College Football Rankings: Predicting Where 2011's Final Top 25 Will Start 2012
The 2011 season is fading further and further into the rear-view mirror, and with the passing of spring ball, it's time to start in on the heavy prognostications for 2012.
The first nationwide argument each fall is where each team will appear on the preseason Top 25.
So, based on where each team finished 2011, we're going to get the ball rolling with an early preview of where we think last season's Top 25 will begin 2012.
Let the discussion begin!
No. 25: Nebraska Cornhuskers
It's pretty clear that Nebraska's first season in the Big Ten was a disappointment for most Cornhusker fans.
When the season began, there were lofty hopes of a run at the conference title game, and a coveted trip to the Rose Bowl.
With embarrassing losses to Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Michigan, the Cornhuskers fell well short of those goals.
But the great thing about college football is that hope is always in bloom, and this spring in Lincoln, there is plenty of reason to get excited about 2012.
Bo Pelini has 16 combined starters returning, including starting quarterback Taylor Martinez.
Martinez is one of the most athletic quarterbacks in the nation. His major downside over the past few seasons has been immaturity and lack of experience. With two seasons under his belt, hopefully many of the problems that plagued Martinez in the past will fade.
Nebraska does reside in the cutthroat Legend Division of the Big Ten, and there are quite a few hurdles to overcome if there's to be any talk of a conference championship.
Luckily, Nebraska will be well prepared after filling up on non-conference cupcakes like Southern Mississippi, UCLA, Arkansas State and a terrible FCS Idaho State.
Preseason Prediction: No. 19
No. 24: Florida State Seminoles
Based on where Florida State began the 2011 season in the polls, and where the Seminoles ended the year, it's pretty clear that those of us who voted in the poll were fooled.
The whole nation was abuzz with the supposed return of the mighty Seminoles. Instead, we saw a team stumble through the meat of its schedule.
While we recognize FSU struggled with injuries in 2011, a championship-caliber team must be able to overcome inevitable injuries. Florida State could not.
Even though Jimbo Fisher has a whopping 18 starters returning next season, expect there to be a little skepticism after the 'Noles made the pollsters look silly last season.
Florida State should be a darn decent team in 2012, and the absence of any top-five non-conference opponent will allow the Seminoles to avoid the landmine of an early loss this season.
Preseason Prediction: No. 13
No. 23: Cincinnati Bearcats
Let's not mince words: Cincinnati wasn't all that great in 2011. The Bearcats finished in the B/R Top 25 mainly due to their weak Big East co-championship (shared with West Virginia and Louisville), and the fact that Cincy did win 10 games.
But Cincy didn't play a single game against a ranked opponent last season (West Virginia was unranked at the time) and still managed to lose three games.
Now, add in a terribly depleted roster (just four offensive starters returning), and you have all the reason in the world to keep Cincy off a preseason ballot.
Preseason Prediction: Not ranked
No. 22: Clemson Tigers
Even though last season ended with a resounding thud, the Tigers shouldn't hang their heads.
At the beginning of last season, no one was talking about Clemson, and the Tigers weren't a serious Top 25 candidate. It wasn't long before that changed.
By Week 8, Clemson had climbed all the way to No. 5 in the BCS Rankings, and there was some legitimate talk of a national championship run.
That didn't happen, but the Tigers were still able to claim the 2011 ACC Championship and the resulting Orange Bowl berth that came with it.
Within the span of one season, Clemson went from a program no one was excited about to a team everyone circles on the schedule. And with seven starters returning on each side of the ball, head coach Dabo Swinney will have enough talent to work with while attempting to build on last season's success.
Early season encounters with Auburn and Florida State will provide ample opportunity to impress the pollsters, and a top-ten team by Week 5 isn't out of the question.
Preseason Prediction: No. 17
No. 21: Virginia Tech Hokies
There were only two teams that found a way to beat Virginia Tech last season. Unfortunately, those games included a regular-season game, a rematch in the ACC Championship Game, and the Sugar Bowl.
Despite the decided lack of hardware brought home by the Hokies, we're still talking about an 11-3 team.
But Frank Beamer will have his work cut out for him moving towards 2012. Virginia Tech returns just three offensive starters from last season, and the young, inexperienced offensive line could be a major sore spot come the fall.
The Hokies do return the bulk of the defense, and you can expect Virginia Tech to rely heavily on Beamerball in the early stages of 2012 to avoid falling off the national radar altogether.
Preseason Prediction: No. 18
No. 20: Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles
As far as upsets go, Southern Miss probably pulled off the most unexpected of wins in 2011.
In the Conference USA Championship Game, the Golden Eagles spoiled the part of the then-BCS-bound Houston Cougars (more on Houston later).
That win, combined with 11 others (including a Hawai'i Bowl win over Nevada) put Southern Miss in the bottom group of ranked teams at season's end.
It's difficult enough for C-USA teams to break into the Top 25, but when you finished on the tail end of the polls, return just 11 total starters, compete in a conference of cream puffs and open the season on the road against Nebraska, things probably won't be breaking your way anytime soon.
Preseason Prediction: Not ranked
No. 19: Georgia Bulldogs
A funny thing happened on the way to the unemployment line: Mark Richt turned out to be a pretty good coach after all.
It might seem a little odd to outsiders that Richt, with a 106-38 overall record at Georgia, was ever on the hot seat.
After all, Richt has two conference championships and a share of three more division titles with a 60-28 mark in the SEC we're all told is so difficult in which to win. If it's really that hard to win the SEC, and he's winning that much, why get rid of him?
Apparently, Mark Richt had the same thought, and he put together a 10-4 record which included an SEC-East title.
It's probably safe to say he's not going anywhere anytime soon.
Neither is returning junior starting quarterback Aaron Murray.
It's clear that Murray has set his sights on the rest of the SEC, and Georgia is just one small step away from climbing back on top of the highest of conference mountain tops.
As he continues to develop and mature, he could easily become the next great quarterback to come out of the Southeastern Conference—if the depleted Georgia front can protect him, that is.
Preseason Prediction: No. 12
No. 18: West Virginia Mountaineers
You have to understand the pundits who harped on the Big East last season and were all too quick to mock West Virginia's trip to the Orange Bowl as “cheap” or “pointless.”
After all, the Big East has typically been the weakest of the BCS Automatic Qualifying conferences over the past several seasons, and West Virginia only managed to finish in a three-way tie with less-than-spectacular Cincinnati and Louisville.
West Virginia was even pummeled by a Syracuse team in its lone Big East win of the season.
So why would any non-Mountaineer fan get excited to see that team in Miami?
Apparently, the Mountaineers didn't take too kindly to all the doubting Thomas' around the nation and proceeded to put a beatdown on Clemson in the Orange Bowl.
Okay. Point taken.
Now, West Virginia is moving to the Big 12, and the Orange Bowl Champions are bringing quite a cast of characters along.
Senior starting quarterback Geno Smith is the real deal, and his intact corps of receivers will be more than happy to show the offensively-minded Big 12 that they can sling it around, too.
And if there's one coach who knows first-hand how to carve up Big 12 defenses, it has to be Dana Holgorsen. The former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator will be back in town, giving his old foes nightmares again.
It remains to be seen how well WVU will do against the might of the Big 12, but with 15 returning starters and the locker room still smelling of oranges, you can bet West Virginia will be rewarded with a lofty preseason ranking.
Preseason Prediction: No. 11
No. 17: Oklahoma Sooners
In the long history of college football disappointments, the 2011 Oklahoma Sooners have to rank pretty high.
When the season began, it was almost a guaranteed that Oklahoma was going to win a BCS title. Why even play the season? It seemed as if it was almost an insult that the trophy wasn't FedExed to Norman after Week 1.
But that's why they play the games.
Oklahoma stumbled across the finish line with a 9-3 regular season record, not only missing out on a BCS title game berth, but also a Big 12 title, a top-ten finish or an invite to any BCS game. Instead, the Sooners traveled to Tempe to take on a mediocre Iowa team in the Insight Bowl.
When you think about it, it's actually pretty surprising that Oklahoma even bothered to show up for the game. It had to be a major disappointment, and it couldn't have been easy to get motivated while instate upstart Oklahoma State was busy winning the Fiesta Bowl.
But Bob Stoops won't be allowing any moping. Oklahoma swallowed the bitter pill of defeat, and it's time to move on.
And with 15 returning starters—including Heisman contender Landry Jones—and a favorable schedule that begins with UTEP and FCS Florida A&M followed by a bye week, we've no doubt OU will be back to their old lofty rankings soon enough.
Preseason Prediction: No. 5
No. 16: Texas Christian Horned Frogs
So you think any fool could be a college football coach, huh?
Well, answer us this: what would you do in Gary Patterson's shoes?
A player involved in drugs is bad enough, but four players charged with felony delivery?
Of the 23 people charged, two are (or should we say, were) returning starters for the Horned Frogs. Defensive tackle DJ Yendrey faces the most serious charge; delivering in a drug-free zone carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison in the state of Texas.
TCU was going to have a difficult time adjusting to the rigors of a BCS AQ schedule regardless. With two fewer returning starters, TCU is down to just 11. And the two who weren't returning starters were expected to compete for the starting jobs at their respective positions.
Everything being equal, TCU would have been hard-pressed to find a preseason mark much above the 20 to 17 range. Now, the Horned Frogs will be lucky to appear at all.
Preseason Prediction: No. 21
No. 15: Houston Cougars
What, oh what, is to become of Houston?
Losing the one player that turns an inferior team into a 13-win team is hard enough. But even head coach Kevin Sumlin saw the writing on the wall and beat a path out of town about as quickly as Texas A&M could print out the contract.
While Southern Mississippi's dismantling of the Cougars in the Conference USA Championship Game unveiled Houston as the BCS fraud that it was, there's no doubt that the Cougars were a far better program with Case Keenum taking the snaps than without.
Just take a look at UH's record with and without Keenum. In games where Keenum started, Houston was 38-12. Without Keenum's talents, the Cougars were just 7-9 over the same span.
Every team loses star players from time to time, but programs like Oregon, Alabama, Michigan, Oklahoma and Florida State recruit four- and five-star prospects year after year. Houston decidedly doesn't.
Rebuilding is hard enough when you're not doing it with a new coach. Without Keenum and Sumlin, Houston will turn out to be just another anonymous Conference USA program.
Preseason Prediction: Not ranked
No. 14: Kansas State Wildcats
About the only thing Kansas State has left to give Bill Snyder is the naming rights to the school itself.
Short of becoming Snyder State University, Kansas State should be giving the legendary head coach pretty much anything he asks for these days after rebuilding the program—again—from the depths of the Big 12 into a national contender.
One of the feel-good surprise stories of 2011 was the K-State football team and their rags-to-riches mentality in the Big 12. With a whole host of talented players returning, including senior quarterback Collin Klein and every offensive skill position player (with more than a few defensive starters back as well), Kansas State should be in a decent position to build the program into more than a flash-in-the-pan type of team.
The Big 12 isn't the easiest conference to win, but no one gave KSU much of a shot last year, either.
Preseason Prediction: No. 20
No. 13: Baylor Bears
All throughout the discussion about Robert Griffin III's run to the Heisman Trophy last season, people kept saying that he would win because he took a middle-of-the-road team and made them a Big 12 contender.
So now that he's gone, where does Baylor stand?
Sadly, the Bears are likely to regress a bit without the week-in and week-out exploits of RG3.
Preseason Prediction: No. 22
No. 12: Wisconsin Badgers
Another conference title is quite an accomplishment for Wisconsin.
While the Big Ten has taken its lumps nationally over the past several years, the conference has been very competitive within, and emerging on top for a second-straight season—this time with a conference championship game—is an impressive accomplishment.
That being said, Wisconsin hasn't been able to get it done in the postseason, and we're beginning to wonder if Bret Bielema and company really has what it takes to capture that elusive first national title for the program.
Wisconsin will again benefit from their position in the Big Ten's Leaders Division and should have an easy path back to the conference championship game (given the fact that Ohio State is ineligible in 2012). But Wisconsin has had trouble with some cross-divisional opponents, particularly Michigan State.
The Spartans will travel to Madison this season, where the Badgers will hope to finally knock off Sparty in the regular season. But they'll have to do it without standout senior transfer Russell Wilson—or five other offensive starters from last season.
Bielema will likely return to relying on a big, powerful running game in 2012, as Montee Ball is easily the biggest name of the five returning offensive starters.
There's plenty of reason to doubt the Badgers this year, but those who do, do so at their own peril. Our projection is that the pollsters will take a “wait and see” attitude about Wisconsin this year, and the Badgers will start 2012 not far from where they ended 2011.
Preseason Prediction: No. 9
No. 11: Michigan State Spartans
Spartan fans have two people to thank for the wild success of their football team over the past few seasons. The first is obviously Mark Dantonio. The head Spartan has slowly but surely built MSU into a perennial conference contender, rather than the late-season doormat everyone was used to mocking.
The second person Sparty should send a bouquet of roses to is former Michigan running back Mike Hart.
Following Michigan's come-from-behind win over Michigan State in 2007, Michigan's Hart famously (or infamously) said, “Sometimes you get your little brother excited when you're playing basketball and stuff, let them get the lead, then you just come back and take it back.”
That didn't sit well with then-new MSU head coach Dantonio, who couldn't help but respond.
Dantonio's Spartans responded on the field, too. Michigan hasn't won a single game over Michigan State since.
Sometimes, the older brother gets too cocky and complacent, and you have to take him down a couple pegs.
As funny as that is (unless you live in Ann Arbor), it's looking like 2012 may finally be the year for the maize and blue to break through.
MSU has just five offensive starters returning from last year, and the most important loss is easily quarterback Kirk Cousins.
One of the most underrated QBs in the nation, Cousins was an incredibly accurate pocket passer whose influence on a game transcended his statistics. Over the past decade, Michigan State hasn't had a single player that can match Cousins' on-field leadership ability.
A calming influence when needed, Cousins could also provide an instant spark to a flat MSU offense. The importance of his departure cannot be overstated.
While MSU will start 2012 with a moderate ranking, it will be interesting to see how the Spartans handle themselves as they open the season against Boise State.
Preseason Prediction: No. 10
No. 10: Michigan Wolverines
How nicely it works out for a segue that Michigan happened to follow Michigan State in the final 2011 B/R Top 25 Poll.
And how nicely it works out for Michigan that Brady Hoke seems to be every bit the coach Wolverine fans were hoping he was.
Hoke took over a program in disarray—which is pretty incredible, considering it was mighty Michigan. But in the span of a few short offseason months, Hoke instilled the winning attitude once again in Ann Arbor, giving real meaning to Bo Schembechler's immortal words, “Those who stay will be champions.”
It was easy to dismiss Michigan after the Rich Rodriguez years. Rodriguez had tried—very unsuccessfully—to shove a square pro-style spread offense into Michigan's round, traditional Big Ten-style offense hole.
The thing you need to understand about Michigan is the fact that football is akin to a religion. And like praying, there's a right way and a wrong way to go about it. Rich Rodriguez's way was decidedly wrong.
At least at Michigan.
Brady Hoke's way, on the other hand, is something Michigan fans believe would make Bo Schembechler proud.
Those who stayed are now Sugar Bowl Champions. And with the returning talent for 2012, they may add another title: Big Ten Champions.
Preseason Prediction: No. 8
No. 9: South Carolina Gamecocks
Hopefully, the head ball coach will be able to avoid the off-field distractions that were the genesis of so many South Carolina headlines last season.
Steve Spurrier seems to love giving people second chances (unless you're a member of the media), but it seems a sixth chance is a bridge too far. Senior quarterback Stephen Garcia was finally dismissed after repeated suspensions last season, and the whole Gamecocks program is hoping to move on while being able to focus squarely on football.
With 14 returning starters, including eight on offense, and a early schedule that shapes up nicely (including being Alabama-less), South Carolina's future looks pretty bright.
The Gamecocks have never won an SEC title, but the East Division will once again come down to Georgia and SC. The winner of that game will have the East's best shot to end the division's losing streak in Atlanta in quite a few years.
Preseason Prediction: No. 7
No. 8: Stanford Cardinal
Stanford isn't the only one-trick pony to end last season with a lofty poll ranking, and it's clearly not the only team that will see a precipitous fall in poll fortune between January and August.
Okay, maybe “one-trick pony” is a little harsh when talking about Stanford, but there's no sane person anywhere in the college football world that believes Stanford can be anywhere near as good without Andrew Luck as it was with him.
Even pollsters aren't that dumb.
Preseason Prediction: No. 14
No. 7: USC Trojans
Well, it looks as if the crippling sanctions imposed by the NCAA on Southern California won't be the end of Trojans football after all.
Despite being barred from postseason play yet again, USC put together a very impressive 10-2 season that included a win over Oregon and a narrow overtime loss at the hands of Stanford.
Now that USC actually has something more than pride to play for in 2012, expect the Trojans to come out looking for blood.
With senior Matt Barkley returning, the task of chasing down a Pac-12 title just become a whole lot more likely.
Preseason Prediction: No. 1
No. 6: Arkansas Razorbacks
It took a couple of tries, but head coach Bobby Petrino finally has his Razorbacks in prime position to make a run at the SEC title game in 2012.
The Razorbacks were arguably the best team in the nation not to play in the BCS last year, as the Hogs were done in by the two-teams-per-conference limit. Arkansas instead settled for a trip to the Cotton Bowl Classic, where the Razorbacks defeated Kansas State, 29-16.
Returning quarterback Tyler Wilson was great in his junior outing, helping everyone to forget about Ryan Mallett. With him back for his senior season alongside six other starters, Arkansas will be a team no one will overlook.
Preseason Prediction: No. 6
No. 5: Boise State Broncos
Here we have yet another team losing some major artillery heading into 2012.
The Boise State Broncos have easily been the best non-AQ program over the past half decade or so. The loss of the all-time winningest FBS quarterback in Kellen Moore is a major blow to coach Chris Petersen's team, but Boise has shown the ability to reload before. There's no reason to expect any different this time around.
But pollsters will be pollsters, and the loss of such a huge name like Moore's is sure to have an impact.
And with an opening week trip to East Lansing to face the Michigan State Spartans, we should know pretty quickly how Boise State is going to stack up against the rest of the nation this season.
Don't count the Broncos out just yet. They've proven year after year that they're not afraid of anything (except maybe a game-winning field goal attempt).
Preseason Prediction: No. 16
No. 4: Oregon Ducks
LaMichael James and Darron Thomas will be taking their talents to the NFL next season.
That's the bad news. And it's pretty bad.
But there is a whole heap of good news, too. Chip Kelly's office isn't going to be changing hands anytime soon, and he'll have a solid core of talented skill position players returning to the Ducks' offense in 2012, including De'Anthony Thomas and Kenjon Barner.
There's also the eight returning starters on defense, which will be an absolute necessity if Oregon is to have any chance of knocking off USC and repeating as Pac-12 champions yet again.
Preseason Prediction: No. 3
No. 3: LSU Tigers
It's really hard to sum up the 2011 LSU football season as a failure.
When you really think about it, the Tigers have a lot to be happy about. LSU finished 13-1, beat Alabama at Alabama and won the SEC title.
Of course, that one loss came against Alabama in New Orleans in the BCS National Championship Game.
And the loss was a disaster of epic proportions.
Hopefully, the college football world has learned its lesson, and we won't be subjected to the tortuous repeat of a one-sided, boring rematch of a boring field goal-fest from earlier in the year.
Another thing we probably all learned was to never doubt the Hat's ability to keep his program running at peak efficiency from year to year.
LSU is clearly stacked with talent several players deep at most positions. While there are only 11 combined starters returning for 2012, it's the players who aren't returning that may provide Tigers fans with some hope.
Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee are gone, and there should be a single starting quarterback for 2012.
But just in case Les Miles can't make up his mind again, we're pretty sure he'll be able to come up with more crafty ways to keep the wins piling up in Baton Rouge.
Preseason Prediction: No. 4
No. 2: Oklahoma State Cowboys
Mike “I'm a Man” Gundy likely had his best shot at a national title anytime soon in 2011. Unfortunately, due to an untimely loss to Iowa State and a little pollster drooling over the prospect of Bore Bowl II, Oklahoma State was the No. 3 team in the final BCS rankings and instead had to settle for a trip to the Fiesta Bowl.
For a while, it seemed as if the Cowboys had the perfect storm brewing in Stillwater. Oklahoma State was oozing talent, Oklahoma wasn't as advertised, Baylor and Kansas State scrambled the usual standings in the conference and the SEC, Pac-12, Big Ten, and ACC looked to be beating up on themselves.
It didn't quite work out, and now Gundy will need to find a way forward with just five starters returning to one of the most potent offenses in the land.
Will Oklahoma State be terrible next season? Certainly not.
Will Oklahoma State be one of the best teams in the nation? We'll have to wait and see, but the pollsters will be betting on “no.”
Preseason Prediction: No. 15
No. 1: Alabama Crimson Tide
A few slides back, we failed to mention a very, very important game we'll all be treated to in Week 1.
In the Chick-fil-A Kickoff headline game of the opening week, the Michigan Wolverines will tangle with the defending BCS National Champions, the Alabama Crimson Tide, in Arlington, Texas.
While a Michigan victory could signal a seismic shift in football power, a likely Alabama victory will be the Crimson Tide's way of telling the nation that there's no reason why Alabama can't add to its impressive collection of hardware in 2012.
Nick Saban is easily one of the best coaches in the history of the game, and his seven returning offensive starters will do everything in their power to ensure the continued domination of Saban-coached teams.
While Alabama certainly wasn't spectacular in 2011, the Tide were a complete, solid, no-frills, get-the-job-done kind of team. Alabama proved that you don't need flash to achieve great things, and the Crimson Tide deserved the national title as much (or more) than any other team in the nation.
Moving forward, it looks as if Alabama will be very much the same type of team in 2012. There aren't a ton of superstar, Heisman vote-grabbing names that leap out from the roster.
Instead, you'll see a list of 12 solid returning starters and a whole host of great backups that will be stepping into the spotlight come September.
Alabama could likely fool quite a few pollsters this season. Don't expect Alabama to be the nation's top team in the nation to start the year.
That doesn't mean the Tide won't end up at No. 1 after the smoke clears in January.
Preseason Prediction: No. 2
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