Biggest questions for college football 2012

With the 2012 college football kickoff nearly here, we count down the 10 biggest questions that will decide the season.

Can anyone stop the SEC from winning a seventh straight National Championship? Is Zach Mettenberger the missing piece of the puzzle in Bator Rouge? Can Lane Kiffin deliver a national championship? As always, there is no shortage of riveting questions, storylines, and sub plots on the minds of college football fans as the 2012 season rapidly approaches.

The following head-scratchers will define the upcoming campaign and be fodder for spirited debates right up until the opening kickoff at the end of the month ... and possibly well beyond. CFN's Richard Cirminiello and Pete Fiutak take a stab at answering these crucial questions.
All August long, CFN and will get you ready for the season with these great features. But that's not all. Check CFN's 2012 preview page for even more coverage.
Aug. 1: Top coaches on the hot seat
Aug. 3: Meet the new coaches
Aug. 6: Teams that might surprise us
Aug. 8: Teams that might disappoint us
Aug. 10: Teams that could ruin your season
Aug. 13: Biggest unanswered questions
Aug. 15: Great programs heading nowhere
Aug. 17: Unknown programs on the rise
Aug. 20: Top Heisman Trophy candidates
Aug. 22: Best games of the regular season
Aug. 24: Toughest stadiums to play in
Aug. 27: Teams most likely to play in BCS
Aug. 29: Title game match-ups we'd love

And if these aren't enough, check out questions 11-20, 21-30 and 31-40 in our extended preview.

10. Can Brian Kelly get Notre Dame over the hump in his third year in South Bend?

Rich: Obviously, it's a big year for Kelly, who is just 16-10 in South Bend, and has yet to get his offense to full throttle. Unfortunately, if his Irish are going to get beyond mediocre, eight-win seasons, they'll have to do so versus a wicked schedule that includes games against Michigan State, Michigan, Stanford, BYU, Oklahoma and USC. It's the kind of slate that could have Kelly sweating bullets this time next fall.

Fiu: Not a chance, because "the hump" is a BCS game and there's no way the Irish get through the nastiest schedule in college football with two losses or fewer. Navy (in Ireland), Purdue (who's loaded with veterans), at Michigan State, Michigan, Miami (in Chicago), Stanford, BYU, at Oklahoma, Pitt, at Boston College, Wake Forest, at USC. There's an outside chance that every Notre Dame game will be against a bowl-bound team. Thanks for playing. With that said, Kelly's season has to be held to a different standard because of this schedule. Nine wins should bring Coach of the Year consideration.

9. Who gets the ball from Mack Brown, and can he ignite the Texas offense?

Rich: Texas is basically Florida and a handful of other schools that sport terrific defenses, but hit-or-miss offenses. Brown and his staff will spend August deciding between two quarterbacks, sophomore David Ash and junior Case McCoy. While the ‘Horns should be able to run the ball with Malcolm Brown, a lot more will be asked from the two hurlers and their favorite targets.

Fiu: Don't assume Malcolm Brown will be a workhorse, even if he might be the most talented back in the Big 12. Joe Bergeron and Johnathan Gray will keep the rotation rolling, while improved quarterback play from David Ash, and possibly Case McCoy, should make the offense finally start working. The defense will be the best in the Big 12, so if the offense can do anything on a consistent basis, the Longhorns can absolutely win the conference title.

8. Will Matt Barkley have any regrets about returning to USC for his senior year?

Rich: Doubtful unless he suffers the kind of injury that negatively impacts his 2013 draft status. Everything sets up nicely for Barkley to enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime dream season with the Trojans. He's one of the cover boys of the 2012 campaign, will be throwing to an NFL-caliber receiving corps and will have a shot at just about every individual and team award available to quarterbacks.

If USC lives up to its lofty expectations, Matt Barkley should have no regrets about returning. (Kevin Carden/Scout)

Fiu: He won't have any regrets, because that's not really his make-up, but he's going to have to deal with sky-high expectations. He was able to let it rip last year, but this season he's supposed to put up Heisman numbers and get the offense rolling week after week after week -- and he can do it. Don't underestimate the addition of Silas Redd and what that's going to do for Barkley and the attack. He's an All-Big Ten caliber runner who'll take some of the pressure off of Barkley and the passing game, but No. 7 can carry the attack all by himself. Of course, if USC is the USC we all think it can be this season, then there won't be any regrets whatsoever.

7. Is last year's poor finish behind Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones?

Rich: Jones concluded 2011 with a thud, but has made considerable strides with his mechanics and mobility this offseason. He'll need to become an even more prominent part of an offense that suddenly has question marks along the line and at wide receiver. Kenny Stills will be the quarterback's best weapon, while Penn State import Justin Brown may have an immediate impact, especially with Jaz Reynolds and Trey Franks still in limbo.

Fiu: It all depends on whether or not the Sooners have five live bodies for the O line. The receiving corps will be phenomenal with Trey Metoyer and Justin Brown upgrading an already tremendous receiving corps, but the passing game won't go anywhere if the line can't keep Jones upright. Losing center Ben Habern to injuries is a killer and not having guard Tyler Evans -- who's out with a torn ACL -- is obviously not going to help.

6. Will the BCS get it right?

Rich: The BCS' shelf life is down to two years, with a new four-team playoff waiting in the on-deck circle. Unless the top two teams become utterly elementary in early December, you can bank on the aforementioned playoff getting validation from whichever schools wind up at No. 3 and No. 4. Hypothetical "what-if" matchups (No. 1 vs. No. 4 and No. 2 vs. No. 3) will be all the rage throughout the fall, as the clock slowly runs out on the Bowl Championship Series.

Fiu: It's going to depend on who the No. 2 SEC team is. Let's say Alabama loses a heart-breaker at LSU and finishes 11-1. Will anyone accept anyone else but the Tide in the national championship? What happens if the SEC champ has one loss but USC and Oklahoma finish unbeaten? It's all based on the luck of the draw when it comes to the BCS, and fortunately, that won't be an issue in the near future.

5. Can Michigan upset Alabama in the opener in Arlington?

Rich: Great game on many levels, with all kinds of implications. The opener at Cowboys Stadium will provide the first evidence to whether or not the Tide is poised to defend its national title. With a win, ‘Bama remains on a very short list of contenders. With a loss, the whole dynamic changes, and the Wolverines enter the discussion. Denard Robinson versus Nick Saban's rebuilt D might be one of the best games-within-the-game of 2012.

Fiu: Nope. Let me put it this way: When I told Denard Robinson that Nick Saban made a statement that the total Tide defensive focus was going to be on stopping No. 16, I got a look of "uh oh."

4. Just how much will quarterback Zach Mettenberger help the LSU offense?

Rich: The hard-throwing righty has to be an upgrade over Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee, right? On a team that boasts another fantastic D and an embarrassment of riches in the backfield, Mettenberger won't be asked to do too much. However, if he can keep defenses from stacking the box, the Tigers become that much tougher to outscore this fall.
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Fiu:  The assumption will be that LSU needs a passer after the way the offense stalled and died in the national title loss to Alabama, but with one of the three best offensive lines in college football and a loaded backfield, Mettenberger's No. 1 job will be to not screw up. As bad as everyone thinks the LSU passing game was last year, it still only gave up five picks with three of them coming in the two games against the Tide. That means that LSU quarterbacks threw just two picks in 12 games. Also lost in the end of the year debacle was that the passing game was the most efficient in the SEC going into the BCS championship.

3. Is USC's Lane Kiffin a championship-caliber coach?

Rich: Everyone has focused on the Trojans' depth and holes along both lines, which are legitimate concerns. But what about Kiffin? Never in his head coaching career has he been this close to a conference or national championship. It ought to be fascinating to watch how he handles the pressure and scrutiny now that the NCAA sanctions have been lifted. For all of his notoriety, he's still only 37, and has a lot to prove.

Fiu: Absolutely. Kiffin might not always come across as everyone's favorite guy, but he has already showed he could be a whale of a college football head coach as he guided the Trojans through the problems and back to title-contender status. About 95 percent of his job as a "championship-caliber coach" is already done by getting enough good players to come in -- and keeping Matt Barkley around -- to make sure the talent is at a USC level.

2. Can Alabama avoid the post-national championship dip it suffered in 2010?

Count on Nick Saban and Alabama to find a way to be in the national title picture in 2012.

Rich: The Tide lost a slew of talent from last year's squad. Yet, the Tide also returns plenty of talent from that team, much of which has lived in the shadows of the upperclassmen. The offense will assume a larger-than-normal chunk of the responsibility and is ready to handle the promotion. The defense may not set records, but does anyone belief a Nick Saban production will be sketchy on this side of the ball? Seven new starters simply means that a new stable of next-level stars is on the horizon.

Fiu: Any sort of "dip" that Alabama suffered through in 2010 amounted to a bad first 20 minutes against South Carolina and a gag in the second half against Cam Newton and Auburn. That's it. Greg McElroy threw for 315 yards in the loss to the Gamecocks, but the D couldn't stop Alshon Jeffery, and the Tide dominated the Tigers before Newton and the D took over late. Here's the one huge, glaring difference between 2010 and 2012: the O line. The Tide front five was shaky in pass protection all throughout 2010, and this year it might be the best in college football.

1. Will seven be an unlucky number for the SEC?

Rich: Fans of the game, but not of the SEC, have grown weary of the reality -- the SEC is not only the best conference in college football, but the margin is rather wide, as the national champion has emerged from that conference in each of the past six seasons. No fewer than five league members believe their ceiling could reach Miami on Jan. 7, and 10 of the 14 programs are talented enough to contend for the Top 25. Can anyone stop the SEC's dominance in January? USC certainly has the inside track, and a match-up between the Trojans and, say, LSU or Alabama would be delicious for the sport. If the SEC champ is not at least a part of the BCS National Championship Game equation, it'll qualify as an upset.

Fiu: If this does turn out to be the year the SEC streak is stopped, all I ask is for it to be clean. I don't want this to end with a one-loss SEC team out of the BCS championship because two other teams finish unbeaten, leaving open the debate about whether or not the national title game is legit without the SEC champ in it. No, if it happens I want it to be because the SEC team loses in the BCS championship. With that said, I don't think it's going to happen. USC has the best starting 22 in college football, but when push comes to shove, no one is going to be deeper or tougher than the LSU-Alabama winner.

The 40 Key Questions of 2012 

No. 1 to 10 | No. 11 to 20 | No. 21 to 30 | No. 31 to 40

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