College Football 2012: Power Ranking the Top 25 with the Best Chance to Go 12-0

David Luther@@davidrlutherFeatured ColumnistApril 17, 2012

College Football 2012: Power Ranking the Top 25 with the Best Chance to Go 12-0

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    Even in today's world of dominating performances, a 12-0 regular season is a difficult thing for any team to accomplish.

    But if a team does manage a perfect regular season, it's almost a guaranteed ticket to the BCS National Championship Game—particularly if that team comes from one of the six BCS Automatic Qualifying conferences.

    While every team starts the season on an equal footing, it's clear right from the opening kickoff that there are programs who have a much better shot at entering December with a 12-0 mark.

    So who are they this season?

Notre Dame

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    As the Irish fly headlong into the third season of the Brian Kelly era, it's clear that the stakes are higher than ever for the head coach.

    Notre Dame fans are notorious for their lack of patience. Even though Kelly has put together back-to-back eight-win seasons, it doesn't look like anything short of the BCS will calm the disquiet that has been rippling through South Bend for the past half decade or so.

    While Kelly does have 15 starters returning, including eight on offense, Notre Dame—as usual—plays a particularly difficult schedule.

    Notre Dame has several annual opponents that make their regular appearance on the schedule: Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford, Navy, Boston College, and USC. But that group of teams includes no fewer than four ranked opponents—something that doesn't always happen.

    Additionally, Notre Dame will square off with BYU and Oklahoma in 2012, making the path to 12-0 even more unlikely.

    That's why Notre Dame appears at the bottom of our list of 25 teams.


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    Any coach with 18 returning starters has to be feeling pretty good about the chances of improving upon last season's performance.

    Will Muschamp is in that situation for 2012, and Gators fans can rest assured that there will likely be a good deal of improvement this year.

    But 12-0 is difficult for any team, much less an SEC program that isn't really considered a favorite heading into the season.

    After a warm-up against Bowling Green State, the Gators travel to Texas A&M for the first SEC meeting with the Aggies. And while Florida does avoid Alabama and Auburn in the new-look SEC, the Gators do have a trip to Baton Rouge on the books for early October.

    Add in a vastly improved Georgia squad and a regular season finale at Doak Campbell against a Florida State team that could be chasing down a BCS berth, and you can see why Florida is much more likely to lose a few games than not this season.


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    We'll stick in the SEC for our next program on the list: Auburn.

    The Tigers took the much-anticipated step backwards last season. Any program in the nation that losses that much talent all at once is going to experience some drop in success. Auburn actually did a nice job of not falling into complete irrelevance after the departure of Cam Newton and pals—which was certainly possible.

    Now, Gene Chizik will welcome back 18 starters from last season, and it's entirely possible Auburn could be a big factor in the SEC West in 2012.

    But there are still the big boys on the SEC block, and Auburn is going to find itself over-matched in at least a few of these games.

    Auburn is lucky enough to get LSU at home, and the now-questionable Razorbacks come to town after an Auburn bye week just after that.

    The Tigers get the Aggies at Jordan-Hare, too, and Georgia is also coming to town. From the looks of things, it seems as if most of the tough games for Auburn will occur after a good night's sleep in their own beds.

    But there's still that lingering question about knocking off Alabama at Alabama.

    If—and that's a big if—Auburn can make it all the way to November 24 without a blemish on the record, the Tigers will still be tasked with knocking off the defending BCS National Champion Alabama Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium in what could be one of the most anticipated games of the season.

    With all of the top teams appearing on the schedule, we have to wonder what the realistic chances are that Auburn manages to finish without a loss.

    We're thinking not too good.


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    When Nebraska announced it would be moving to the Big Ten, there was a sense of excitement and inevitability about the Cornhuskers' coming conference championships.

    Funny thing how a season of actually playing in the Big Ten seems to have tempered expectations.

    The Legends Division of the Big Ten isn't the easiest in which to find wins, and Nebraska also had the misfortune of drawing some of the top competition from the Leaders Division, as well.

    That will happen against in 2012, as Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Penn State will all appear on the Cornhuskers' schedule this season.

    That means Nebraska will face two BCS teams from last season, both co-champions of the Leaders Division, the Legends Division champion, and a resurgent—if not heavily sanctioned—Ohio State team.

    Vegas may be offering a pretty nice payout on a wager for Nebraska to finish 12-0. But you would likely be throwing your money away.


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    Believe it or not, but there was actually a time when Texas was the talk of the Big 12 South.

    Of course, the Big 12 isn't split into divisions any longer, and Texas can't rely on winning the South to have a shot at a conference title.

    In today's Big 12, the Longhorns must win each and every game as if it's the potential Big 12 Championship Game.

    And really, Texas hasn't been that great at winning conference titles under Mack Brown. While Texas fans will talk until they're blue in the face about how great Texas football and Mack Brown are, there's the little nagging problem of reality.

    Since taking over the program for the 1998 season, Brown has led the Longhorns to just two conference championships. Two!

    Bob Stoops at Oklahoma has seven.

    So what are the chances Texas defies the odds this season and manages a quantum leap in production, defeating all 12 regular season opponents on the slate?

    Pretty slim.

Virginia Tech

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    Maintaining success from season to season is difficult enough under the best of circumstances.

    Frank Beamer isn't going to have particularly favorable circumstances for 2012, though. The Hokies return just three offensive starters from last season's ACC Coastal Division championship team.

    Logan Thomas's return is certainly a great boost, and when Virginia Tech plays, there's always a chance Beamerball could completely change the complexion and outcome of the game.

    And Virginia Tech's schedule for 2012 isn't particularly daunting (the toughest non-conference opponent is probably Cincinnati), but with cross-division games against both Clemson and Florida State combined with the utter lack of experience, it just doesn't seem too likely to have a 12-0 Virginia Tech team this season.

Kansas State

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    We won't take anything away from the great accomplishments of Kansas State last season, but even with all of the success, the Wildcats still lost three games.

    In 2012, K-State won't have the advantage of surprise; they won't be sneaking up on anyone this season.

    Once again, the Big 12 will have a 10-team lineup, and every team will play every other team in 2012, leaving room for just three non-conference games.

    Kansas State has FCS Missouri State, North Texas and Miami (FL) before the conference season gets underway.

    While the Wildcats have a better-than-average chance at entering the Big 12 with a 3-0 mark, we'll figure out fairly quickly where KSU really stands. The opening conference game is a trip to Norman to take on the Sooners.

    The Wildcats will have West Virginia, Oklahoma State, and TCU over a four week span in late October-early November, and the year concludes with a visit from Texas.

    There really is no reason Bill Snyder can't figure out a way for his team to win 10 games again this season, as there will be ample opportunity to pick up victories in the Big 12. But a clean sweep seems highly improbable, even with eight returning offensive starters from last season.


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    We hate to be overly simplistic, but the loss of Andrew Luck begs just one question for Stanford.

    If the Cardinal couldn't manage a perfect season with Luck, what chance do they have without him?

    Given the talent returning to other Pac-12 teams in 2012, combined with the newly-motivated USC, we'd have to answer, “None.”

Michigan State

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    After a couple of record-breaking seasons for Michigan State, it's going to be very interesting to see how the Spartans deal with what looks to be a rebuilding year, at least on paper.

    Mark Dantonio has just 13 returning starters from last season, and MSU is losing the bulk of offensive talent and leadership.

    The schedule isn't getting any easier, either.

    The season begins with a visit from giant-killers Boise State. While the Broncos might similarly be viewed as rebuilding in 2012, most teams around the nation have learned to take Boise State lightly at their own peril.

    MSU follows that game up with an actual visit to a MAC stadium—rather than the typical “visit” to a MAC team at some “neutral” site near the Big Ten opponent. Central Michigan has a little history against Michigan State, including a 29-27 win over the Spartans at Spartan Stadium in 2009.

    Michigan State also has Ohio State and Wisconsin on the schedule this season in cross-division games.

    Finally, Michigan has suffered through four straight losses against the Spartans, and the resurgent Wolverines won't easily surrender yet another loss to Sparty easily.

    Michigan State just has too much of a mountain to climb in 2012 to have any real chance of a perfect regular season.

Texas Christian

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    Texas Christian has decided to take the pollsters and pundits out of the BCS equation. It's now down to a simple matter of winning the conference.

    While there is every reason to believe that TCU will achieve some long-term success in the Big 12, the chances for the Horned Frogs in 2012 aren't looking all that great.

    Even if there weren't any internal problems at TCU, we'd still be talking about a team with 13 returning starters while taking a huge step up in class.

    Any move of this magnitude will take some getting used to, and TCU is probably facing a Utah-like start to its career as a BCS-AQ program.

    There won't be any BCS games this season for the Frogs, to say nothing of a perfect season.

West Virginia

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    Moving to a new conference is never easy, but the split between West Virginia and the Big East was the kind of split normally reserved for a special episode of “Divorce Court.”

    Now that the less-than-amicable split is final, West Virginia can focus on its new romance with the Big 12. And if there's one coach who knows how to pick apart Big 12 defenses, it has to be Dana Holgorsen.

    After picking apart the Big 12 as the offensive coordinator for the Oklahoma State Cowboys, Holgorsen makes his return to the conference as the head coach for the Mountaineers.

    But before you guys start pre-ordering your West Virginia 2012 Big 12 Championship t-shirts, take a few moments to take a look around the new conference environment.

    The Mountaineers are unquestionably taking a step up in class by moving to the Big 12. The 2011 Big East co-champions will need to find a little more consistency this season if they are to have any hope of coming withing spitting distance of a conference title and BCS berth in 2012.

    Losses against teams like Syracuse and Louisville doesn't exactly give us a ton of confidence in West Virginia when opponents like Oklahoma and Texas come calling.

    While West Virginia will eventually settle in to its new affiliation, the increased level of week-in and week-out competition may take some getting used to, so a loss here or there is to be expected.


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    After yet another Big Ten title, the Badgers have established themselves as a perennial favorite in the conference.

    But even so, Wisconsin has yet to translate that success in to a Rose Bowl game victory, or anything resembling an undefeated season.

    Moving forward, Wisconsin will again be in a position to compete for a conference title. But it's unlikely the Badgers will be able to improve upon last season's 11-3 record, especially given all of the losses at key skill positions.

Oklahoma State

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    When teams go looking for non-conference opponents, it's usually a mix of cupcakes and steak.

    But if you're looking for a lot of meat in a non-con schedule, you'll probably be disappointed with Oklahoma State's sugar-laden lineup. Arizona, Louisiana-Lafayette and FCS Savannah State don't exactly impress those of us looking for a tough strength-of-schedule.

    On the other hand, it's a little help when trying to power rank a team's chances of going 12-0.

    If we were ranking a team's chances of starting 3-0, you can bet that Oklahoma State would be near the top of the list. But it's the last nine games of the schedule that keep the Cowboys from climbing any higher.

    Last season, Oklahoma State probably fielded its best football team in program history. The Cowboys almost made it all the way to New Orleans, too, except for those pesky Cyclones. Now, Oklahoma State has to try and repeat its impressive run to the BCS with a massively depleted roster.

    The bread-and-butter of the Cowboys has been their offense. While we don't expect that to change in 2012, Mike “I'm a Man” Gundy has just five returning starters with which he hopes to ride over the Big 12 again.

    And while some conference foes, like Kansas and Baylor, will still find themselves over-matched, don't expect the rest of the conference to roll over.

    It looks like Oklahoma State's one, best chance for an undefeated season is in the rear-view mirror.


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    After everything that has happened over the past couple of weeks, how can we possibly make an accurate prediction on Arkansas's 2012 season?

    Right now, we don't even know who will be coaching the Razorbacks next season, and the final ripples of this scandal likely won't be felt for some time.

    The good news is that Arkansas is unlikely to face anything more than a bruised ego from the situation, and moving on should be relatively painless once a new staff is in place. Once that happens, we can all get back to analyzing the Hogs based solely on football.

    In that spirit, we'll take a peek at Arkansas's schedule and try to predict how the Razorbacks would do if Bobby Petrino was still the head coach.

    The first thing that jumps out at you when looking at the Arkansas schedule for 2012 is the Week 3 SEC opener: Alabama.

    Alabama is likely to be the headlining game on most schedules this season, and the Hogs could very well become the first conference victim in 2012.

    But before you write off Arkansas, it might be a good idea to take a look at the plethora of talent we'll see back in Fayetteville this fall.

    Tyler Wilson leads a talented Arkansas backfield that will have plenty of options through the air as well as on the ground in 2012. It's clear that only the best defenses in the nation will have any hope against what is sure to be an offensive onslaught by the Razorbacks in 2012.

    That being said, the SEC West is easily the toughest place to play in the entire nation, and the addition of East Division hopeful South Carolina makes the already difficult task of emerging from the SEC with an unblemished record all the more difficult.

South Carolina

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    After what seems like forever, South Carolina is finally entering a season without having to worry about eternal problem-child Stephen Garcia.

    The upside to the eventual dismissal of Garcia last season is the invaluable experience gained by Connor Shaw.

    With Sahw's return, the Head Ball Coach will have eight offensive starters returning from a team that was just a play or two short of earning its second-straight SEC East title.

    Steve Spurrier's squad has quite the mountain to climb in 2012, with likely pitfalls coming against Georgia (Week 6), LSU (Week 7) and Arkansas (Week 11).

    While there's no Alabama, Auburn or Texas A&M on the docket for 2012, it's just too hard to predict a team like South Carolina going 12-0 to warrant a spot much higher in our power ranking.

    A 12-0 South Carolina team isn't impossible, but the Gamecocks would have to surprise a lot of people to pull it off this season.


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    Over the past couple of seasons, Michigan has been a prime example of wrong coach, right coach.

    With essentially the same personnel as the previous season, new head coach Brady Hoke was able to restore a bit of the pride in the Michigan Wolverines football program.

    Now, we'll see if Hoke can find some more magic in Ann Arbor.

    For the first time in quite a while, there's realistic hope at Michigan for a Big Ten championship run, and there's no one game that leaps out as the killer of that dream.

    But the biggest challenge to Michigan's 12-0 regular season pops up right off the bat, before anyone even has a chance to think about the conference schedule.

    Michigan meets up with defending BCS National Champion Alabama in Arlington, Texas for the Week 1 kickoff “Cowboys Stadium Classic.”

    While Michigan has a fair chance of making it through the rest of the schedule without a loss, the prospect of a 12-0 season will likely be over not long after the season's opening kickoff.


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    If the SEC is all about defense, then Georgia might be the team you want to follow in 2012.

    The Bulldogs will return nine defensive starters from last season, and with the returning offensive talent Mark Richt has available, Georgia may be the team that finally breaks through for the East Division.

    Junior quarterback Aaron Murray is back for another season in what could be his breakout year. He has all the makings of the next SEC great, and his maturation process over the past two seasons has been impressive.

    But with everything Georgia has going for it in 2012, the biggest reason the Bulldogs find themselves so high on this list is due to the absence of Alabama, Arkansas and LSU on the 2012 schedule.

    It seems as if the stars may be aligning for the Bulldogs this year, and a 12-0 finish is a distinct possibility.


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    LSU was the latest team to emerge from the regular season unscathed.

    But unlike so many other unbeatens, the Tigers were completely manhandled in the post-season by fellow SEC power Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game.

    It doesn't matter how good a program is; an undefeated regular season is still a rare thing. LSU had its unblemished season, and it stands to reason that another undefeated season isn't likely in 2012.

    Now, take into account the lack of experience (11 combined returning starters), and add in one heckuva tough SEC schedule, and you start to see why LSU isn't very far up on our list.

    We're not saying it can't happen, just that there are several other teams with a better shot at perfection in 2012.


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    Alabama is in a similar position to LSU.

    Both the Tide and the Tigers have a smattering of returning starters, and we all know how talented and deep these SEC West programs are these days.

    But like LSU, Alabama faces an always tough SEC West schedule (including a trip to Baton Rouge). Plus, the Tide have the added contest against Michigan to start the year.

    Nick Saban has shown his ability to win any game anywhere, and 2012 will likely see another year of wild success for Alabama. Even though Alabama will start the season as one of the top three teams in pretty much every poll, it's just too tough of schedule to put all of your eggs in a 12-0 basket.


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    Clemson was easily one of the surprise success stories of 2011.

    When the season began, there was no one seriously mentioning “Clemson” and “ACC title” in the same breath.

    But by the midway point, the Tigers had climbed up the rankings to a point where even a national championship run didn't seem out of the question. A few losses down the stretch ended any talk of a trip to New Orleans, but Clemson still managed to capture that long-awaited ACC crown.

    For 2012, there will be ample opportunity for the Tigers to take the next step. There are enough starters returning (14 in all, seven on each side of the ball) to establish a sense of continuity for the program, and a second ACC title doesn't sound farfetched.

    While there are some major hurdles, we could see the Tigers in another BCS game come January.

    Getting there, however, probably won't be without its setbacks. While Clemson could very well emerge as an ACC title hopeful in 2012, it's doubtful the Tigers will go completely unscathed.


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    Last season is a perfect example of why they play the games.

    Back in August, the plans for an Oklahoma coronation were already well underway in Norman. The Sooners were the No. 1 team in pretty much every poll you could find, and with all of the talent oozing from the program, it looked as if the SEC would finally be knocked off of its high horse.

    But when it came time to hand out bowl bids, Oklahoma found itself sheepishly accepting a bid to the lowly Insight Bowl.

    Thankfully, it's a new season, and Oklahoma fans can put the past behind them. The talented roster (15 returning starters, including Landry Jones) will be faced with a relatively favorable schedule, as Big 12 schedules go.

    While the Sooners do have Notre Dame coming to town in Week 9, as well as usual foes Texas and Oklahoma State, the Sooners are the heavy Big 12 favorites this season.

    With the motivation of last season's head-scratching failure and the perceived fall-off from the rest of the top Big 12 teams from 2011, the Sooners are the likeliest Big 12 team to post a perfect 12-0 mark this season.


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    Can Oregon really earn a fourth-straight BCS berth?

    We're going to find out soon enough, but it's likely to be a little more difficult in 2012 than Oregon fans would like.

    While Chip Kelly's team welcomes back 14 starters from last season's Pac-12 title-winning squad, only six offensive starters return, losing both LaMichael James and Darron Thomas.

    But personnel losses may not be the biggest thing standing in the way of a 12-0 run through the conference this season.

    Oregon has the unenviable task of traveling to Los Angeles to face Pac-12 favorite USC on its home field. While the Ducks would certainly like to return the favor of a BCS National Championship Game berth-ruining loss suffered at the hands of the Trojans last season, the fact remains the Ducks will be a depleted team while the Trojans appear to be as close to unstoppable as a team on paper can look for 2012.

    Still, we're putting Oregon near the top of our power rankings because beyond USC, there's not a lot on the schedule that the Ducks will fear this season.

    While USC is the clear favorite, any given Saturday...

Florida State

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    One team that has a better-than-even chance of knocking off Clemson in 2012 is Florida State.

    The Seminoles weren't quite all they were cracked up to be in 2011, but that doesn't mean Florida State is incapable of chasing down a conference title in 2012.

    While the pollsters aren't likely to reward FSU with another lofty preseason ranking after last season's letdown, the Seminoles will see a whopping 18 returning starters from last season's squad that wasn't all that terrible—when everyone was healthy, that is.

    If the 'Noles can keep everyone on the field this season, there's not a whole lot on the schedule that should be too scary.

    While losses are still possible, the absence of any marquee non-conference games should give Florida State a leg up in the win column.


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    Before all of the USC haters begin to cry foul, take into consideration the following.

    First, USC wasn't all that bad last season, posting a 10-2 mark.

    Second, the Trojans have nine offensive starters returning, including quarterback Matt Barkley.

    Third, USC's non-conference schedule includes Hawai'i and Syracuse—not exactly two power programs expected to come anywhere close to beating the Trojans.

    Fourth, USC gets Oregon in LA this season.

    Fifth, the two teams to beat USC last season, Stanford and Arizona State, aren't expected to amount to much this year (not that ASU amounted to much last year).

    Finally, the Trojans actually have something to play for in 2012.

    Now, which game do you want to bet they don't win this season?

Boise State

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    Yes, Kellen Moore is gone.

    But that doesn't mean Chris Petersen and company is ready to throw in the towel.

    The Boise State Broncos have been the best non-AQ program over the past half decade, and with several other candidates—such as Utah and TCU—making the move to the ranks of the BCS Automatic Qualifying conferences, the title of “best of the rest” is probably secure for the time being.

    While the Mountain West will see a few newcomers in 2012, there's still nothing on Boise's schedule that should be beyond the ability of the Broncos to overcome.

    Realistically, BSU will be the heavy favorite to win the MWC this season, and the only probable loss comes in a Week 1 trip to East Lansing to take on Michigan State.

    And we all know what has happened in the past when the pundits pick against the Broncos.

    Because of the weakened TCU-less MWC schedule and Boise State's uncanny ability to win games against top AQ programs, we're putting the Broncos at the top of our list to go 12-0 in 2012.

    Now, on to the matter of which postseason game they'll play in...