It is sad to think that this is probably the last article I will write this season. Hopefully I won't cause too much consternation with my picks.
When looking at how teams are going to perform in 2012, you have take off your fantasy cap for a moment and look at other variables. While we fantasy owners are concerned with offensive schemes, star running backs and deep threat receivers, these aren't the first places I like to look. This has been said a billion times, but I'm still amazed at how quickly people forget -- especially some of the talking heads on the radio/TV -- that football starts upfront. And in college I believe the most important position is the defensive line. A dominant defensive line can do wonders. Just look at the past dozen National Champions.
The offensive line is also critical. Without one your star running back will be a piece of meat after three weeks and your speedy receiver will be grounded. And of course, the single most important position on the field is the signal caller. So in a nutshell the teams below are evaluated based on DL, OL and a veteran QB.
Of course all of the teams in the underrated lot aren't perfect in all three categories. We aren't talking about Alabama and LSU here. These are mainly teams outside of the Top 25.
Keep in mind, I'm not necessarily looking at this from a fantasy perspective. However, I've noted potential impact players. As teams go, so do their fantasy stars.
One of the things I love to see is a veteran senior quarterback and no one fits that bill better than B.J. Daniels. He's been with the Bulls since the Bush administration and a starter since 2009. He has 36 starts to his name and veteran team around him. He'll have both his starting tackles back, guys that will protect him in the pocket and seal the edge if he decides to take off and run. The Bulls were excellent at getting after the quarterback last fall (12th in the FBS) and with a junior and senior-laden defensive line/defense, they should be able to once again. In my opinion this is the team to beat in the Big East.
Fantasy Impacts: B.J. Daniels, DF Bulls, RB Demetris Murray
North Carolina State
Brian and I have had a little debate as two which quarterback we have underrated the most. As you can tell from the above I'm on the Daniels bandwagon and Brian resides in the Mike Glennon camp. The difference is I like the Wolfpack this year; they hit on all three criteria. The offensive and defensive lines won't get a lot of pub, but are in the upper of the ACC. They have no shortage of guys that can pressure the quarterback. If they can find some wide bodies to plug the middle, this defense could be good again.
Fantasy Impacts: QB Mike Glennon, WR Tobias Palmer, WR Quintin Payton, DF Wolf Pack
We touched on this in the Justin Hunter Spotlight. The Vols have it going on at quarterback Tyler Bray at the helm. And the entire Vols' offensive line returns. They've had to play a number of youngsters that past two seasons and that should pay off this fall with nine returning starters on both sides of the ball. The DL is a bit of an unknown, but there is some experience here and on the sheer number of returning starters has me optimistic. They aren't going to be challenging for a SEC title anytime soon, but they will surprise some teams this fall.
Fantasy Impacts: QB Tyler Bray, WR Justin Hunter, WR Da'Rick Rogers
I know what you're thinking. I've lost my mind, did you see the Longhorns' quarterback play last fall? Well you got me there. I'm going on the assumption that David Ash will be better in year two. He played in 13 games, making six starts as a true freshman. The rest of the criteria is met. The Longhorns return four starters on the OL, and DEs Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat are two of the best. The pair combined for 14 sacks and 29.5 TFLs last fall and should be even better in 2012. If Ash can put it together, this team will be back in the Big XII title hunt.
Fantasy Impacts: RB Malcolm Brown, DF Longhorns, WR Jaxon Shipley
There are a few non-BCS teams that I could see sneaking into the Top 25 this fall, but Louisiana Tech is my top pick. The quarterback situation looks settled, the offensive line returns four (89 career starts) and both defensive tackles return. Though they must replace their starting defensive ends who registered 16 sacks last fall.
Fantasy Impacts: QB Colby Cameron, WR Quinton Patton, DF Bulldogs
The Illini have a veteran squad that were just in need of a fresh start; enter new head coach Tim Beckman. We've seen this before, when a new coach comes in and sparks some life into a program. The key is having some talent to work with, and the Illini have it. The offensive and defensive lines are solid, especially on the defensive side. DE Michael Buchanan and DT Akeem Spence should make up for the loss of DE Whitney Mercilus. QB Nathan Scheelhaase has started 26 straight games.
Fantasy Impacts: QB Nathan Scheelhaase, RB Donovonn Young, DF Fighting Illini
Probably the most underrated teams in the Big Ten. I don't see them heading to Indianapolis in December but they could pull out a surprise win or two if some teams aren't paying attention. Injuries have prepared both Caleb TerBush and Robert Marve for the starting role. On the defensive front, DT Kawann Short is a potential first round pick if he can have another strong year. They return three starters on both the offensive and defensive lines, and the starters are all upperclassmen.
Fantasy Impacts: RB Akeem Shavers, QB Caleb TerBush
I put them at the bottom of the list as they are technically a preseason Top 10 team, but what SEC team isn't? When talking about SEC contenders, the Gamecocks are generally listed behind Alabama, LSU, Arkansas and Georgia. The DL is strong, especially at end with Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor. Clowney was working off pure talent last fall and with a year under his belt to the learn the defense, he's going to be dominating. The quarterback issues look to be in the rearview with Connor Shaw taking over in Week Six and leading the Gamecocks to wins over Clemson, Nebraska, Mississippi State and Florida. The offensive line has some young pups on the outside, but road graders in the middle, which sets up well for the run game. The biggest hurdle is the schedule. The good news is they play in the SEC East and a loss to LSU is not crippling. It will be a race with Georgia in the East and once you get into the SEC title game, it is anyone's ballgame.
Fantasy Impacts: DF Gamecocks, QB Connor Shaw, RB Marcus Lattimore
Riley Nelson at quarterback... check. Four returning starters on the offensive line... check. Senior-laden defense... check. Up front they only return one starter in their 3-4 defense, but all three starters are seniors. If I'm Boise State, Washington State or Notre Dame,you better be prepared for a fight.
Fantasy Impacts: QB Riley Nelson, DF Cougars
The Wolverines obviously hit the mark in the quarterback department. Robinson is the quintessential college quarterback. His skill set is made for the college game and he knows how to deliver in crunch time. However, based on the preseason rankings (as high as #5) and the experts that have been bestowing us with their knowledge the last several months, it is pretty evident that Robinson is all they see. The starting OL is strong, arguably one of the better OLs in the Big Ten. However, depth is an issue. If injuries start piling up -- something they avoided last year -- it could be trouble. But that's not the real issue. The defensive line is a major trouble spot. The losses of DT Mike Martin and DE Ryan Van Vergen are huge. DE Craig Roh is solid, but in the middle the Wolverines will be counting on senior DT Will Campbell to finally live up to expectations. He's been working hard in the offseason, but there are reasons he's seen very little time to date. And if the spring game is any indication, teams will have no issue running right through Michigan's interior.
There is also the schedule. It's brutal and a departure from last fall. We have it ranked as one of the hardest schedules in college football. To kick things off, they get to face arguably the top offensive line in the country in Alabama. Not good based on the above. Then they must travel to Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State. To make matters worse, the games in South Bend and Lincoln are at night. I'm a firm believer that night games are a boost to the home team. Add in Michigan State at home and I don't see how even the staunchest Michigan supporters can expect more than two wins out of that group.
Fantasy Impacts: QB Denard Robinson, RB Fitzgerald Toussaint
I'm a bit torn on this one as their ranking looks about right, but they are getting a lot of love from the media. Like Michigan, the Hokies hit the mark at quarterback and their defense should be even better than last fall, especially up front. So it is easy to see why experts are high on the Hokies. But there is a big area of concern: the offensive line. A strength last year with four returning starters, only C Andrew Miller returns for 2012. Maybe they can come together and be the dominant run blocking unit they were last fall, but that is a big assumption. And keep in mind the Hokies won't have running back David Wilson in the backfield. The run game could be disappointing this fall, which will put a lot of pressure on Thomas and the defense.
Fantasy Impacts: QB Logan Thomas, RB Michael Holmes
Clemson is loaded at the skill positions. There is no argument here. They are a fantasy owner's dream and they should be once again exciting to watch on Saturdays with WR Sammy Watkins, QB Tajh Boyd and RB Andre Ellington. But is this team an improvement over last year? Based on the preseason rankings, the pundits seem to think so.
The Tigers only return two starters on the OL and one of those starters is moving from guard to tackle, where he looks a tad undersized. I'm not the only one that has concerns with the Tigers OL. Check out Travis Sawchik's piece in the Post & Courier. Opposing defenses are going to have trouble stopping the Tigers and all their skill, but in crunch time when you need a critical yard or an extra second of pass protection, the Tigers could be in trouble.
Anyone that watched Clemson early on last fall knew it was only a matter of time before their defense caught up with them. Credit Dabo Swinney for identifying weaknesses and addressing them. Last year it was the addition of OC Chad Morris, this year it is the addition of DC Brent Venables. The difference is I don't see a Watkins or Boyd on defense. The defensive line was basically gutted, losing their top three sack leaders from last year. Venables is an improvement, but I don't see him having the same effect as Morris did last fall.
Fantasy Impacts: RB Andre Ellington, QB Tajh Boyd, WR Sammy Watkins