One great thing about college football is that hope springs eternal.
In that vein, it's never too early to begin looking towards next season, especially if your team hasn't quite lives up to their lofty expectations, or a group of young stars in working through a “growing pains” season, rebuilding the program with an eye on the future.
So where will each team stack up after the 2011 season is finished? What are we likely to see from pollsters come next August? Here's our take on predicting the future with our picks for the 2012 preseason Top 25.
It remains to be seen if Baylor can hang on to a Top 25 ranking this season, with several big games still to be played (at Oklahoma State on October 29, at home vs. Oklahoma on November 19, are perhaps the two biggest of those remaining).
But all signs point to junior quarterback Robert Griffin, III returning for his senior season at Baylor, and he's good enough to guide any team into the Top 25—especially the Bears with their collection of returning starters.
The Longhorns were really hoping last season was a fluke.
It turns out Texas was 5-7 in 2010 for a reason. Texas is “just” 4-2 this year. An improvement, yes, but not the instant jump back into the conference championship hunt most Texas fans were hoping for.
Still, Texas is Texas, and you can bet that 5-7 isn't in the cards this year. You can also make a safe bet that Texas will improve yet again next year over this.
Just when Bearcats fans thought all was lost, and they could waive their Top 25 rankings good-bye, the Bearcats have seen a post-Brian Kelly resurgence this year, and currently sit an impressive 6-1, and remain the only team unbeaten in Big East conference play.
Cincy has cracked at least one major poll, and the showdown between the Bearcats and West Virginia on November 12 could be the last major hurdle standing between Cincinnati and a return to the BCS.
When the 2011 season began, there wasn't a lot of attention paid to Georgia Tech, and the Yellow Jackets were able to fly under the radar for a good portion of the early season.
The lid is off, so to speak, and it turns out Georgia Tech is a pretty good football team.
Back-to-back losses have cost Tech its Top 25 ranking, but this young team with an ability to run the ball like few in the nation will have more than enough wins this year and more than enough returning starters next fall to earn their way into the 2012 preseason polls.
When the 2011 season began, Mark Richt felt the tingle of warmth on his backside.
Now that the discussion about his job security has all but ended, we're going to see renewed focus on a resurgent Georgia football team.
Gone are the days of being pushed around the SEC-East. The Georgia Bulldogs football program is quickly becoming a force in the division, and it looks as if the Bulldogs are on the cusp of something special with the continued growth of young quarterback Aaron Murray.
As this team grows and matures, expect them to get much better. By this time next season, we may be talking about the SEC-East-leading Bulldogs... What's that? Georgia is tied for the top spot in the division now?
Well, well. It appears we may not have to wait until the end of 2012 to see a resurgent Georgia team after all!
If ever you wanted to see a mass example of schadenfreude in action, look no further than the Big Ten.
Ohio State fans had to see this coming. After years of beating up on hapless conference foes, its the Buckeyes' turn to be humbled. And the rest of the Big Ten is taking a certain amount of joy in being the instrument of that humbling.
But schools like Michigan State, Penn State, and Michigan best beware. The Buckeyes won't be a middle-of-the-road Big Ten team for long, and when they return to the top tier of the conference, they will be looking to take their frustrations out on anyone who dares get in their way.
Stanford at 19? Yes, Stanford at 19.
First off, Stanford is a long shot at best to finish the regular season undefeated and earn a trip to the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Additionally, the one thing that was the stated reason everyone is so high on Stanford this season—Andrew Luck—will be gone, as his eligibility carriage turns into a pumpkin when this season ends. Luck will be set to make his millions in the NFL, and Stanford will be left with an admittedly decent team, but it's Andrew Luck that makes Stanford a great team. Without him, the Cardinal will take a decent-sized step backwards.
Yes, folks, the Wolverines are on their way back.
You didn't expect the program with more wins than anyone else in the history of the game to simply pack it up and join the MAC, did you?
Of course not. There's something almost mystical about Michigan football, and with new head coach Brady Hoke leading the charge, those words are no longer followed by snickers and eye-rolling.
The Wolverines took a huge leap forward this season back towards respectability, and their lone loss on the 2011 season thus far is to an very impressive Michigan State squad. After plowing through the rest of their Big Ten schedule with, at most, one more loss, the Wolverines will begin the 2012 season with a Top 25 ranking, and a compass that points towards Indianapolis.
While the Hokies may not have a marquee player on their roster, they're still a very good football team. Frank Beamer knows what he's doing, and anyone who counts the Hokies out before the season ends will likely fall victim to Beamerball, like so many teams have done in the past.
The Hokies still have a shot at the ACC title and BCS this season, but even earning an ACC-Coastal Division title this season (they lead the division with a 3-1 conference record) will be more than enough to find the Hokies listed in the preseason 2012 polls.
After a shocking and embarrassing loss to Syracuse last weekend, it may be hard to envision West Virginia in many preseason Top 25 polls next season, especially at No. 16.
But the Mountaineers are in the midst of returning to past successes, led by quarterback Geno Smith and new head coach Dana Holgorsen. Don't count on WVU not becoming one of the nation's top offensive teams in 2012, and their preseason Top 25 ranking will prove to be prophetic.
Interestingly enough, Penn State is the one team with only one loss that no one seems to notice.
That one loss this season? It just happened to be at the hands of the current No. 2 team in the nation, Alabama.
The Nittany Lions are 4-0 in the Big Ten, and sit atop the Leaders Division with their destiny in their own capable hands. The regular season finale between Penn State and Wisconsin will likely be for all the marbles in the division, and win or lose, Penn State will show that JoePa still has the stuff to hang with the big boys in the Big Ten.
The Cornhuskers learned pretty quickly that the Big Ten wasn't going to be all roses. In fact, Nebraska was given a rather cold reception to the Big Ten in their dismantling at the hands of Wisconsin in the Huskers' first-ever Big Ten conference game.
But Nebraska is one of five Big Ten teams with one loss, and the Huskers still hold their own fate in their hands, and they've yet to play Michigan State, the only team Nebraska is looking up at in the Legends Division. Michigan and Iowa still have yet to meet the Huskers as well, the only other one-loss teams in the division.
Win out, and Nebraska punches their ticket to Indianapolis.
If there's one team that always manages a Top 25 ranking irrespective of the previous season, it's Notre Dame.
But in this case, a preseason ranking for the Irish actually makes sense.
Brian Kelly and his staff are taking some big steps towards the ultimate goal of returning to the BCS, and Kelly along with recruiting coordinator Chuck Martin have not been shy about recruiting anyone and everyone they think will help the Irish reach that goal.
Notre Dame is also the only team this season to beat Michigan State thus far, and while a loss to USC last week effectively ends Notre Dame's BCS aspirations this year, it won't top the pollsters from putting Notre Dame right back in a position to challenge for a berth next season.
Yes, the Trojans are once again eligible to be ranked in most polls next season. USC fans delight in mentioning their AP ranking this season, but every other poll that matters has declared that USC won't be ranked as long as their major sanctions continue.
Well, those sanctions expire at the end of this season, and USC is well on its way back into the good graces of those who cast poll ballots.
The Trojans still have yet to feel the full effect of their recruiting hindrance over the past couple of seasons, but the only thing that's likely to do is reduce USC's position from a national championship contender to a Pac-12 challenger.
The Trojans will likely find their way back up the now more crowded Pac-12 ladder next season, and they'll instantly be a Pac-12-South favorite come next August.
With the post-season ban lifted next season, who knows? Anything is possible, especially for USC.
The Gamecocks may have seen their SEC Championship aspirations leave the field along with Marcus Lattimore, but the super-stud all-universe running back will return for his junior season in 2012, and that alone is worth taking a hard look at South Carolina.
Another bonus is the elimination of perennial distraction and all-around screw up Stephen Garcia. His five turbulent years at South Carolina came to ignominious end after being dismissed from the team after his sixth major violation of team rules.
The SEC-East will likely be a tougher road to hoe next year, but South Carolina should be up to the task.
Oh how the fortunes of a season can change with one play.
That's the fate Wisconsin is starting at right now after the thrilling finish in East Lansing. Any outside chance at a BCS Championship Game berth evaporated when Keith Nichol hauled in a deflected Hail Mary from Kirk Cousins as time expired to lead Michigan State over Wisconsin, 37-31.
One of the things that made Wisconsin a national-championship-caliber team this season was the addition of a dual-threat quarterback—something the Badgers haven't traditionally had. Unfortunately, Russell Wilson will be a one-and-done player, and 2011 is his final year of eligibility.
Wisconsin will still be good in 2012, but how good is a very big question.
Anyone who thought Michigan State wasn't quite up to par in the Big Ten obviously didn't see them go toe-to-toe with Wisconsin and win.
Sparty is for real, and they are now the favorites to win the Big Ten-Legends Division this season. If MSU can get by Nebraska on October 29, it's relatively smooth sailing all the way to Indianapolis.
The trouble is Michigan State will lose quite a list of play-makers to graduation when the season comes to a close, and we haven't seen nor heard much about the likely replacements on Mark Dantonio's roster.
The surprising Tigers are still undefeated at 8-0, and they're the odds-on favorite in the ACC. It's questionable whether or not anyone will be able to keep the ACC trophy out of Clemson's hands this season, and a BCS trip seems likely, if not inevitable for the Tigers.
All of that success has its rewards, not the least of which will be a high preseason start for Clemson in 2012.
Another undefeated regular season could mean more than a simple trip to the Orange Bowl for Clemson next year.
After all of the success we've seen out of Boise the past few seasons, it might seem odd to find the Broncos starting the season outside of the top five.
But the day that has given nightmares to Boise State fans has finally come: Kellen Moore's graduation day.
This annual Heisman candidate has finally run out of Division I football eligibility, and regardless of what Chris Petersen can do to fill Moore's shoes, there's no way the Broncos don't miss a beat or two without Kellen Moore taking the snaps.
Besides, at the end of the day, what does it matter what ranking Boise State receives in the polls? The BCS isn't going to invite them to the big show anyway, right Boise fans?
After a quietly impressive season thus far, the road is about to get a bit rougher for the Hogs.
Arkansas has just one loss on their record this season, to No. 2 Alabama, but the Razorbacks still have yet to face No. 1 LSU. When that game finally happens on November 26, it's possible (with a little help) that the winner of that game could find itself headed to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game.
Ever if the Hogs were to miss out on a trip to Atlanta this season, it's likely they will be rewarded with a top ten preseason ranking in 2012 after two very successful seasons.
This potential BCS Championship Game participant is having a historic season, and the Cowboys theatrics likely aren't finished for this season.
But when the dust settles, Mike “The Man” Gundy will have his work cut out for him.
While Oklahoma State won't exactly be decimated by graduations, there are a few key players that won't be returning to Stillwater in 2012.
That doesn't instantly mean failure, but it does mean the pollsters will want to see some evidence of being able to continue the success before placing Oklahoma State back amongst the top teams in the nation.
The Ducks began 2011 with a loss to now-No. 1 LSU. But since that game, Oregon has quietly been working their way back up the rankings, and still has a Pac-12 Championship and Rose Bowl aspirations on their mind.
While the Ducks need quite a lot of help to return to the BCS Championship Game this season, they are a heavy favorite to return to a BCS game. After their third-straight trip to the BCS, the Ducks will be yet another team sporting a top ten spot come next August.
Not only did the 2011 preseason No. 1 team lose their top ranking earlier in the year (even without a loss), the Sooners have now taken a major hit to their Big 12 Championship goal with a shocking loss to Texas Tech at home.
The mantra around Oklahoma seems to have been “a day late and a dollar short,” as the Sooners never seem to be able to crack the national championship drought.
Ever since the 2000 season, Oklahoma has trying in vein to recapture some of that lost glory. After five-straight BCS losses from the 2003 season through the 2008 season, OU finally broke through with a win in the 2011 Fiesta Bowl.
We don't yet know if the BCS is the destination for the Sooners this year, but either way, the Oklahoma name and reputation will be more than adequate for yet another preseason top ten ranking for the Sooners in 2012.
There's only one team to have two BCS championship trophies in its case, and there's a good reason to believe that LSU isn't done winning national championships.
Even when LSU is the favored team, the Tigers find ways to win with the at times unorthodox leadership of Les Miles.
Love him or hate him, you can't deny he's been a success at LSU, and his on-field and off-field antics are likely to continue in Baton Rouge as long as the Tigers keep in the hunt for SEC titles.
After this season's success, LSU will find itself in a favorable position poll-wise in 2012. Next year, the SEC and BCS should be theirs to lose.
It's probably not a galloping shock to most people to learn that the likely top vote-getter in the 2012 preseason polls will be an SEC team.
It's also not a jaw-dropper that Alabama will be counted amongst the top SEC teams, so it's a pretty safe bet that you can count on the Crimson Tide to field a top spot in the polls next August.
Nick Saban has build quite a powerhouse in Tuscaloosa, and there's no reason to believe anything is going to change over the short term for Alabama. The Crimson Tide are good, and they're going to continue to be good, regardless of how many players graduate.
The Crimson Tide are still in a very favorable position to make their second BCS title game in three seasons, and the continued power of the Alabama football program will be more than enough reason to put Alabama at the top of your ballot even before the first ball is kicked next season.