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Kirk Herbstreit thinks South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore might be the premier running back in the country.
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To counter that approach, Herbstreit anticipates that coaches will populate their defenses with speed-first players. “You’re going to see safeties who are 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds. You’ll see linebackers that are 210 pounds,” he predicts. “Speed has never been more of a factor. Defenses have to be able to react to offenses that have guys who can make plays in space.”

His preseason picks, however, suggest that offensive firepower can take a team only so far. When it comes to discussing Bowl Championship Series (BCS) title-game aspirants, Herbstreit acknowledges? what’s been ?obvious to anyone who’s watched more than a few quarters during the last five years: The teams of the Southeastern Conference (SEC) are operating on a higher plane, especially on defense. In fact, Herbstreit thinks the talent imbalance? might be even more severe than that: “There’s the SEC, then there’s a gap … and then there’s everybody else,” he quips.
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Michigan’s Denard Robinson
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What amazes him most is that the conference — whose teams have won the last six ?national titles — has remained potent even as two of its traditional powers, Tennessee and Florida, have struggled. While he anoints 2011 championship-game opponents LSU and Alabama as the teams to beat, he’s quick to acknowledge the conference’s lesser powers. “South Carolina has Marcus Lattimore, who might be the premier running back in the country, and [quarterback] Connor Shaw, so they’ve got a chance to put a lot of points on the board. Even Mississippi State — you watch them and think, ‘Wow, look at the athletes on that defense.’ ”

Herbstreit doesn’t expect as much from Arkansas as many other pundits do, believing that losses on defense and the April ouster? of coach Bobby Petrino could hamstring the program. By contrast, he tags Georgia as the team most likely to exceed expectations, billing the Bulldogs as a sleeper for the national title. His reasoning is somewhat unconventional: “They’ve got a great schedule. Look where they’ll be playing their games — in the SEC, it’s about who you’re playing, but also where.” He adds, almost as an afterthought, that he ranks Georgia’s Aaron Murray as the conference’s best quarterback.

Though Herbstreit identifies the Atlantic Coast Conference’s status as the “most maligned” of the BCS conferences, he en?visions a legit title contender emerging from its ranks. “Last year, everybody was excited about Florida State — a year prematurely, I thought, because they were so young. This year, they might have the country’s toughest defense,” he says, adding that Virginia Tech has a puncher’s chance thanks to a similarly fierce defensive front seven.

Heading west across the country — at least by the skewed standards of football-conference geography — Herbstreit isn’t entirely sure what to make of the rejiggered Big 12 (a 10-team conference that, for those not keeping score at home, lost Missouri and Texas A&M and added TCU and West Virginia for the 2012 campaign). He lists Oklahoma as his favorite, with a big caveat: “It depends if their quarterback [Landry Jones] can make some good decisions.” He also touts the always-attacking West Virginia offense, wondering just how many points it will put up against weaker defenses.