Other than deciding how to split the money, the most difficult task facing conference commissioners in the next few months is devising the system that will select the teams that play in the upcoming playoff. Do they keep the current BCS ranking system? Do they follow the model of the NCAA basketball and baseball tournaments and empanel a selection committee? Do they develop an entirely new ranking formula?
Take this from an idiot who votes in a poll: The current human polls are not the answer. Fortunately for me, The Associated Press removed its poll from the BCS formula before Stewart Mandel gave me his vote and sprinted away, cackling. I don't want that evil on me. Currently, the human elements of the formula are the Coaches' Poll and the Harris Interactive Poll. The Coaches' Poll isn't typically filled out by coaches. Instead, sports information directors or operations guys -- who also don't watch many games besides their own school's contests -- usually fill it out using the previous week's poll and a list of scores as crib sheets. Meanwhile, the Harris Poll always seems to find a few voters who don't know how to find college football games on their televisions. So what can be done? Maybe SEC commissioner Mike Slive and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany will step into the Octagon for three rounds with the winner's league champ getting the No. 1 seed. Or maybe Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott can assemble a blue-ribbon panel of television network executives to pick the most profitable viewing experience. If there is a revenue stream left un-fished, Scott will find it. But seriously, Scott made a great point at last week's BCS meetings. Human voters are conditioned to track losses. Look at the loss column of the average voter's ballot during the season. It will almost always count upward from zero with little interruption. That's fine, until you have a situation like Oregon and Stanford last year. Oregon crushed Stanford at Stanford, giving the Cardinal their only loss. Oregon, meanwhile, got beat by a USC team that lost to Stanford in triple overtime. Oregon also lost to LSU, which went 13-0 and was the consensus No. 1 heading into the BCS title game. So why did so many pollsters rank Stanford higher than Oregon? Because Stanford had one loss, and Oregon had two. Essentially, Oregon was punished for scheduling LSU -- a game every college football fan wanted to see. Scott is correct about this. Either voters need to recondition themselves to judge wins first and losses second, or maybe we should turn over the selection to the Tupac hologram or whatever other artificial intelligence Silicon Valley can design. (Provided that, unlike five of the six computer rankings used in the BCS formula, programmers can be transparent about the criteria.) "The plan, from my perspective, would be a more credible, objective, fair system that balances strength of schedule," Scott said. "We all don't play over the same course. Every conference has got different caliber. Some conferences play nine conference games. Some play eight. Some play stronger out-of-conference competition. Some tend to not. They just want to get home games." What Scott describes is essentially an RPI for football. That isn't the answer, either. But it may be a part of the answer. Maybe the Legends Poll -- a group of ex-coaches who watch tape before voting -- or something like it is the better human element. Or maybe a committee would work. That would eliminate the week-to-week horse race and allow those doing the selecting to focus only on the body of work compiled throughout the season. No matter what anyone says, preseason polls aren't going away. Why? Because you read them. Then you argue about them. Media companies aren't in the business of taking away things you want, and by your voracious gobbling of the preseason polls, my bosses know you love ordered lists of college football teams. So that's what you're going to get. The rankings you see below will influence my preseason rankings, and they might also influence the preseason poll ballots of some SIDs/ops guys whose votes eventually will help determine who plays for the national title. I'd rather that didn't happen, but it will. So hopefully, as the commissioners work to design a better mousetrap, they'll find a way to fix the rusty spring that is the human polls.
2011 record: 13-1 (8-0 SEC)
Key returnees: CB Tyrann Mathieu, S Eric Reid, DE Sam Montgomery, DE Barkevious Mingo, RB Michael Ford, RB Spencer Ware, WR Russell Shepard, P Brad WingKey losses: CB Morris Claiborne, DT Michael Brockers, OG Will Blackwell, WR Reuben RandleSpring star: QB Zach MettenbergerHopefully, this quote will be posted on The Quotable Les Miles any day now. At a speaking engagement in Alexandria, La., earlier this week, LSU coach Miles said this to the Shreveport Times: "We had the best record in college football," Miles said. "We were undefeated in conference play and out of conference before our last game. We won the conference that had the national champion, and yet our team wants more." There is only one additional thing the Tigers can accomplish: winning a national title. LSU has the talent to do it. Most of the defense returns, and Miles seems confident Mettenberger can give the Tigers the passing threat they lacked last season when Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson split time. Oh, and in case you forgot what he can do, the LSU video department was kind enough to provide this brief refresher on the skills of a certain indifferent mammal.
2011 record: 10-2 (7-2 Pac-12)
Key returnees: QB Matt Barkley, WR Robert Woods, WR Marqise Lee, C Khaled Holmes, LB Dion Bailey, LB Hayes Pullard, S T.J. McDonald, CB Nickell RobeyKey losses: DE Nick Perry, OT Matt Kalil, TE Rhett EllisonSpring star: OT Aundrey WalkerThe end of an NCAA postseason ban came at exactly the correct time for USC. The Trojans are loaded -- at least at the top of the lineup; NCAA scholarship sanctions have Coach Lane Kiffin worried about depth -- and they get fellow Pac-12 elite Oregon at home. And if this video is any indication, the Trojans are back to having the kind of fun they had when a Pac-10 title was a certainty every season.
Alabama Crimson Tide
2011 record: 12-1 (7-1 SEC)
Key returnees: LB Nico Johnson, S Robert Lester, DL Jesse Williams, QB AJ McCarron, C Barrett Jones, OG Chance Warmack, RB Eddie LacyKey losses: RB Trent Richardson, WR Marquis Maze, LB Courtney Upshaw, LB Dont'a Hightower, CB Dre' Kirkpatrick, CB DeQuan Menzie, DT Josh ChapmanSpring star: S Vinnie SunseriSince 2008, the most amazing part of any Alabama game has been looking at the players who have clean uniforms after the clock strikes zero. Even the guys who didn't play a down look like future NFL players. That kind of depth -- Big Ten fans, insert your oversigning cracks here -- allows the Crimson Tide to lose the kind of talent they lost from the 2011 national title team and still look like one of the best teams in the nation. The Tide also have done a good job of getting inexperienced players snaps so they aren't shocked when they become starters. For example, cornerback Dee Milliner played in nickel situations last year. This year, he'll probably be on the field for every down that matters. Meanwhile, linebacker Trey DePriest appeared in 13 games as a freshman while backing up Hightower, the first-rounder DePriest will likely replace.
2011 record: 12-2 (8-1 Pac-12)
Key returnees: RB De'Anthony Thomas, RB Kenjon Barner, WR Josh Huff, OG Carson York, DE Dion Jordan, S John BoyettKey losses: RB LaMichael James, QB Darron Thomas, LB Eddie Pleasant, LB Josh KadduSpring star: QB Marcus MariotaWhen Ducks coach Chip Kelly jettisoned quarterback Jeremiah Masoli in 2010, those in the know said Oregon would be better off with Nate Costa or Darron Thomas at the helm. When Thomas shocked everyone by leaving school early, the Ducks didn't worry long. Bryan Bennett played well while subbing for an injured Thomas last year, and Mariota, a redshirt freshman from Honolulu, might have an even more impressive skill set. Besides, with defenses living in constant fear of De'Anthony Thomas, the quarterback should have some room to work. Kelly probably won't name a starter until the week of the season opener, but this seems like a good problem for him.
2011 record: 10-3 (6-3 Big 12)
Key returnees: QB Landry Jones, QB Blake Bell, RB Dominique Whaley, WR Kenny Stills, OG Gabe Ikard, LB Tom Wort, S Tony JeffersonKey losses: WR Ryan Broyles, DE Frank Alexander, DE Ronnell Lewis, LB Travis Lewis, CB Jamell FlemingSpring star: QB Blake BellJones needs to call former Florida quarterback Chris Leak for some advice. Like Leak in 2006, Jones is a longtime starter with a popular backup who has a penchant for planting the ball in the end zone. Though the Belldozer Brouhaha probably won't come near matching the emotional pitch of the initial stirrings of Tebowmania, it will be interesting to see how Jones, Bell and Oklahoma coaches manage the situation. It could cause problems, or it could cause more touchdowns. Remember, Leak and Tim Tebow teamed with a really good defense to win a national title.
2011 record: 11-3 (6-2 Big Ten)
Key returnees: RB Montee Ball, C Travis Frederick, OT Ricky Wagner, WR Jared Abbrederis, LB Chris Borland, DT Beau Allen, LB Mike TaylorKey losses: QB Russell Wilson, WR Nick Toon, C Peter Konz, OG Kevin Zeitler, S Aaron Henry, CB Antonio FenelusSpring star: RB Melvin GordonIf all is well, Badgers coach Bret Bielema is enjoying his honeymoon and not sweating over his offense. Though Bielema has said Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien must win the quarterback job, O'Brien will be the most experienced signal-caller on the roster the moment he arrives in Madison this summer. Will O'Brien take hold of the offense as quickly as Wilson did last year? That's asking a lot. Fortunately, O'Brien will have Heisman finalist Ball (39 touchdowns in 2011) running and catching the ball as well as a massive group of cheese curd aficionados blocking for him.
South Carolina Gamecocks
2011 record: 11-2 (6-2 SEC)
Key returnees: DE Jadeveon Clowney, DE Devin Taylor, RB Marcus Lattimore, QB Connor Shaw, LB Shaq WilsonKey losses: DE Melvin Ingram, CB Stephon Gilmore, WR Alshon Jeffery, OG Rokevious WatkinsSpring star: WR Damiere ByrdWhen I visited Columbia in March, the most important action at practice took place on the sidelines, where Lattimore was working to rehabilitate his surgically repaired knee. Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier seems confident Lattimore will come back 100 percent by the time South Carolina opens at Vanderbilt. If that's the case, expect Spurrier's commitment to a run-first offense to continue.
2011 record: 10-4 (7-1 SEC)
Key returnees: QB Aaron Murray, LB Jarvis Jones, RB Isaiah Crowell, S Bacarri Rambo, DE Abry Jones, DT John Jenkins, WR/CB Malcolm MitchellKey losses: TE Orson Charles, OT Cordy Glenn, DT DeAngelo TysonSpring star: WR Justin Scott-WesleyGeorgia has a load of talent returning, but the Bulldogs won't be at full strength for a while. Several key defenders will miss the season opener against Buffalo, which isn't a big deal. Meanwhile, Rambo (four games for a drug suspension stemming, Rambo's high school coach said, from inadvertently consumed pot brownies) and cornerback Sanders Commings (two games for domestic violence arrest) will miss the SEC opener against Missouri. That game will be critical, because the Tigers are talented and prolific on offense. But so is Georgia. Murray said after spring practice that the players know they can't afford any offseason mistakes. He's correct, and if the Bulldogs can have a boring summer, they should be fine come September.
West Virginia Mountaineers
2011 record: 10-3 (5-2 Big East)
Key returnees: QB Geno Smith, WR Tavon Austin, WR Stedman Bailey, RB Dustin Garrison, C Joe Madsen, S Darwin CookKey losses: DE Bruce Irvin, LB Najee Goode, CB Keith TandySpring star: WR Jordan ThompsonThe drama seems to be over in Morgantown, and the Mountaineers are quietly preparing to dive headlong into the Big 12. Much will depend on a revamped defense -- note the lack of defensive players in the "Key returnees" section -- but the offense should score plenty. If tailbacks Garrison and Shawne Alston can stay healthy, West Virginia may have the most dynamic offense in its new league. In the meantime, the Mountaineers will climb Law School Hill in an attempt to steel themselves for a more rugged schedule.
Michigan State Spartans
2011 record: 11-3 (7-1 Big Ten)
Key returnees: DE Will Gholston, RB Le'Veon Bell, CB Darqueze Dennard, CB Johnny Adams, S Isaiah Lewis, LB Denicos Allen, TE Dion SimsKey losses: QB Kirk Cousins, DT Jerel Worthy, WR Keshawn Martin, WR B.J. Cunningham, OG Joel ForemanSpring star: LB Darien HarrisWhy did I drop Michigan State from No. 6 in the way-too-early rankings I published in January? Because I can. That's why. Just kidding. I still love the athletes on defense, and I still think the Spartans are the best built Big Ten team to compete outside the conference. But I want to see the offense against an actual opponent. Cousins, Martin and Cunningham are huge losses, and while Bell is going to run over a lot of people, it will be tough to duplicate what that group provided in the passing game. The Spartans did test one new offensive weapon in the spring game, but I'm not sure Sparty would pass any drug test that screens for PEDs.
TCU Horned Frogs
2011 record: 11-2 (7-0 Mountain West)
Key returnees: QB Casey Pachall, RB Ed Wesley, RB Waymon James, OG Blaize Foltz DE Stansly Maponga, LB Kenny CainKey losses: LB Tank Carder, CB Tekerrien Cuba, CB Greg McCoy, DE Braylon BroughtonSpring star: RB B.J. CatalonHad West Virginia and TCU entered the Big 12 last season, I wouldn't be nearly as high on their chances in their new home. But like the Mountaineers, the Horned Frogs will hit the league on the upswing. Pachall has a year as a starter under his belt. The backs should be productive. After a few growing pains early in 2011, the defense should enter 2012 much more game-ready.
2011 record: 11-2 (6-2 SEC)
Key returnees: QB Tyler Wilson, RB Knile Davis, WR Cobi Hamilton, OG Alvin Bailey, LB Tenarius Wright, CB Darius Winston, LB Alonzo HighsmithKey losses: Coach Bobby Petrino, WR Jarius Wright, WR Joe Adams, LB Jerry Franklin, S Tramain ThomasSpring star: DT Robert ThomasInterim coach John L. Smith, who employed and was employed by disgraced former Razorbacks coach Bobby Petrino at various points, guarantees continuity. But does he guarantee the Hogs would be as good as they could have been had Petrino never taken his fateful motorcycle ride? That remains to be seen. Petrino's playcalling acumen was one of the Razorbacks' most potent weapons. That may be the hardest thing to replace. But Smith and his staff will try.
2011 record: 11-2 (6-2 Big Ten)
Key returnees: QB Denard Robinson, OT Taylor Lewan, RB Fitzgerald Toussaint, DE Craig Roh, S Jordan Kovacs, S Thomas Gordon, LB Kenny DemensKey losses: DT Mike Martin, DE Ryan Van BergenSpring star: CB Terrence TalbottWant to know why hopes at Michigan are so high? Because coach Brady Hoke has instilled an attitude in his players that makes them say things like this about an 11-2 season: "One of the things coach really emphasizes is that last year we failed," Kovacs told The Associated Press. "It wasn't a successful season. The mission each and every year is to win a Big Ten championship and we didn't do that. At the end of the day, we didn't get what we wanted so that makes us even hungrier for next year." To reach their goals, the Wolverines will have to end Michigan State's four-year ownership of their series. Where's the threat? Nowhere, unless Michigan can win that game. Unfortunately, the Wolverines face an even stiffer challenge to open the season. Alabama will be better than anyone else on Michigan's schedule.
2011 record: 11-2 (8-1 Pac-12)
Key returnees: RB Stepfan Taylor, LB Chase Thomas, LB Shayne Skov, C Sam Schwartzstein, DT Terrence Stephens, TE Levine ToiloloKey losses: QB Andrew Luck, OG David DeCastro, OT Jonathan Martin, WR Chris Owusu, TE Coby FleenerSpring star: RB Ricky SealeStanford coach David Shaw hasn't picked a quarterback yet. He probably won't decide between Josh Nunes and Brett Nottingham until preseason camp, and that's OK. Because here's a little not-so-secret secret: Stanford is going to run the ball a lot, and the Cardinal probably will continue to run it well. Also, the defense could be better. Skov should be back from his knee injury, and a 100-percent return from the defense's emotional leader would take an already deep linebacker group to another level.
Kansas State Wildcats
2011 record: 10-3 (7-2 Big 12)
Key returnees: QB Collin Klein, LB Arthur Brown, CB Nigel Malone, C B.J. FinneyKey losses: OT Clyde Aufner, S Tysyn HartmanSpring star: DT Vai LutuiI visited three Big 12 schools this spring (TCU, Texas, West Virginia). At each stop, someone on the staff told me how much they hated the idea of preparing to play Kansas State. Coach Bill Snyder gets his players to buy in and play hard, and it drives opposing coaches crazy.
2011 record: 10-4 (7-2 ACC)
Key returnees: WR Sammy Watkins, QB Tajh Boyd, RB Andre Ellington, C Dalton Freeman, DE Malliciah GoodmanKey losses: DE Andre Branch, TE Dwayne Allen, DT Brandon Thompson, OT Phillip PriceSpring star: Defensive coordinator Brent VenablesNotice the lack of key returnees on defense? When a team gave up 70 -- and could have easily allowed 100 had West Virginia not backed off the gas -- it's best not to celebrate the defense too much. Venables came to Clemson from Oklahoma to fix that defense -- and to prove he's good enough to be a head coach, even though he already has. Venables inherited a young, athletic group that includes Goodman and former five-star linebackers Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward. We know the offense will click, but can the defense hold up its end of the bargain?
Florida State Seminoles
2011 record: 9-4 (6-2 ACC)
Key returnees: QB E.J. Manuel, WR Rashad Greene, DE Brandon Jenkins, DE Bjoern Werner, CB/KR Greg ReidKey losses: OT Zebrie Sanders, OT Andrew Datko, LB Nigel BradhamSpring star: WR Kelvin BenjaminI'm not getting tricked by Florida State this year, even though every time I look at the roster I wonder why I don't have the Seminoles ranked higher. They're going to have to prove it on the field, but it's hard to see why they wouldn't. Jenkins and Werner are pass-rushing monsters, and the linebackers and secondary should be ultra-athletic. If the offensive line isn't snake-bit by injuries the way it was last year, FSU could prove me wrong in a much more entertaining way.
2011 record: 9-4 (5-3 Big Ten)
Key returnees: QB Taylor Martinez, I-Back Rex Burkhead, OG Spencer Long, WR Kenny Bell, DE Cameron Meredith, LB Will ComptonKey losses: DT Jared Crick, LB Lavonte David, CB Alfonzo DennardSpring star: CB Mohammed SeisayBy now, we know what we're getting from Nebraska's offense. Burkhead and Martinez will run well, but hearts in Big Red Nation will stop every time Martinez drops back to pass. There is no reason to assume this will change, and in most cases, this is quite effective. Burkhead and Martinez are excellent runners. Nebraska's challenge is replacing some excellent defenders. Crick was lost to injury at midseason last year, so the Cornhuskers know how to play without him. Replacing David will be more difficult. The guy simply tackled everything. The good news is linebackers Compton, Sean Fisher and Alonzo Whaley are all experienced seniors.
Virginia Tech Hokies
2011 record: 11-3 (7-1 ACC)
Key returnees: QB Logan Thomas, WR, Marcus Davis, WR Dyrell Roberts, OG David Wang, DE James Gayle, DE J.R. Collins, LB Bruce TaylorKey losses: RB David Wilson, WR Danny Coale, OT Blake DeChristopher, CB Jayron HosleySpring star: RB J.C. ColemanThe Hokies lost their grip on the ACC last year thanks to a pair of losses to Clemson. They'll be challenged immediately this year with a Labor Day visit from Georgia Tech. They should be ready. Thomas has the tools to be one of the nation's best quarterbacks, and a deep defensive line returns.
Boise State Broncos
2011 record: 12-1 (6-1 Mountain West)
Key returnees: RB D.J. Harper, WR Matt Miller, OG Joe Kellogg, CB Jamar Taylor, CB Jerrell GavinsKey losses: QB Kellen Moore, RB Doug Martin, OT Nate Potter, DE Shea McClellin, DE Tyrone Crawford, DT Billy Winn, S George IlokaSpring star: S Jeremy IonaeWith the exception of Moore, the winningest quarterback in FBS history, all of those in the "Key losses" category were drafted this past weekend. That's a testament to how well Chris Petersen developed his under-the-radar recruits and a warning about how much work remains for the players who must replace those guys. This will be fascinating to watch. The players who will take over at Boise State signed with the Broncos after the program had proven itself to be more than a flash in the pan. They've worked behind some very good players, but are they ready to uphold the winning tradition those draftees helped create? We should know quickly whether the next generation is ready. Boise State opens at Michigan State, and Sparty will not allow any of the Broncos to ease into their new roles.
2011 record: 8-5 (4-5 Big 12)
Key returnees: RB Malcolm Brown, RB Joe Bergeron, OG Mason Walters, DE Alex Okafor, DE Jackson Jeffcoat, S Kenny Vaccaro, CB Quandre DiggsKey losses: RB Fozzy Whitaker, LB Keenan Robinson, S Blake GideonSpring star: LB Steve EdmondTexas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz offered a fascinating description of his new first-team middle linebacker, Edmond, to reporters earlier this spring. "He comes off as quiet. He's quiet, but he's listening to everything you say," Diaz said. "When you walk into a bar, the guy who's running his mouth off is usually the guy that doesn't want to fight. The guy in the back that doesn't say a word, you have to be careful with that guy. That's kind of like Steve." Diaz has good reason to like his group, but for Texas to rise in the rankings, the offense will have to get better.
2011 record: 8-5 (4-4 SEC)
Key returnees: RB Onterio McCalebb, TE Philip Lutzenkirchen, C Reese Dismukes, DE Corey Lemonier, DT Jeffery Whitaker, LB Daren BatesKey losses: RB Mike Dyer, OT Brandon Moseley, OG A.J. GreeneSpring star: CB Jermaine WhiteheadThe Tigers don't have many key losses because they were painfully young last season. Young doesn't mean untalented, though. Some quality players learned on the job, and that leaves Auburn in a much better position in 2012. Two new coordinators have brought different schemes to the Plains, and they'll face different challenges. Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder inherits a unit that got torched by the SEC's best last season, but experience should make the results more palatable this season. Offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler, meanwhile, must pick a quarterback. He'll keep evaluating Kiehl Frazier and Clint Moseley into the preseason.
2011 record: 7-6 (5-4 Pac-12)
Key returnees: QB Keith Price, TE Austin Sefarian-Jenkins, S Sean Parker, DE Josh ShirleyKey losses: RB Chris Polk, OT Senio Kelemete, WR Jermaine KearseSpring star: Defensive coordinator Justin WilcoxClick this link to read the most optimistic press release you'll see all year. Judging by that lavish praise, the 1985 Chicago Bears fielded the only unit that could match the dominance of the March 2012 Washington Huskies. That obviously isn't true. It's only been four months since Baylor hung 67 on the Huskies in the Alamo Bowl and got Washington's entire defensive staff fired. But yes, Wilcox is an excellent coordinator. Meanwhile, Price -- when he isn't facing the Monsters of Portage Bay -- should lead a potent offense.
Oklahoma State Cowboys
2011 record: 12-1 (8-1 Big 12)
Key returnees: RB Joseph Randle, OG Lane Taylor, CB Brodrick Brown, LB Shaun LewisKey losses: QB Brandon Weeden, WR Justin Blackmon, DE Jamie BlatnickSpring star: QB Wes LuntUnlike most of the quarterback competitions you've read about so far, Oklahoma State's is over. Last week, Cowboys coach Mike Gundy announced true freshman Wes Lunt beat out J.W. Walsh and Clint Chelf. Gundy wanted his team to know the identity of its quarterback so Lunt could begin honing his leadership skills during the offseason. "We like our system. We like the ability to play fast," Gundy said. "We like the ability to throw the ball down the field effectively but also run the football. Wes gives us the best opportunity to stay consistent with our style of play."
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
2011 record: 8-5 (5-3 ACC)
Key returnees: QB Tevin Washington, RB David Sims, OG Omoregie Uzzi, LB Jeremiah Attaochu, CB Rod SweetingKey losses: WR Stephen Hill, RB Roddy Jones, LB Julian Burnett, OT Phil SmithSpring star: DT T.J. BarnesWashington, who now has started for a season and a half, will run the option behind an experienced offensive line. With Paul Johnson's offense, that usually means terrible things for opposing defenses. Defensively, the Yellow Jackets are deep in the secondary and stout on the defensive line. Barnes has dropped about 25 pounds and is playing well at a svelte 340. Meanwhile, defensive end Euclid Cummings might be the most appropriately named Georgia Tech player ever. In fact, only Navy safety Wave Ryder has better name-school juxtaposition.
Next five: Missouri, Baylor, BYU, Louisville, Ohio State