College Football Rankings 2012: Preseason Top 25 Heading into Spring Practice

Martin Sondermann@@GamedayreporterAnalyst IIMarch 14, 2012

College Football Rankings 2012: Preseason Top 25 Heading into Spring Practice

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    The 2012 season is still five months away, but spring practice always brings some excitement and intrigue. As teams all over the county begin their workouts, diehard fans try to look for any bit of news that gives them insight into their team's condition.

    Some teams are in a time of rebuilding, while others are simply reloading for another run. At this point, expectations are high for everyone, and position battles are poised to heat up as the spring moves on.

    From this vantage point, it is not always easy to estimate the quality of every squad. Inevitably, when the season commences and progresses, some will fail to meet the standards they set for themselves and the expectations of their loyal fan base.

    However, there are always those inspiring stories that make their way to the forefront. It seems every season there is at least a team or two that come out of nowhere and perform at surprising levels.

    While it is impossible to know who that might be right now, we can at least attempt to gaze into the proverbial crystal ball, hoping to gain a glimpse of what might occur.

    Let's look at the preseason Top 25 heading into spring practice.

No. 25: North Carolina State

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    North Carolina State will be a good team. Mike Glennon will return at quarterback. All he did last season was throw for 3,054 yards and 31 touchdowns. Of course, he will be without a few key receivers, but don't expect that to slow him down.

    NC State will also return much of its defense from last year. Seven starters will be back, and with some solid backups stepping up, you can expect their defense to be strong.

    They start the 2012 season against Tennessee in the Georgia Dome, a game that they should win easily. That game is followed by games at Connecticut and home against South Alabama and The Citadel, before they face Miami at Sun Life Stadium.

    Going into the Miami game, they will probably be 4-0, but the Hurricanes game will tell them where they are at as a team. If they win that one, watch out. Florida State at home would be next. With the confidence of a 5-0 Wolfpack team, the Seminoles game would be a great collision of two ranked teams.

    Look for NC State to compete for the ACC title in 2012. Will they win it? Maybe not, but they will certainly not go down without a fight.

No. 24: Louisville

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    In 2011, the Cardinals almost did it. They shared the Big East title, but didn't play in the Orange Bowl because of the tiebreaker. Still, at 7-6 as an overall record, it probably did them and the Big East some good not to be the team representative for the conference in the BCS.

    Look for Louisville to improve from last year's squad and be able to contend for an outright Big East title in 2012. It will be a little easier because of the loss of West Virginia to the Big 12, but it remains challenging to take home the title.

    Last season, the Cardinals had a lot of young faces in starting roles, and most of their core is coming back. It should be a good season for coach Strong and his team.

No. 23: Virginia Tech

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    Virginia Tech will once again be fighting for an ACC title. So what's new? Many people thought the Hokies would have a down year in 2011, but they went 11-3. Not bad for a rebuilding season.

    In 2012, VT will bring back much of their defense, which is a pretty good foundation to build upon. Their quarterback will also be returning, but the rest of the skill positions are vacant. It will be interesting to see who steps up.

    They have an average schedule with only a couple of games that may give them trouble. Miami and Clemson both should play the Hokies strong, but aside from that, look for Virginia Tech to win a lot of football games.

    2012 should be another good year for Virginia Tech.

No. 22: Oklahoma State

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    Oklahoma State will enter 2012 without quarterback Brandon Weeden and best receiver Justin Blackmon. These two individuals will be difficult to replace, but look for coach Gundy to find a way.

    It will be difficult for the Cowboys to take home a Big 12 title, and with West Virginia and TCU entering the mix, the job just got a bit tougher.

    The defense is where the experience returns. Eight starters and some key backups will be on the field in 2012 for the Cowboys. This should make them competitive in every game, but that may not be enough.

    Expect Oklahoma State to lose at least four games in 2012, and all of them will be in the Big 12. Texas, TCU, Kansas State and West Virginia will probably be those four losses. However, look for them to upset the Sooners.

    Too early to predict? Maybe, but we shall see.

No. 21: Stanford

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    Stanford runs out of luck in 2012. Stanford won't be as lucky next season. Stanford's luck has run out. Stanford will need luck to win in 2012. Stanford will suffer from the luck of the draw. Okay, that last one was a stretch, but it is important to get all the horrible Andrew Luck sayings out of the way now.

    It will be a much different Stanford Cardinal team in 2012. Look for Brett Nottingham to win the starting job at quarterback. He is a considerable talent, and while he is no Andrew Luck, he has the potential to be something special for the Cardinal.

    Stanford has a good number of players coming back, especially on the defensive side of the ball. They will need to play some stellar "D" if they want to compete in the Pac-12. USC and Oregon stand ready to break scoreboards, and there will need to be some serious defense played to have a chance of beating both those teams.

    In the end, it may be too much to ask the 2012 Stanford squad. Oregon and USC will probably be losses on the schedule. Beyond that, however, they should have a chance in every game.

No. 20: Boise State

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    Boise State lost more starters than any other team in the FBS. So how are they still considered a Top 25 team in 2012? That answer is simple: coach Petersen.

    Chris Petersen is one of the best coaches in the nation, and 2012 could be his biggest challenge since taking over the team in 2006. Gone are Kellen Moore, Doug Martin and most of the defense. In total, he will have to replace 15 starters from a team that won 50 games over the past four seasons.

    Still, the Broncos may not have a huge number of starters coming back, but they do have 26 seniors on the 2012 squad. Many of those players have game-time experience, and many of the holes in the defense will be filled with good talent.

    As far as the quarterback spot goes, Joe Southwick is poised to take over. He may not be Kellen Moore, but he doesn't have to be. Expect the Bronco offense to look much different in 2012. It will have elements of an option and wildcat included in its normal pass-and-go attack.

    Three games loom large on BSU's schedule for 2012. The opener on the road at Michigan State and the BYU matchup at home are the two big games early on that could set the pace of the Boise State season. BSU then finishes the year in Reno, a place that is still painful for the Broncos' faithful.

    Look for Chris Petersen to have his team ready. They may not have a perfect year, but they should have a good one. They have a great chance of winning the Mountain West in their last year in the conference.

No. 19: Wisconsin

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    Wisconsin has a good football team, don't ya know? The last couple of seasons have been amazing for the Badgers, but their Big Ten championship run might be over.

    It will be an extremely challenging year for Wisconsin as they try to rebuild without several assistant coaches and the loss of 11 starters.

    Montee "The Monster" Ball will be back to tear it up, and you can expect a run-heavy offense to pound some skulls in 2012.

    Wisconsin will not go down without a fight, and it will be interesting to see some of those Big Ten games when spit, snot and dirt go flying.

    Look for Wisconsin to make it difficult for any team in 2012.

No. 18: Notre Dame

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    It might be the year of the Irish. Don't we hear that every year? And every year, aren't Notre Dame fans usually disappointed?

    It is hard to predict whether Notre Dame will have a good season, but in 2012, they just might.

    With the talent that coach Kelly acquired and the players he will have coming back, the Irish have no reason not to be optimistic.

    The quarterback battle will be key for the Irish, and if they can produce a reliable option behind center, opposing teams may be in trouble.

    The schedule will be challenging in 2012, with Oklahoma, Michigan State and Michigan back-to-back, Miami, Stanford, BYU and USC in Los Angeles to finish the year. It will certainly be a hard task to win every one of those games.

    However, they open the year in Ireland against Navy, so look for the luck of the Irish to be with them in 2012.

No. 17: Texas

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    Texas has been climbing back the last two seasons, and in 2012, they are probably going to rise even higher.

    An 8-5 year is better than the previous year, but still not acceptable in Longhorn land. Quarterback is key for Texas, as it is for many teams.

    However, it may be much more important for the Longhorns in 2012. The offense needs a solid leader, and Case McCoy or David Ash will need to fill that role.

    Springtime brings hope and optimism. In Texas, however, it brings a fierce competition at quarterback.

    The defense has some decent talent returning, and you can expect them to continue to shine next season. Look for the Longhorns to contend for the Big 12 title on the back of the defense.

No. 16: Ohio State

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    It is really too bad that Ohio State didn't take that bowl ban last season. It would have been the smartest thing to do, considering the talent they have coming back.

    Expect the Buckeyes to play spoiler in 2012. New coach, what's his name? Oh yeah, Urban Meyer. In any case, Mr. Meyer will undoubtedly have his team ready to play some serious football.

    With nothing to lose, Ohio State has everything to gain. Look for them to win some key games that cause problems for other teams.

No. 15: Michigan State

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    Michigan State will be solid on defense once again.

    On offense, the Spartans have their work cut out for them. Kirk Cousins is gone and with him, most of the receiving corps. Tailback Le'Veon Bell will be back, and you can expect a run-first offense early on.

    Boise State will be a challenge on opening day, and it only gets harder from there. Games against Notre Dame and Ohio State loom large in the first half of the season. Those three games will dictate how the rest of the Spartans' season unfolds.

    They will need some confidence going into the second half of the year because they play Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska in consecutive weeks.

    In the end, the schedule and loss of talent might prove too much for the Spartans.

No. 14: Kansas State

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    Kansas State was a nice surprise in 2011. They won't sneak up on anyone in 2012.

    The Wildcats have a lot of talent coming back for 2012. Their quarterback, running back, and top receivers will all return. That potent offense should continue to frustrate opponents and wow crowds.

    On defense, they lost a bit, but Arthur Brown will be back, and a few other key players are enough of a foundation to build upon.

    Look for Kansas State to give everyone a run for their money. They will contend for the Big 12 title, but they will be one of at least four teams with a legitimate shot at winning it.

    Kansas State will be fun to watch.

No. 13: Nebraska

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    The Cornhuskers can't ever be ignored. You can try, but Nebraska fans are just too loud to miss. Over the years, they have proved that football is very important to them, and by "very important," I mean crazed obsession.

    College football wouldn't be the same without Nebraska and its fans. It is not hard to imagine the entire state closing its borders at game time. The in-state corn crop probably stops growing when Nebraska takes the field.

    In 2012, Nebraska has revenge on their minds, and they just might get it. After being embarrassed by Wisconsin last year, you can expect the Cornhuskers to serve up some badger this year.

    Still, they will need some better play from their offense if they expect to be in the Big Ten title chase. Not only that, but coach Pelini will need to do something special in 2012 if he wants to stifle the grumbles of impatient skeptics.

    Not to jump the gun, but this just might be the year he does it.

No. 12: Florida State

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    Florida State will be better than they have been in a while. In 2012, the Seminoles are poised to make some serious noise.

    If they can stay healthy, they should prove a nightmare for opposing teams.

    Look for FSU to build their entire team around an amazing defense. With considerable talent coming back, this Seminoles team is going to wreak havoc on offenses.

    There are nine starters returning on defense, including a secondary that could be tops in the nation in 2012.

    Of course, if they truly want to take it to the next level, they are going to have to produce on offense.

    They will contend for the ACC title, but they could be even better than that if they can solve their offensive riddle.

No. 11: Oklahoma

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    It seems like every year, the Sooners begin ranked high in every poll, and every year, they prove to be overrated by midseason. Last year, they started No.1 in many polls and finished 10-3 and ranked 14th in the BCS.

    Some might criticize a No.11 ranking this year as being too low for Oklahoma, but if history has any relevance, you know that No.11 is just fine.

    Not only that, but the Big 12 just got more difficult. TCU and West Virginia are looking to make a great first impression. Don't be surprised if those two teams finish first and second, respectively, in the conference.

    Oklahoma will have their work cut out for them. They will have their quarterback returning, but Ryan Broyles is gone. However, other key offensive players will be back, and moving the ball probably won't be the issue.

    Defense will be more of a challenge to rebuild, and they will need some serious defense to shut down the Horned Frogs and Mountaineers.

No. 10: Arkansas

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    If Arkansas was in any other conference, they would be a favorite to win it. However, they play in the SEC.

    Look for the Razorbacks to do all they can in 2012 to get over the hump. They do have 14 starters returning in 2012, and that should give them the foundation they need to be competitive in every contest.

    The key games on their schedule are home against Alabama, at Texas A&M, at Auburn, at South Carolina and home against LSU. Talk about strength of schedule.

    Will it be another "almost" year for the Razorbacks? Who knows? But, it will be fun to watch.

No. 9: TCU

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    TCU is going to surprise some folks in 2012. Yes, they have had to overcome some adversity lately because of a drug scandal on campus, but coach Patterson knows how to handle adversity. He will have his team ready to play.

    Last season, no one expected TCU to go 11-2 after losing so many key starters from the previous year. However, they did it, and you can expect that kind of success to continue in 2012.

    The Horned Frogs would be the favorite to win the Big 12 if it weren't for the other new kid on the block, West Virginia. Look for those two teams to battle it out for the title.

    TCU's offense is in great shape. They can expect to light it up in 2012. It would be surprising if they aren't a Top 10 offense.

    On defense, they lose Tank Carder along with a few defensive linemen, but there are very talented players just waiting to get their shot.

    TCU is going to be impressive in their first year in the Big 12.

No. 8: West Virginia

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    West Virginia will hop over to the Big 12 in 2012. It is going to bring some intriguing matchups for sure.

    If you watched the Orange Bowl last season, you know how good the Mountaineers can be. Quarterback Geno Smith will return along with nearly every other player from last year's offense.

    This is the same team that scored 70 against Clemson in a BCS game.

    The defense is in great shape as well. They will only have to replace four starters, and that shouldn't be a problem.

    Look for this West Virginia team to create serious waves in the Big 12. The old saying goes, "Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it". Well, in the case of the Big 12, you asked for WVU to join.

    It will be an exciting year for West Virginia, and they have extra motivation to make a BCS game. It cost them a pretty penny to leave the Big East early, and they could use the cash.

No. 7: Michigan

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    Michigan had an impressive 2011 season, but 2012 might be even better.

    Quarterback Denard Robinson returns along with almost every other key offensive player. Look for them to score early and often all season long.

    On defense, the Wolverines are also in good shape. After a serious overhaul in 2011, the Michigan "D" will continue to have success in 2012.

    The schedule is a tough one, however, and it starts with the opener in Dallas against the Alabama Crimson Tide. Not sure who thought that was a good idea, but it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

    Michigan is in a good position to take that game, and if they do, watch out.

    They also have to travel to Notre Dame and Nebraska. Both of those games will be challenging, but again, they have the talent to handle it.

    The Ohio State game at the end of the year will be interesting as well. The Buckeyes will look to play spoiler, and it is at Ohio Stadium, so you never know.

    Look for Michigan to be in the national-title picture this year if they get by Alabama in Week 1.

No. 6: South Carolina

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    Seriously, another SEC team? Yes, and a good one at that.

    The return of Marcus Lattimore could spell trouble for many of the teams on the Gamecocks' schedule. Not only that, but they return nearly every other player from an impressive offense last season.

    They will need to fill some holes on defense, but if they do, watch out.

    Their schedule is daunting, but they do have some of their toughest opponents at home. Missouri, Georgia and Arkansas all must come to Williams-Brice Stadium to face South Carolina. The Gamecocks will still have to travel to LSU and Clemson, however.

    The strength of the offense is what gives them such a high preseason slot, but if they fail at putting together a solid defense, it may all fall apart.

    Don't count on the Gamecocks falling apart in 2012.

No. 5: Alabama

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    Alabama should have to sit out this year just to make it fair. But, they won't and that's okay.

    All they did in 2011 was win a national championship, so how do they top that? They don't.

    Look for a mild letdown in 2012. Trent Richardson will be missed, as will many other offensive starters. In total, the Crimson Tide lose seven starters from last year's offense. They have the talent to replace those players, but it is anyone's guess as to how good they will be.

    On defense, they also lost seven. This might be an easier rebuilding process for coach Saban than the offensive side of the ball, considering all the defensive talent he has stacked up. You could probably take the Alabama second string from last year and win several conferences in college football.

    Still, it will be a year of lowered expectations for Alabama fans, and that is just fine with the rest of the nation.

No. 4: Georgia

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    Last season, after losses to Boise State and South Carolina, many Georgia fans were calling for the firing of Mark Richt.

    However, Bulldogs fans should do a little soul searching.

    Mark Richt is a good man and a great coach. It is hard to believe that there could be a better fit for Georgia.

    Coach Richt's team is poised for a great season in 2012. They return several starters on both sides of the ball.

    There is not a game on the regular-season schedule that the Bulldogs can't win.

    Look for them to play for the SEC title, and who knows, they may even win it. If they do, any Georgia fan who called for the firing of coach Richt last year should be forced to submit a handwritten apology letter.

    Georgia may play for it all in 2012.

No. 3: Oregon

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    Oregon started the 2011 season playing LSU. This year, they open with Arkansas State. I would say someone has learned a valuable lesson.

    In fact, the first three games for the Ducks are Arkansas State, Fresno State and Tennessee Tech. Expect Oregon to be 3-0 by the time they play Arizona in Week 4.

    The schedule is actually good for the Ducks all the way until they hit USC. They play at Los Angeles, and that game will be electric.

    The other game that could bring trouble, believe it or not, is the Oregon State game the last week of the season. The Beavers will be much improved, and the Civil War game is always a battle. This year, the Ducks must go to Corvallis for the fight.

    Look for the Ducks to fly high in 2012, but don't expect them to take down the Trojans.

No. 2: LSU

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    LSU is going to be back in the title mix for 2012.

    They have another tough upcoming schedule, but nothing compared to last year. They will return seven starters on both sides of the ball, and that should be enough to give opposing teams nightmares.

    You have to take your hat off to Les Miles. The man knows how to put together a football team.

    Look for LSU to have a rematch with Georgia in the SEC title game. However, in 2012, you may have a different result.

    LSU probably won't play for the national title in 2012, but if they do, no one will be surprised.

No. 1: USC

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    There is one big reason USC makes the top ranking on this list. That one big reason is named Matt Barkley.

    As soon as it was announced that Barkley would return, a collective sigh could be heard from opposing defenses all over the land.

    Barkley won't be alone, either. There are nine starters on offense coming back with him.

    Not only that, but nine starters on defense return as well.

    It doesn't seem anyone in the Pac-12 can shut down the Trojans, at least on paper.

    They open the season at home against Hawaii and then Syracuse. They follow that up with a trip to Stanford and then back home to face Cal. All of those games are very winnable, and by the time they face Utah on Oct. 4, they should be 4-0.

    They play Utah and Washington on the road in back-to-back weeks, and both have the potential of being trap games. Then, Colorado at home, Arizona on the road and Oregon back at home. That Oregon contest should be a great one.

    Arizona State at home next, then at UCLA. They finish up with Notre Dame at home, another must see game.

    Then, the Pac-12 title game and who knows...maybe an appearance in the BCS National Championship Game.

    One thing is for sure, these Trojans won't be sneaking up on anyone.