How early is too early?
Seriously, now that national signing day has passed and we know who has declared for the upcoming NFL draft, what is stopping us from beginning to predict which college football teams will be tops in 2012?
Yes, spring practice, spring games and fall practice lay between us and next season, but other than these and perhaps some yet unknown drama and scandal, we have a pretty good idea of who will be suiting up and hitting the field in September.
So why not post an early (but perhaps not too early) listing of the Top 25 teams for 2012?
Why not boldly look at returning starters, recruiting stats and last year's performances to gauge who is who in the campaign that lay deliciously ahead?
The following slideshow, for your pleasure, ranks the Top 25 teams for next season and, if nothing else, provides us with a lot to think about and perhaps even more to argue, discuss and fall out over.
Though on the surface it's easy to argue that the Cowboys belong higher in our inaugural rankings, the personnel hits to a prolific offense make Oklahoma State's future sketchy.
The Cowboys' No. 2-ranked scoring offense loses QB Brandon Weeden, WR Justin Blackmon and three key offensive linemen, while their No. 61-ranked scoring defense returns eight starters.
The big question in Stillwater is, can a defense that ranked No. 90 against the run and No. 107 against the pass in 2011 buy time for an offense that will need some time to be rebuilt?
Virginia Tech is another team that will be revamping an offense, but unlike Oklahoma State, it has the benefit of returning nine starters to what was a prolific defense in 2011.
Yes, gone is freak-like RB David Wilson, four offensive linemen and a couple of receivers, but coming back is the heart of a defense that ranked No. 7 nationally in scoring.
If the Hokies can find a way to score points, they'll move up the rankings in short order.
Really, Clemson's No. 23 ranking has very little to do with the disturbing 70-33 Orange Bowl debacle and more to do with who is coming back in 2012 (and who is not).
The Tigers return 14 starters from their ACC championship product, and among the biggest losses are four offensive linemen and a chunk of a defense that ranked No. 81 nationally in scoring in 2011.
If they can fill a myriad of holes this season, Clemson will be good, but with top 20 recruiting classes in 2010, 2011 and 2012, the Tigers' title dreams could come true in 2013 and especially in 2014.
Placing the Gators in the Top 25 may seem risky at best, but it's my opinion that omitting Florida could easily be labeled irresponsible and negligent.
Well, despite Florida's very non-Florida-like performance in 2011, the Gators return 18 starters in 2012, which ranks No. 8 nationally and No. 2 in the SEC.
And this is a team that will be led by a recruiting class that ranked No. 11 nationally in 2009 (the seniors, technically), No. 2 in 2010 (the juniors), No. 12 in 2011 (the sophomores) and No. 3 in 2012 (the freshmen).
They're fast, they're stacked, they're talented and, if they can get their sputtering offense moving, they should win a bunch of games.
Will Muschamp has all the pieces of the puzzle on the card table, and if he can't put them together, it may get more than humid down in The Swamp.
According to the numbers, Kansas State shouldn't be ranked this high in any Top 25.
But, according to the same type of data coming into the 2011 season, the Wildcats absolutely wouldn't have been able to pull off a second-place finish in the Big 12, a 10-3 record, a Cotton Bowl invitation AND ranked No. 15 in the final AP poll—which is precisely what Bill Snyder and friends did last season.
Back on campus in 2012 are QB Collin Klein (who should be a dark-horse Heisman candidate) and 18 starters (No. 2 nationally), but gone is most of the offensive line, which is alarming for a team that ranked No. 29 in rushing yards last season.
Kansas State might be primed to repeat their successes in 2012, but the truth is these guys haven't had a Top 50 recruiting class (according to Rivals.com) in four years.
All this means is, from a purely talent pool standpoint, K-State can't compete with the likes of Oklahoma, Texas and even Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, which doesn’t mean they don't belong in the Top 25—it just means it will be harder to hang in there.
Other prognosticators are going to place Wisconsin higher up in their rankings, but realistically No. 20 is generous for the back-to-back Big Ten champs.
Yes, RB Montee Ball is back, but overall the Badgers return only 10 starters in 2012, which nets them the No. 116 spot nationally.
And not only is most of the team gone, but so is a huge chunk of the coaching staff, who has sailed to sunnier shores.
Wisconsin won't necessarily be a bad team in 2012, but their youth will cause them to struggle mightily to repeat as top dogs in the Big Ten.
The Badgers' recruiting numbers can't touch those of Ohio State and Michigan, which means it will be harder to overcome this youth and fill the holes made by the natural process of attrition.
Though the Horned Frogs don't lose a bunch of skill position players coming into 2012 (especially offensively), overall they return only 13 starters, earning them the No. 9 rank in the Big 12 (which only has 10 teams) and the No. 81 spot nationally.
This attrition, combined with a seriously amped up level of competition given the switch from the Mountain West to the Big 12, means that TCU might be at risk to fall from grace early.
Gary Patterson has proven again and again that he can rebuild, fill holes and still win at an alarming rate, but the truth is the task will be more difficult in 2012.
You'll no doubt find TCU has a Top 15 slot in other rankings, but the truth is the numbers don't support such a high ranking. Piled on top of this reality is the Frogs' new conference home, which will make retaining lofty expectations a huge challenge.
I remember seeing Auburn in last season’s preseason Top 25 rankings and shaking my head in disgust.
Indeed, how could you rank a team in the Top 15 (regardless of the National Championship trophy) that returned fewer starters than any team in the nation?
But in reality the young 2011 Auburn Tigers proved my assumptions wrong by going 8-5 in the toughest conference and division in college football.
Yes, gone for 2012 are both coordinators and some talented players, but back are 18 total starters (No. 8 nationally and No. 2 in the SEC) from a team that showed as much heart as anybody did last season.
Auburn has recruited classes worthy of top 20 recognition in each of the last four seasons, and at the end of the day, the Tigers are the most overlooked team in a conference that nobody can afford to overlook.
The Irish are a team that once again has all the pieces in place to finally hit double-digit wins for the first time since 2006.
And though the 2012 team doesn't shine quite as brightly as the 2011 preseason product did (or the new helmets do), it's hard to argue the fact that they should be a solid team.
Notre Dame returns 15 starters this season from a team that, last year, was a bunch of turnovers away from easily winning 10 or more games.
Yes, they need a real starting QB, but the Irish have scored top 20 recruiting classes over the last four years, which means the talent is there.
All Notre Dame requires is someone to orchestrate all the talent into a winning football team, and one of the best guys in the country to do that is supposed to be Brian Kelly.
Kelly, like Muschamp at Florida, Dooley at Tennessee and others, has 2012 as his critical proving season.
In 2012, the singular Cardinal will begin life without Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck—and they'll probably just keep winning.
Stanford returns 14 starters from the 11-win 2011 team, and even though their No. 5 2012 recruiting class may not make an immediate impact, don't forget that the guys who are technically seniors were ranked No. 20 as recruits, and the group who are juniors where No. 26.
Stanford may not win the Pac-12 in 2012, but they'll make it more difficult for an opponent to do so. Moving forward, the Cardinal could be scary good in 2013 and 2014.
Michigan State has been flying under the radar for so long that it's hard to imagine anyone outside of East Lansing picking up their strong signal.
But after back-to-back 11-win seasons, 2012 might finally be the year that the Spartans exhale and have to rebuild just a bit.
Michigan State returns 14 starters this season, but is without QB Kirk Cousins and most of the receiving corps.
The good news is, with the exception of DT Jerel Worthy, most of the No. 10-ranked scoring defense in the land is back.
The truth is old Sparty will have to find a way to score points to beat the best of the Big Ten, and though the defense will provide some cover, this may be a year that Michigan State is still good but not great.
The Huskers have won 38 games in Bo Pelini's four seasons in Lincoln, which leaves you wondering when they will break through to the championship level.
Yes, nine and 10 wins are good stuff, but when do the Children of the Corn start becoming regulars at the BCS party?
In 2012, Nebraska returns 16 total starters (tying them for No. 29 nationally), but will have to replace three offensive linemen, which will be key for a team that ranked No. 15 nationally in rushing yards in 2011.
The Huskers' title dreams may come down to QB play and making improvements to their No. 64-ranked rush-defense, which needs to be further tweaked to be successful in the more run-oriented Big Ten (as opposed to their old pass-happy lovers in the Big 12).
Like Florida making an appearance at No. 22 on our list, many will bemoan Texas' appearance among the Top 25 teams in the land—a feeling of disgust that is likely exasperated by a Top 15 mention.
The truth is Texas could be much higher, and if they sort out their QB issues, they're suddenly a Top 10 team.
The Longhorns return a whopping 17 starters in 2012, and if you're into scary stats, take a look at how their classes ranked when recruited.
Those who are technically seniors were part of the No. 5-ranked recruiting class, the juniors were No. 3, the sophomores also garnered the No. 3 spot and, finally, the Class of 2012 was ranked No. 2.
Texas may not have played up to monumental expectations for two years, but saying they are not one of the most talented teams in the nation would be flat-out ridiculous.
And I'm talking Alabama-caliber talent.
So it all comes down, again, to whether or not Mack Brown and his band of coaches can find a way to produce a beautiful symphony by successfully combining the talents of some of the most talented musicians in the world.
South Carolina doesn't necessarily have the "wow" factor that some of the other teams in our rankings do, but they, once again, quietly have the potential to break through and win a first-ever SEC title.
If RB Marcus Lattimore returns healthy and QB Connor Shaw continues to improve, the Gamecocks' offense should do nothing but improve—which leaves concerns on the other side of the ball.
Defense is where South Carolina shone the brightest in 2011. Last season, the Gamecocks' D ranked No. 10 nationally in scoring, No. 45 against the run and No. 2 against the pass.
This makes replacing five defensive starters look scary, especially when two of those are CB Stephon Gilmore and DE Melvin Ingram.
Overall, 14 come back to campus for South Carolina, a group whose fortunes are greatly increased by recruiting classes that ranked No. 12 in 2009, No. 24 in 2010, No. 18 in 2011 and No. 19 in 2012.
And, as a bonus, these guys don't have a huge question mark staring them down from a coaching standpoint.
So, is West Virginia the team that throttled Clemson in the Orange Bowl, or are these the same guys that barely beat Cincinnati, Pitt and USF, and then lost to Louisville and Syracuse (um—49-23)?
Yes, does leaving the previous season in style amount to entering the next as a dominant force?
On the plus side, the Mountaineers return 16 starters total, most of the offensive firepower and six guys on a defense that managed to do its part.
On the debit side, you've got the need to improve on a No. 92 rushing offense from last season. Add to that the fact that West Virginia is now going to play in the Big 12, where the competition is stiffer than the Big East and where they'll be more familiar with getting assaulted through the air.
I think this all adds up to the Mountaineers having great reason to be optimistic, but it's a bright future mentality that needs to be toned down with a dose of reality.
And this is why they aren't in our Top 10.
Oregon is a team that you're likely to see ranked higher in other early Top 25 listings, but the truth is they could arguably be placed even lower than the edge of the Top 10.
Yes, Chip Kelly has done a great job reloading at Oregon, but he returns a mere 13 starters (and no Darron Thomas) from last season.
And this is a number that gives the Ducks a tie for the No. 81 spot nationally in terms of returners and No. 9 in the Pac-12.
Oregon is oozing with talent,—that's irrefutable—but only six starters return to a defense that ranked No. 52 in scoring, No. 54 against the run and No. 88 against the pass.
And we're not talking about whether this team should be in the Top 25—we're discussing their place in the Top 10.
The Ducks will be good in 2012, the question is, will they be as good as they were in 2010 and 2011?
Like USC in 2011, the 2012 Ohio State Buckeyes may not be eligible for postseason play or championships, but they will be eligible to win football games.
And they will be eligible to be ranked in the AP poll, where they may be ranked quite high.
As disastrous as the Buckeyes' 2011 campaign was, the 2012 season lines up to be a beaut (minus any postseason play, or rings, or trophies).
Ohio State returns 18 starters (tied for No. 2 nationally) and a whopping nine to a defensive unit that ranked No. 27 in scoring in 2011.
Another intriguing facet of the '12 Bucks squad is the fact that they are led (again, technically) by a senior class that ranked No. 3 in the land back when they were recruited in 2009.
Add in the momentum that only a new, highly touted, successful coach can bring, and the silver lining of the banned season that brings with it an attitude that could lead to playing with wild abandonment (zero pressure), and you've got a strong case that Ohio State is 2012's version of the 2011 USC Trojans.
And, therefore, don't be surprised when Ohio State returns to the heights of the preseason Top Five coming into 2013.
Though the No. 8 slot in our prestigious rankings is a little high for my taste, the Razorbacks' continued improvement and success (regardless of the variables) is hard to argue.
Throw in 14 returning starters to a team that did everything but run well and stop the run effectively in 2011, and you've got good reason for optimism.
Yes, this is a team that managed 11 wins in 2011 in the toughest arena in college football. Concerns for Arkansas coming into 2012 regard attrition at wide receiver and successfully filling key losses to a defense that simply didn't play to the championship level that Alabama and LSU did last season.
Bobby Petrino makes Arkansas a hard team to bet against; they just get it done, and there is no reason to think they won't do it again in 2012.
The problem is that the margin for error is so very slim in the SEC West that even the slightest misstep could cost you a double-digit win season or more.
The big question about the Seminoles coming into 2012 is, can they manage to finally meet the huge expectations they lived under last season this year?
Yes—at minimum, can Florida State capture an ACC Atlantic crown, and can then they win the conference and finally find their way back to the BCS?
The 2012 'Noles return 15 total starters and eight to a defense that ranked a eye-popping No. 4 last season in scoring, a tremendous No. 2 in rush-defense and No. 20 in pass-defense.
And, if its excess talent stockpiled all over the place is the key to winning it all, Florida State has all the stacks you want.
The Seminoles will be led on field by the No. 7 recruiting class of 2009, the No. 10 class of 2010, the No. 2 class of 2011 and the No. 6 class of 2012.
Like Texas, this is a team that has as much talent as almost any other team in the country (ala LSU and Alabama).
The biggest concern for Florida State in terms of fulfilling a field of dreams is improving a running game that ranked a dismal No. 104 nationally in 2011.
If they can run—watch out.
At No. 6, Michigan is sure to raise a few eyebrows, but this is a team that returns 16 starters from an 11-win team and has an astonishing pool of talent to work with.
With all the upheaval at Michigan in the last several years, it may be surprising to note that the 2012 Wolverines are made up of the No. 8 recruiting class of 2009, the No. 20 class of 2010, the No. 21 group from 2011 and now the incoming No. 7-ranked class from this year.
And though you might not be surprised to learn that Michigan finished last season ranked No. 26 in offensive scoring, you'll likely be shocked that they ranked No. 6 in scoring defense—a stat that illustrates just how successful the resistance improvement was in Ann Arbor vs. the dismal showing in 2010.
The Wolverines' primary attrition concerns will be regarding losses on the line both offensively and defensively, but again, there is no shortage of talent to fill gaps in the land of the Blue and Maize.
After salvaging the 2011 season with a very fine 10-4 record and an SEC East crown, all the stars have finally aligned for Georgia to make a serious run in 2012.
A full 15 key starters return for the Bulldogs, including nine defenders who anchored a Georgia defense that ranked No. 23 in scoring, No. 11 in stopping the run and No. 10 in pass-defense.
Add to that a "deep and wide" talent pool that is led by a senior class that garnered the No. 6 recruiting ranking in 2009, juniors who ranked No. 15 in 2010, sophomores who sport a No. 5 rating from 2011 and you've got some serious firepower.
Like Mack Brown (without the national title), 2012 will be a great year to see if Mark Richt still has what it takes to take a team to the BCS.
After an uninspiring finish to what was supposed to be "the year" in 2011, it's hard to have complete faith that the Sooners will return to dominance in 2012.
But, despite all feelings to the contrary, Oklahoma is once again stacked. Seventeen starters return, which includes many of the skill positions, but does not include two key defensive ends.
Yes, QB Landry Jones looked less effective after Ryan Broyles got hurt last season, but this is still a team that recruits in the top 15 year in and year out, and will definitely be within striking distance of the big prize.
Looming question marks for Oklahoma include revamping a rushing attack that ranked No. 50 nationally last season and a pass-defense that dropped all the way to No. 79 in 2011.
With West Virginia coming along with the other pass-happy U's, it's an issue worth worrying yourself about.
I think Alabama at No. 3 might be a bit of a stretch, but that fact has nothing to do with how talented they are.
Yes, the Tide are flat-out oozing with talent and come into 2012 with the No. 1 ranked recruiting class from 2009, the No. 5 group from 2010, the No. 1 group from 2011 and, yes, the No. 1 class of 2012.
But, this is still a team that returns only 13 starters, which puts them at No. 11 in the SEC and No. 81 nationally.
Most concerning is only four starters are coming back from what was, across the board, the best defense in the land in 2011 (and probably one of the most dominant D's in college football history).
All this and still Alabama is No. 3.
Yes, all of this logic, and the Tide could still win it all—again.
So, what's next for the grass-chomping Les Miles and crew?
Can they wash out the ugly taste in their mouths caused by the thud of their team hitting the wall in the National Championship Game in January?
Yes, can they forget the only thing that could have made their magical 13-0 run seem worthless, insignificant and unsatisfying?
Well, yes, they can.
The Bayou Bengals return 14 starters in 2012 and will enjoy having at least one guy on the team who has started at each position, with the exception of QB.
And some people will say that the QB attrition is a good thing.
LSU again has the talent to make a run back up the charts right now.
But it won't be easy.
Though SEC fans will be miffed and Lane Kiffin haters will cry foul, USC has the most complete team, on paper, coming into 2012.
The Trojans return a whopping 17 starters from their 10-win team in 2011 that did everything well except defend the pass, which they did poorly to the tune of being ranked No. 102 in the land.
And what about talent?
Yes, how have the Men of Troy managed to recruit amid sanctions, coaching change and scandal?
Well, try on for size the No. 4 class of 2009 (technically the senior class), the No. 1 class of 2010 (juniors), the No. 4 group from 2011 (sophomores) and the No. 8 class from this past signing day.
The 2012 USC Trojans have all the makings of a great football team, but it will be interesting to see how they play now that it's for keeps.
Yes, with the shading factor of the postseason ban off, and the pressure and expectations back in full force in Troy, winning won't be just a welcome relief—it will be expected en mass.
Folks, we're about to see if Lane Kiffin can coach college football or not.
Of course, it's not all riding on him, and the guy with the whistle only has so much impact. Still, the visor-wearing Kiffin will have a lot of answering to do if USC is not a legit contender in 2012.