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Tony's Top 10: Oklahoma's title status, new big-time QBs, Urban's Buckeyes

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I've been doing this a long time but I can't remember when I've wanted a college football season to start more than this one.

After a spring and summer filled with scandal (Penn State, Bobby Petrino, ongoing academic issues at North Carolina) and star players who just couldn't behave (Isaiah Crowell, Tyrann Mathieu, Greg Reid, Da'Rick Rogers) I'm looking forward to the one thing that is reliable in college football: The game on the field is still awesome.

On that note here are some (hopefully) appetizing storylines in our first Top 10 for 2012:

1. Is OU still a national championship contender? Two weeks ago, Oklahoma's Landry Jones, the school's all-time leader in every major passing category, felt good about his protection. The Sooners had six offensive linemen with a combined 102 career starts. But before the Sooners could get to Saturday's first game with UTEP, center Ben Habern (30 career starts) had to give up football because of chronic back and neck injuries. Senior guard Tyler Evans (29 career starts) tore his ACL in Oklahoma's first practice. Now Oklahoma has four veteran offensive linemen with 43 career starts. "A couple of tough breaks but we still have guys in there we like," coach Bob Stoops told the Daily Oklahoman.

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2. Zach Mettenberger finally gets his first start as an SEC QB: In the spring of 2010 Georgia had two very talented quarterbacks battling for the starting job: Aaron Murray of Tampa and Zach Mettenberger, who grew up 15 minutes from the Georgia campus. Many who attended the spring game thought Mettenberger, a 6-foot-5 kid with a rocket arm, had won the job. He never made it to fall camp. Mettenberger was charged and pleaded guilty to two counts of misdemeanor sexual battery. He was dismissed from the team. After a journey that included a year at Butler County Community College, Mettenberger will make his first start for LSU on Saturday against North Texas. "Without a doubt it's a chance to start over," Mettenberger told Yahoo! Sports. "I've got to take advantage of this and win a couple ballgames so people can finally stop talking about my past and more about my present and future."

3. Alabama vs. Michigan at Jerry World: History says it will be close. The previous three meetings of these two heavyweights were decided by four points or fewer. The last meeting came against Alabama's SEC champions of 1999 (coached by Mike DuBose) in the 2000 Orange Bowl. It was the first-ever BCS game to go into overtime and had a bizarre ending. Alabama scored to come within 35-34 but Ryan Pflugner of the Crimson Tide missed an extra point and Michigan won the game. This is the first regular-season meeting between these two teams and the first time Michigan has not opened the season at home since 1998, the year after their last national championship. Key stat: Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson scored 36 touchdowns last season. The Alabama defense, which must replace seven starters, only gave up nine scores the entire 2011 season.

4. Joe Southwick has huge shoes to fill: For the first time since the end of the 2007 season Boise State plays with somebody other than Kellen Moore as the starting quarterback. Moore left Boise State with an incredible 50 career victories. To put that number in perspective, it wasn't that long ago (1997) that Tennessee's Peyton Manning held the record at 37 career wins. Then it went to Georgia's David Greene (42), Colt McCoy of Texas (46) and finally to Moore. Southwick has attempted 54 career passes, completing 40. Here's the rub: Southwick makes his debut at Michigan State on Friday night against a defense that returns nine starters from the No. 6 unit in the country (275 ypg) a year ago. Boise is 6-0 in openers under Chris Peterson but Sparty has won 14 straight at home.

5. Josh Nunes is feeling a little pressure too: Compared to Stanford's Nunes, Southwick is a seasoned veteran. Nunes, who replaces the great Andrew Luck for the Cardinal, has not taken a hit in a game since 2010, when he completed 1 of 2 passes for a grand total of 7 yards. He did not play at all in 2011. Now he's being asked to take over for the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft as the Cardinal open Friday night against San Jose State. Stanford lost a lot of talent off the 2011 team, which won 11 games and lost to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl. But they return what may be the best defensive front seven in the Pac-12 and senior running back Stepfan Taylor, who has been over 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons.

6. How badly will Tennessee miss Rogers? The last thing Tennessee coach Derek Dooley wanted to do before a make-or-break season was get rid of one of his difference makers. But that is what he did last Friday when he kicked Da'Rick Rogers (1,040 yards, 67 catches in 2011) off the team. Tennessee opens against N.C. State on Friday night in Atlanta. The Vols still have a bunch of quality receivers, led by Justin Hunter and junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson and a quarterback (Tyler Bray) with an NFL arm. But here's the deal for Tennessee: If the Vols don't come up with at least the suggestion of a running game, N.C. State's defense is going to make life very, very uncomfortable for Bray. And then there is this: N.C. State returns seven starters from a defense that led the nation with 27 interceptions last year. Cornerback David Amerson led the nation with 13.

7. Auburn, Clemson both have a lot to prove: The winner of this game, Saturday night in Atlanta, gets to turn the page on disappointment. Last season Clemson won the ACC championship, its first in 20 years, but then got embarrassed in the Orange Bowl (70-33) by West Virginia. A year after Auburn won the BCS national title, the Tigers finished 8-5 -- not bad for a rebuilding year. But coach Gene Chizik needs a good start to 2012 to prove that 2010 was not a Cam Newton-fed aberration of where he's taking the football program. Understand that Chizik's job is always cast in the light of what's going on in Tuscaloosa, where the Crimson Tide have won two of the past three BCS titles. Auburn will debut a new offense (run by Scot Loeffler) and a new defense (run by Brian VanGorder). Clemson's high-octane offense will be missing its best weapon, wide receiver Sammy Watkins.

8. Jack Crowe returns to Fayetteville: I've seen a lot of bizarre things in college football but this ranks very near the top of my list. In 1992, Jack Crowe was beginning his third season as the head coach at Arkansas after going 3-8 and 6-6 in his first two seasons. The opening game was a disaster as the Razorbacks lost to The Citadel 10-3. The next day Crowe was fired by athletic director Frank Broyles. "I didn't like it at the time but I was like any coach. I wanted to fix things and get them turned around," Crowe told me a couple of years ago. Crowe went to Baylor as offensive coordinator for three years and then got out of coaching. He returned as head coach at Division II Jacksonville (Ala.) State in 2000 and has been there ever since with a record of 81-52. On Saturday his team opens the 2012 season at Arkansas. Worth noting: In 2010 Crowe and Jacksonville State went on the road and upset Ole Miss 49-48 in double overtime.

9. Urban Meyer gets back in the saddle: While it might be true that Meyer's program at Florida had a little too much drama, there is no denying that the man knows how to win games. The native of Ashtabula begins his career as the head coach at Ohio State on Saturday against Miami (Ohio). In stops at Bowling Green (two years), Utah (two years) and Florida (six years), Meyer is 104-23 with two national championships (2006, '08). His winning percentage of .819 is second only to Boise State's Peterson (.926) among active coaches. This will be a strange year for Meyer as the Buckeyes are ineligible for the postseason due to NCAA sanctions. Still, we're eager to see what Meyer will do with sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller.

10. Break out the oxygen, it's Gus vs. Chip: Their personalities are different, but Arkansas State head coach Gus Malzahn and Oregon's Chip Kelly have one thing in common: They both believe in up-tempo offense designed to exhaust the guys on defense. After squaring off in the BCS championship game two years ago when Malzahn was the offensive coordinator at Auburn, they meet again in Malzahn's first game as a college head coach. Malzahn won four state championships as a high school coach in Arkansas with an up-tempo style that drove opponents crazy. He later took his system to Arkansas, Tulsa and Auburn as an OC before he became a head coach at the college level.

Watch The Tony Barnhart Show on Tuesday at 9 p.m. on The CBS Sports Network.


Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.
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