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If Matt Barkley returns, USC could be the No. 1 team in 2012.
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
(Published December 8th, 2011) Click here to view Athlon's updated top 25 for 2012.
It's never too early to start thinking about next season. There's a lot that's going to change over the next few months, including coaches and players leaving for the NFL Draft. With that in mind, this is a very, very, very early look at how the preseason top 25 could appear when Athlon's 2012 college football magazine is released.
Keep in mind, this is more an off-the-cuff early ranking, as we will dive more into the schedule and depth chart once the season is finished. Expect lots of changes when we release a pre-preseason top 25 in January.
Related: 2012 SEC Schedule Analysis
Related: Athlon's 2011 All-Americans as Recruits
1. LSU – Regardless of what happens in the national championship game, expect to see the Tigers start the year ranked No. 1 in many preseason polls. The offense will have to replace quarterbacks Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee, but Zach Mettenberger is talented, and the offense can lean on a talented rushing game to ease him into the starting lineup. The defense suffers a few losses, but cornerback Tyrann Mathieu and end Sam Montgomery will keep this unit among the nation’s best. One scheduling break: LSU will host Alabama next season.
2. USC – Will he or won’t he? That’s the question surrounding quarterback Matt Barkley. If the junior decides to enter the NFL Draft, the Trojans will tumble in our next release of a very early preseason top 25. However, should Barkley and left tackle Matt Kalil decide to return for their senior year, it could be a special season for USC. And if both players return, the Trojans may overtake LSU for the No. 1 spot.
3. Oregon – The Ducks have claimed the Pac-12 title for three consecutive seasons and could be in line for a fourth. If Matt Barkley returns to USC, Oregon will likely be picked just a couple of spots behind the Trojans in preseason polls. Should Barkley leave, the Ducks will likely be in the top three of many preseason polls. Running back LaMichael James is likely leaving for the NFL, but replacements Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas are more than capable of keeping this offense among the best in the nation.
4. Alabama – Trent Richardson is likely off to the NFL, and the defense will have to replace several key contributors. However, don’t expect that to stop Alabama from contending for the national title next season. Quarterback AJ McCarron will have to carry this team early on, but the offense will get a boost from running back Dee Hart, who missed all of 2011 with an ACL tear. The Crimson Tide open the year with an intriguing non-conference battle against Michigan.
5. Georgia – Expect the Bulldogs and South Carolina to be picked at the top of the SEC East once again next season. With Texas A&M and Missouri coming into the conference, the schedules for both teams are up in the air, but that matchup could go a long way towards determining the division champ. Aaron Murray returns as the SEC’s top quarterback, and the defense will remain among the nation’s best. However, the offensive line will be a major question mark entering spring practice.
6. Ohio State – After a disappointing 6-6 record this season, expect the Buckeyes to rebound in a big way in 2012. Urban Meyer was a home run hire, and it won’t be long before Ohio State is back in the national title discussion. Quarterback Braxton Miller should thrive in Meyer’s spread offense, while a young group of receivers should be better next year. The offensive line has a few holes, which loses center Mike Brewster and tackle Mike Adams. Unless defensive lineman John Simon bolts for the NFL, the Buckeyes will have nine returning starters on defense.
7. Oklahoma – Quarterback Landry Jones could enter the NFL Draft, but appears more likely to return for Norman for his senior year. The Sooners clearly missed receiver Ryan Broyles since his ACL tear, but spring practice will allow the offense plenty of time to get Kenny Stills, Jaz Reynolds and Kameel Jackson more acclimated into roles that will allow the passing game to click. The Sooners should be strong on defense, but will miss defensive end Frank Alexander.
8. Florida State – Sure, the Seminoles may have been one of 2011’s most disappointing teams, but there’s too much talent to expect another 8-4 record. Injuries to quarterback EJ Manuel and the receiving corps early in the year slowed the progress of the offense. In order for Florida State to win the ACC, the rushing attack and offensive line has to be better next season. The defense is filled with talented underclassmen and should be one of the best in the nation.
9. Michigan – 10 wins – including one over Ohio State – was a terrific debut for Brady Hoke at Michigan. But 2012 could be even better. Quarterback Denard Robinson returns, along with running back Fitzgerald Toussaint to form a potent one-two combination on offense. The line must replace two starters, including center David Molk, but left tackle Taylor Lewan is a good building block. The defense showed major progress this season and should only get better next year.
10. Virginia Tech – It’s a close call between the Hokies and Florida State for the very early No. 1 spot in the ACC predictions. For now, the edge goes to the Seminoles. The Hokies fell short of winning the ACC Championship this year, but return a solid core for 2012. Quarterback Logan Thomas will only get better with another round of offseason practices, while Marcus Davis and D.J. Coles should emerge as the new go-to threats at receiver. The biggest concern on offense will be the line, which has to replace four starters. Running back David Wilson could also depart for the NFL. The defense is likely to only lose one or two players, and should challenge Florida State for the best unit in the conference.
11. Arkansas – Bobby Petrino has led the Razorbacks to a 20-5 record over the last two seasons, but can this program knock off LSU or Alabama for the SEC West title? Barring any schedule changes due to realignment, Arkansas is slated to host those two teams next season, which is huge for its chances of winning the division. The offense will remain one of the best in the SEC, despite the departure of Joe Adams and Jarius Wright at receiver. Knile Davis will add some punch to the running game, after missing all of 2011 with an ankle injury. There’s no question Arkansas has the offensive firepower to win the conference. However, the defense has to be much better if the Razorbacks want to return to Atlanta.
12. Clemson – The defending ACC champions are in great shape heading into next season. The offense returns mostly intact, with quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins one of the top pass-catch duos in college football. Clemson was also proactive in keeping offensive coordinator Chad Morris, which is essential to its ACC title hopes in 2012. The defense will have some holes to fill, as nose guard Brandon Thompson, defensive end Andre Branch and free safety Rashard Hall are all departing. The Tigers also have to travel to Tallahassee for a key Atlantic Division showdown.
13. Michigan State – Replacing quarterback Kirk Cousins won’t be easy, but the Spartans should be able to lean on one of the Big Ten’s top defenses and a solid rushing attack to contend once again in the Legends Division. Michigan State finished the regular season ranked fifth nationally in total defense, while allowing only 17.5 points a game. Next year’s schedule is challenging, featuring non-conference games against Boise State and Notre Dame, while hosting Ohio State and Nebraska in Big Ten play and road matchups against Michigan and Wisconsin. Coach Mark Dantonio has turned the Spartans into a consistent contender for the Big Ten title.
14. Nebraska – Michigan is the frontrunner to win the Legends Division, but the Michigan State-Nebraska debate for second place is going to be very interesting in the spring. The Cornhuskers return quarterback Taylor Martinez and running back Rex Burkhead, but the offensive line is expected to have three new starters. Linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard must be replaced on defense, and the run defense has to be better after finishing eighth in the Big Ten this year.
15. South Carolina – The Gamecocks just missed out on back-to-back SEC East titles, but should push Georgia in the division once again next year. Running back Marcus Lattimore will be back after suffering a season-ending knee injury in mid-October. Quarterback Connor Shaw played well in the final two regular season games, but needs to translate that into a full year. The Gamecocks will also need a new No. 1 receiver, as Alshon Jeffery is likely gone to the NFL. The defense finished No. 4 in the SEC in yards allowed this year, but are losing end Melvin Ingram, linebacker/safety Antonio Allen, and cornerback Stephon Gilmore could leave early for the NFL.
16. Notre Dame – Brian Kelly is moving the Irish closer to contending for a BCS bowl, but it may not happen in 2012. Standout receiver Michael Floyd is gone, and the jury is still out on Tommy Rees' future as Notre Dame's No. 1 quarterback. Running back Cierre Wood is back, and the offensive line should be in good shape, despite the departure of guard Trevor Robinson and tackle Taylor Dever. The secondary must be revamped, but the front seven on defense should be stout. The schedule isn’t easy, featuring road dates at USC, Michigan State and Oklahoma.
17. Texas – The Longhorns are making a slow climb back into Big 12 title contention. After finishing 5-7 in 2010, Texas rebounded with a 7-5 record and a berth in the Holiday Bowl. There’s plenty of talent in Austin, but it’s also young and inexperienced. Quarterbacks Case McCoy and David Ash will likely battle for the No. 1 job in spring practice, but the one-two punch of Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron at running back can carry the offense early next year. The defense loses tackle Kheeston Randall and linebackers Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho, but should still be one of the best in the conference.
18. West Virginia – It’s still up in the air which conference the Mountaineers will be in next year. West Virginia has sued for its release from the Big East, but the conference has no intention of letting it leave early. The guess here is things will be resolved, and the Mountaineers will play 2012 in the Big 12. Adjusting to a new league won’t be easy, but West Virginia’s spread offense is a good fit for the Big 12. However, the Mountaineers have to work on stabilizing the offensive line in spring practice, along with developing a consistent rushing attack.
19. Wisconsin – With Russell Wilson out of eligibility, there’s no question the Badgers are going to take a step back in 2012. However, things could get worse. Running back Montee Ball and center Peter Konz could declare for the NFL Draft, which would be another setback for the offense. Who will replace Wilson? Keep an eye on Notre Dame transfer Dayne Crist. Just like Wilson, Crist decided to transfer with one year of eligibility remaining and could be another short-term fix for Wisconsin’s quarterback situation.
20. Boise State – The Broncos short voyage in the Mountain West will conclude next season after accepting a bid to join the Big East in 2013. With TCU off to the Big 12, it would be a major surprise if Boise State does not finish conference play unbeaten. However, there are a lot of holes to fill on the depth chart for coach Chris Petersen. Quarterback Kellen Moore, running back Doug Martin and left tackle Nate Potter will leave big shoes to fill on offense. The defensive line also takes a hit, as tackles Billy Winn and Chase Baker and ends Tyrone Crawford and Shea McClellin are all gone.
21. Baylor – Just like USC, Baylor’s preseason ranking will weigh heavily on its quarterback’s NFL decision. Robert Griffin will likely be a first-round pick if he chooses to leave school early, which would be a huge loss for the Bears. If Griffin returns, despite the losses of running back Terrance Ganaway and receiver Kendall Wright, the offense will remain one of the best in the Big 12. The defense should also show improvement in the second year under coordinator Phil Bennett.
22. Kansas State – The Wildcats were easily one of 2011’s biggest surprises. Can they follow that up with another 10-win season? It’s unlikely Kansas State will fly under the radar once again, especially with quarterback Collin Klein returning for his senior year. The biggest question mark on offense will be replacing three starters up front. After a disappointing 2010 season, the defense showed improvement this year. However, the Wildcats have to replace five starters, including cornerback David Garrett and nose tackle Ray Kibble.
23. Louisville – The Cardinals came up just short of winning the outright Big East title this season. However, the future looks very bright. Louisville had a plethora of young players see time this season, including true freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. The offensive line struggled this year, but should be better in 2012 with a full season from center Mario Benavides. With West Virginia off to the Big 12, the Cardinals should be the favorite to win the Big East.
24. Washington – Steve Sarkisian has the Huskies on the right track and should take another step forward in 2012. Quarterback Keith Price had a solid year in his first as the starter and there’s no shortage of weapons coming back in 2012. Tight end Austein Seferian-Jenkins and receivers Kasen Williams and James Johnson will form a talented trio of options for Price next season. The defense has been an issue over the past few seasons and will be a question mark once again. The defensive line loses two starters, but will get end Hau’oli Jamora back from a torn ACL. Washington also has to do a better job in pass defense, as it finished 116th nationally in yards allowed.
25. TCU – The Horned Frogs’ maiden voyage through the Big 12 won’t be easy. But there’s also plenty of reasons to be optimistic next season. Quarterback Casey Pachall is back after a solid debut year as the starter. The offense also has talented weapons at receiver in Skye Dawson and Josh Boyce, while running backs Matthew Tucker, Waymon James and Ed Wesley form a deep trio of options. Expect the defense to remain a strength under coach Gary Patterson, but linebacker Tank Carder departs, and the secondary loses three starters.
Others to watch
Arizona State – There’s talent to work with, but the collapse at the end of the year was puzzling. Also, who will be the coach next season?
Auburn – With only five returning starters coming into 2011, the Tigers were expected to take a step back. With a year to grow into the starting lineup, will Auburn jump back into SEC West title contention?
California – Are the Golden Bears back on track? California finished with wins in three out of its final four games, but need more improvement from quarterback Zach Maynard.
Florida – A disappointing 6-6 record has coach Will Muschamp searching for answers this offseason. The Gators will have to find a replacement for quarterback John Brantley, but the defense should be solid.
Georgia Tech – Not much was expected of the Yellow Jackets in 2011, but they finished 8-4 and return a good chunk of their starting lineup next season.
Iowa – The Hawkeyes are coming off a disappointing 7-5 season, but return quarterback James Vandenberg and running back Marcus Coker. The defensive line will be a concern going into next year.
North Carolina – Quarterback Bryn Renner and running back Giovani Bernard are solid building blocks for the new head coach. Losing end Quinton Coples, tackle Tydreke Powell and linebacker Zach Brown will hurt the defense.
Oklahoma State – With quarterback Brandon Weeden finishing his eligibility and receiver Justin Blackmon off to the NFL, the Cowboys will take a step back. However, Oklahoma State shouldn’t fall too far, but a deep Big 12 could push it to a finish of fifth or worse next year.
Stanford – Without quarterback Andrew Luck, the Cardinal will fall in the Pac-12 North standings. Coach David Shaw has done a good job on the recruiting trail, so the Cardinal should still remain a bowl team.
Utah – The Utes need more from their offense in 2012 and will get a boost from the return of quarterback Jordan Wynn from a shoulder injury. Expect the defense to remain one of the best in the Pac-12, despite losing end Derrick Shelby and two starting linebackers.