College Football Early Top 25

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Can AJ McCarron lead Alabama back to the national championship next season?

<p> Athlon continues its countdown to spring practice with a pre-preseason look at the top 25 teams for 2012.</p>

By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

It's never too early to start thinking about next season. Spring practice will kick off for some teams in late February and before we know it, the 2012 Athlon Sports' preseason college football annuals will be hitting newsstands across the nation. 

Athlon's updated top 25 for 2012 reflects the coaching changes and early entries into the NFL Draft, but expect several tweaks before our official preseason poll is released in May.

Related: 2012 Athlon Consensus 100

1. LSU – The Tigers were easily blown out in the national title game by Alabama, but all is not lost going into 2012. LSU has one of the top returning rosters next season, but it also features a handful of question marks. The offense will have one of the top backfields and offensive lines in the nation, but can Zach Mettenberger improve the quarterback play? The defense will miss cornerback Morris Claiborne and tackle Michael Brockers, but this unit should still rank among the nation’s best.

2. USC – If a team is going to end the SEC’s run of dominance, the Trojans figure to be the frontrunner. Quarterback Matt Barkley decided to return for his senior year and will be throwing to one of the top receiving corps in the nation. Replacing offensive tackle Matt Kalil will be one of the biggest question marks for coach Lane Kiffin. The defense showed improvement last year, but must replace three starters, including all-conference selections in end Nick Perry and tackle Wes Horton. The Trojans won’t have the depth of LSU or Alabama, but there’s plenty of talent coming back to Los Angeles for a run at the national title next year.

3. Alabama – After claiming the national title, Nick Saban and his coaching staff have some work to do in order to get this team back to No. 1 by the end of next season. The Crimson Tide suffered some key losses on both sides of the ball, but Saban has recruited well and this team should be able to reload by midseason. AJ McCarron had a breakout performance in the national championship against LSU and will be expected to build upon that game in 2012. Losing Trent Richardson is a huge blow to the offense, but Eddie Lacy, Dee Hart, Jalston Fowler and talented freshman T.J. Yeldon are a capable group. Seven starters are gone off the nation’s best defense, which figures to be tested early with games against Arkansas and Michigan in September.

4. Georgia – It’s not crazy to think Mark Richt could go from coach on the hot seat to contending for the national title in 2012. The Bulldogs have the pieces to contend for a top-five finish next year, starting with quarterback Aaron Murray and a defense that returns nearly everyone. Improving the rushing attack will be one of the priorities during preseason practices, but the offensive line will have to replace two key stalwarts in left tackle Cordy Glenn and center Ben Jones.

5. Oklahoma – The Sooners were one of the favorites to win the national title in 2011, but slipped to a 10-3 record and a fourth-place finish in the Big 12. Although it was a disappointing season in Norman, Oklahoma should be back in the top 10 once again next year. The offense never recovered after an injury to receiver Ryan Broyles, but the passing attack should be better with an offseason to sort everything out. Dominique Whaley’s return from a broken ankle should help bolster the rushing offense and help to take the pressure off of quarterback Landry Jones. The defense returns seven starters, while the addition of former Arizona coach Mike Stoops as defensive coordinator figures to only help this group get better in 2012.

6. Oregon –  The surprising departure of quarterback Darron Thomas was a setback to Oregon’s chances of winning the Pac-12, but the Ducks remain the favorite to win the North Division. Sophomore Bryan Bennett should be Thomas’ replacement and he showed plenty of promise in limited action last season. Although running back LaMichael James will be missed, the one-two combination of Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas will give the backfield plenty of punch in 2012. The defense finished fifth in the Pac-12 in points allowed, but could be even better next season.

7. Michigan – With Ohio State ineligible for the Big Ten title, the balance of power in the Big Ten is clearly resting in the Legends Division. The Wolverines are the early favorites, thanks to the return of quarterback Denard Robinson and an improving defense. Coach Brady Hoke’s first year in Ann Arbor was a success, as Michigan won 11 games and played in a BCS game for the first time since the 2007 Rose Bowl. For the Wolverines to crack the top five, Robinson has to cut down on his interceptions (15) and up his completion percentage (55%). The defense showed big progress under coordinator Greg Mattison, but will be replacing two key starters on the line. The Wolverines won’t have an easy schedule next year, as Alabama and Notre Dame await in the non-conference portion, while they have conference road games against Ohio State and Nebraska.

8. Arkansas – The Razorbacks are inching closer to Alabama and LSU, and they will have a good chance to make some noise in the SEC West next year. Quarterback Tyler Wilson turned down the NFL for another season in Fayetteville, and the offense will get a boost with the return of running back Knile Davis back from a leg injury. The receiving corps must be revamped, but Cobi Hamilton and tight end Chris Gragg is a good place to start rebuilding. New defensive coordinator Paul Haynes will have his work cut out for him in 2012, as the Razorbacks will be replacing three of their top players: End Jake Bequette, linebacker Jerry Franklin and safety Tramain Thomas.

9. Florida State – Yes, the Seminoles are back in the top 10 once again. This team did not have the big season most expected in 2011, but the pieces are in place to win the ACC Championship in 2012. And when you consider the losses at Clemson and Virginia Tech, Florida State becomes an even bigger favorite to win the ACC. The defense should be among the best in the nation, while the young talent on offense should be improved with another offseason to work with quarterback EJ Manuel. How well (and fast) a young offensive line develops will determine just how high Florida State can climb next season.

10. Ohio State – With Urban Meyer arriving in Columbus, don’t expect a repeat of 2011’s 6-7 season at Ohio State. Quarterback Braxton Miller is a good fit for the Buckeyes’ new spread offense, while a group of young receivers should be better in 2012. The biggest question mark on offense will be filling holes on the line, as the Buckeyes have to replace standouts Mike Adams (LT) and Michael Brewster (C). The defense finished 19th nationally in yards allowed and could be even better in 2012 with only two starters departing. Although the Buckeyes should have a shot to finish next year with 10 victories, they are ineligible to play for the Big Ten title or a bowl game due to NCAA sanctions.

11. South Carolina – After finishing 11-2 and sweeping the SEC East for the first time in school history, what can the Gamecocks do for an encore? South Carolina is behind Georgia in the pecking order, but the Bulldogs have to visit Williams-Brice Stadium in 2012. Quarterback Connor Shaw played well at the end of the season, and the offense will get a boost with running back Marcus Lattimore returning from a torn ACL. Replacing receiver Alshon Jeffery is the biggest question mark facing the offense in 2012. The Gamecocks finished third nationally in total defense, but suffered some key departures, including end Melvin Ingram and cornerback Stephon Gilmore.

12. Texas – The Longhorns aren’t quite ready to contend for the Big 12 title, but they are slowly working their way back into contention. After improving its win total by three games from 2010 to 2011, Texas is poised to make a run at 10 victories in 2012. The defense should be the best in the Big 12, but the offense has to improve if the Longhorns want to push Oklahoma for the top spot. David Ash appears to have earned the No. 1 quarterback spot after his performance in the Holiday Bowl, while the rushing attack features three promising young running backs. Texas always recruits well, and its time for the young players on offense to step up in 2012.

13. West Virginia – Whether the Mountaineers are in the Big 12 or Big East, this team will be a factor on the national scene next year. Quarterback Geno Smith will lead one of the top passing attacks in college football, especially with receivers Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and Ivan McCartney returning in 2012. While the passing game shouldn’t be an issue, the rushing attack and offensive line must show improvement. Losing coordinator Jeff Casteel was a tough blow for West Virginia’s defense, and this unit must find replacements for defensive linemen Julian Miller and Bruce Irvin, linebacker Najee Goode and cornerback Keith Tandy. 

14. Michigan State – After back-to-back 11-win seasons, can the Spartans push the win total higher in 2012? The Spartans should be the biggest challenger to Michigan in the Legends Division, but they will have to replace quarterback Kirk Cousins and the team’s top three wide receivers. With questions surrounding the passing attack, look for the offense to lean more on running back Le’Veon Bell and an offensive line that returns four starters. Losing defensive tackle Jerel Worthy was a tough blow, but end William Gholston is back after registering 12 tackles for a loss and four sacks in 2011. The linebacking corps could be among the best in the nation, with Denicos Allen, Max Bullough and Chris Norman returning. The schedule isn’t easy, as Michigan State hosts Boise State, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Nebraska in East Lansing, while playing Michigan and Wisconsin on the road.

15. Clemson – The defending Atlantic champs are in good position to contend for the conference title once again in 2012. Quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins will form one of the top pass-catch combinations in the nation, while running back Andre Ellington figures to top 1,000 yards once again in 2012. While there’s no shortage of weapons coming back for coordinator Chad Morris, the Tigers will be replacing three starters on the line. The defense allowed nearly 400 yards a game in 2011, prompting coordinator Kevin Steele’s departure. Former Oklahoma coordinator Brent Venables was a terrific hire by coach Dabo Swinney, but the defense may be a year away, especially with the departure of four key linemen.

16. Virginia Tech – The Hokies have been a model of consistency under coach Frank Beamer, posting at least 10 victories in 13 out of the last 17 years. And even though Virginia Tech has some significant question marks to address before next season, the Hokies will be the favorite to win the Coastal Division. The offense loses four starters on the line and must replace running back David Wilson. Quarterback Logan Thomas improved as a passer as 2011 progressed and will have to shoulder more of the workload on offense next year. With only two starters departing, the Hokies’ defense should be one of the best in college football.

17. Nebraska – Year 1 of life in the Big Ten turned out so-so for the Cornhuskers. Nebraska began the year as the favorite in the Big Ten Legends Division, but finished with a 9-4 record with losses to Wisconsin, Northwestern, Michigan and South Carolina. The Big Red should be in the mix for 9 or 10 victories once again in 2012, but could challenge for the division title if the offense continues to jell. Quarterback Taylor Martinez rushed for 874 yards and nine scores but completed only 56 percent of his throws. Martinez and running back Rex Burkhead form a solid combination, but the offense needs to throw the ball better next season. The defense will have some new faces stepping into key roles, as linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard have finished their eligibility. The schedule makers didn’t give Nebraska any breaks either, as the Cornhuskers have road trips to Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State, while Wisconsin, Michigan and Penn State visit Lincoln.

18. Notre Dame – Is 2012 the year the Irish get back into a BCS bowl? Although Notre Dame has some key pieces returning, this team is probably ticketed for a spot in the lower half of the top 25 next year. Settling on a quarterback is priority No. 1 for coach Brian Kelly this spring. True freshman Gunner Kiel is already enrolled and will have a good shot to beat out Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson in preseason practices. With uncertainty at quarterback, expect running back Cierre Wood and a solid offensive line to carry the team early on. The defense will have a revamped secondary, but the line – led by Aaron Lynch, Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt – could be one of the best in college football.

19. TCU – Moving from the Mountain West to the Big 12 is a step up in competition, but the Horned Frogs are ready. Coach Gary Patterson is assembling another solid recruiting class, and the team is bringing back several key contributors. The offense is loaded with the return of quarterback Casey Pachall and depth at running back and in the receiving corps. Patterson is one of the top defensive minds in the nation and should prevent this unit from suffering much of a drop-off in production. Losing linebacker Tank Carder is a tough blow, but Tanner Brock returns after missing nearly all of 2011 with an injury.

20. Washington – Thanks to a revamped coaching staff, the Huskies have closed the gap with Oregon in the Pac-12 North. But will it be enough to win the division in 2012? The offense will be among the best in the conference, despite losing running back Chris Polk to the NFL Draft. Quarterback Keith Price has a group of talented receivers returning and the junior should shine with another offseason to work with coach Steve Sarkisian. Landing coordinator Justin Wilcox and defensive assistants Tosh Lupoi and Peter Sirmon should pay dividends on the field and in recruiting for Washington. Expect the Huskies to be better on defense next year, but they didn’t catch any breaks in the schedule with road trips to LSU, Oregon and Washington State, while getting USC and Utah in Seattle (CenturyLink Field).

21. Kansas State – The Wildcats were one of college football’s biggest surprises, as they were picked near the bottom of the Big 12 in the preseason, but finished second in the conference with a 10-3 record. This team won’t sneak up on anyone next year, but there’s a lot to like with Kansas State in 2012. Quarterback Collin Klein is back after compiling 40 touchdowns, while linebacker Arthur Brown returns after emerging as one of the Big 12’s top defenders in 2011. If the Wildcats want to contend for the conference title next year, improving the passing attack and replacing three key starters on the line will be crucial.  

22. Wisconsin – There’s a lot of new faces stepping into key positions and on the coaching staff next year in Madison. The biggest loss is quarterback Russell Wilson, who turned in a terrific senior year and led the Badgers to another Rose Bowl appearance after transferring from NC State. With Wilson departing, the offense will lean on running backs Montee Ball and James White. However, the line will be replacing three starters. The defense ranked 15th nationally in yards allowed and most of the core will return in 2012. Mike Taylor and Chris Borland will form one of the top linebacking duos in the nation.

23. Louisville – If West Virginia moves to the Big 12, the Cardinals will be the frontrunner to win the Big East crown next season. Despite being one of the youngest teams in the conference in 2011, Louisville managed to earn a share of the Big East title and nearly claimed a spot in the BCS. The offense suffered its share of ups and downs with freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater taking over as the starter, but this group should show improvement in 2012. The rushing attack produced only 121.5 yards per game last season and figures to be a focal point of attention in spring practice. The defense allowed only 20.1 points a game in 2011 and nearly everyone is back. Coach Charlie Strong has Louisville back on the rise and this team should easily surpass its win total (seven) from last season.

24. Boise State – The Broncos have a plethora of key losses on both sides of the ball, but remain the favorite in the Mountain West and should finish with nine or 10 victories in 2012. Replacing quarterback Kellen Moore is the top priority for coach Chris Petersen, with Joe Southwick, Nick Patti, Grant Hedrick and Jimmy Laughrea expected to compete for the job in spring practice. The Broncos will have a revamped defensive line in 2012, but the defense should be among the best in the Mountain West.

25. Oklahoma State – Without quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon, the Cowboys won’t match last season’s win total (12) and Big 12 championship. However, this team won’t slip too far, as the cupboard isn’t bare for coach Mike Gundy in 2012. Running backs Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith will anchor the offense while the quarterback situation is sorted out. The defense must replace a couple of key players on the line, but the back seven should be solid. The Big 12 could have six teams start the year in the preseason top 25, so the road to eight or nine wins won’t be easy.

The Next Five

26. Utah – Running back John White and a solid defense will lead Utah once again in 2012. The Utes should be USC’s toughest competition in the Pac-12 South.

27. Georgia Tech – With a little more consistency from quarterback Tevin Washington, the Yellow Jackets could make some noise in the ACC Coastal.

28. Auburn – There’s lots of young talent coming back to Auburn, but how will the new coaching staff mesh with the personnel?

29. NC State – The Wolfpack were one of the hottest teams in the ACC at season’s end, finishing with victories in four out of their final five games. Quarterback Mike Glennon should challenge for all-conference honors, while cornerback David Amerson should be a preseason All-American.

30. Missouri – With the move to the SEC, the Tigers will be one of the most intriguing teams to watch in 2012.

Related 2012 Content:

Very Early SEC 2012 Preseason Predictions
Very Early ACC 2012 Preseason Predictions

Very Early Pac-12 2012 Preseason Predictions

Very Early Big Ten 2012 Preseason Predictions

Very Early Big East 2012 Preseason Predictions

Very Early Big 12 2012 Preseason Predictions

2012 Heisman Trophy Candidates

Very Early Preseason 2012 College Football Top 25

Athlon Roundtable: Who are the BCS National Title Contenders in 2012?

What To Expect from the Crimson Tide in 2012?

What To Expect from the LSU Tigers in 2012?

2012 SEC Schedule Analysis

Three Teams on the Rise in 2012

Three Teams Sliding Back in 2012

Top Non-Conference Games to Watch in 2012

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