College Football 2012: Projecting Next Season's Top 25

Sanjay KirpalaniNational Recruiting AnalystJanuary 4, 2012

College Football 2012: Projecting Next Season's Top 25

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    Before Alabama and LSU duel for the national title on Monday night to close the book on the 2011 season, nearly every other program is beginning preparations for the upcoming fall. 

    With the surprising return of another high profile quarterback (USC’s Matt Barkley) and coach (Urban Meyer at Ohio State), there’s plenty of intriguing storylines to watch unfold in the offseason. 

    Several factors can change the course of a team from now until September (early NFL draft entries, recruiting, coaching changes, injuries, etc.), but in a sport that is becoming a year-round affair, it is never too early to take a peek into the future. 

    The SEC is assured of winning its sixth consecutive national championship after round two between the Tide and Tigers is completed, but who will emerge as the main candidate to extend the streak to seven? 

    Here’s an early glimpse at projecting next season’s top 25.  

     

25. Oklahoma State

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    This fall, the Cowboys will have a tough act to follow after the best season in school history culminated with the program’s first BCS bowl victory.  

    However, Mike Gundy will have to replace stars Justin Blackmon, Brandon Weeden and Markelle Martin.  

    Clint Chelf will get the first crack at replacing Weeden, and he has the luxury of relying on running back and touchdown machine Joseph Randle.  

    After winning the Big 12 and piercing the national landscape last season, the next step for Gundy’s program is to reload for another run.

24. Louisville

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    Charlie Strong has resurrected the Cardinals from the Steve Kragthorpe era after a pair of 7-6 seasons.  

    With West Virginia’s departure to the Big 12 possibly occurring next season, Strong’s Cardinals have a golden opportunity to seize control of the Big East. 

    Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater leads a gifted group of young skill talent that represents the transformation of their roster, thanks to the efforts on the recruiting trail by Strong and his staff.  

23. California

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    Most observers will look at Washington as the team in the Pac-12 North with the best chance to unseat the reigning conference champion Oregon Ducks.  

    Unlike the Huskies, the Bears defense has some teeth to it, even though it will have to replace six starters on that side of the ball. 

    Jeff Tedford’s offense returns six starters from an offense that steadily improved over the course of the season (evidenced by averaging 32 points a game in November.) 

    Quarterback Zach Maynard and his brother—receiver Keenan Allen—will continue to be one of the better throw-and-catch combos in the nation.

22. Auburn

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    Gene Chizik faced a tremendous rebuilding job a year after winning a national title.  

    Auburn’s youth showed, but the Tigers managed to finish strong with a 43-24 Chick-fil-A Bowl win over Virginia. 

    Chizik will welcome back 17 starters, and although one of them may not be All-SEC running back Michael Dyer, the defense should be better equipped to handle the rigors of the SEC west in 2012. 

    Considering that Auburn is currently without coordinators on both sides of the ball, the Tigers' spot in this list could fluctuate in either direction depending on the hires made by Chizik.  

21. Boise State

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    Chris Peterson will face the same dilemma that Chizik had this season, considering the exodus of talent departing Boise after consecutive 12-1 seasons.  

    Joe Southwick will get the first crack at replacing Kellen Moore (who went a ho hum 50-3 as Boise’s trigger man), but he will have a pair of outstanding receivers to throw to in Mitch Burroughs and Matt Miller. 

    With TCU’s departure from the Mountain West, the Broncos will likely be the favorite by default in their second and final season before departing for the Big East in 2013.  

20. Notre Dame

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    Despite their disheartening loss in the Champs Sports Bowl, Brian Kelly will begin year three in South Bend with the Irish’s defensive front seven ranking among the nation’s best.  

    Their case was strengthened when All-American linebacker Manti Te’o announced he is returning for his senior season.  

    Kelly will have to figure out the team’s identity crisis at quarterback—will it be Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix or Everett Golson? 

    While replacing Michael Floyd will be tough, the Irish will have plenty of skill players (tight end Tyler Eifert and running backs Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick) capable of making plays. 

    The deeper concern will be replacing two offensive linemen up front.  

19. Ohio State

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    Now that the hype surrounding the hire of Urban Meyer as its new head coach and the sanctions against them have been announced, the Buckeyes will begin their new era with 15 returning starters (nine on defense). 

    Quarterback Braxton Miller is an ideal fit for Meyer’s offensive philosophy, but retooling an offensive line that loses three starters will be his first priority.  

    Considering Meyer’s prowess on the recruiting trail, and the fact that Penn State is in transition, the table is set for the Buckeyes to build a new foundation on its way back to the top.  

18. Kansas State

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    Bill Snyder’s second act in Manhattan may be even more remarkable than his initial stint that put the Wildcats on the national map.  

    Dual-threat quarterback Collin Klein, who is a legitimate Heisman candidate, will have more eyes on him in 2012.  

    The offensive line will have to be retooled with three new starters, and the defense will build around All Big-12 linebacker Arthur Brown. 

    Depending on how things shake out around the Big 12, this could be Snyder’s best chance to get Kansas State back to their first BCS bowl since 2004.  

17. West Virginia

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    Dana Holgorson guided the Mountaineers to a Big East title and a BCS bowl berth in his first season as a head coach.  

    With the school in transition on its way into the Big 12, his previous experience in the league (he was offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State prior to arriving in Morgantown) could prove to be vital.  

    Quarterback Geno Smith will have a plethora of weapons surrounding him, including a pair of receivers (Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin) that went over 1,000 yards in 2011.  

    Replacing departing seniors Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller will be a tough task for a defense that returns six starters.  

16. Nebraska

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    Despite the transition from the Big 12 into the Big 10, Bo Pelini’s Cornhuskers are still an enigma for preseason prognosticators.  

    The ‘Huskers will return 16 starters, including offensive cornerstones quarterback Taylor Martinez and running back Rex Burkhead. 

    However, can we expect to see the team that looked impressive in routing Michigan State 24-3, or are they the team that fell flat on its face a week later in a 28-25 home loss to Northwestern? 

    This team has the talent to compete for the top spot in the Legends division, but is this finally the year that they break through?

15. TCU

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    Gary Patterson and his Horned Frogs will begin their maiden voyage into the Big 12 with 15 starters returning from an 11-2 squad that won its last eight games in 2011. 

    Quarterback Casey Pachall will have nearly all of his skill players back, but the Horned Frogs will have three new starters charged with protecting him.  

    The defense recovered from a slow start to the season to finish with a respectable unit (finished 32nd nationally in total defense) that should improve in 2012.  

    The schedule will be considerably tougher in the Big 12, but expect Patterson’s team to rise up to the challenge.  

14. Michigan State

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    Mark Dantonio’s Spartans had an amazing season capped off with their Capital One Bowl overtime win over Georgia.

    But maintaining their strong play in 2012 will be tough after losing quarterback Kirk Cousins and an outstanding receiving group led by B.J. Cunningham. 

    The Spartans will look to retool on offense, and rely on its stable of talented running backs and league’s best defense—with nine starters returning from a unit that finished fifth nationally in total defense—to carry them early on.

13. Clemson

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    The Tigers finally capitalized on a fast start out of the gate to win its first ACC title since 1991, but what will Dabo Swinney’s bunch do for an encore? 

    Offensive coordinator Chad Morris’ rookie campaign was an enormous success, and the combo of quarterback Tajh Boyd and a receiving unit highlighted by sure-fire Heisman candidate Sammy Watkins ensures that Clemson will keep scoreboard operators busy in 2012.  

    The biggest concern for the Tigers will be in the trenches, where they have to replace three starters on each side of the ball.  

12. Arkansas

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    If it were not for being stuck in a division that will produce its third consecutive national champion, more people would notice the job Bobby Petrino has done in turning the Razorbacks program around (20-5 over the last two seasons). 

    Tyler Wilson will lose a pair of dynamic receivers with the departures of Jarius Wright and Joe Adams, but the return of All-SEC running back Knile Davis should help keep Petrino’s offense humming.  

    The Hogs will have to replace five starters on defense, including defensive end Jake Bequette and secondary stalwarts Tramain Thomas and Jerico Nelson. 

    Getting LSU and Alabama at home gives Arkansas fans hope that 2012 could be their year to break through.  

11. Michigan

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    Michigan fans are still savoring the sweet taste of their Sugar Bowl win over Virginia Tech, which capped off an 11-2 season under first-year coach Brady Hoke.  

    The offensive line will need an overhaul with three starters departing, headlined by first-team All-American and Rimington Award winner David Molk.  

    But the return of Denard Robinson and a defense that brings back seven starters ensures that the Wolverines will be the favorite to emerge from the Legends division.  

    The Wolverines will find out exactly where they stand on the national scale, with the season opener coming in Dallas against SEC heavyweight Alabama.  

10. South Carolina

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    The Gamecocks capped their school-best 11-2 season by pummeling Nebraska 30-13 in the Outback Bowl.  

    Ironically, it was a bruising rushing attack and a physical defense that brought Steve Spurrier his most successful season since arriving in Columbia. 

    While junior receiver Alshon Jeffery is likely headed to the NFL, the offense will revolve around dual-threat quarterback Connor Shaw and running back Marcus Lattimore, who missed the last half of 2011 after tearing his ACL.  

    The defense could take some hits with the loss of defensive tackle Melvin Ingram and safety Antonio Allen, but 2011 uber-recruit Jadeveon Clowney will look to improve on a promising freshman campaign.  

9. Texas

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    The Longhorns overhauled their program after the 2010 debacle, and despite some rough moments, Mack Brown’s squad rallied to finish 8-5. 

    This spot may be high, but considering that they only lose one starter on offense (five total), the struggles last season could prove fruitful in 2012.  

    Quarterback David Ash will look to build on a strong performance in the 21-10 Holiday Bowl victory over Cal, with running back Malcolm Brown and receiver Marquise Goodwin helping him ignite the offense in year two under coordinator Bryan Harsin.  

    The return of stud defensive ends Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor should help the Longhorns defense—which finished 11th nationally in total defense in 2011—become one of the nation’s best.  

8. Florida State

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    After another year of unfulfilled expectations, its not hard to understand why many would be leery of believing that the Seminoles are ready to return to the level of the nation’s elite.  

    FSU lost four games by a total of 21 points, and considering the rash of injuries on offense, the Seminoles should be deep and battle tested after playing a ton of freshmen. 

    Jimbo Fisher’s squad could return as many as 17 starters that rallied for an impressive Champs Sports Bowl win over Notre Dame, including nine players on a defense that finished fourth nationally in total defense.  

    Keeping quarterback EJ Manuel healthy and continued improvement from an offensive line unit that started four true freshmen against the Irish will be key for the ‘Noles.  

7. Virginia Tech

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    The Hokies won 10 or more games for the eight consecutive season, which is currently the longest such streak in the country.  

    Frank Beamer’s squad will look to quarterback Logan Thomas—who accounted for 30 total touchdowns in his first year as a starter—to help them return to their third consecutive ACC title game.  

    The offensive line will have to find four new starters, but Bud Foster’s defense could return as many as 10 starters next season, which should find them as the favorites to claim the ACC for the fifth time since joining the league in 2004.

6. Alabama

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    Considering how much talent will depart Tuscaloosa this season, it’s a testament to the recruiting ability of Nick Saban to even consider the Crimson Tide for a spot in the top 10.  

    The defense will have to be completely overhauled, but do not expect the level of play to drop off significantly with the bevy of young studs waiting in the wings. 

    Quarterback A.J. McCarron and left tackle Barrett Jones will return to lead an offense that should still be among the best in the SEC, despite the likely loss of running back Trent Richardson. 

    Expect new stars to emerge on both sides of the ball, like running back Eddie Lacy and linebacker Nico Johnson.

5. Georgia

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    Georgia rebounded from an 0-2 start—with most of the Bulldog fanbase calling for coach Mark Richt’s head—and rallied to win the SEC Eastern division for the first time since 2005.  

    With standouts at every skill position on offense, Richt’s main concern is replacing three starters up front.  

    On defense, USC transfer Jarvis Jones wreaked havoc in his first season in Athens, and is the headliner for a unit that features eight potential returning starters. 

    In the rugged SEC, a favorable schedule could send the Bulldogs back to the SEC title game, and perhaps beyond. 

4. Oklahoma

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    When you consider that most preseason polls had the Sooners projected to play in this season’s national title game, it's safe to say that Oklahoma fell short of the expectations in 2011. 

    However, if quarterback Landry Jones decides to return, Bob Stoops’ squad could have all the ammunition it needs to make another run in 2012.  

    Up to eight starters could be back on each side of the line of scrimmage, which means the Sooners should be the overwhelming favorite in the Big 12.  

    With big-time players like receiver Kenny Stills and linebackers Tony Jefferson and Tom Wort entering their junior years as seasoned veterans, the Sooners are motivated to make up for 2011's failures next season.

3. Oregon

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    Chip Kelly and the Ducks finally were able to get their elusive first BCS bowl victory after defeating Wisconsin 45-38 in the Rose Bowl.  

    Even with the likely loss of running back LaMichael James, the Ducks will try win its fourth consecutive conference championship behind quarterback Darron Thomas and emerging star receiver DeAnthony Thomas.  

    Another factor helping Kelly’s squad is their schedule, which is noticeably softer than years past from a non-conference standpoint.  

    The showdown with fellow Pac-12 titan USC in early November could be the first of two meetings, with the winner potentially gaining a leg up for a spot in the BCS title game.  

2. USC

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    Lane Kiffin’s Trojans did not go to a bowl game this season as part of their punishment from the NCAA, but arguably no team celebrated any harder than USC after quarterback Matt Barkley announced his intention to return for his senior season.  

    Barkley’s return did not come with a trophy—at least, not yet.  

    However, his decision to delay his NFL dreams puts the Trojans in a prime position to win the Pac-12 title 

    They were the only team to defeat league champ Oregon in 2011, and the Ducks visit them in the Coliseum on Nov. 3.  

    The Trojans will have to reload on the defensive line, where three of the four starters will be new faces, but Kiffin's squad is loaded everywhere else.  

1. LSU

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    Here is a scary thought for the Tigers’ opponents in 2012: As good as they were in 2011, they could be better this fall.  

    Sure, new quarterback Zach Mettenberger will have to earn his stripes, but with stable of talented backs, receivers and offensive linemen returning, the former Georgia signal-caller will have all of the necessary tools at his disposal to be successful. 

    The defense will have to replace all three linebackers, but with the nation’s best defensive line unit returning virtually in tact, and reigning Bednarik award winner Tyrann Mathieu coming back, look for Les Miles’ squad to begin 2012 where they currently reside: No. 1.