By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
It's never too early to start thinking about next season, and Athlon kicked off our lookahead to 2012 with a very, very early top 25. Of course, a lot is going to change between now and when our official preseason poll is released in May, but we are taking an early glimpse of how things could look.
What teams will struggle to match its 2011 win total in 2012? Here are three candidates:
Boise State – 2012 will be the Broncos’ final year in the Mountain West, before making the move to the Big East in 2013. Boise State should be picked as the preseason conference favorite, but it’s unlikely it will finish in the BCS top 10 at the end of the year. Quarterback Kellen Moore departs after a fantastic career, leaving big shoes to fill under center. Joe Southwick, Grant Hedrick, Jimmy Laughrea and incoming freshman Nick Patti will battle to replace Moore in spring practice. Running back Doug Martin also departs, but D.J. Harper is expected to get another year of eligibility after two season-ending knee injuries. The offensive line loses three seniors, including valuable left tackle Nate Potter. The defense is also hit hard by senior departures, as linemen Tyrone Crawford, Billy Winn, Chase Baker, Shea McClellin and Jarrell Root are all out of eligibility. Although the backups up front have some experience, it’s still a lot to replace. Linebackers Byron Hout and Aaron Tevis, along with defensive backs George Iloka and Cedric Febis are also out of eligibility. Although Boise State still deserves a spot in the preseason top 25, it’s going to be very difficult to repeat another top 10 finish in the BCS. Expect the Broncos to take a step back in 2012, before jumping back into the top 10-15 in 2013.
Oklahoma State – With quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon departing, it’s going to be very difficult for the Cowboys to repeat as Big 12 champs. In addition to replacing one of the nation’s top pass-catch duos, Oklahoma State’s offense will lose All-American tackle Levy Adock and two other starters on the offensive line. The defense returns mostly intact, but ends Jamie Blatnick and Richetti Jones must be replaced, along with safety Markelle Martin. Oklahoma State’s 11 regular season wins in 2011 was its first double-digit victory total since posting 10 in 1988. The Big 12 won't get any easier next season, as Texas is expected to improve, while TCU and West Virginia are joining the conference. Coach Mike Gundy has raised the bar in Stillwater, but even though the program is in a much better position to handle the departures, the Cowboys will still take a step back in 2012.
Stanford – Just like Oklahoma State, Stanford is in a better position than it was five years ago to soften the blow of some of the defections. However, losing quarterback Andrew Luck is enough for this team to slip out of most preseason top 25 lists. The Cardinal will likely have an open competition for the job, with sophomore Brett Nottingham the early leader going into spring practice. Whichever quarterback wins the job will have to break in some new receiving targets, as tight end Coby Fleener and receiver Chris Owusu are out of eligibility. Also, the offensive line will need some work, as guard David DeCastro and tackle Jonathan Martin have declared for the NFL Draft. The secondary will have to be revamped, but linebacker Shayne Skov will give the defense a boost with his return from a knee injury.