The crystal football hasn't yet been hoisted to close the 2011 season, but it's never too early to look ahead. Which teams are well-positioned for a run to the 2012 FBS National Championship?
At this point in the year, before recruiting wraps up, and before we get a look at next year's teams in spring ball, five teams (in no particular order) are already contenders for the national title. Some are usual suspects, but others will emerge from the shadows.
In the end, one team will ride the momentum it has built in 2011 to a national championship in 2012.
The Florida State Seminoles still have plenty to prove, but based strictly on talent, they are absolutely loaded.
If Brandon Jenkins decides to come back, the Seminoles would return all of the major pieces from a defensive line that finished second in the nation in run defense and fifth in the country in sacks. Add that to incoming freshman DE Mario Edwards, the nation's top recruit according to ESPN, and the Seminoles defensive front looks downright frightening.
On offense, quarterback E.J. Manuel is back, and though he loses top receiver Bert Reed, rising sophomore Rashad Greene showed in the Champs Sports Bowl that he is more than capable of filling on the outside. Four out of five starters on the offensive line are back, and while the group struggled at times this season, an offseason of experience will help it to jell into a strong unit.
The non-conference schedule is difficult, but the 'Noles will never have to leave the state of Florida outside of ACC play. The Florida Gators and West Virginia Mountaineers will challenge Florida State, but the Seminoles will have a talent advantage in addition to home-field in both matchups.
The Oklahoma Sooners' fate in 2012 is entirely contingent on whether Landry Jones returns to school.
It's not much more than a hunch at this point, but after struggling through the second half of the season without leading receiver Ryan Broyles, I think Jones will come back for his senior season.
His NFL stock isn't exactly peaking right now, and with Jaz Reynolds and Kenny Stills maturing to fill the role formerly occupied by Broyles, Jones will have an opportunity to lead the best passing offense in college football.
As usual, Bob Stoops is on pace for a top 10 recruiting class that will certainly net a few immediate contributors on both sides of the ball.
The biggest concern for the Sooners is on defense. Oklahoma finished 2011 ranking 55th in the FBS in yards allowed, giving up over 375 per game. That mediocre Sooners defense will have some serious rebuilding to do as it recovers from the loss of the two best players in its front seven, Travis Lewis and Frank Alexander.
If Oklahoma is able to piece together an effective defense, the schedule isn't too bad. There's one tough non-conference game, but the Notre Dame Fighting Irish will have to travel to Norman for that one. The Red River Shootout with Texas is always a toss-up, but beyond that, the Sooners should have no problem ripping through the tattered remains of the Big 12.
Alabama's statistics are a little bit better, but given that the LSU Tigers faced Oregon and West Virginia in addition to their SEC West schedule and still allowed under four yards per play, I'll give the Tigers the edge as the best defense in the nation. Unfortunately, for the rest of college football, most of that defense will be back in 2012.
Morris Claiborne is probably headed to the NFL, but Tyrann Mathieu is back, along with seven of the top eight players on an ocean-deep defensive line that finished 2011 third in the nation against the run and 13th in the country in sacks.
Les Miles' recruiting class hasn't quite come together yet, but as always, he'll end up with a solid group by the time national signing day rolls around.
LSU has been hamstrung by a weak offense in recent years, and while the offense still won't be the strength of the team, it will be improved. Whether it's transfer Zach Mettenberger or true freshman Gunner Kiel that ends up stepping in at quarterback, he'll have plenty of experienced weapons around him.
Top receivers Russell Shepard and Reuben Randle will both be back, but the running game will be the strength on offense. Four LSU running backs received more than 50 carries in 2011—all of them were freshmen or sophomores.
The schedule is tough, as it always is in the SEC, but unlike this season, LSU has no significant challenges outside of conference play.
When Matt Barkley announced that he would return for his senior season, the USC Trojans became contenders for the national title in 2012. Marqise Lee and Robert Woods are both back, giving Barkley, who is arguably the best quarterback in the nation, the best wideout tandem in America. The Trojans generated 13 pass plays of 40 yards or more in 2011. That number may well double in 2012.
Barkley's offensive line may struggle at first to adjust to the loss of All-American tackle Ryan Kalil, but with the other four starters returning, they should be just fine.
On the other side of the ball, the Trojans return most of their major defensive contributors, notably rising sophomore linebackers Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard, who tied for the team lead in tackles.
USC will have a tough Pac-12 slate, but getting Notre Dame at home makes the non-conference schedule very manageable.
Looking back on this season, it's tough not to be impressed by what what Oregon was able to accomplish. They hammered Stanford, squeaked by Wisconsin and lost only to two teams (LSU and USC) that deserve to end the season in the top five.
The scary thing is, as good as the Ducks were in 2011, they'll be better in 2012.
Darron Thomas will be back for his third year as a starter to run the most explosive offense in college football. Just how explosive was it this season?
As a team, Oregon rushed the ball 629 times and averaged an FBS-best 6.6 yards per carry. Only one player in the FBS with more than 200 carries was able to manage that many yards per carry.
That player was Oregon's own LaMichael James.
James may move on to the NFL Draft, but my gut tells me he'll come back to Eugene. He's not a prototypical NFL back; spending another season getting bigger and stronger could really help his draft stock. Yet, even if he does choose to take the next step, Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas are poised to fill the void he leaves behind.
The Duck defense won't be outstanding, but led by budding star linebacker Kiko Alonso, a unit that finished 2011 35th in yards per play should be just as good next season.
That, combined with a non-conference schedule that doesn't feature a single BCS-conference opponent adds up to a chance for another run to the title game for Chip Kelly's Ducks.
After all of the hullabaloo about this season's title game rematch, we'll have a repeat (of sorts) once again next season.
The LSU Tigers and Oregon Ducks will reprise their matchup from 2011's opening weekend in the 2012 National Championship Game.
Oregon will have the best offense. LSU will have the best defense.
Both teams have manageable schedules and can expect to begin 2012 inside the top 10.
This time, I think offense beats defense and the three-headed speed monster of James, Barner and Thomas leads Oregon to a national championship.