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.