Cincinnati has been a top-30 team for six of the last seven years and gets Louisville at home to finish the season. Can the Bearcats kill the Cardinals' BCS dreams? And is Louisville even going to be the 11-0 team heading into that game?
Rutgers takes the field in 2013 with quite a few former star recruits and perhaps more pure talent than it has had in recent history. But most of the star recruits are freshmen or sophomores, and most of the players you remember from last year are gone. What can we make of the most volatile, high-variance team in the AAC?
Following his version of the Harbaugh Way, Willie Taggart created something out of nothing at Western Kentucky. Now he inherits a USF squad with potentially outstanding lines and serious question marks in the backfields. With competence at QB, the Bulls could win quite a few games this year.
No, UCF is not taking on a massive upgrade in its new conference. Still, it's a sign of accomplishment that the Knights are already one of the more stable programs in the American. The question for 2013 is whether they can avoid a bit of a defensive step backwards after the loss of some key pieces.
Fortunes aren't supposed to change rapidly (and change again and again) for most schools, but most schools aren't Houston. What can second-year head coach Tony Levine make of a team of a team so young a year ago that is still pretty young? Can the Cougars take advantage of a schedule built for wins?
With a hopeless offense and a fierce defensive front seven, UConn was basically a poor man's Rutgers last season. But like Rutgers, the Huskies have to hope the offense improves enough to offset some defensive regression coming down the pike.
This feels like a transition year for SMU, with major turnover on the offensive line and defensive front seven and a quarterback who still doesn't quite seem to match the scheme. For now just let's just enjoy the June Jones-Hal Mumme partnership and look for fireworks in 2014.
In Justin Fuente's first year as Memphis head coach, the defense came around in October, the offense came around in November, and the Tigers finished the year playing legitimately solid ball after a few years in the wilderness. The goal for 2013: solidify those gains. And hope the injury bug stays away from the defense.
The seductive Steve Addazio was the head coach for what may have been Temple's best team ever in 2011, then oversaw a pretty significant decline in 2012, then left for Boston College. Can former Temple assistant Matt Rhule steer the Owls through a navigable slate and get them back to a bowl in 2013?
Florida State has improved in all three years under Jimbo Fisher. Though turnover, both on the roster and coaching staff, could prevent the 'Noles from pulling it off for a fourth straight year, let's not pretend they're going to fall very far.
Yes, Clemson has disappointed in the past. Yes, thanks to a pretty aggressive (and almost unfair) preseason ranking, the odds are decent that the Tigers will disappoint again. But Dabo Swinney is building elite depth to go alongside his stars, and the schedule certainly smiles on Death Valley this year.
With a young squad, Miami looked pretty damn good last November. If the Hurricanes can escape a further postseason ban when (or if) the NCAA finally announces its sanctions for the Nevin Shapiro scandal, they could certainly continue that momentum and find themselves in the ACC title game this December.
Frank Beamer knows bounce-backs. He's pulled off quite a few of them at Virginia Tech, and he could engineer another one, but it probably won't be until 2014. A mostly light schedule should easily keep a two-decade bowl streak alive, but the Hokies will be building more for the future than for the present.
After showing extra promise in his first two seasons, Paul Johnson has basically settled into a Chan Gailey groove, averaging right around seven wins per season. Can a new defensive coordinator improve a unit that held back another fun, successful Flexbone offense?
Pitt has mastered the art of overachieving in unimpressive fashion, but has weathered a series of awkward coaching changes. Can that continue after quite a bit of turnover and roster issues?
Doug Marrone sold while his stock was high, but he left the Syracuse program in infinitely better shape than it was when he arrived. Can Scott Shafer raise the Orange's recruiting and avoid a temporary dropoff? And doesn't it feel right that Syracuse finishes the season with Pitt and Boston College?
Injuries, youth, and a small margin for error conspired against Wake Forest in 2012. Can offensive tweaks and defensive health lead to another bounce-back for Jim Grobe and his Demon Deacons?
Boston College will have a few more weapons than you realize in Steve Addazio's first season at the helm. But the Eagles will have to seal the deal in every winnable game to reach the postseason for the first time in three years.
Virginia probably wasn't as good as its record in 2011 or as bad as its record in 2012. But head coach Mike London is certainly feeling some pressure heading into his fourth season in Charlottesville. Can some big staff changes and another nice recruiting class help to turn things back around for the Hoos?
Mack Brown's reputation is still taking hits because of Texas' 2010 collapse. And perhaps that's justifiable. But the Longhorns have slowly rebuilt themselves in the past two seasons, and with a ridiculously experienced two-deep and reasonably good health, they could play at an elite level in 2013.
What Mike Gundy lacks in tact, he makes up for with coaching prowess, and for the fourth straight year he will likely be at the reins of a top-15 team in Stillwater, at least as long as his staff changes are as successful as the last ones.
In terms of advanced stats, Oklahoma has ranked in the top 10 for six consecutive seasons. So why is Bob Stoops so feisty this offseason? And what the hell happened to the Sooners' defensive line?
Dana Holgorsen always fields a strong offense, and West Virginia always goes bowling ... right? In 2013, Holgorsen faces the biggest challenge of his career, replacing some superior offensive talent and attempting to patch holes in a defense that might not have been as awful as you think, but still wasn't good enough.
Is Ohio State truly one of the two or three best teams in the country right now? Probably not. But with that schedule, the Buckeyes won't need many breaks to contend for the national title regardless.
Brady Hoke's team has been a rousing success and a slight disappointment in his first two years. With an identity change on offense and a still-shaky pass defense, can the Wolverines take full advantage of a schedule that might allow for a top-15 team to go undefeated?
With what should be one of the two or three best defenses in the country and a mostly easy home slate, Michigan State should easily place in the top 20 and win eight to nine games. The numbers suggest the ceiling could be much, much higher, but the eyeballs saw a little too much of last year's offense to buy it.
Under Bo Pelini, Nebraska has established itself as a consistent top-25 team capable of winning nine to 10 games a year. With a wonderful backfield and disturbingly easy schedule, the Huskers could top that total this fall. But a sketchy defense could lead to an unhappy ending, just like it did last year.
We don't yet know whether 2012 was a breakthrough, a peak, or neither for Northwestern. We also don't know what the ceiling is for a team with stronger strengths and, potentially, weaker weaknesses that last year's squad. But we do know that the Wildcats were fun to watch and should be again in 2013.
Indiana pulled off a rare feat in 2012: a semi-satisfying, encouraging four-win season. Can third-year coach Kevin Wilson patch the holes in the defense enough to ride an absurdly easy home slate to six wins and Indiana's second bowl bid in 20 years?
Purdue's hire of new head coach Darrell Hazell was safe and sensible. But with a flawed roster at his disposal and a brutal schedule on tap, we probably won't begin to learn if he was the right hire until at least 2014.
The Year 3 Turn was very good to Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill at previous stops. But with a Gopher squad built to tread water and lacking in star power, Kill has his work cut out for him in 2013.
With Southern Miss' 2012 collapse, Tulsa is undoubtedly the class the new Conference USA. But Bill Blankenship's third Golden Hurricane squad must replace some serious play-making ability from an underrated, explosive defense. In its final year in C-USA, can Tulsa claim one more conference crown?
Head coach Ruffin McNeill comes across as one of the nicest coaches in college football, but a pretty mean, experienced ECU team could be the favorite to win the C-USA East in 2013. At least if that bendy defense stiffens a bit.
On October 6, 2012, Rice lost to Memphis to fall to 1-6 and put head coach David Bailiff near the top of any coaches-on-the-hot-seat list. Six months later, the Owls are riding a five-game winning streak, returning almost literally everybody, and talking about a conference title.
Doc Holliday has done a rather stunning job of amassing star recruits in three years at Marshall, but he only has 20 wins to show for it. If a breakthrough is going to come, it should come pretty quickly; and if it does, the Thundering Herd could become the preeminent power in the Future C-USA. Peace, love, and pannkaka blockeras.
A new offensive coordinator made a world of difference for Rick Stockstill and Middle Tennessee in 2012. The Blue Raiders bounced back after a 2011 collapse, and with a load of returning experience, could make a pretty smooth transition to Conference USA ball this fall.
Southern Miss made a confusing hire in replacing Larry Fedora with Ellis Johnson in 2012. The result was not only an end to the Golden Eagles' 18-year streak of winning seasons, but a complete and utter collapse to 0-12. After just one year, Johnson was replaced with Todd Monken, who perhaps should have been the choice all along. Monken inherits a team rich with experience and poor with confidence. Time to pretend last fall didn't actually happen.
When you knowingly change course away from an approach that is working, it is either brave and filled with foresight, or it is pretty stupid and likely to backfire miserably.
UAB threatened Ohio State well into the fourth quarter in Columbus and got destroyed by Memphis at home. Garrick McGee's first season in charge was full of upside, youth, and serious head-scratchers.
Tulane improved a little bit in Curtis Johnson's first year as head coach. The Green Wave should improve a little bit more in 2013. The goals are modest, but the schedule is pretty easy. Can Tulane top four wins for the first time in eight years?
FIU earned quite a bit of bad press for firing Mario Cristobal after a single bad season, then taking a swing at Butch Davis and missing. New coach Ron Turner, however, inherits a squad that is interesting and athletic and has spent much of the last two years underachieving. Good luck figuring out what this team might do in 2013.
UTSA has played 22 games in its existence, and it has already climbed a couple of rungs in the realignment ladder. Larry Coker's Roadrunners begin life in Conference USA with an interesting, experienced offense and a defense that needed a lot of help from JUCO recruiting.
Year 2 for Dan McCarney looked quite a bit like Year 1. But entering his third year in Denton, he has what is pretty clearly his deepest team. Will that matter now that the Mean Green are in a deeper conference? And ... is Conference USA actually deeper than the Sun Belt?
FAU's late promotion to Conference USA was based mostly off of potential instead of recent production. But while the offense will probably hold the Owls back, a late-2012 surge (and an outright stud at receiver) makes them worth watching, just in case.
Two years ago, it looked like Army had turned a corner in its long battle to catch back up with Navy and simply provide sustained competence on the football field. Now, not so much.
BYU couldn't keep a quarterback healthy in 2012, and its offensive issues (and some turnovers luck) wasted the efforts of what was perhaps the most fun defense in the country to watch. The defense is thinner, but the offense could be healthy enough to meet the challenge of what is one hell of a 2013 schedule.
Paul Petrino seems to play the underdog well. At least, he better, because there might not be a bigger underdog in FBS this fall than his first squad at Idaho.
Navy regressed considerably in 2012, but some close-game bounces and a freshman quarterback helped the Midshipmen reach a bowl for the ninth time in 10 seasons. Will winning beget more winning in 2013, or will regression toward the mean (and an awful defense) catch up to them?
New Mexico State spent most of 2012 wondering if it had a future at the FBS level (and playing like it didn't). But the Aggies now have a new coach, a new future conference, and a new lease on life. There's nowhere to go but up for the NMSU program, and it should go up at least a little bit in 2013.
Toledo, Ohio, and Bowling Green could all make a run at the MAC championship this year. But until Jordan Lynch and Northern Illinois give us reason to think otherwise, we should probably consider the Huskies the favorite for one more year.
Ohio battled through a ton of injuries in 2012 and still managed to eke out a 9-4 record. With experience and better health, another happy win total seems likely. Beware the Bobcats, Louisville.
Ball State's Pete Lembo might be one of the more underrated coaches in the country. He has churned out 11 winning seasons in 12 years at three different schools. He will probably make it 12 in 13 this fall.
Buffalo heads into 2013 loaded with experience and a play-making defense. If the Bulls are to return to bowl eligibility, now's the time.
Western Michigan took a chance by hiring 32-year-old former MAC star P.J. Fleck as its head coach. Can he and his new staff make something of spread personnel on offense and iffy personnel on defense?
For the first time in three years, Miami's record and quality of play actually matched up in 2012. In a bad way.
Terry Bowden still has a really, really long way to go at Akron. Turnarounds can happen pretty quickly in the MAC, and while 2013 probably won't be amazing for Akron, it certainly bears mentioning that the Zips might not have to wait too much longer to make waves.
Boise State lost almost all of its starters and fell apart in 2012 ... all the way to 10 wins and a top-25 ranking. Unacceptable. Can these ridiculously disappointing Broncos bounce back toward respectability in 2013? (Spoiler: Yes.)
Geography alone suggests that SDSU should always have at least a competitive football program. But until recently that wasn't the case. Commitment and a couple of strong hires have brought the Aztecs to a sustained level of success that they hadn't seen in almost 40 years.
In just two years at San Jose State, Mike MacIntyre moved a hyphen. The Spartans went 1-12 in 2010 and 11-2 in 2012. MacIntyre has moved on to Colorado, however, leaving behind a team laden with stars but little depth. Can Ron Caragher take the reins and bring another winning season to Spartan Stadium?
Utah State was fantastic in 2012, but the Aggies are now tasked with starting over after the loss of both their head coach and defensive coordinator to Wisconsin. Can Matt Wells and a couple of new coordinators keep the momentum going for a team that still has quite a few stars?
The last time head coach Chris Ault retired, the Nevada football program quickly fell into disrepair. Ault returned to fix the program (and invent the pistol offense in the process), but upon his latest retirement, are the Wolf Pack more well-prepared for his absence this time around?
Jim McElwain's first season as Colorado State's head coach could have gone a lot worse. The Rams actually played relatively well down the stretch, and after battling injury and turnover, the roster is quite a bit more experienced and healthy in 2013. Can CSU actually build and maintain momentum for the first time in quite a while?
Wyoming's win total changes drastically each year, even though its overall quality barely changes at all. Entering his fifth year in Laramie, head coach Dave Christensen wields a strong passing game and almost no other proven quantities. After a forgettable four-win season that included an unforgettable post-game rant, does he need to get back to a bowl to save his job?
That Air Force regressed and barely made a bowl in 2012 was predictable: the Falcons had to replace 16 of 22 starters from 2011. That they have regressed for three straight years now, however, is a concern. Can another batch of new starters stem the negative tide for head coach Troy Calhoun? An easy schedule cannot hurt.
Norm Chow spent decades crafting a reputation for offensive genius, but it's been almost a decade since he was associated with a good college offense. Hawaii had the worst offense in the country last year, in fact, but can a new coordinator and a new blue-chip quarterback begin to turn things around for the Warriors? It can't get much worse after last year.
Best defense in the West? Check. Stability in the backfield? Check. Major-league continuity for a team that has won 35 games in three years? Check. Cooperative (but still pretty challenging) schedule? Check. This might be Stanford's best chance to make a serious run at the national title.
Because USC peaked in 2011 and not 2012, Lane Kiffin finds himself on a bit of a hot seat in 2013. With Marqise Lee and a sparkly, aggressive new 3-4 defense, his Trojans should be really fun to watch. But will they be good enough to avoid a winter coaching search?
Todd Graham has earned his reputation for his off-the-field dalliances with other schools. But on the field, Graham inherited a roster in 2012 almost perfectly suited for his style of play. This year, he has experience in his corner as well. Now ... about that schedule ...
Jim Mora engineered a hell of a turnaround in Year 1 at Westwood, and he's laying a potentially tremendous long-term foundation. But can his Bruins overcome a rough road schedule and a sketchy secondary to make their third straight Pac-12 title game?
After a rather sudden collapse in 2011, Oregon State bounced back in a major way last fall. Now Mike Riley's Beavers have to prove that 2011 was the oddity.
Sonny Dykes inherits a football program with a high ceiling, thanks in part to Jeff Tedford's 11 years in charge. How much noise can his Golden Bears make in his first year in charge?
After a season marred by injury and inconsistency, Kyle Whittingham's Utes head into 2013 with drastically lower expectations than they had a year ago. Can a pair of identity changes -- Dennis Erickson joining the offensive staff, speed becoming a larger defensive focus -- change course for a suddenly reeling program?
It takes luck to win a national title. And lord knows it takes quite a bit of luck to win three in four years. But in terms of recruiting, development, and strategy, Nick Saban and Alabama are playing a different game than everybody else in college football. With just a little bit more luck, the Tide might accomplish what has never been done before.
For just the second time in the Les Miles era, LSU is looking at a preseason ranking worse than 11th. It'll still be ranked, but elite play is not expected of the Tigers this time around. But with a strong-as-ever running game, a strangely underrated secondary, and a good-as-always special teams unit, Miles' Bayou Bengals might make us feel pretty silly for doubting them.
The timing was almost perfect for Georgia in 2012. Can the Dawgs and their amazing offense overcome a green defense and a brutal early schedule to put themselves in position for another national title run?
A thin South Carolina defense was thinned out even more by graduation, the offense will be relying pretty heavily on an untested sophomore running back, and special teams could be a liability without the star punt returner? Yes, but ... Jadeveon Clowney!
After a two-year absence, Florida returned to the land of college football's elite in 2012. It did so with what was possibly the least aesthetically pleasing style of play in the country. Can the Gators pull off this no-margin-for-error act again with a less experienced defense?
It is rare for a team to considerably improve or regress in one year. Well, it's rare for teams not named Ole Miss. The Rebels do it every damn year. Don't pretend like you know what might happen in Hugh Freeze's second year, following huge improvement and a stunning recruiting class in Year 1.
The last time Vanderbilt went to back-to-back bowls before last season? Never. The last time the Commodores finished with back-to-back winning seasons? 1974-75. Before that? 1958-59. Vandy isn't supposed to win or attract four-star recruits, but nobody told James Franklin.
Missouri headed into 2012 with momentum and optimism. Seven losses and countless injuries later, the Tigers were forced to lick their wounds and hope that their second impression in the SEC goes a lot better than the first. Will it?
Dan Mullen has taken Mississippi State to three straight bowls, something that hadn't happened since the 1990s (and, before that, hadn't happened at all). But his team has regressed for two straight years; can a seasoned squad begin to turn things back around against a schedule that isn't quite as back-loaded?
Arkansas made a hell of a statement by stealing annual Rose Bowl coach Bret Bielema away from Wisconsin and the Big Ten. But Bielema inherits a relatively thin roster, and it might take him a little while to navigate through the zero-sum SEC West.
New Tennessee head coach Butch Jones inherits a team that will be strong in the trenches and who-the-hell-knows just about everywhere else. Former coach Derek Dooley left him a cupboard that was far from bare, but will Jones be able to engineer enough of a turnaround to get the Vols to their first bowl in three seasons?
In two years, the Cajuns have won 18 games. Mark Hudspeth's teams have been exciting, athletic, fiery, and exceedingly competent, making you wonder how this wasn't a nine-wins-a-year program all along. This coming fall could be even more memorable than the last two were.
In Todd Berry's third year in charge, ULM leaped to eight wins, an upset of Arkansas, and its first-ever bowl appearance. With an experienced squad returning, what might the Warhawks have for an encore?
Arkansas State has modeled itself the Boise State of the South. If they could stop losing head coaches at some point, they might just get there. The size of their potential drop-off in 2013 will tell us a lot.
When you hire Bobby Petrino, you better have a backup plan in place (and WKU has at least 10 months to figure that one out), but he can still be a tremendous success in the short-term.
In 2013, a relatively young Troy squad will have to figure out how to both tread water in terms of production and close games better if the Trojans are to avoid a three-year no-bowl streak. A diluted Sun Belt could help, but Troy still has a lot of questions to answer.
Texas State's first year at the FBS level went about as well as could have been reasonably expected; the Bobcats have some questions to answer in Year 2, but the ceiling is reasonably high.
If you can find disruptive front-seven talent and craft an offense that is at least semi-efficient and competent, the Joey Jones "Alabama Lite" approach to winning in Mobile could work out pretty well.
Georgia State is going to be absolutely awful in 2013. Terrible. But the Panthers' decision to move to the FBS ranks after just three years in existence was not about the current product. It was about what the product might become.