College Football 2012: Who Are the Early Favorites?

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Can USC end the SEC's run of dominance?

<p> Athlon's editors take a very early look at 2012 and who could be the favorite to win the national title next season.</p>

It's never too early to start thinking about 2012. Alabama claimed its second national title in three years by dominating LSU 21-0 on Monday night, and both teams are expected to be back in the national title mix next season. 

Athlon's official preseason top 25 won't come out until May, but here's a very early top 25 for 2012.

Who are the early favorites to win college football's national title in 2012?

Braden Gall (@BradenGall
Depending on a large group of redshirt sophomore defenders for LSU returning or turning pro, it will be hard not to pick the Bayou Bengals atop the standings in the preseason. The USC Trojans will also make a strong case for the top slot with Matt Barkley, T.J. McDonald and a host of elite pass catchers returning. However the Trojans will likely have to get past another national contender and preseason top five team, Oregon, in the Pac-12 title game. The winner of the Pac-12 should land in the BCS title game.

I will put Georgia in the mix as one of my darkhorses. The Bulldogs' schedule sets up nicely without Alabama, LSU or Arkansas in SEC play and they return largely intact with another stellar incoming freshman class. Since the SEC will, of course, win its seventh straight national title, the best team in the league yet win a BCS title could sneak its way down to South Beach. It might just be the Dawgs turn in 2012. Also, keep an eye on Michigan as a sleeper as well. They should be the favorite in the Legends and will face a subpar Wisconsin, Illinois or Penn State in the Big Ten title game.

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
The big question going into 2012 is whether or not anyone can stop the SEC from winning its seventh national title in a row. Considering the conference’s recent run of success and what LSU has coming back next year, it’s a safe bet that one team from the SEC will make it into the national championship game. The Tigers turned in an awful performance against Alabama, but have one of the top returning cores for 2012. The offense has to settle on a quarterback, but the rushing attack and offensive line will be among the best in college football. USC figures to be the top challenger to the SEC champ, as the Trojans are off their two-year bowl ban, and quarterback Matt Barkley decided to return for his senior year. With a reduction in scholarships, depth could ban issue for USC, especially on the interior of the line. I think the Trojans and Tigers have to be considered the top two early favorites, but Oregon could sneak into the mix if it wins the Pac-12 over USC. Regardless of whether or not it is in the Big 12, I like West Virginia as a potential national title darkhorse. Also, Arkansas hosts both LSU and Alabama, which will give the Razorbacks a chance to be a player in the SEC West title mix. 

Mark Ross
My early favorites for next year’s BCS Championship match up are whoever wins the SEC and Pac-12 conferences. In the SEC, I am giving the slightest of edges to Georgia over Alabama because of the Crimson Tide’s expected losses on both sides of the ball. In the Pac-12, I think it will be a fight to the bitter end between Oregon and USC, but the Trojans get the nod here because of Matt Barkley and the motivation that comes from watching the postseason from the sidelines this season.

Other teams that will probably enter the conversation at some point, if not until the very end are Oklahoma, thanks to Landry Jones’ return, from the Big 12 and Michigan in the Big Ten. Michigan will get the chance to make an early statement as the Wolverines open the 2012 season against Alabama. LSU can’t be forgotten either, as the Tigers will get a chance to exact some revenge against Alabama next year and that could be enough to keep the Crimson Tide from getting a shot to defend their national title.

A dark horse team I like is Arkansas in a crowded SEC West. The Razorbacks should have plenty of offense to compete with the rest; they just need the defense to rise to the occasion when it counts.  I also think both teams that played in this year’s Orange Bowl – West Virginia and Clemson – could surprise. We still don’t know what conference (Big East or Big 12) the Mountaineers will be playing in next year, but regardless they have enough weapons to make plenty of noise, just ask Clemson.

The Tigers won’t lack for offensive firepower either, it’s just a matter of establishing a defensive identity and, for the first time under Dabo Swinney, finally putting it all together on a consistent basis.  Clemson also has to travel to Tallahassee to face Florida State next year in a game that could very well determine the ACC’s BCS representative. The Seminoles are similar to Clemson in that they could be in the national title hunt all season provided they are able to get the most out of the talent they have on their roster come game day.

Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
Is it possible to have a BCS Championship Game without an SEC club? The conference with six straight national titles seems like a lock each season, but that amazing run may end in 2012. LSU, Georgia and Alabama will suffer some roster attrition, with the Tigers looking like the early favorite to repeat as league champion. Many people would tab the SEC champ and the Matt Barkley-led USC Trojans as the early favorites, but I think Oregon and Oklahoma will be right there as well. The Ducks had to rebuild the defense this season, and that unit should be much-improved in ’12. Senior signal caller Darron Thomas is back with Kenjon Barner and DeAnthony Thomas, plus UO will not face a tough non-conference opener. Oklahoma should be loaded on offense with Landry Jones throwing to Kenny Stills and Jaz Reynolds, and the defense will be tough despite losing Frank Alexander and Travis Lewis. The Sooners will be the favorite in the Big 12 and will have a chance to score BCS points when they host Notre Dame. While the aforementioned SEC trio and USC will be formidable, I think UO and OU will have great shots to play for a title.
 

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