08/30/2012 08:54 am ET Updated Aug 30, 2012

College Football 2012 Season Preview: Power Rankings, Toughest Schedules, Bowl Projections

By Dave Miller, National Football Post

The 2012 college football season officially kicks off Thursday night with the headliner being South Carolina at Vanderbilt. Steve Spurrier has his best South Carolina team yet, but James Franklin's Commodores could be a tough "out" at home despite the game shockingly not being a sellout.

In other action Thursday night, Mike Leach goes home to BYU where his Cougars of Washington State will try to spring an upset in Provo, while Jim L. Mora makes his collegiate head-coaching debut when his UCLA squad travels to Rice.

The action continues Friday night with Boise State facing yet another opening test, this time against Michigan State in East Lansing. Imagine the star power in this one if the teams had met last fall? Tennessee and N.C. State will also do battle in the Georgia Dome in a huge opening contest for Derek Dooley, the Vols head coach who enters a make-or-break 2012 campaign.

And before the Georgia Tech-Florida State Labor Day night showdown on Monday, there are plenty of intriguing games on the first Saturday of the season — Alabama-Michigan, Clemson-Auburn and Southern Miss-Nebraska are just a few that stand out.

Of course, you can always keep up on all of the college football news across the nation by checking out my College Football Report, which will keep you updated on the latest happenings in the world of college football.

With that in mind, let's dig in and get set for a new season...

Week 1 conference power rankings (in case you missed them this week)

Big East

1. Louisville, 2. South Florida, 3. Pittsburgh, 4. Rutgers, 5. Cincinnati, 6. Connecticut, 7. Temple, 8. Syracuse


1. Virginia Tech, 2. Clemson, 3. Florida State, 4. Georgia Tech, 5. N.C. State, 6. Virginia, 7. North Carolina, 8. Wake Forest, 9. Miami, 10. Maryland, 11. Duke, 12. Boston College

Big Ten

1. Michigan State, 2. Wisconsin, 3. Michigan, 4. Nebraska, 5. Ohio State, 6. Iowa, 7. Illinois, 8. Purdue, 9. Northwestern, 10. Penn State, 11. Minnesota, 12. Indiana


1. Alabama, 2. LSU, 3. Arkansas, 4. South Carolina, 5. Georgia, 6. Florida, 7. Missouri, 8. Tennessee, 9. Auburn, 10. Texas A&M, 11. Vanderbilt, 12. Mississippi State, 13. Kentucky, 14. Ole Miss

Big 12

1. Oklahoma, 2. West Virginia, 3. TCU, 4. Kansas State, 5. Texas, 6. Oklahoma State, 7. Baylor, 8. Texas Tech, 9. Iowa State, 10. Kansas


1. Oregon, 2. USC, 3. Stanford, 4. Washington, 5. Utah, 6. UCLA, 7. Cal, 8. Washington State, 9. Arizona, 10. Oregon State, 11. Arizona State, 12. Colorado


1. Louisiana Tech, 2. Southern Miss, 3. Arkansas State, 4. Boise State, 5. Houston, 6. Ohio

Impact freshmen: Players who could become household names by the end of the season

WR Trey Metoyer, Oklahoma: Metoyer gives quarterback Landry Jones another top option besides Kenny Stills. He possesses the explosiveness to get down the field and was the talk of the offseason from many people close to the program.

RB T.J. Yeldon, Alabama: Eddie Lacy will likely get the majority of the carries with Trent Richardson moving on to the NFL, but Alabama's 2011 Mr. Football will get a chance to receive a good number of handoffs because Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban likes to spread the wealth. Yeldon will also battle Dee Hart for reps, but Hart could have a bigger impact on special teams as a returner.

WR Stefon Diggs, Maryland: Diggs was one of the top receivers in the Class of 2012, and he decided to stay in-state and play for the Terps. And because receiver was a sore spot in 2011, Diggs will get immediate playing time. But his true value could be on special teams, where he will get to return kicks.

WR Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri: It might be a stretch to consider DGB the closest thing we have seen to Calvin Johnson and Randy Moss at the college level. But the 6-6, 220-pounder, who was the nation's top recruit last year, has all of the physical tools to be a dominant receiver from day one in the SEC as long as he can beat press coverage.

WR Deontay Greenberry, Houston: Don't forget that Greenberry shocked Brian Kelly and Notre Dame by signing his Letter of Intent on National Signing Day and sending it to Houston, which must replace five of its top six receivers. Expect Greenberry to be a major contributor right away with David Piland at quarterback.

RB Michael Holmes, Virginia Tech: No matter who departs Blacksburg and moves onto the NFL from the running back position, head coach Frank Beamer always has one ready to step in and produce. Enter Holmes, who earned top offensive newcomer honors during the team's spring practice, showing the coaching staff that he has very good vision and can excel at blocking.

QB Wes Lunt, Oklahoma State: The Cowboys' freshman signal-caller makes this list because it's tough to imagine head coach Mike Gundy and offensive coordinator Todd Monken choosing him as the starter if they didn't have confidence in the young QB's maturity. It will be intriguing to see how Lunt adjusts to running a major-college offense and to see if the unit remains prolific despite the losses at receiver, led by stud Justin Blackmon.

RB Duke Johnson, Miami (FLA): While senior Mike James will be the starter in Coral Gables, the 5-9, 183-pounder is very fast and is good catching the ball out of the backfield, so he will see the field immediately as a nice complementary option to the bigger James.

LB Joe Bolden, Michigan: The strength of the 2011 Michigan squad was the defensive line, but that won't be the case in 2012. Bolden, a quick east-to-west outside 'backer, has a chance to become a big part of the back seven for the Wolverines.

CB/S Travis Blanks, Clemson: The Tigers need help in the secondary, and new defensive coordinator Brent Venables received some immediate aid in the form of the playmaker Blanks. He will get tons of work at nickelback because he fits at both cornerback and safety.

LB Jabari Hunt-Days, Georgia Tech: Yellow Jackets defensive coordinator Al Groh will give Hunt-Days a long look at inside linebacker because Daniel Drummond will likely miss the season opener due to a suspension.

S Landon Collins, Alabama: The Crimson Tide are re-shuffling their secondary after losing three of four starters from their national title team. Collins should see action immediately in the safety rotation, particularly at strong, because he has good instincts, athleticism and is a big hitter.

DE Arik Armstead, Oregon: Ducks head coach Chip Kelly finally landed his standout defender on the recruiting trail this past February, so it will be interesting to see if Armstead could make an immediate impact in Nick Aliotti's defense. If he can have half the impact that De'Anthony Thomas had last year on offense, Aliotti and Kelly will be ecstatic.

2012's 5 toughest schedules

1. Notre Dame: No team has a more challenging slate, which is why I've maintained that the Fighting Irish could potentially be even better this fall than last year yet not have the record to show for it. Head coach Brian Kelly's squad does not play any FCS programs, of course, and the easiest games on the schedule aren't even cupcake city. The Irish will go up against five teams that could flirt with a BCS bowl at the end of the year: at Michigan State, Michigan, Stanford, at Oklahoma and then the regular-season finale at potential No. 1 USC. And don't forget that Miami and BYU are also on the fall slate. Challenging indeed, especially for a team that will have a new starting quarterback for Week 1.

2. Washington: It's a given that new coordinator Justin Wilcox is going to at least make this Huskies defense tolerable in 2012. His success at Boise State and Tennessee should breed confidence in the program. But it will be very difficult to see significant progress early in the season because of such a brutal start to the year, which includes a trip to Baton Rouge to face LSU and a three-week stretch that will really test head coach Steve Sarkisian's bunch: physical and tough Stanford, at lightning-fast Oregon and host to USC. Those are the three best teams in the Pac-12, and Sarkisian's squad has to face them all in a row. And though it gets a bit easier in the second half, road trips loom.

3. Ole Miss: First-year Rebels head coach Hugh Freeze better load up on wins early, because there may not be many on the team's schedule once they move past September. Ole Miss begins 2012 with three straight home games, although Texas is one of the opponents. And a Manny Diaz-led defense will pose major problems for an offense that will be in its infancy. The next week, however, the Rebels play Tulane to end a month that could conceivably net three wins, with the lone loss coming against the Longhorns. But, boy, does the slate get brutal after the opening month. Ole Miss will have to travel to Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and LSU. Those are arguably the four best teams in the SEC. Freeze's squad also has to contend with league newcomer Texas A&M, as well as Auburn and Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl.

4. Kansas: Another head coach whose first year could be rough is Charlie Weis at Kansas. The Jayhawks won just two games in 2011, and it will be difficult to squeeze out many more victories than that this fall despite the arrival of former Notre Dame quarterback Dayne Crist as well as some other transfers from major programs and the JUCO ranks. After the opening two contests against South Dakota State and Rice, Kansas won't get a breather, playing 10 straight games against better teams. Even a road trip to Northern Illinois will be a chore. Visits to Kansas State, Oklahoma, Baylor and West Virginia are also on deck.

5. Oregon State: If Mike Riley and Oregon State want to bounce back from a couple of very disappointing seasons, it will take a lot of things to break the right way this fall. After the opener against Nicholls State, the Beavers host a Wisconsin program that has made back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances. And a visit to BYU is one of the more underrated tough nonconference games in the nation. While the Beavers will not have to contend with USC this year, Stanford, Washington, Oregon, Utah and Cal are on the slate. And the offenses of Washington State and Arizona State will be tough to defend.

Top coordinators on the rise: These assistants could be primed to land head gigs very soon

Manny Diaz: The Texas defensive coordinator proved at Mississippi State that he could put together a fierce defense with good talent. In Austin, he has proven that he could make a very good defense great. His personality is infectious, so recruiting won't be an issue. And he has ties to very fruitful recruiting grounds. The Miami native has worked in the biggest conferences in the country, and he has been the main force behind the revived Longhorns' defensive attack. With Texas expected to have yet another dominant defensive campaign, Diaz could be the hottest commodity on the market. Expect his name to be linked to a variety of openings.

Pat Narduzzi: The Michigan State defensive coordinator has been able to transform the Spartans into the most athletic team in the Big Ten. His defense is the closest thing the Big Ten has to SEC speed, and it showed its worth last year in the bowl win over Georgia. This is a defense that made sure it was not overshadowed by Kirk Cousins and the Spartans' sound offensive attack. A Rose Bowl berth is the next step for MSU, and it won't get there without yet another strong defensive campaign. And Narduzzi will provide it, which he should parlay into a head gig. His aggressive, multiple-look defense causes headaches for Big Ten offensive coordinators. And his personality would serve him well on the recruiting trail as a head coach.

Kirby Smart: While we know that Nick Saban is the architect of Alabama's annual physical and dominant 3-4 defense, Smart has been able to learn under arguably the best head coach in the country. The Crimson Tide defensive coordinator works in a highly organized, professional environment that Saban has created, and that includes a strong, dedicated commitment on the recruiting trail. Some wonder if Smart is ready right now for a head job. The same questions, however, were asked of Jimbo Fisher. And Florida State is once again in BCS discussions for 2012. Will Muschamp and Derek Dooley still have a lot to prove at Florida and Tennessee, of course, but being a Saban disciple has merit. I believe both Muschamp and Dooley were the right hires at their respective SEC schools, and it's very likely that Smart is going to get a chance to show his worth as the face of a program sooner rather than later. In fact, maybe Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart would look to Smart to replace Dooley if the Vols head coach has a rough 2012. After all, Hart came to Knoxville from Tuscaloosa.

Chad Morris: The Clemson offensive coordinator has seen his stock soar after the prolific unit he led last year in his first season as the Tigers' OC. Morris is making big money at over $1 million per season, so Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins can possibly help him make even more bank as a head coach if the Tigers can repeat their success this fall. Not a bad position to be in for a guy who was a high school head coach and one-year OC at Tulsa before being hired to run the offense of the Tigers.

Todd Monken: The former Jacksonville Jaguars assistant has a chance to really raise his stock this season after taking over for Dana Holgorsen last season and inheriting Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon. Things will be a bit more difficult in Monken's second year because he will have a freshman QB and a new set of playmakers to mold. However, this is a situation where the best coaches prove their worth. So if the Pokes can have a successful transition post-Weeden, Monken could be a hot commodity. And keep in mind that he can put his stamp a little bit more on this offense one year removed from Holgorsen.

Other names to keep in mind: Stanford OC Pep Hamilton, Oregon OC Mark Helfrich, Georgia DC Todd Grantham and Florida State DC Mark Stoops.

2012-13 Bowl Projections

Note: * indicates that a conference could not fill all of its slots

Dec. 15 New Mexico: Fresno State (MWC No. 4/5) vs. UCLA (Pac-12 No. 7/WAC)
Dec. 15 Famous Idaho Potato: Louisiana Tech (WAC) vs. Western Michigan (MAC No. 3)
Dec. 20 Poinsettia: Nevada (MWC No. 2) vs. BYU (BYU)
Dec. 21 Beef ‘O’Brady’s: East Carolina (C-USA) vs. *Bowling Green (Big East No. 6)
Dec. 22 New Orleans: FIU (Sun Belt No. 1) vs. Houston (C-USA)
Dec. 22 Maaco: Boise State (MWC No. 1) vs. Washington (Pac-12 No. 5)
Dec. 24 Hawaii: Wyoming (MWC/WAC) vs. Tulsa (C-USA)
Dec. 26 Little Caesars: Ohio (MAC) vs. Northwestern (Big Ten No. 8)
Dec. 27 Military: *Northern Illinois (ACC No. 8) vs. *Notre Dame (Army)
Dec. 27 Belk: Rutgers (Big East No. 3) vs. Virginia (ACC No. 5)
Dec. 27 Holiday: Utah (Pac-12 No. 3) vs. Kansas State (Big 12 No. 5)
Dec. 28 Independence: Vanderbilt (SEC No. 10) vs. *Louisiana-Lafayette (ACC No. 7)
Dec. 28 Russell Athletic: South Florida (Big East No. 2) vs. N.C. State (ACC No. 3)
Dec. 28 Meineke Car Care of Texas: Purdue (Big Ten No. 6) vs. Baylor (Big 12 No. 6)
Dec. 29 Armed Forces: Marshall (C-USA) vs. Colorado State (MWC)
Dec. 29 Kraft Fight Hunger: Washington State (Pac-12 No. 6) vs. Navy (Navy)
Dec. 29 Pinstripe: Pittsburgh (Big East No. 4) vs. Texas Tech (Big 12 No. 7)
Dec. 29 Alamo: Stanford (Pac-12 No. 2) vs. Texas (Big 12 No. 3)
Dec. 29 Buffalo Wild Wings: Oklahoma State (Big 12 No. 4) vs. Iowa (Big Ten No. 4/5)
Dec. 31 Music City: Wake Forest (ACC No. 6) vs. Auburn (SEC No. 7)
Dec. 31 Sun: Georgia Tech (ACC No. 4) vs. Cal (Pac-12 No. 4)
Dec. 31 Liberty: Southern Miss (C-USA No. 1) vs. Tennessee (SEC No. 8/9 or Big East)
Dec. 31 Chick-fil-A: Clemson (ACC No. 2) vs. Florida (SEC No. 5)
Jan. 1 TicketCity: Illinois (Big Ten No. 7) vs. SMU (C-USA)
Jan. 1 Outback: Michigan (Big Ten No. 3) vs. Georgia (SEC)
Jan. 1 Capital One: South Carolina (SEC No. 2) vs. Wisconsin (Big Ten No. 2)
Jan. 1 Gator: Nebraska (Big Ten No. 4/5) vs. Missouri (SEC No. 6)
Jan. 4 Cotton: TCU (Big 12 No. 2) vs. Arkansas (SEC)
Jan. 5 BBVA Compass: Cincinnati (Big East No. 5/C-USA) vs. Mississippi State (SEC No. 8/9)
Jan. 6 Toledo (MAC) vs. Arkansas State (Sun Belt No. 2)

BCS bowls

Jan. 1 Rose: Michigan State (Big Ten champ) vs. USC (Pac-12 champ)
Jan. 1 Orange: Virginia Tech (ACC champ) vs. Louisville (BCS at-large)
Jan. 2 Sugar: Alabama (SEC champ) vs. Florida State (BCS at-large)
Jan. 3 Fiesta: West Virginia (Big 12 champ) vs. Oregon (BCS at-large)
Jan. 7 BCS national championship (Miami): LSU (BCS No. 1) vs. Oklahoma (BCS No. 2)


Pete Roussel‏ produced an interesting chart that shows that California, Texas, Florida and Ohio produced the most starting quarterbacks this fall.

Ron Higgins has a great profile on Lee Corso, who has been such a huge part of our Saturday mornings for a long time.

Email or follow me on Twitter at Miller_Dave