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Senior College Football Columnist

Top 10: Positions for contenders that could determine BCS champion

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With five RBs behind him, QB Zach Mettenberger has some help in his first year starting for LSU. (US Presswire)  
With five RBs behind him, QB Zach Mettenberger has some help in his first year starting for LSU. (US Presswire)  

Everyone, even teams in the top 15, have big question marks heading into 2012. These X-factors often define whether a talented team is good or actually will be great.

The coaches have their own questions: Who blossoms and who fizzles? The quarterback position at Alabama, which had been a sizable issue going into the 2011 season, proved to be a resounding positive by the time the BCS national title game came around, as AJ McCarron carved up LSU's vaunted defense. As for the Tigers' QB issues, well, that was their ultimate undoing and could still be in 2012.

This week's Top 10 topic: Biggest X-factor positions that could determine the BCS champion.

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1. LSU quarterback: The Tigers' shortcomings at QB were well-documented. Enter onetime Georgia quarterback-turned-JC transfer Zach Mettenberger, a towering kid with great size and arm strength. The question: Can he be consistent enough to balance an offense with five very good running backs and an experienced O-line? Mettenberger has more confidence in his arm than his predecessors. Does he have too much confidence it? After all, the Tigers don't need him to be Peyton Manning to make a BCS title run with the pieces they have around him. We'll see.

2. USC defensive line: Lane Kiffin's offense should be the best in the country, with a good ground attack and an even better passing game. The back seven on the D also should be strong given all of the experience and talent. The D-line is something that keeps people up late around USC though. Making matters worse, the Trojans lost projected starting DE Devon Kennard for likely most of the season because of injury on the eve of camp. Promising J.R. Tavai has shifted outside to go with a relatively deep group. The biggest question is inside. Sophomore George Uko is very quick and has emerged as the group's leader. He should be a force. But the two or three guys next to him in the middle are the unknown. Redshirt freshmen Antwaun Woods has shed 30 pounds and could be an anchor, while 288-pound true freshman Leonard Williams' athleticism has coach Ed Orgeron believing he'll be a future star. However, the kid is still really, really young especially playing that position. Former blue-chipper Christian Heyward has looked good at times in camp, but there are concerns about his durability and focus.

3. Florida State offensive line: No one questions the Seminoles' D or the skill talent, but the O-line was dreadful in 2011. FSU allowed 40 sacks, which didn't help EJ Manuel's health and the 'Noles also only averaged 112 rushing yards per game (No. 104 in the country), which would help alleviate some pressure for a program that has struggled with consistency for a long time. Jimbo Fisher praised his young O-line's ability to move the line of scrimmage forward early in camp though. It's the biggest group that they've had since Rick Trickett took over as the line coach. They're likely to start four sophomores up front. The bright side: the 'Noles have a lot of big, athletic people in the mix.

4. Alabama linebacker: The guys in question here may be the most talented of any of the groups mentioned on this list because Nick Saban's team -- despite all of the departures to the NFL -- is still stacked all over. Still, the teeth of the national championship D came from Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw, their huge linebackers. Both are now in the NFL. The new names to know: Adrian Hubbard, Xzavier Dickson and Trey DePriest, three big sophs to go with senior Nico Johnson and junior C.J. Mosley. Hubbard, a rangy 6-foot-6 guy, has the tools that has colleague and College Football Hall of Fame lineman Randy Cross raving. Hubbard should be a big-play machine in this defense. Of course, consistency and focus are the challenge when you're dealing with young players who, no matter how gifted athletically, still don't have the game experience.

5. Oregon quarterback: Chip Kelly lost Darron Thomas and most inside the program are convinced that Bryan Bennett and Marcus Mariota each have more running ability and are more accurate as passers than last season's starter. Still, same as with most other positions on this list, it's the reps and the consistency that are the concerns -- especially when you're triggering a system as frenetic as Kelly's and trying to replace last season's go-to wideout at the same time.

6. Georgia offensive line: The Dawgs have had all sorts of bad luck with injuries up front in recent years. This season, they come in with some promising young linemen (keep an eye on true freshmen OT John Theus and OG Greg Pyke), but it's still going to be a lot of new guys in different places. On top of that the Dawgs also are counting on some very unproven running backs.

7. West Virginia defensive back: Dana Holgorsen's offense will sizzle in the first season in the Big 12, but this secondary better be ready. It'll face four of the top seven passing offenses in the country from last season (Oklahoma State, Baylor, OU and Texas Tech). True freshman Karl Joseph is going to get a lot of action at safety. Keep an eye on true freshman CB Nana Kyeremeh, who coach Daron Roberts thinks will be very special due to his great ball skills and blazing speed.

8. Michigan defensive line: Brady Hoke's D made huge strides in Year One, but now the Wolverines have to replace the heart of their defense the past few seasons in powerhouse nose man Mike Martin. The hope is that former blue-chipper Will Campbell is finally ready to make an impact. Campbell, who has bounced around position-wise in his career and never has seemed ready, has lost weight this off-season and maybe gets that it's now or never for him there. Steady Ryan Van Bergan also will be missed.

9. Oklahoma defensive line: In 2011, Ronnell Lewis and Frank Alexander combined for 32 TFLs and 14 sacks. That's a lot of production to replace. The Sooners have a bunch of seniors expected to play a lot up front but it didn't make things easier when experienced Stacy McGee was suspended indefinitely.

10. Michigan State wide receiver: No question, there's plenty of pressure on new QB Andrew Maxwell, but this is also an offense that lost its top four receivers from 2011. Gifted Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett is one of six receivers the staff expects to take up that burden. Bennie Fowler, a guy built more like a linebacker, is another wideout who really needs to step up in 2012.


Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for CBSSports.com and college football commentator for CBS Sports Network. He is a New York Times Bestselling author, who has written books including Swing Your Sword, Meat Market and Cane Mutiny. Prior to joining CBS, Feldman spent 17 years at ESPN.
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