Alabama, LSU Headline College Football Preseason Top 5

Clarence Baldwin JrAnalyst IJuly 30, 2012

Alabama, LSU Headline College Football Preseason Top 5

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    Another year, another summer of wild speculation as to who the best college football teams are. Personally, I have never been a fan of all the conjecture, but until a legitimate playoff exists, we play the hand we are dealt as college football fans.

    With that said, the summer months are about workouts, depth charts and of course, figuring out who is worthy of being given rankings that often have little bearing on who will be the best team in college football come January.

    Case in point, in 2011, people were making the Oklahoma Sooners out to be an all-time great team. Landry Jones! Ryan Broyles! Too much for anybody to stay on the field with them. And uh, they went 10-3 and ended up in the wildly prestigious Insight Bowl.

    So let's not take this too seriously. But for the sake of starting silly arguments that make sports so fun to cover, let's go.

#5: Oregon Ducks

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    The hallmark of the best programs is the ability to replace great players with new players and not skip a beat. Chip Kelly is well on his way to earning that distinction in Eugene, Oregon. Gone will be LaMichael James and Darron Thomas. Stepping to the forefront will be the tandem of runners Kenjon Barner and explosive sophomore De'Anthony Thomas. 

    The quarterback position has yet to be settled as Bryan Bennett and Marcus Mariota battle to replace Darron Thomas in Kelly's up-tempo spread offense. Although the Ducks need to replace a pair of starting linebackers and defensive backs—including the mercurial Cliff Harris—they will benefit from a relatively soft schedule. Arkansas State, Fresno State and FCS-foe Tennessee Tech make up the non-conference slate and five of the first six games will be at raucous Autzen Stadium. 

    Ultimately, this team's fortunes will come down to a pair of games. November 3 at USC may very well determine one of the two teams playing for the national championship. In addition, I look at the game October 18 at Arizona State as a potential trap game.

    Should they navigate those two games, you could very well see the Ducks back in the BCS title game in January 2013.

#4: Florida State Seminoles

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    By all accounts, Florida State has recruited as well as any team in college football over the past three to four years. Jimbo Fisher's team has slowly made the transition away from Bobby Bowden is now clearly his team. That said, this has to be the time that the Seminoles take the step toward being a legitimate title contender. All those great preseason and recruiting rankings mean nothing without the results on the field. Ask Notre Dame.

    The key to a real resurgence for FSU is going to be the health and consistency of quarterback EJ Manuel. Physically, Manuel can do everything on a football field. He is a good, though inconsistent QB and probably the best runner Florida State has. This year, he will need a sturdy run game in bigger contests. So far, Devonta Freeman, Chris Thompson and James Wilder Jr. have all missed time with injuries. One of them must assert themselves to balance out a potentially potent offensive attack.

    That's because Willie Haulstead and Kelvin Benjamin give Manuel two legitimate playmakers outside. Make no mistake, Florida State will score points. The defense, which should see early action from blue chip recruits Mario Edwards, Eddie Goldman and Chris Casher will be very good. Led by Brandon Jenkins and Xavier Rhodes, the defensive backs have a chance to be dominant.

    Like Oregon, FSU has a relatively soft schedule. Its two biggest games are the showdown October 20 at Miami, and the November 8 showdown with Virginia Tech. Beyond that, Florida State's biggest opponent will be Florida State. Fisher has a chance to make the leap, which can't come soon enough for antsy Seminole fans.  

#3: University of Southern California

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    Shackles removed, the University of Southern California goes into 2012 with very high expectations of what could be a huge college football year for them. Lane Kiffin has done a very good job keeping recruits in house and bringing in high quality players as the program was forced to bide its time in the face of NCAA sanctions from the Pete Carroll era. 

    Now, led by Heisman candidate Matt Barkley, USC is definitely being looked upon as a serious national championship contender. For my money, the hype could be a little premature, but the talent is there. Of the 22 starters in 2011, 19 return and the running game could get a big boost if Penn State transfer Silas Redd decides to head to Los Angeles. 

    Barkley's weapons begin with perhaps the best tandem of receivers in America: Marqise Lee and Robert Woods. That duo shredded Oregon in the biggest game of the Kiffin Era, a 38-35 win that at once formally pronounced that USC was once again legitimate and clearly made the new Pac-12's biggest rivalry one between those two teams. 

    On the ground, SC will need production from Curtis McNeal, who averaged just under seven yards a carry and rushed for over 1,000 yards. Even if Redd is signed, he will need a solid second back and McNeal fits the bill.

    Defensively, Monte Kiffin's unit must improve to give the Trojans a legitimate chance to win big games. In 2011, the team finished 63rd in the country on third down conversions and 85th in first downs allowed. Too many extended possessions will cost this team if those numbers do not improve in 2012. 

    That said, I will not be surprised to see USC cruise up until a trap game on October 4 at Utah. Of course, their biggest game will be the home game against Oregon on November 3. I truly believe the winner of that game will be in prime position to play for the national championship.

#2: Louisiana State University Tigers

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    Most of America has put the Bayou Bengals in the number one position for the 2012 preseason. I honestly cannot blame them. Their being number two on my list has nothing to do with a lack of talent. When the smoke clears, it would not surprise me in the slightest if Les Miles' team is the last team standing in college football's race to a title.

    However, before the anointing can begin, LSU must address their ongoing problem under center. Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee's inconsistencies caught up with them in the national championship game. To combat that, newcomer Zach Mettenberger has been given the keys to the Tiger offense. Unlike Jefferson and Lee, Mettenberger has the potential to make LSU a threat with the vertical passing game. He is the unquestioned key to their 2012 season.

    And the reason I say that is because everywhere else, the Bayou Bengals are stacked. On the ground, Spencer Ware and Michael Ford will power Miles' patient but potent ground-based offense. They will not need to score much because this is probably the best defense in the country. 

    Yes, the LSU defense. When people think of what they do defensively, it starts with, of course, The Honey Badger. The government knows him as Tyrann Mathieu, and the Heisman finalist is a jack of many trades for the Tiger defense. But he is by no means a force of one.

    All-American candidate Barkevious Mingo leads a ferocious front line that stuffs the run and gets after the passer better than any team in the country. Players like Sam Montgomery and Anthony Johnson also will have the opportunity to shine like former star Michael Brockers, who is now in the NFL.

    But the area that separates LSU from the few teams that are comparable to them is their dynamic special teams. Brad Wing is the best specialist in America, changing field position on a consistent basis. And of course, this is where Mathieu's other ability to shine comes into play. Averaging 16.1 yards per punt return, Mathieu returned two for touchdowns last season. No team in America has the special teams of LSU.

    Ultimately, their path to the national championship on paper has one imposing obstacle: round three against the defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide. That game, to be played on November 3 in front of most of the civilized world, should serve as another elimination game to the BCS title. But unlike the previous two, this game will be played on LSU's terms, in raucous Death Valley. 

#1: Alabama Crimson Tide

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    My golden rule of all rankings, regardless of sports is this: Unless a defending champion completely loses every major component, either through graduation (in college) or free agency/fire sale (baseball, basketball), they are the best in the land until proven otherwise. Based on that criteria, my number one team in America is the Alabama Crimson Tide.

    Yes, Nick Saban has work to do to replace the best running back in the country in Trent Richardson; and it will not be easy to offset the losses of linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw, and All-American safety Mark Barron. But the brilliance of Saban's defensive schemes are how he extracts the best out of his best players and puts them all in positions to make plays.

    That said, linebackers Adrian Hubbard and Xzavier Dickson will have to step in immediately. Hightower and Upshaw left big shoes to fill. In the secondary, junior college transfer Deion Belue has a chance to be a suitable replacement for Barron. But what will make this team go is how it runs the ball offensively.

    Even though AJ McCarron is back and should have improved numbers, Alabama's strength is arguably the best offensive line in the country. Even without Richardson, they will open up holes for runners like returning Eddie Lacy and potential star T.J. Yeldon. The triumvirate of offensive linemen Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker is easily the country's best. They will need to be to help smooth the defensive transition for Saban's retooled defense.

    Unlike the other teams on the list, there is much less of a margin for error for the champs. Saban's crew begins with an interesting matchup against the improved Michigan Wolverines on September 1. I expect Alabama to win, but how they look could be a harbinger of the rest of their season. Beyond the obvious showdown against LSU, key match-ups will be at Arkansas, a very difficult match-up, and of course, the Iron Bowl against Auburn November 24

Honorable Mentions

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    The teams I had just off the radar include Oklahoma, West Virginia—who could be explosive in 2012—and Arkansas. Typically, there is always a team that comes off the grid to stun college football every year, even if they don't make it the entire season. For me, that team is TCU.

    Gary Patterson is one of the best coaches in college football and their perceived weaknesses going into 2011—QB namely—are now strengthened in 2012. The Big 12 is not as strong as it has been, and with a strong backfield and front four, the Horned Frogs could very well come off the radar to surprise teams.

    But that's why this time of year is so fun. It's all speculation until the games are played. My only bone of contention is the fact that there is even a preseason poll in the first place. It has, does and will continue to adversely hinder teams that are undervalued who actually win big games early in the year. Every year a team like Georgia gets tons of hype and never lives up to it, but winds up in the same high slot again and again. 

    It is time for that to cease. Let's abstain from having a college football poll until at least week six of the season, when teams begin to sort themselves out. That way, the perpetual spoilers like Boise State, TCU, etc. have the same type of chance to be evaluated on merit and hype doesn't overshadow actual performance. Because the polls have never been wrong before...