College Football 2012 Predictions: 9 Unranked Teams That End Up in the Top 25
It's difficult to say which unranked teams will end up ranked at the end of the season, given that the preseason rankings haven't come out yet.
Of course, it's easy enough to project the 2012 preseason rankings.
Take the rankings at the end of last season, shake out some of the anomalies such as Southern Miss, Houston and Cincinnati and replace them with potential anomalies for this season. If there are any spots left over, add blue bloods that had a weak 2011, but look promising for 2012. For example, Texas or Ohio State. Finally, mix in a bit of Notre Dame and you've got the 2012 preseason rankings.
However, I'm not going to make that projection.
I am looking at the end-of-last-season AP rankings. Any team that was not on them, for my purposes, is considered unranked.
Based on that, which teams that ended 2011 unranked will find themselves in the Top 25 at the end of 2012?
2011 Record: 5-7
I'm not sold on Derek Dooley, but if he is to make a splash as the head coach of the Volunteers, 2012 is the year to do it.
Along with Texas Tech, the Vols return the most starters of any AQ team.
Specifically, the offense returns everybody except tailback Tauren Poole, and the reality is that probable starter, sophomore Marlin Lane, has more talent than Poole anyway.
That offense was the third-worst scoring offense in the SEC, but the early-season loss of top wide receiver Justin Hunter, coupled with the loss of quarterback Tyler Bray for five conference games, crippled the Vols.
With Bray and Hunter, Tennessee was 2-1, including a win over Cincinnati, a team that ended the season ranked.
Even more notably, with Bray under center, the Vols averaged 28.1 PPG. Without him, they managed a paltry 6.7.
It is true that Bray missed games against LSU, Bama, South Carolina and Arkansas, games in which Tennessee would have been underdogs anyway.
However, that stretch also included a game against Middle Tennessee State, a team that allowed 38.8 PPG against Sun Belt competition, but against who the Volunteers only scored 24.
Meanwhile, the Tennessee defense was the conference's fourth-worst scoring D, but with eight returning starters, things appear to be looking up.
Expect the Vols to get back to playoff eligibility and respectability next season.
They will get back to the Top 25 if Dooley is a top coach.
Texas Tech Red Raiders
2011 Record: 5-7
As previously mentioned, the Red Raiders return the most starters of any AQ team in the country.
Not only that, they return a good deal of depth, especially on defense.
Texas Tech not only returns 10 defensive starters, but it also returns six linebackers and four cornerbacks with starting experience.
Look for the Raiders, who were the second-to-last Big 12 scoring D in 2011, to be one of the top three this year.
The offense returns nine from the fifth-ranked scoring offense.
Add to that a cakewalk out-of-conference schedule, with the only tough away conference games at TCU, Kansas State and Oklahoma State.
Finally, next season, the Big 12 will not be as "up" as it was in 2011, which will make the sledding easier for Tech.
2011 Record: 8-5
Auburn should be set for a big turnaround from last year—a year in which it could be said that it overachieved. After all, the Tigers were the youngest team in the country, and they had one of the toughest schedules. Eight wins against those odds was a pretty good showing.
In 2012, they'll return eight on offense and 10 on defense, plus both specialists.
Also, the schedule, while a beast, does have Georgia, LSU, Arkansas and Texas A&M at home.
I do have issues as it concerns the loss of offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, who has taken the job of head coach at Arkansas State.
Malzahn was one of, if not the best O-coordinator in the country.
If the Tigers can replace him, they will climb back into the thick of things in the SEC West, and the top three teams in the most competitive division in the country are going to be ranked.
2011 Record: 8-5
The Utes return seven from the conference's best scoring defense. They return three up front, which will be the nucleus of one of the tougher run defenses in the country.
In 2012, the offense held Utah back, only putting up 25 points per game, which was ninth in the high-scoring Pac-12.
That won't be the case this year as the Utes are loaded at the skill positions.
Their quarterback, top running back and top six pass catchers return.
Throw in a schedule that misses Oregon and Stanford, and has Southern Cal at home, and Utah will find its way back into the Top 25.
Illinois Fighting Illini
2011 Record: 7-6
The new head man in Champaign is former Toledo head coach Tim Beckman. He will inherit a squad that started 2011 with six straight victories, only to fall apart down the stretch, losing its last six in a row.
It did manage to win its bowl game against another reeling program—UCLA—but it wasn't a particularly impressive win.
2012's Illini will return eight starters on offense and seven on D.
All things considered, the 2011 defense held its own—fifth in conference scoring D—and should continue to hold its own in 2012. It will have to replace All-American end Whitney Mercilus, but linebacker Jonathan Brown and defensive end/linebacker Michael Buchanan are rising stars.
The problem for the Illini was the offense, which only managed 11 PPG over its end-of-the-season slide.
If the eight returning starters can regain the swagger that led to 34.7 PPG in its initial six games, this will be a formidable team.
Though the conference road slate is imposing—at Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State—the Illini do miss Iowa, Nebraska and Michigan State.
In effect, even if they drop all three of the aforementioned roadies, they will have a realistic shot of winning all the other games on the schedule.
Nine wins in the Big Ten will be good enough to get into the rankings.
South Florida Bulls
2011 Record: 5-7
Last season, South Florida was one of the favorites to win the Big East. Unfortunately for Bulls fans, it didn't work out that way.
After winning its first four games—including an upset over Notre Dame—USF went 1-7 to close out the season.
The disappointment was punctuated by four three-point losses.
Expect South Florida to turn it around in 2012.
First of all, the Bulls return nine on offense and seven on defense.
You might say that returning that many from a squad that went 5-7 might not be a good thing. However, on paper, USF was better than its record indicated.
It was the second-best scoring offense in the Big East and the fourth-best scoring defense. Under normal circumstances, one would expect such a squad to be in the running for the conference championship.
Next season, it will be.
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
2011 Record: 8-5
Things look bright for the Ramblin' Wreck in 2012.
First, the entire offensive line returns. In fact, six experienced offensive linemen return. That is no small positive for a team that runs as much as Tech.
On top of that, the Yellow Jackets' top three rushing options return, including quarterback Tevin Washington. Washington will have to find a new deep threat, as receiver Stephen Hill has opted to leave early for the NFL, but big, physical receivers have never been an issue for Paul Johnson's crew.
The ACC's No. 8 scoring defense will have to make some strides forward, but with eight returning starters, they will have the players to do it.
Next year, Tech has the "Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate" game in Athens, and it has to travel to Blacksburg and Clemson.
Those roadies will make the going tough, but expect the Jackets to pull out at least one of them and sweep the rest of their schedule, en route to 10 wins, a Coastal Division championship and a Top 15 ranking.
2011 Record: 7-6
Will Muschamp's first season in Gainesville couldn't be called successful—losses to Georgia and Florida State, no big-time conference wins, only seven victories total—but it was a transitional year. A great deal more will be expected of him in 2012, and it looks like he will deliver.
The Gators return eight on offense, including a ton of depth in the skill positions, and five experienced offensive linemen. If they can figure out the quarterback situation, they will be one of the top three offenses in the SEC.
Meanwhile, the defense returns a whopping 10 players.
The schedule is favorable, as they miss Auburn, Bama and Arkansas; and they get South Carolina and LSU at home, along with the Jacksonville meeting against Georgia.
Their only tough road trips are to Tennessee, Texas A&M and Florida State. The first two are decidedly winnable, and the game against FSU could be the biggest meeting of these interstate rivals since Spurrier and Bowden were on the sidelines.
Next year, look for Florida to reach nine wins at minimum and an SEC Championship and BCS National Championship game bid at maximum.
That will be good enough to finish the season ranked.
Ohio State Buckeyes
2011 Record: 6-7
Last season was something of a Murphy's Law season for the Bucks—everything that could go wrong did.
The coordinator who took over for the former coach was hardly ready for the job, and was, in all fairness, thrown into the fire.
Then Terrelle Pryor, the previously suspended Buckeye quarterback, unsurprisingly, declared himself eligible for the NFL's supplemental draft.
Then there were more suspensions.
All of this was on top of the reality that with the suspended players out of the picture, OSU only returned four on offense and four on defense—by far the fewest in the Big Ten.
The truth is the Buckeyes probably would have topped out at eight or nine wins even if Jim Tressel had been the coach.
Now, there is a new sheriff in town and his name is Urban Meyer—he of two national championships and unqualified success at every stop he's made in his coaching career.
Who knows how long Meyer will stay, as he may have another "heart issue" if the Bucks slip to seven wins.
However, in 2012, with nine returning starters on offense and 10 on defense, plus a favorable out-of-conference schedule and home games against Nebraska and Michigan, things look bright for Meyer's first year in Columbus.
This year, Meyer will get the Bucks back to double-digit wins and the Top 25.