College football preview: Nos. 3-1

(MORE: See the full Top 25)

3. LSU

2011 record: 13-1 (8-0 SEC), Western Division champion, BCS Championship game appearance

Key returners: QB Zach Mettenberger (Junior), S Eric Reid (Junior), DE Sam Montgomery (Junior)

LSU’s 2012 schedule

The LSU Tigers shocked everyone just weeks before the start of the regular season when they kicked Heisman Trophy candidate Tyrann Mathieu off the team for repeated failed drug tests. Nearly every pollster believed the Tigers suddenly became a less-powerful team, and I agreed with them. They did.

But even without the Honey Badger, the Bayou Bengals have an extremely talented bunch. Again. There’s no swaying LSU, because there’s no swaying their head coach, Les Miles.

He reloaded with a pretty good quarterback, a transfer named Zach Mettenberger who Georgia fans know pretty well. He was a highly-touted quarterback until he was kicked off the UGA squad following an arrest, and two years later, he’s the starter for LSU. They’ve been looking for a kid who can make the big pass, and they might have finally found him.

Death Valley is still as tough a place to play as any, and they will probably benefit from hosting that huge tilt Nov. 3 against Alabama. Will it be enough to actually win the game? I’m not so sure about that.

Plain and simple, this is not going to be LSU’s year for revenge. They’re still close, but I think Mettenberger is a year away from being someone skilled and mature enough to lead the Tigers to a title. They won’t be far from the conversation, but with three games in the final six weeks against preseason top-10 opponents, they wont’t have enough gas left in the tank to win an SEC title.

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File

2. Alabama

2011 record: 12-1 (7-1 SEC), second in Western Division, BCS national champions

Key returners: QB AJ McCarron (Junior), RB Eddie Lacy (Junior), LB Nico Johnson (Senior)

Alabama’s 2011 schedule

Now this is a team that could really some things this year.

The 2012 Alabama Crimson Tide return as defending national champions yet again, with a senior class that has already won two rings. They’re deep enough to win it all again, and head coach Nick Saban is known around the football world as a coach who can keep his players hungry, whether they’ve had their fill or not.

Getting your signal-caller back after winning a national title is always key if you want to repeat, and Alabama will see quarterback AJ McCarron on the field again in 2012. Passing for 2,400 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2011, McCarron is everything the Crimson Tide needs in a leader and more.

Running back Trent Richardson might be in the NFL, but there’s another horse in the stable that will be just as good. Watch and see — I promise Eddie Lacy is going to challenge Richardson’s 2011 total of 1,583 rushing yards, and he’ll probably score more than 20 touchdowns (Richardson’s total a year ago). Saban has built a team based on speed (as have his proteges: Jimbo Fisher comes to mind).

The No. 1-ranked defense that averaged a measly 8.2 points per game last season will lose a lot of leadership, but just like the offense, there’s plenty of depth on the defensive side of the ball. In a conference that, outside of Arkansas, still has trouble displaying mastery of offense, Alabama will feast on plenty of opponents and keep scores low.

Seems like a recipe for a repeat, right? Well, there’s just one team that might stand in the way of their title hopes, and to find them, you’ll have to look to the West Coast …

1. Southern California

2011 record: 10-2 (7-2 Pac-12), South Division champions, no bowl appearance

Key returners: QB Matt Barkley (Senior), WR Robert Woods (Junior), RB Curtis McNeal (Senior)

USC’s 2012 schedule

Fresh off NCAA sanctions, the USC Trojans weren’t supposed to be this locked and loaded.

But head coach Lane Kiffin has been growing the program back over the last two seasons, and the veteran squad is ready to pounce on the Pac-12 and make a run at the national championship. Led by Heisman-contender — if not Heisman favorite — Matt Barkley at quarterback, the Trojans have their leader for one more season. He has all of his weapons back, too: Running back Curtis McNeal, the team’s leading rusher in 2011, returns as well as the team’s best receiver, Robert Woods.

And what about that defense, which ranked No. 45 in the country with 23.6 points per game allowed? Will it be able to stop an offense like Oregon, or at least hold it down for long enough for the offense to beat the Ducks? Considering they’ll return five of their top six leading tacklers from a year ago, I’d say this defense will be better in 2012.

Basically, a young bunch that came to campus with aspirations of winning a national title grew up together, surrounded by sanctions earned by past players, and made a pact to stick it out and win a national championship when they finally were given a chance. Now, they’re playing for keeps.

So fight on, USC — you’re my pick to win the national title at the end of the 2012 season.

More previews: Nos. 6-4 | Nos. 9-7 | Nos. 12-10 | Nos. 15-13 | No. 16 | Nos. 18-17 | Nos. 21-19 | No. 22 | Nos. 25-23

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