On The Rise: Teams to watch out for in 2012

With some teams already in spring practice, college football is now officially on everyone's radar. The usual suspects will be hyped-up early, but who finished strong last year and made nice enough impressions to make us take a closer look at them this year?

West Virginia

Perhaps no team finished 2011 stronger than West Virginia. The Big East became one giant SNAFU in November with no clear-cut conference champion emerging from the pack. West Virginia's win over South Florida gave them a share of the Big East title and Cincinnati's win over UConn gave the Mountaineers the edge in a three-way tie since they were the highest-ranked BCS team in the Big East.

But we weren't prepared for West Virginia totally destroying Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl with a final score of 70-33. Head coach Dana Holgorsen is already approaching folk-lore status not just in West Virginia, but throughout the country. With quarterback Geno Smith returning, the Mountaineers could be the darling of the Big 12—Smith gets to play pitch-and-catch with Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin, two receivers who both had 1,000+ yard seasons last year.

Georgia

After a 0-2 start the Georgia Bulldogs finished strong reeling off ten wins before losing to LSU in the SEC Championship and Michigan State in the Outback Bowl. By some standards, losing your last two games may not qualify as finishing strong but the Bulldogs did turnaround a disastrous start—they lost to the eventual 2011 BCS Championship contender (LSU) and Michigan State took the Bulldogs to three overtimes before finally winning the Outback Bowl. But the Bulldogs are starting to look like a Georgia team of yore—strong defense (ranked No. 5) and a running game that shows lots of promise with Isaiah Crowell. If he can stay healthy, the Bulldogs should seriously contend for the SEC East.

Auburn

After coming off a 2010 BCS Championship season, not a lot was expected from Auburn last year. In fact, most pundits had the Tigers finishing their 2011 season with a losing record due to all the talent that 2010 squad lost. The Tigers finished with an 8-5 record despite getting hammered by Arkansas, LSU, Georgia and Alabama and finished strong by beating Virginia 43-24 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. The Tigers' 2012 recruiting class is loaded with offensive stars—if their youthful defense matures, this team could be a sleeper. They catch a break hosting LSU, Arkansas, Texas A&M and Georgia at Jordan-Hare Stadium but have to play Alabama in Tuscaloosa and open with Clemson in Atlanta for the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic.

Washington

The Huskies finished 2011 with a 7-6 record including a 67-56 loss to Baylor in the Valero Alamo Bowl. Head coach Steve Sarkisian landed some incredible prospects on Signing Day as well as one heck of a defensive line coach—Tosh Lupoi is considered one of the best recruiters in the Pac-12. The Huskies finished the season giving up almost 169 yards per game—that puts them at a No. 76 national ranking. If the Huskies want to contend for the Pac-12 crown (and beyond) they'll have to shore up their defense. Signing five-star safety Shaquille Thompson is a nice start.

UCLA

While the Bruins did win the Pac-12 South they certainly didn't wow anyone with the way they finished the season. UCLA was blown out 50-0 in their final regular season game against USC, lost to Oregon in the inaugural Pac-12 Championship and lost to Illinois in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. UCLA's biggest problems appear to be two-fold; consistency at quarterback and passing defense. This year, true sophomore Brett Hundley will be competing for the starting spot at quarterback and his mobility will certainly give the Bruins more options. The Bruins signed five cornerbacks—including Marcus Rios and Ishmael Adams—which means new head coach Jim Mora isn't wasting any time addressing areas of concern. The Bruins get a "finished strong" label for several reasons; they landed a top 20 recruiting class and they cleaned house with a new coaching staff including two super recruiters in Adrian Klemm and Demetrice Martin.

Louisville

While Louisville did lose in the Belk Bowl to NC State, the Cardinals did make a lot of improvements late in the season. After a cruel October in which they lost three of their five games including a crucial loss to Cincinnati—that one loss prevented them from going to the Orange Bowl—they did win five of their last six regular season games. Freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater's last half of the season was also impressive—he only had one game where his pass completion percentage dipped below 63. With some added outstanding defensive help from the 2012 class including two four-star linebackers (Keith Brown and Nick Dawson), a not-too-intimidating non-conference schedule and West Virginia now out of the picture, the Cardinals should be primed to return to their 2006 form when they went 12-1 under Bobby Petrino.

Washington State

There's never been a doubt that the Cougars can pass the ball, but with new head coach Rick Leach now at the reins, we should see more passing than ever before. Leach has two good quarterbacks at his disposal—Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday. Both Tuel and Halliday were injured last year but Halliday had a recording-breaking performance against Arizona State when he went 27 of 36 for 494 yards, 4 touchdowns and no interceptions. Both quarterbacks will compete for the starting spot this year. The Cougars' schedule does them no favors—although they avoided drawing USC from the South, they play seven games away from Martin Stadium with six of their first nine games on the road. But if anyone can weave some magic into a football program, it's Mike Leach.

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