2012 Mysteries: Next Season's Seven Hardest College Football Teams To Figure Out

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 22: Head coach Chris Petersen of the Boise State Broncos watches his team warm up before playing the Arizona State Sun Devils in the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas at Sam Boyd Stadium December 22, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Boise State won 56-24. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Who are we most likely to overrate in 2012? Who might be flying extremely far under the radar? And what the hell do we make of Oklahoma State? We still have seven months until the next college football season begins, but it is never too early to start asking questions.

In the month or so since the 211 college football season ended, I've written a couple of speculative pieces regarding 2012 -- one of the first-impression, "who's returning and who isn't?" variety and one based around numbers and rough projections. Now that recruiting is over and we are fully immersed in Speculation Season, I thought it might be a good idea to take a look at where the eyeballs and numbers differ and which teams might be the most difficult to figure out in 2012.

(All the predictable disclaimers apply -- the Top 25 piece was written before everybody had made their draft intentions, while the projections are incredibly rough and will be amended and adjusted quite a few times. This is still February, after all.)

Boise State

My Top 25: No. 15
Early Projections: No. 61

Behold the power of six returning starters. The only team to return even as few as seven starters in 2011 was Auburn, and they dropped off the map, from national title contender to the Chick-fil-A Bowl. The effect of extreme numbers of returning starters, either good (20) or bad (six), is typically rather exponential, which does not say good things about the Broncos' 2012 season, even if 61st is almost certainly too low.

In my Top 25 piece, I wrote the following:

How much respect do I have for Boise State? They are losing virtually every Bronco I can name, on both sides of the ball, but I just assume they won't take a huge step backwards. Expect a season not unlike TCU had in 2011, where the Broncos are mediocre in September, solid in October, and excellent in November, when the new pieces have gelled.

That is probably the best way to look at things, though the numbers suggest that Boise State's median performance might not be as high as I have led myself to believe.

Nebraska

My Top 25: Unranked
Early Projections: 18th

Nebraska will be a curious case in 2012. They are one of the most habitually overrated teams in college football, but with 16 starters returning and Wisconsin likely to slide a bit, plus a defense that almost cannot be any worse in the tackles-for-loss department, the Huskers could be in better shape than I initially anticipated. Taylor Martinez is what he is at this point, but if the young receivers develop and the Blackshirts can get healthy and remember how to make plays, then Nebraska should, at the very least, improve.

Oklahoma State

My Top 25: Unranked
Early Projections: No. 3

On the other hand, I might be severely underestimating Oklahoma State. As the projections are further fleshed out, Oklahoma State will be dinged by the fact that, while they only lose six starters, they lose an incredible amount in those six starters -- perhaps their best ever quarterback (Brandon Weeden), their best ever receiver (Justin Blackmon), both starting defensive ends, etc. When the "returning starters" figure is weighted to include this level of impact, the Cowboys will no longer be projected at No. 3. But with a five-year ranking of 13th, the 'Pokes probably won't fall as much as I initially anticipated. They will not be a national title contender in 2012, especially in the face of another loaded Big 12, but they should be able to play at a Top 25 level.

Tennessee

My Top 25: Unranked
Early Projections: No. 20

Behold the power of 20 returning starters. Tennessee returns virtually everybody from last year's disappointing 5-7 squad, including star receiver Justin Hunter, who played like an All-American in September before injuring his knee. (Hunter isn't even included in the "returning starters" figure.) While the Vols are almost certainly overrated by these initial projections, this does hint at the fact that massive experience is a wonderful thing, and Tennessee's ceiling should be reasonably high. If you are looking for the sleepiest of sleepers, then buying low on Derek Dooley's Vols might not be a terrible idea. (Then again, six of seven SEC East teams are ranked in the initial Top 33, which suggests that the Vols could be much improved and still only go about 7-5.)

Texas A&M

My Top 25: Unranked
Early Projections: No. 13

On paper, Texas A&M was just about as good as everyone expected them to be in 2011. But their incredible ability to blow second-half leads led them to just a 7-6 final record. With 16 starters returning, it makes sense that they once again look good on paper in 2012. Granted, the six starters they lost -- quarterback Ryan Tannehill, running back Cyrus Gray, receiver Jeff Fuller, et cetera -- were high-impact players, and A&M's final projections will likely be lower than 13th; but this does suggest that if new coach Kevin Sumlin can get a good, early read for his personnel, the Aggies could win some games in the brutal SEC West.

West Virginia

My Top 25: No. 11
Early Projections: No. 23

This is a perfect "eyeballs versus numbers" test. The numbers see a team that was solid but unspectacular, a team that looked fantastic in its bowl game after looking mostly mediocre in November. The eyeballs, on the other hand, are guaranteed to overreact to just how good the Mountaineers looked in the Orange Bowl. It is almost impossible for someone to watch that Orange Bowl and not expect them to average 50 points per game next year, even though all statistical indications are that overreacting to a bowl performance is the worst possible thing we can do. Regardless, West Virginia, the most Big 12-esque team in last year's Big East, will fit in just fine in college football's most entertaining conference.

Wisconsin

My Top 25: No. 17
Early Projections: No. 30

How far can a strong identity take you? The Badgers return just 10 starters and haven't exactly lit the world aflame in recruiting; plus, it is difficult to imagine their defense being any better than last year's mediocre unit, but with Montee Ball returning, they should still be able to run the ball, and that alone could take them pretty far.

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