I did call it, but it really doesn't make me feel any better about what transpired in the BCS title game, as Alabama claims another national championship they don't really deserve. I'm sure Alabama put on a clinic in this game (from the game summary I read they even scored a touchdown, that's so exciting for them!) and there will be folks that claim that this is the game that should be remembered as the indicator of which team was better (Alabama fans) but in reality we end up with the most unsatisfying end to a postseason since 2004 where we were still left with three great undefeated teams after the bowls closed. The only good feelings folks will have about this season involve it being so screwed up that it led to the changes that football fans have been clamoring for for generations. Unfortunately the changes are still in the future, so our future conference mates in Stillwater will have to wonder forever what would have happened if their best team in school history had had a chance to play for it all. We know that feeling at Frogs O' War (though debate will go on between the 2010 team and 1938 team, the '38 team is out of the lifespan of every Frog fan I know apart from my grandmother- and she wasn't a frog fan back in '38), so our full sympathies to the cowboys of Oklahoma State.
Enough dwelling on the sadness of the season though, let's have a look at the teams that have the best shot of ending the SEC monopoly on national titles next year, join me after the jump as we look at the top teams from each conference and see which of them are likely title game participants.
A few quick assumptions- The SEC champion gets in if undefeated- this one needs little explanation I think.
A one loss SEC champ is the top 1 loss option, but will not get in over an undefeated BCS champion (yes even the Big East champion).
A two loss SEC champ is the top 2 loss option, but will not get in over an undefeated non-AQ team that plays on blue turf or a one loss AQ champ- unless said AQ champ is in the ACC or Big East.
General picking order of the rest of the conferences is as follows: Big 12 > Pac 12 > Big Ten > Big East > ACC. Exceptions to this rule: If Michigan runs the table, it's in. If USC runs the table, it's in. If Ohio State runs the table, it's banned from the postseason (hahahahaha). If Notre Dame runs the table, it's in. These are college football's royalty outside of the Big 12 and SEC and they will get a title shot unless Texas and LSU go undefeated as well- then you have legit Armageddon scenarios (I use LSU for this example because 'bama and Michigan can't both go undefeated next year, simmer down 'bama fan).
Clemson- It's a whole new season, but all Clemson will be thinking about this offseason is 70. 70 points run up by West Virginia in the Orange Bowl (a bowl record), and my guess is that Dabo is able to use it as a motivational tool and guide Clemson to a season with fewer disappointments and inexplicable losses as a result. The caveat? They'll have to go undefeated to get a shot, and if there are multiple undefeateds they're the last ones in. Clemson will have a quality non-conference schedule next year (games against two SEC teams) but that will do little to change the perception that the ACC is the scum of the BCS leagues- it's not going anywhere (like the Big East is) but its champ was blown out by the Big East champ (who was blown out by Syracuse), they get no benefit of the doubt. A one loss ACC champ would be passed by even a two loss SEC champ in the rankings, so for the purposes of this writeup we'll say if Clemson goes undefeated, they're in. Title Contender grade: B-. The Tigers are the tops in the ACC, they had the best recruits last year and those recruits are going to develop into even bigger monsters in the seasons to come. What's holding them back is Clemson's history of dropping games they should win handily and their league.
Florida State: Is this the year Florida State returns to glory? Florida State has oodles of Florida talent, their coaches are moving forward and if not for injuries they might have beaten 0U this year (back when that meant something). Most importantly, Florida State has the name that Oklahoma State did not this year- people know Florida State, people rank Florida State every year just waiting to be hailed as prophets the year Florida State becomes, you know, Florida State again. Florida State has the clear name advantage over every program in the ACC bar Miami and that brand is actually probably strong enough to overcome the anti-ACC bias, with goes along with a solid non-conference schedule (assuming our future conference mate isn't able to wriggle out of its scheduled date) to put them in the tier where one loss gets them in over a two loss SEC champ. Title Contender grade: C+. I mentioned the love of putting FSU in the polls to try and prophecy their return, and here's my prophecy: Florida State does not return to glory this year. I would argue that for all the talent that they routinely rake in, no program is as consistent in not developing that talent into being greater than it was when it arrived on campus than Florida State. They open the season against Virginia Tech, which means one of the ACC's three title contenders is starting 0-1 and recent history has shown that in those situations Florida State is usually on the losing side.
Virginia Tech: Virginia Tech is not a blueblood of college football, they've never won a national title and though they routinely play tough non-conference games (and BCS bowls) they make a habit of getting blown away in those games. However, they return QB Logan Thomas who had a solid Sophmore season, as well as the majority of a typical Hokie-solid defense. The schedule also shouldn't be too terrible, Pitt will be retooling from a spread into a mauling unit under former Wisconsin OC (and friend-of-the-frog) Paul Chryst, and Cincinnati isn't going to be a world beater this year (even if they will likely be the Big East's best. Hosting Georgia Tech is big, and the road game at Clemson is the last week of the season, plenty of time to build an offensive line and iron out deficiencies. Title Contender grade: C-. Logan Thomas is a good one, but they're rebuilding what was already a turnstile-y offensive line and will play either Florida State or Clemson twice next year. They may win two of those games, but they won't win all three, so they'll be left hoping that they're the lone one-loss team standing when all is said and done, and that's a best case scenario.
Unless West Virginia is imprisoned for another year, no Big East team will lose fewer than three games, there is almost no separation between the teams in the Big East (not to say they're all bad, but it's conceivable that anyone could lose to anyone else every single week).
Michigan- They have what I consider the unimpeachable name in college football (since Notre Dame has become more or less a joke in recent years). They have the winged helmets, they have "The Victors", they have the biggest stadium for sports in the USA (no, NASCAR is not a sport), and most relevantly their quarterback can do this. Michigan has a marquee date with a gutted Alabama team to open the season, and if they win that even with one loss it will be difficult to keep them out of the title game- the schedule isn't awful (they play three tough games away from home- Alabama, Notre Dame and Ohio State) but with Notre Dame without Michael Floyd, Alabama without the teeth of the defense or star halfback and Ohio State making the first year transition to Urban's spread those are games that Michigan will have a good chance to win. Title Contender grade: A-. Michigan's defense will suffer a bit with the loss of Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen, and there will be a clear step down at center with Rimington award winner David Molk off to the pros. Michigan slew many of its demons this year (most notably the Ohio State one) but still has two more monkeys to get off its back if this is going to be a title year: Michigan State and Iowa. Iowa has won three in a row against the Wolverines (the last time that happened? Never. This is the first time since they started playing in 1900 that Iowa has won three in a row) and Michigan State has pulled the rug out from under big brother four consecutive times. Both of these key games are at home, however, so Michigan has a great chance of running the table- consider me a sucker for a transcendent talent at QB (even if he can't throw all that well).
Oklahoma- They're 0U under Bob Stoops, which means a top five-top ten preseason ranking is all but assured, and Landry Jones decided to give school one more go in the pursuit of matching Sam Bradford's title game appearance record. Oklahoma is a name that is difficult to keep out of the title game, no matter what the actual results of their games are (blown out by K-State in the Big 12 championship game and 45-35 spring immediately to mind), so an undefeated season is a sure title game bid- bar a USC or Michigan undefeated season paired with an undefeated SEC champion, and 0U will always find itself at the top of any one loss pile (they always seem to lose that first game just at the perfect time to rebound in the polls, don't they?)- such is the brand of 0U under Stoops. 0U also returns four starters on the offensive line, which earns them a hearty check mark from me, and the return of a second Stoops to run the defense has the natives all fired up about a return to the title game. Title Contender grade: B+. 0U has the strength of schedule to overcome a loss, thanks to perceptions of the Big 12, name brand and typically fearless non-conference scheduling (0U will play Notre Dame, Tennessee, Ohio State and LSU home and away over the next eight years), but the problems with the defense aren't scheme based (Bob Stoops is still the master of that defense, no matter who is the coordinator in name) but rather player based, and 0U isn't going to jump up from an Insight Bowl victory to a BCS championship victory without a significant improvement in the defense. 0U will likely have the fourth best defense in the Big 12 this year (below Texas, TCU and Kansas State), but the gap between Texas' D and 0U's D will likely mean a much closer game for the Sooners in Dallas than the offensive talent disparity would suggest, and the road trip to Amon Carter will be rough as well. 0U also will battle the history that they've accumulated of being plain noncompetitive in bowl games where the talent field is about even (I don't think even 0U fans are convinced that "Big game Bob" is back because of a Fiesta Bowl win over the second worst BCS team of all time and a win over an Iowa team that suspended its star (and only) running back before the game), the question of Bob Stoops being outmaneuvered in big games is a fair one to ask, especially as many of his numerous victories over top 10 teams come from Texas (whose coach, like Stoops, is not a real threat to outcoach someone, but will sure as hell out-talent you).
TCU- "TCU on an official list of title contenders?" I hear you cry, "I didn't know you spelled homer H-a-w-k-e-y-e-d-f-r-o-g!" Well I will certainly explain myself. The frogs name recognition and respect is at the highest point it's been since the 1930s and the Big 12's respect gives the frogs an excellent platform to get into the title game if they go undefeated or 11-1. Of course, getting to 11-1 is significantly more difficult in the Big 12 than in the Mountain West, but with the return of Chad Glasgow and our defense's steady improvement over the second half of the season I'm confident that the frogs will field a TCU-level defense, which should bode well for our Big 12 prospects. How the Frogs perform on the road will be a key, as even the more tame and sparsely attended football stadiums in the Big 12 (Baylor) will have the energy and emotion (and attendance) that the Frogs only saw in Waco and Boise last season, road trips to West Virginia and Austin are particularly threatening (I expect Okie State to take a step back without their QB and top 5 NFL pick Wideout). However, having conference favorite 0U at home in what is sure to be a rocking Amon Carter Stadium (and will likely set our new attendance record) will be a huge plus. Title Contender grade: B-. Yes, if I wasn't a homer for including them on the list, I'm definitely a homer for the grade, but I've felt for over a year now that 2012 was going to be huge for the frogs, and if they were in the Big East this year rather than the Big 12 I'd probably make it an A-. TCU's offense is high powered enough to keep up with the high flying Big 12, and Casey will likely grow into a second team All-Big 12 QB this year, and I believe TCU's defense is superior to the defenses of the majority of the Big 12, and that includes 0U. That said, nobody really has any idea of how TCU will do in the Big 12 until they actually do it, so count me on the optimistic side in the meantime.
Texas- Why spend time in an already long and windy column talking about an 8-5 team with serious QB issues? Because they're Texas, that's why. Also they'll just so happen to have the best defense in the Big 12 next year, as Manny Diaz has put in a more aggressive unit than even Muschamp ran at UT and the horns have responded with dogged effort and great defensive play. The offensive line should be a good one for the horns as well, and Malcolm Brown will likely soon be backed up by top TCU target Johnathan Gray, giving UT a plethora of riches with which to run the ball effectively. Title Contender grade: B-. I'm actually not as opposed to two QB systems as the majority of the populace- I feel that if two QBs bring different skill sets to the table (think Freshman Vince Young and Chance Mock at UT) that you can set up some serious headaches for defensive coordinators- Vince runs around like only Vince Young could run, Chance leads the two minute drill and beats Okie State at the last moment. Texas has a two QB system, and both QBs do in fact do different things- Case McCoy throws for no more than ten yards at a time (but safely), while David Ash throws downfield but is much less concerned about who is actually catching the balls (often the other team). Texas' schedule is manageable with both TCU and West VIrginia visiting Austin this year and the traditional neutral site meeting with 0U. The only really scary road game for the horns is a trip to Manhattan to play the wildcats, but K-State inexplicably owns Texas, so mark them down for 11-1 at best. Still, when your name is Texas, that's a pretty solid resume- just beat 0U by more than ten if you want to make it to the title game.
West Virginia- Man they scored a lot of points in the Orange Bowl, huh? The Mountaineers return QB Geno Smith as well as talent at the skill positions, and the offense is very similar to the one Texas Tech used to be a thorn in the side of the Big 12 conference for years. The West Virginia brand is a fairly strong one, and the Big 12 is recognized as a great conference, so if the By Godders come in and run roughshod over the league they'll be hard to keep out of the title game. Title Contender grade: C+. The Mountaineers lost Defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel to their former spread guru, Rich Rodriguez in Arizona, and that means two possible options lay ahead for the West Virginia defense: run the 3-3-5 with a coach who is neither Rocky Long nor Jeff Casteel (which has proven disastrous for most other adopters of the scheme) or get a new scheme and risk regression as your talent isn't suited for the new scheme (TCU's total dedication to the 4-2-5, as well as the relative lack of turnover in the defensive staff is a huge reason our defense is top tier year after year), so I can't rate the Mountaineers higher with their defense a huge question mark.
Boise State- If they pull off the upset (and unlike the win over Georgia this year, it would actually be an upset) of Michigan State at East Lansing, Boise State will almost certainly run the table once more and find itself in a BCS game- the talent in the Mountain West just isn't there to give the Broncos a hard time (especially as Boise will miss traditional tough out Air Force). BYU will be a close game, but Boise State doesn't lose at home unless the team they're playing is undeniably superior, and with Hawaii rebuilding under Norm Chow and Nevada without noted pistol ostrich Colin Kaepernick it seems likely that for the second year in a row the Mountain West champion will be one who is winning it on the way out. Title Contender grade: C+. Not to bum out Boise State fans, but last year was the year. Senior Kellen Moore, only one undefeated BCS conference team, Okie State losing at Iowa State and pollsters not really wanting a rematch (why the ended up taking it anyway I don't know), everything was set up for Boise State to get to the national title game and give them a win that would shake the AQ conferences to their cores. Then very bad things happened (from a Bronco perspective) and Boise went from frontrunner for the #2 ranking to the #2 ranking among second place teams. I'm not a doubter of Chris Petersen, but I think even an undefeated Boise State gets passed over by one loss AQ teams again this year, as perception of the program takes a hit without Moore. At least they have a highly touted kicker coming in this year, they've got to be excited about that.
Oregon- They have unbelievable speed and talent, their defense is highly underrated and the offensive line will likely take a step forward this season. Oregon is also on a historical name power high, they've won a Rose Bowl and darn well near won the national title in the painful to watch 2011 title game (particularly painful because TCU would've beaten both of those teams). Chip Kelly is a legitimate offensive genius- not necessarily due to the scheme he runs, but his playcalls and tempo are pretty well unmatched. However... Title Contender grade: C. I was really high on Oregon, the Pac 12 North is unlikely to be too daunting as Mike Leach will take time to build at Wazzu, Washington is in the middle of a defensive rehaul and Stanford is going to regress significantly. Then Darron Thomas made the shocking decision to declare for the NFL draft and I find myself looking at a team replacing its QB, RB and with question marks at receiver (beyond warp speed Rose Bowl hero DeAnthony Thomas, who is more of a Reggie Bush multi position player) who will likely have to beat an absolutely loaded USC team twice to go undefeated- the same USC team (and by the same, I mean 17 returning starters the same) that whooped Oregon in Autzen last year (frantic rally to a three point game aside, the majority of the game looked like a whooping). Chip Kelly may turn out another BCS appearance this year, but it won't be in the title game.
USC- They're eligible for the title, they've got four and five star talent all over both sides of the ball and they're going to be chomping at the bit to show college football that they're back after being seldom heard from in the first seasons of Kiffin's regime. USC returns seventeen starters, including 4 of their OL and likely Heisman candidate Matt Barkley and gets Oregon at home this year after winning in Autzen in 2011. The entire Pac 12 south looks like a wasteland, with the Arizona schools putting in new spread systems, UCLA's staggering ineptitude in coach finding leading them to Jim Mora, Colorado still being Colorado and Utah still being the team that lost to Colorado, USC has the schedule to tear through the league in a big way. Title Contender grade: A. They've got the name, they've got the uniforms, they've got the fight song that you loathe to hear, and they've got just about everybody they had last year. USC also misses Oregon State from the North (who is bad, but always gives the Trojans fits), and will happily trounce a Luck-less Stanford.
Issue with the grades? Want to suggest other contenders? Take it to the comments- but "Michigan State" suggestions won't be taken seriously.