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 surpass its 2011 win total in 2012? Here are three candidates:
Ohio State – After a disappointing 6-6 regular season record in 2011, expect the Buckeyes to jump back into 10-win territory in 2012. Most importantly, Ohio State is not expected to have any suspensions impact the offense like it did this season. However, the Buckeyes were hit with a one-year bowl ban, so this team will be ineligible to compete for the Big Ten title. Quarterback Braxton Miller should shine in new coach Urban Meyer’s spread offense, especially with a group of young receivers getting better next year. The Buckeyes will have three key losses on the offensive line – tackles Mike Adams and J.B. Shugarts, along with center Mike Brewster – but Miller’s mobility should help ease the concerns about this group. Ohio State had an uncharacteristic season on defense, finishing sixth in total and scoring in the Big Ten. Defensive lineman John Simon could enter the NFL Draft, and the secondary will lose Tyler Moeller, but the rest of the defense is expected to return intact. With a lot of new faces seeing time this year, Ohio State’s defense should finish near the top of the Big Ten in 2012. Meyer is a proven winner and is putting together a terrific recruiting class in a short amount of time. With Wisconsin losing quarterback Russell Wilson and the ongoing uncertainty at Penn State, expect Ohio State to begin the year as the favorites in the Big Ten Leaders Division - without a chance to play in the conference title game.
Texas – There’s been much speculation about coach Mack Brown’s future in Austin, but all indications point to his return on the sidelines in Austin for 2012. And there’s a lot of reasons for Texas to be optimistic next season. The Longhorns made a two-win improvement from 2010 this season and a similar jump isn’t out of the question. Coordinator Bryan Harsin was brought in from Boise to jumpstart the offense, but the Longhorns finished eighth in the Big 12 in scoring. Quarterback play was an issue all year, but Case McCoy and David Ash should be better with another offseason to work with the offense. However, Texas would probably be better off by settling on one quarterback and developing the scheme around him. Expect the Longhorns to focus on the run next season, especially with four starters coming back on the offensive line, along with running backs Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron. The backfield will also get a boost with incoming freshman Jonathan Gray – ranked as the No. 7 prospect in the Athlon Consensus 100. The defense loses tackle Kheeston Randall and linebackers Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho, but should remain one of the best units in the Big 12. There’s a lot of pressure on Mack Brown to win next season and the pieces are in place to expect nine wins.
Washington – The Huskies have made steady progress under coach Steve Sarkisian, posting back-to-back seven-win seasons. And the future looks bright for 2012. Quarterback Keith Price was solid in his first year as the starter, throwing for 2,625 yards and 29 scores, while tossing 11 picks. Price battled injuries most of the year and a full offseason to heal should allow him to be 100 percent next season. He should have no shortage of weapons in the receiving corps, as Kasen Williams and James Johnson are proven targets, and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins could contend for All-American honors next season. Running back Chris Polk declared for the NFL Draft, which leaves Jesse Callier and Bishop Sankey to battle for the No. 1 role in the backfield. The Huskies also have to replace the left side of their offensive line. The defense has been a sore spot under Sarkisian, and coordinator Nick Holt was canned following an after the Alamo Bowl loss to Baylor. If Washington wants to push Oregon for the Pac-12 North title next year, the defense has to improve. The line will lose end Everrette Thompson and tackle Alameda Ta’amu, while linebacker Cort Dennison and cornerback Quinton Richardson also depart. Even with Polk departing, the Huskies should be picked second in the Pac-12 North and could start the year in many preseason top 25 lists.