, allowing 22.6 points per game, but has little pass rush and brings in new coordinator Sal Sunseri, who adds a 3-4 scheme. Dooley wants the Volunteers to be more aggressive on defense than last season under Justin Wilcox. They only have four road games and the Vols are 19-21 SU/21-18-1 ATS on the road the last eight seasons, plus on a 6-2-1 run under the total.
17. Michigan State: The Spartans (11-3 SU, 10-4 ATS) lose QB Kirk Cousins, but return four starters on offense and eight on one of the best defenses in the nation (18.4 ppg allowed). Junior QB Andrew Maxwell (171 yards) steps in, but won’t have to carry the load: 4 starters are back along the offensive line and both junior RB Le’Veon Bell (948 yards) and senior RB Larry Caper return.
The defense was 10th in the nation in points allowed and should be among the Big Ten’s best with junior linebacker Max Bullough (89 tackles) and junior sack master LB Denicos Allen (11 sacks). The schedule is not easy, with September home games against Notre Dame and Ohio State, and October back-to-back road games at Michigan and Wisconsin. Michigan State is 20-28 ATS its last 48 home games.
16. Boise State: Boise State (12-1 SU/5-8 ATS in 2011) has 5 starters back on offense but has to replace 10 defensive starters. The offense looks for junior QB Joe Southwick (918 yards) to step up and he is surrounded by excellent talent with senior RB D.J. Harper (557 yards) and the receiving corps should be one of the best in the Mountain West behind sophomore Matt Miller (679 yards), senior WR Mitch Burroughs and junior Geraldo Boldewijn. The Broncos ranked fifth nationally averaging 44.2 points, 172 yards rushing and 309 passing.
The defense was outstanding after allowing 18.7 ppg. Tackles Mike Atkinson and Ricky Tjong-A-Tjoe should step in and be fine in the trenches while senior LB J.C. Percy leads the linebackers. There is no TCU on the schedule (their only defeat in 2011) and they open at Michigan State. Boise is on a 7-2 run over the total. Since 1999, Boise is 83-3 SU, 46-28 ATS at home!
15. Auburn: The Tigers followed up that 14-0 SU/10-3 ATS national championship season for Coach Gene Chizik with an 8-5 SU/5-7 ATS rebuilding campaign and a bowl win. With 7 starters back on offense and 9 on defense, hopes are high, though they lose outstanding off offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, the architect of wide-open spread attacks. The heat will be on new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler on a unit that averaged 25.7 points, 155.5 yards passing and 182.3 yards rushing.
Sophomore QB Kiehl Frazier was a top prospect and played in all 13 games last season, but completed only 41.7 percent of his throws, rushing for 327 yards. The offensive line is strong as is RB Onterio McCalebb, plus senior WR Emory Blake (612 yards) led in yards. The defense is talented, but allowed 28.9 points per game getting torched by Clemson, Georgia, LSU, Alabama and Arkansas, all losses and revenge games. They open in the Georgia Dome against Clemson.
14. Virginia Tech: The Hokies (11-3 SU, 4-9-1 ATS) are off another terrific season for Coach Frank Beamer, though they didn’t cover many. Only three starters are back on offense, but that includes 6-6 junior QB Logan Thomas (19 TDs, 10 INTs) who ran for 11 TDs. The offensive line returns only one starter, but the defense returns 8 to a dominant unit that allowed 17.6 points per game (7th in the nation).
They also finished in the top 10 in total defense with a great linebacking corps led by Bruce Taylor, plus two of the top defensive backs in the ACC in Antone Exum and Kyle Fuller for top-notch defensive coordinator Bud Foster. Virginia Tech has won 10 or more games in eight straight seasons and in 11 of the last 13 overall. V-Tech is on a 9-3-1 run under the total and a stellar 21-6 SU/17-10-1 ATS on the road the last five years.
13. Wisconsin: The Badgers are off two straight terrific seasons, winning 11 games each time. Finding a replacement for QB Russell Wilson is the top priority, with sophomore QB Joe Brennan and Joel Stave battling it out, plus QB Danny O’Brien transferred from Maryland, where he started 17 games over two seasons, and is eligible to play. At least they won’t have to carry the offense as the ground game averaged 235 yards per game and returns junior RB James White (713) and senior Montee Ball (1,923 yards, 6.3 ypc).
The defense is strong up front and was outstanding allowing 19 points per game (13th in the nation), though the secondary has new faces. The only tough road games are at Nebraska and the finale at Penn State. Wisconsin has been great at home, 51-5 SU, 31-19 ATS the last eight years.
12: Texas: The Longhorns were on a mission last season after missing a bowl in 2010. They improved, beating Cal in the Holiday bowl, 21-10. 7 starters return on offense for Mack Brown, 6 on defense. The passing game didn’t impress but returns both soph QBs David Ash and Case McCoy (7 TDs, 4 INTs), while the ground game is loaded after averaging 202.6 yards, 21st in the nation.
Sophomore RBs Malcolm Brown (742 yards) and Joe Bergeron (463) are back and joined by freshman Johnathon gray, a top recruit. The backbone of the team is a talented defense, led by senior DE Alex Okafor and junior Jackson Jeffcoat (8 sacks) and the entire secondary returning. There are three revenge games on deck after giving up 55 to Oklahoma, 38 to Ok-State and 48 at Baylor (all losses). Texas is 71-20 SU, 50-39-1 ATS the last seven seasons.
11. Florida State: Coach Jimbo Fisher is off a 9-win season and has a boatload of talent returning, 7 starters on offense, 9 on defense. This offense has plenty of punch, averaging 30.6 points, 112 yards rushing and 257 yards passing and returns senior QB E.J. Manuel (18 TDs, 8 INTs), sophomore RB Devonte Freeman (579 yards, 4.8 ypc), soph WR Rashad Greene, 6-6 senior WR Rodney Smith and soph Christian Green, the top three targets.
The only concern is an offensive line that allowed 3.2 sacks per game and rushers averaged only 3.3 yards per carry. The defense was has improved under defensive coordinator Mark Stoops, allowing 15.1 ppg, fourth in the nation. A lot of talent returns, led by DEs Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner, who combined for 15 sacks last season. FSU is on an 17-7 run under the total its last 24 games.
10. Michigan: The Wolverines found the right man to lead them in Brady Hoke, off a surprising 11-2 campaign. Both lines have holes to fill, but the key skill position player return, anchored by senior QB Denard Robinson (20 TDs, 15 INTs, 2,173 yards). Robinson led the team in rushing with 1,176 yards, 16 TDs on an offense that struck for 33.3 points, 182.8 yards passing and 221.8 yards rushing. That ground attack was 13th in the nation.
The real story of their turnaround was the job defensive coordinator Greg Mattison did. He came over from the Baltimore Ravens and turned Michigan into an attacking unit that allowed 17.4 ppg, sixth in the country. Middle linebacker Kenny Demens is a star, but the D-line lost its top players. Michigan will be terrific on offense, but the schedule is tough, opening against Alabama (neutral site) and playing road games at Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State. Michigan is 14-14 SU/12-16 ATS its last 28 road games.
9. Florida Gators: The Gators started 4-0 under Will Muschamp until injuries decimated the offense while they lost four in a row. They have a new offensive coordinator with Charlie Weis leaving, but will still run a pro-style attack, while the defense returns all 11 starters to a unit that allowed 20.3 ppg.
The offense adds former Boise State offensive coordinator Brent Pease to call plays. QBs Jacoby Brissett and sophomore Jeff Driskel are raw but talented and they are surrounded by incredible speed with senior RB Mike Gillislee and junior WR Andre Debose (432 yards), who averaged an astonishing 27 yards per catch! The defensive line is loaded with speed and talent and should be a dominating unit. Florida is 43-9 SU, 25-21-1 ATS at home in the Swamp the last seven years.
8. Nebraska: The good news for Bo Pelini is that 8 defensive starters are back, while the offense averaged 217 yards rushing, 29.2 points and returns junior QB Taylor Martinez (13 TDs, 8 INTs), who ran for 874 yards, and senior RB Rex Burkhead (1,357 yards, 15 TDs). The defense is strong up front and returns LBs Alonzo Whaley and David Santos for new defensive coordinator John Papuchis. The bad news is the ‘D’ got smoked by Wisconsin (48 points), Michigan (45 points) and South Carolina (30), and the offense is one-dimensional. When they get behind and have to pass, Martinez can’t do it. In addition, Nebraska will play road games at UCLA, Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa. Nebraska is 13-7 SU/ATS on the road under Pelini.
7. South Carolina: Last season the Gamecocks went 11-2 SU/7-6 ATS and whipped Nebraska in a bowl, 30-13. For 2012, Steve Spurrier could have some fun with this offense. The Gamecocks bring back eight starters on offense, including tailback Marcus Lattimore, who missed much of the season with a knee injury. Junior QB Connor Shaw (14 TDs, 6 INTs) got his feet wet and played well, leading a balanced attack that averaged 30 points, 181.5 yards passing and 192 yards rushing.
The defense was sensational, allowing 18.4 ppg (11th in the nation) and finished third nationally in total defense. They lost a pair of top players, but South Carolina still boasts one of the best front sevens in the nation while D.J. Swearinger is a star in the secondary. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson left to become the coach at Southern Miss. South Carolina plays seven home games, with rough road games at LSU (Oct. 13) and at Florida (Oct. 20). Spurrier is 19-16 SU, 21-14 ATS on the road at South Carolina.
6. Notre Dame: Brian Kelly has upgraded the Irish defense and the offense continues to be attacking and no-huddle, though they need to cut down on turnovers. Kelly’s wide-open offense returns junior QB Tommy Rees (20 TDs, 14 INTs) and junior RB Cierre Wood (1,102 yards) is back after averaging 5.1 yards per carry. Tight end Tyler Eifert (803 yds) decided to come back for one more season, joined by WRs Theo Riddick and T.J. Jones on a unit that averaged 29.2 points and 252.6 yards passing.
The defense impressed last fall allowing 20.7 ppg (24th) and should be outstanding up front, led by sophomore DE Aaron Lynch (5.5 sacks), junior NG Louis Nix and sophomore DE Stephon Tuitt. Senior Manti Te’o turned down the NFL Draft and will anchor a strong linebacking corps. The schedule is as tough, with nine games against teams that played in bowl games, including road contests at Michigan State, Oklahoma and USC. And they open the season against Navy – in Dublin, Ireland!
5. Alabama: The Tide finished fourth in the SEC West in 2010 and second last season, but things broke right and they got to steamroll LSU for another national championship behind their top-ranked defense. Coach Nick Saban has to rebuild on both sides of the ball, with only 4 defensive starters returning and 5 on offense. The good news is the O-line looks solid behind All-American offensive tackle Barrett Jones and junior RB Eddie Lacy (674 yds, 7.1 ypc) while junior QB A.J. McCarron (16 TDs, 5 INTs) is reliable.
The defensive line is in good shape with the return of ends Damion Square, Jesse Williams and Quinton Dial and the linebacking corps is young but gifted. Bama opens the 2012 season against Michigan in Arlington, Texas, on September 1 and plays at Arkansas (Sept. 15) and at LSU (Nov. 3). They can’t possibly allow 8.2 points per game again.
4. Oregon: Oregon is no ordinary offense under Chip Kelly, spreading the field, running the no-huddle and burning up defenses. Last season Oregon was No. 3 in the nation in points (46.1 ppg), with 223.6 yards passing and 299.2 yards rushing per contest. Many think USC is the team to beat out West but the Ducks are three-time defending Pac-12 champions and return 6 starters on both sides of the football.
Things look bright for 2012 behind speedy sophomore De’Anthony Thomas (10.8 ypc) and senior RB Kenjon Barner (939 yards) replacing star RB LaMichael James. Thomas ran for 595 yards and was their leading receiver with 605 yards. They lost QB Darron Thomas, so 6-4 freshman QB Marcus Mariota steps in, a 4-star recruit. Their schedule is easy outside of a revenge game at USC November 3rd. Oregon is on a 23-9 run over the total.
3. LSU: When we last saw the Tigers they were getting flogged by Bama in the national title game. But this group was dominant defensively last fall and LSU brings back 7 starters on both sides of the ball. Eight of the top ten defensive lineman return, led by sack masters junior DEs Sam Montgomery (9 sacks) and Barkevious Mingo. This defense was No. 2 in the nation in points allowed (11.3 ppg) and finished ahead of Alabama in the SEC (8-0) during the regular season.
The offense has a veteran offensive line and returns junior RBs Mike Ford (756 yds) and Spencer Ware (707) to a ground attack that averaged 202.6 yards rushing, 22nd in the nation. It’s the passing game that is a question mark with 6-foot-5, 250-pound QB Zach Mettenberger (a Georgia transfer) and incoming freshman Gunner Kiel. The Tigers play eight home games, and they’ll play at SEC West foes Texas A&M and Arkansas. The schedule is easier than the last two years and they get Bama at home November 3rd.
2. Oklahoma: Hopes were high for the Sooners last season and they ‘disappointed’ with a 10-3 campaign, losing their top running back and receiver to mid-season injuries. Hopes are even higher this fall with a boatload of talent back. The offense will be fine with senior QB Landry Jones (29 TDs, 15 INTs, 4,463 yds) after averaging 39.5 ppg, 163 yards rushing and 349 passing. That passing attack was fifth in the country.
The offense returns four offensive linemen along with junior WRs Ken Stills (849) and Jaz Reynolds (715) and top tailback Dominique Whaley (5.5 ypc) also is coming back from a broken ankle. The offense threw the ball 558 times, but the line gave up only nine sacks. The defense needs to replace some pass rushers, but the secondary returns three to a unit that allowed 22 ppg (31st in the nation). Oklahoma is 38-5 SU, 20-16 ATS at home the last six seasons.
1. Georgia: The Bulldogs quietly had a 10-game winning streak last season and the only defeats were to No. 1 LSU, No. 5 Boise, No. 12 South Carolina and No. 17 Michigan State – two by a total of 6 points, one in triple OT. For 2012, Mark Richt has his best team in years, one that averaged 32 points, 244.5 yards passing and 164 yards rushing and is lead by junior QB Aaron Murray (35 TDs, 14 INTs, 3,149 yards). Sophomore WR Malcolm Mitchell (665 yds) aids the passing game while the ground game has speedy freshman Keith Marshall.
Georgia allowed 20.6 points per game and brings back 10 starters on defense. Georgia doesn’t play SEC West heavyweights Alabama, LSU or Arkansas in the regular season for the second straight year and it plays four of its first five games at home. Sports bettors take note: Georgia is 42-16 SU/32-26 ATS on the road under Head Coach Mark Richt, 4-1 SU/3-2 ATS last season.