Ranking College Football's Top 25 Preseason Teams

Dan Hope@Dan_HopeContributor IIIAugust 30, 2012

Ranking College Football's Top 25 Preseason Teams

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    As August fades into September, the speculation can finally start to come to an end. Teams will stop worrying about preseason rankings and instead focus on their first opponents as college football’s opening weekend kicks off on Thursday night.

    Before the season starts, however, I take my turn in joining the speculation and rank the teams who should be college football’s 25 best to start the season.

    The rankings are based on projected records compiled through breaking down each team’s game-by-game schedule, with precedence going to teams expected to win conference championships and who play against stronger teams.

    Which team will win the national championship and which teams will fight for a spot toward the bottom of the rankings? Read through the following slides for one writer’s take.

1. USC Trojans

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    Projected Regular Season Record: 12-0

    USC senior quarterback Matt Barkley could have would certainly have been a top-three overall selection had he entered the 2012 NFL draft. Coming back, however, gives him a shot at glory he otherwise would not have had.

    When Barkley announced that he would return for his senior season, he became the immediate favorite to win the 2012 Heisman Trophy. Likewise, USC became immediate favorites to run the table in 2012 and win a national championship in their first season removed from a two-year bowl ban.

    Barkley is the nation’s best quarterback and he has plenty of talent around him with which to work. With a superstar quarterback and two of the country’s elite wideouts in junior Robert Woods and sophomore Marqise Lee, the Trojans should have the nation’s best passing offense.

    Defensively, the team is loaded with stars, including sophomore linebacker Hayes Pullard, senior safety T.J. McDonald and junior cornerback Nickell Robey.

    The Trojans lost two games last year, but have a Pac-12 Championship and a national championship to play for this year. If they consistently play up to their ability, there may not be a team in the nation that could stop them from winning it all.

2. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Projected Regular Season Record: 11-1

    Few college football programs can afford to lose five players good enough to be drafted in the first 35 picks of the NFL draft and still make it to the BCS National Championship Game the following year. Few teams, however, have the strength of the Alabama Crimson Tide.

    Even with the departures of star running back Trent Richardson and many superstar players on defense, the Tide remain SEC favorites as defending national champions.

    With another strong freshman class, and arguably the nation’s best coach in Nick Saban, the Tide could certainly win back-to-back titles.

    Offensively, the Tide will rely more heavily on junior quarterback A.J. McCarron to lead the team in the wake of Richardson’s departure, while also expecting junior running back Eddie Lacy to step up and fill Richardson’s shoes.

    Defensively, the Tide are still loaded with stars, including defensive end Damion Square, cornerback Dee Milliner and free safety Robert Lester.

    The Tide will once again face stiff competition in the SEC West from LSU and Arkansas. If they can come out on top in the division, they should make it through the SEC Championship Game and into the title game.

3. Oklahoma Sooners

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    Projected Regular Season Record: 11-1

    The Oklahoma Sooners are a very strong team on both sides of the ball, led by one of the nation’s best quarterbacks in Landry Jones. However, the Sooners, and Jones, have both had a problem in recent years: finishing the season strong.

    The Sooners are heavily favored to win the Big 12 Conference and have the strength to run the table all the way into the BCS National Championship Game.

    Their offense is a very balanced attack, led by senior quarterback Jones, junior wide receiver Kenny Stills and senior running back Dominique Whaley. On the other side of the ball, junior linebacker Tom Wort, free safety Tony Jefferson and cornerback Demontre Hurst are standouts.

    Oklahoma has the team to win a national championship, but based on recent history, they are left out of the top two due to their likelihood of a lapse game. If the Sooners lose a game at any point, they are likely to lose out of a berth to a one-loss SEC champion.

4. LSU Tigers

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    Projected Regular Season Record: 10-2

    Everything had been perfect for the LSU Tigers last season up until the 2012 BCS National Championship Game, in which the Tigers laid a complete egg—0 points—and were defeated by Alabama, a team they had beaten during the regular season.

    The Tigers have a chance, however, to avenge their defeat and make it back to the championship game this year. They have lost some crucial players, including their top two quarterbacks and cornerbacks from last season, but also have a wealth of returning talent.

    LSU has a very deep stable of running backs and a talented junior quarterback, Zach Mettenberger, rising to the starting role. The defense, however, will still be LSU’s strength.

    Juniors Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo may make up the best defensive end combination in the nation, while the team will still have a superstar in the secondary in junior free safety Eric Reid.

    LSU is unlikely to run the table through a loaded Southeastern Conference again this season, but they are certainly among the nation’s top title contenders.

5. Arkansas Razorbacks

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    Projected Regular Season Record: 10-2

    While Alabama and LSU remain favorites to win the SEC West, this could be the year Arkansas steals the conference title. The big reason for that is senior quarterback Tyler Wilson, who may be second only to Matt Barkley as the nation’s best signal-caller.

    While the Razorbacks lost three of their top wideouts from last season, they also bring back one of the nation’s best running backs, senior Knile Davis, who missed the entire 2011 season.

    Senior defensive end Tenarius Wright and senior outside linebacker Alonzo Highsmith are standouts on the other side of the ball.

    While the Razorbacks have the experience and talent to win the SEC this year, the one issue that could hold them back is the turmoil at head coach.

    While Alabama and LSU have elite coaches in Nick Saban and Les Miles, respectively, the Razorbacks have a temporary head coach in John L. Smith, who took over the post following Bobby Petrino’s firing.

    Coaching may simply be too important in college football for Smith to prevail over Saban and Miles in the SEC West this year. If the coaching proves not to be a problem, the Razorbacks could go as far as becoming national champions.

6. Florida State Seminoles

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    Projected Regular Season Record: 11-1

    Florida State entered last season with great expectations but stumbled out of the gate to a 2-3 start. If the The Seminoles have a better start this year, they have a chance to be the ACC’s best team in many years.

    No team outside of the SEC has as much talent on defense as Florida State. They have a tremendous duo of pass-rushing defensive ends in senior Brandon Jenkins and junior Bjoern Werner.

    They also boast a talented back end of the defense featuring junior cornerback Xavier Rhodes and junior safety LaMarcus Joyner.

    The Seminoles have a fantastic class of incoming recruits, featuring another talented defensive end, Mario Edwards, the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2012 class according to the ESPNU 150.

    If quarterback E.J. Manuel can take his game to new heights as a senior, the Seminoles could be in for a special season.

7. Michigan Wolverines

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    Projected Regular Season Record: 10-2

    In their first season under head coach Brady Hoke last year, the Michigan Wolverines made massive improvement. The Wolverines went 10-2 in the regular season, defeated Ohio State for the first time since 2003 and went on to win the Sugar Bowl.

    2012 sets up perfectly as the year for Michigan to win the Big Ten title and go back to the Rose Bowl.

    Dynamic dual-threat quarterback Denard Robinson is entering his senior season among a talented offense, while the defense made tremendous progress last year under the guidance of Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison.

    The Wolverines may not necessarily improve upon last season’s record, but with significant losses from Michigan State and Wisconsin—and Ohio State's bowl ineligibility—Michigan has a golden opportunity in 2012.

8. Georgia Bulldogs

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    Projected Regular Season Record: 11-1

    The Georgia Bulldogs have one of the nation’s most talented teams and an incredible break in scheduling. The Bulldogs managed to avoid Alabama, LSU and Arkansas on their SEC schedule this season.

    The Bulldogs had to make a very tough decision when they dismissed star running back Isaiah Crowell from the program, but they still have a strong offense led by talented junior quarterback Aaron Murray.

    The Bulldogs also have one of the nation’s best defensive players in junior outside linebacker Jarvis Jones.

    While the SEC East could be as competitive as it has been in many years, the Bulldogs are definite favorites on their side of the conference.

    However, they could be in for a rude awakening when they have to face one of the SEC West powers in the conference championship game, which could result in a big loss.

    Nonetheless, the Bulldogs are the East’s biggest contenders to end up as SEC champions, so expect them to make a serious run at it.

9. Virginia Tech Hokies

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    Projected Regular Season Record: 11-1

    Virginia Tech is a perennial contender in the ACC. With star junior quarterback Logan Thomas leading the offense, 2012 should be no different.

    Coming off of a tough Sugar Bowl loss to Michigan last year, the Hokies are looking to make it back to the BCS. With a tremendous dual-threat quarterback and a defense that ranked seventh nationally last year, the Hokies should have their way with the majority of the ACC.

    The Seminoles stand in front of the Hokies as ACC favorites, but it is hard to ever count the Hokies out as long as Frank Beamer is leading the charge in Blacksburg.

10. Wisconsin Badgers

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    Projected Regular Season Record: 11-1

    For all the well-deserved hype that Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III received in college football last year, the best player in the nation may very well have been Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, who broke the NCAA record for most single-season total touchdowns.

    Ball is back for his senior season and even with the departure of quarterback Russell Wilson, the Badgers should continue to have a very strong offense.

    Wide receiver Jared Abbrederis and tight end Jacob Pedersen, both juniors, are back to help this year’s quarterback transfer, Dan O’Brien, who will be protected by star left tackle Ricky Wagner.

    The Badgers are always known for their dominance in the trenches, which helps Ball's effectiveness as a runner. Defensively, the Badgers are also a very strong team, led by two instinctive, consistent tacklers at linebacker in senior Mike Taylor and junior Chris Borland.

    The Badgers have an easy road to winning the Big Ten Leaders division with Ohio State banned from the postseason this year. If they can get through Michigan and Michigan State, they could be back in another Rose Bowl this year.

11. Michigan State Spartans

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    Projected Regular Season Record: 10-2

    The Michigan State Spartans are going to be another dangerous team in the Big Ten this year. While the graduation of quarterback Kirk Cousins is a significant loss, the Spartans have some great talent on both sides of the ball.

    Junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell is a quality replacement for Cousins and he will have a very good running back to work with in junior Le’Veon Bell.

    On the other side of the ball, junior defensive end William Gholston is a blossoming superstar, while senior cornerback Johnny Adams is a big playmaker in the secondary.

12. South Carolina Gamecocks

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    Projected Regular Season Record: 9-3

    The big difference-maker for the South Carolina Gamecocks this season will be the return of superstar running back Marcus Lattimore, who may be the best back in the country. Lattimore missed the second half of last season with a torn ACL.

    Lattimore is far from the only talent on the Gamecocks’ offense, which includes a number of other dynamic playmakers including junior wide receiver Ace Sanders and sophomore wide receiver Bruce Ellington. T

    he biggest question for the Gamecocks, however, is figuring out whether junior quarterback Connor Shaw can find stability as the team’s signal-caller.

    The Gamecocks are also loaded on defense, with a tremendous duo of defensive ends in sophomore Jadeveon Clowney and senior Devin Taylor.

    Even with the departures of two top-20 picks from the defense in Stephon Gilmore and Melvin Ingram, the Gamecocks should continue to be one of the nation’s most dangerous defenses.

13. Tennessee Volunteers

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    Projected Regular Season Record: 9-3

    The Tennessee Volunteers have not won eight or more games since winning 10 in 2007, but this could be the year that they return to contention in the SEC.

    With a tremendously dynamic duo of juniors in quarterback Tyler Bray and wide receiver Justin Hunter leading the way on offense, Tennessee can be a dangerous foe for any team.

    The Derek Dooley era has gotten off to a rough start in Knoxville, but the Volunteers have the talent to mix it up in the SEC East this year. If the Volunteers can pull off a win against Georgia, Alabama or South Carolina, they can seriously make their mark in the conference mix this year.

14. Oregon Ducks

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    Projected Regular Season Record: 10-2

    The Oregon Ducks lost superstar running back LaMichael James and starting quarterback Darron Thomas from last year’s team. Led by two tremendous speed backs in De’Anthony Thomas and Kenjon Barner, the Ducks will still be a fast-paced, playmaking offense.

    The Ducks are in the less-than-ideal position of starting a redshirt freshman, Marcus Mariota, at quarterback, which means they could struggle early due to his learning curve.

    However, with playmakers on offense and defensive standouts such as senior defensive end Dion Jordan and senior safety John Boyett returning to the team, the Ducks should continue to be the top contender in the Pac-12 North.

    Chip Kelly nearly left the Ducks for the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the offseason, but he returned to lead what could be the fastest offense in all of college football.

15. Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Projected Regular Season Record: 10-2

    There may not be one team in college football whose season is more anticipated than the Ohio State Buckeyes, even though the Buckeyes are ineligible to play in a bowl game this season.

    That is, of course, because the Buckeyes are about to begin their first season under new head coach Urban Meyer.

    The Buckeyes had the sixth-worst passing offense in the FBS last season, with only 127.0 yards per game. With a year of experience under his belt and a new offensive coaching staff, sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller should make vast improvement this year.

    His top offensive playmakers include senior running back Jordan Hall and sophomore wide receiver Devin Smith.

    The Buckeyes’ defense, however, should still be their strength. The Buckeyes have a loaded defense, led by senior defensive end John Simon, junior defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, sophomore outside linebacker Ryan Shazier and sophomore cornerback Bradley Roby.

    The Buckeyes have the talent to be one of the nation’s best teams, but it is important to remember that they are not bowl eligible, and are coming off of a losing season. They should, however, get their program turned around in a big way this season.

16. Washington Huskies

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    Projected Regular Season Record: 9-3

    If there is one dangerous team in the Pac-12 that could upset USC in a single game, it's the Washington Huskies. The Huskies have improved considerably since Steve Sarkisian became head coach following a winless season in 2008. This could be the year they contend for a Pac-12 North title.

    The Huskies are led by a dynamic dual-threat quarterback, junior Keith Price, whose combination of downfield passing and ability to run the football could make him a Heisman contender this year, much like Robert Griffin III was for Baylor last season.

    He has some very talented weapons to work with on offense as well, including junior running back Jesse Callier and sophomore tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins.

    The Huskies ranked 106th in total defense last year, so that side of the ball continues to be a concern. But they have some big playmakers on that unit, including sophomore defensive end Josh Shirley and senior cornerback Desmond Trufant.

    The possibilities for a great year are very high for the Washington Huskies this season.

17. Texas Longhorns

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    Projected Regular Season Record: 10-2

    The Texas Longhorns have gone just 13-12  in the two years since their BCS National Championship Game loss in 2009. The Longhorns program, however, is too good to continue on with mediocrity for much longer.

    The big problem for the Longhorns has been at the quarterback position, which continues to be an issue, as neither sophomore David Ash nor junior Case McCoy has been able to establish himself as the Longhorns’ long-term answer at the position.

    For now, Ash is the starter. If Ash can step up his game this season, the Longhorns have a chance to be very good, as they have considerable talent on the rest of their team.

    The offense features two very good young running backs in sophomores Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron, along with playmaking wide receivers in junior Mike Davis and senior Marquise Goodwin.

    Defensively, the Longhorns have pairs of studs at defensive end in junior Jackson Jeffcoat and senior Alex Okafor, and at cornerback with junior Carrington Byndom and sophomore Quandre Diggs.

    The Longhorns have the talent to win the Big 12, but quarterback woes will likely cost them two or three games. Nonetheless, expect head coach Mack Brown to have his team in much better position this year.

18. Stanford Cardinal

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    Projected Regular Season Record: 9-3

    Replacing departed quarterback Andrew Luck will be no easy task for the Stanford Cardinal this season. They are unlikely to be the same caliber of team that they were with him.

    They have, however, transformed into one of the Pac-12’s power programs, so they should still remain a nine- or 10-win team this season.

    Junior quarterback Josh Nunes is talented, but he has huge shoes to fill. The key player on the Stanford offense will be senior running back Stepfan Taylor, who will likely have to take on an increased role running the ball without Luck under center.

    The Cardinal do have some very solid talent returning on the defensive side of the ball, led by senior linebackers Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas. The Cardinal are a disciplined defense that may not have the best athletes in the nation, but are strong against the run and play well as a unit.

    Head coach David Shaw should know that it will be tough to replicate the success he had in his first season with Luck under center, but the Cardinal are not about to fall back to being a bottom-dweller in the Pac-12.

19. Nebraska Cornhuskers

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    Projected Regular Season Record: 9-3

    In its second the Big Ten season, the Cornhuskers do not appear to be among the favorites to win the conference, but they certainly have the talent to contend.

    Junior quarterback Taylor Martinez is a dynamic dual-threat, but passing consistency has been a major issue for him. Helping him out, however, is senior running back Rex Burkhead, who established himself as one of the nation’s best running backs last season.

    Defensively, the Cornhuskers lost a number of major players, and will need seniors like defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler and linebacker Will Compton to step up in a big way.

    The Cornhuskers do not quite the overall talent from top to bottom to be among the Big Ten’s best teams, but they can still be a nine-win team.

20. West Virginia Mountaineers

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    Projected Regular Season Record: 9-3

    The West Virginia Mountaineers have a high-octane offense led by a very talented senior quarterback, Geno Smith. The Mountaineers, however, could be in for a rude awakening, as they transition from the weak Big East to the powerful Big 12.

    The Mountaineers have the talent and firepower to beat any of the Big 12’s best teams, and I expect them to come away with some impressive wins. However, they will not be used to playing strong opponents on a week-in, week-out basis, which could be overwhelming to them in their first season in the conference.

    Along with Smith, who is among the nation’s best signal-callers, the Mountaineers have some very explosive offensive playmakers in sophomore running back Dustin Garrison, senior wide receiver Tavon Austin and junior wide receiver Stedman Bailey. Defense, however, could be a concern, as the team transitions to a much more offensively-oriented conference and has to replace a number of key players from last season, including both starting defensive ends.

    The Mountaineers are not going to be embarrassed out of the gate in the Big 12, but it is important to temper expectations as the team makes a big jump in competition.

21. Kansas State Wildcats

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    Projected Regular Season Record: 9-3

    Kansas State is as intriguing as any team in the Big 12 this year. With a combination of dual-threat senior quarterback Collin Klein and talented junior running back John Hubert, the Wildcats should pair a prolific rushing offense with a strengthening defense.

    Defensively, senior middle linebacker Arthur Brown and senior cornerback Nigel Malone emerged as standouts last year, which could lead one of the stronger defenses in the conference this year.

    The Wildcats’ biggest concern is their passing offense, which lacks a downfield attack in a conference that includes Landry Jones and Geno Smith. They should be able to contend, however, to be among the conference’s top teams this season.

22. Auburn Tigers

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    Projected Regular Season Record: 8-4

    The Auburn Tigers may not have much chance of contending in the SEC West with Alabama, LSU and Arkansas, but two years removed from a national championship, head coach Gene Chizik should be able to lead his team back into the top 25.

    Last season, Auburn had to deal with a serious lack of experience. This year, added experience and blossoming talents should make them better.

    The Tigers still have that issue at quarterback, where sophomore Kiehl Frazier is a first-time starter, but should be a talent upgrade over last year’s signal-callers, Barrett Trotter and Clint Moseley.

    The Tigers have to overcome the loss of standout running back Michael Dyer, who was dismissed from the program, but have solid offensive talent led by senior running back Onterio McCalebb and senior tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen.

    Defensively, junior defensive end Corey Lemonier has emerged as one of the nation’s best pass-rushers.

23. Texas A&M Aggies

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    Projected Regular Season Record: 8-4

    Texas A&M enters the 2012 season in an intimidating position. They have a new head coach in Kevin Sumlin, are replacing the No. 8 overall draft pick at quarterback and are among the two new members of the nation’s toughest conference, the SEC.

    Nonetheless, A&M still has the talent to be a top-25 team, even with the tougher competition they will face this year.

    Redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel is the new quarterback and his ability to follow in Ryan Tannehill’s footsteps is crucial.

    Fortunately, Manziel has many weapons to work with on offense. The Aggies have two very good running backs in senior Christine Michael and junior Ben Malena, and a very talented pair of senior wide receivers in Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu.

    The Aggies may also have the nation’s best duo at offensive tackle with two tremendous juniors in Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews. Defensively, the Aggies are led by two tremendous hybrid pass-rushers at outside linebacker, senior Sean Porter and junior Damontre Moore.

24. Florida Gators

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    Projected Regular Season Record: 8-4

    The Florida Gators are yet another team with the chance to be major contenders in the loaded Southeastern Conference. The Gators have talented players on both sides of the ball, but quarterback uncertainty could have a negative effect.

    Sophomore dual-threat quarterbacks Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel are both very talented, but neither has been able to establish himself as the starter.

    Fortunately, the offense has many weapons to work with, including junior wideout Andre Debose and junior tight end Jordan Reed.

    Defense, however, will be the strength of Will Muschamp’s team this year. Muschamp is a terrific defensive coach and he has a team loaded with talented personnel, including junior defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, junior linebacker Jelani Jenkins and junior safety Matt Elam.

25. Clemson Tigers

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    Projected Regular Season Record: 9-3

    The Clemson Tigers were having a very strong 2012 season, including an ACC Championship victory over Virginia Tech, for a 10-win year. The season came to a nightmarish conclusion, however, when the Tigers gave up 70 points in a blowout loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl.

    The Tigers have the team to bounce back strong this season, especially on offense. The Tigers have a dynamic dual-threat quarterback in junior Tajh Boyd, a very good senior running back in Andre Ellington and a superstar duo at wide receiver in sophomore Sammy Watkins and junior DeAndre Hopkins.

    Defensively, the Tigers do not have the typical defensive pass rushers they are known for, but return some very solid talent, including sophomore linebacker Stephone Anthony, senior linebacker Corico Hawkins and senior defensive back Xavier Brewer.

    The Tigers have to improve on defense, however, after that horrendous Orange Bowl defensive performance to conclude last season.


    Dan Hope is the Patriots gameday correspondent, an NFL draft featured columnist for Bleacher Report and a regular viewer of college football games every Saturday. For live analysis of the best college football teams and players every weekend, follow him on Twitter @Dan_Hope.