College Football: Way-Too-Early Top 25 for 2012

David Fidler Correspondent IJanuary 15, 2012

College Football: Way-Too-Early Top 25 for 2012

0 of 25

    College football's underclassmen have now declared whether or not they will make themselves available for the NFL draft. In effect, it is time to take a still-way-too-early look at the top 25 in 2012.

    Firstly, there are still plenty of seismic shifts on the horizon, as the first kickoff of the 2012 season is still seven months away. In effect, I expect plenty of shakeups that will, in turn, shake up my premature version of this list.

    Secondly, I acknowledge that due to the premature nature of this list, my own research into various teams was limited. Outside of the Big Ten, which I went into detail about here, I didn't do a game-by-game survey into what I felt each team's ultimate record would be.

    That said, I will clarify a few things.

    This is my obscenely early predictions regarding what the top 25 will look like in December of 2012, and not how I feel the top 25 preseason poll will look like. Obviously, it assumes that nobody will get injured—or that injuries will affect all teams equally—suspended, or otherwise kicked off their respective team.

    + means the player left the team or was kicked off the team, but didn't enter the NFL Draft.

    # means he entered the NFL Draft with eligibility remaining.

    * means the player was voted All-Conference, either first or second team.

    *** means the player was voted consensus All-American.

    Lastly, a "returning starter," for my purposes, started at least four games in a previous season. Needless to say, there are plenty of non-starters with plenty of experience, but one has to draw the line somewhere.

Utah Utes

1 of 25

    Record This Season: 8-5

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Seven

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Nine

     

    Specialists Returning: Both

     

    Key Players Lost: John Cullen OL*, Tony Bergstrom OL*, Tevita Finau DE, James Aiono DT, Derrick Shelby DE*, Chaz Walker LB, Matt Martinez LB, Conroy Black CB

     

    Biggest Questions: Linebacker

    The Utes lost their top two tacklers of the past two years.

     

    Greatest Strength: Offensive skill positions

    The quarterback, featured running back and top six pass catchers return.

Boise State Broncos

2 of 25

    Record This Season: 12-1

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Four

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Five

     

    Specialists Returning: Kicker

     

    Key Players Lost: Kellen Moore QB*, Doug Martin RB*, D.J. Harper RB, Tyler Shoemaker WR*, Kyle Efaw TE, Cory Yriarte C, Nate Potter OL***, Chuck Hayes OL, Shea McClellin DE*, Jarrell Root DE, Billy Wynn DT*, Chase Baker DT, Tyrone Crawford DE*, Byron Hout LB, Aaron Tevis LB, Cedric Febis S, Travis Stanaway S, George Iloka S, Hunter White DB, Brad Elkin P

     

    Biggest Questions: Defensive line

    BSU has to replace three starters, including two All-Conference defensive ends. These issues are made worse given that the Broncos have to replace both starting linebackers (Boise State's base defense is 4-2-5).

     

    Greatest Strength: Secondary

    A plethora of injuries in 2011 forced the secondary to dig deep. That will pay dividends this year, as four of the five BSU defensive backs are returning starters.

Washington Huskies

3 of 25

    Record This Season: 7-6

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Eight

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Eight

     

    Specialists Returning: Neither

     

    Key Players Lost: Jermaine Kearse WR, Devin Aguilar WR, Senio Kelemete OL*, Erik Folk K, Everette Thompson DE, Alameda Ta'amu, Cort Dennison LB*, Quinton Richardson CB, Kiel Rasp P, Chris Polk RB*#

     

    Biggest Questions: Defense

    Even though it's returning an impressive eight players, the 2011 defense held the Huskies back. It was the 11th-ranked scoring defense in the Pac-12. That will have to change if the team is to rise above mediocrity.

     

    Greatest Strength: Offensive line

    Yes, Chris Polk is gone, but four experienced offensive linemen return. The Pac-12's fifth-ranked rushing offense (YPC) should improve despite the loss of Polk.

Oklahoma State Cowboys

4 of 25

    Record This Season: 12-1

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Eight

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Five

     

    Specialists Returning: Both

     

    Key Players Lost: Brandon Weeden QB*, Hubert Anyiam WR, Josh Cooper WR, Nick Martinez OL, Grant Garner C*, Levy Adcock OL***, Jamie Blatnick DE*, Richetti Jones DE, Markelle Martin SS*, Justin Blackmon WR*** 

     

    Biggest Questions: Offensive line

    The O-line has to replace three full-time starters, two of who were all-conference. Their job won't be made any easier with a brand new quarterback behind them.

     

    Greatest Strength: Secondary

    Cornerback Broderick Brown is one of the best cornerbacks in the country. His partner in crime, Justin Gilbert, isn't far behind.

Virginia Tech Hokies

5 of 25

    Record This Season: 11-3

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Nine

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Three

     

    Specialists Returning: Both

     

    Key Players Lost: Josh Oglesby RB, Danny Coale WR, Jarrett Boykin WR, Chris Drager TE, Andrew Lanier OL, Greg Nosal OL, Jaymes Brooks OL*, Blake DeChristopher OL*, Eddie Whitley ROV*, Cris Hill CB, David Wilson RB*#, Jayron Hosley CB*#


    Biggest Questions: Offensive line

    The Hokies only have one returning starter in this group. Ultimately, a solid O-line could be the only thing that keeps them from being in serious contention for an ACC championship and third straight BCS bowl.

     

    Greatest Strength: Defense

    Last season, Virginia Tech wound up with the No. 7 scoring defense in the country with only five returning starters.

    Where will it wind up this season with almost every starter returning?

Auburn Tigers

6 of 25

    Record This Season: 8-5

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: 10

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Eight

     

    Specialists Returning: Both

     

    Key Players Lost: Quindarius Carr WR, Jay Wisner WR, A.J. Greene OL, Jared Cooper OL, Brandon Mosley OL, Eltoro Freeman LB, Neiko Thorpe S, Michael Dyer RB*+

     

    Biggest Question: Overall offense

    The biggest offseason loss might have been offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, who has taken over the head coaching duties at Arkansas State. He was one of the best, if not the best, offensive coordinator in the country.

    This complicates the questions and issues that already surround the Tigers passing game.

     

    Greatest Strength: Defensive continuity

    It's difficult to say the Auburn defense will be good, given how lousy it was in 2011. Nonetheless, if experience and continuity count for anything, the Tigers return a boatload of experienced, talented players.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

7 of 25

    Record This Season: 8-5

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Seven

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Eight

     

    Specialists Returning: Punter

     

    Key Players Lost: Jonas Gray RB, Michael Floyd WR, Trevor Robinson OL, Taylor Dever OL, David Ruffer K, Ethan Johnson DE, Darius Fleming LB, Robert Blanton CB, Gary Gray CB, Harrison Smith S, Dayne Crist QB+

     

    Biggest Question: Showing up in big games

    Brian Kelly's career record against top 25 teams: 6-13

    Brian Kelly's career record against top 10 teams: 0-7

    Notre Dame's schedule might not be what it once was, but it includes perennial powerhouses Southern Cal, Michigan and Oklahoma, not to mention potential top 25 teams Michigan State, Stanford and BYU.

     

    Greatest Strength: Defensive front seven

    The Irish return six of their starting defensive front seven, including All-American linebacker Manti Te'o.

Texas Longhorns

8 of 25

    Record This Season: 8-5

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Seven

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Nine

     

    Specialists Returning: Neither

     

    Key Players Lost: Cody Johnson FB, Fozzy Whittaker RB, Blaine Irby TE, Tray Allen OL, David Snow OL*, Justin Tucker K/P*, Kheeston Randall DL*, Keenan Robinson LB, Emmanuel Acho LB*, Blake Gideon S, Christian Scott S, Garrett Gilbert QB+

     

    Biggest Questions: Quarterback

    If you want to know what the problem in Austin has been over the last two seasons, look no further than the guy under center. In 2010, the Horns ranked 10th in Big 12 passing offense (passer efficiency). In 2011, they ranked second to last in the conference.

    If Texas is to turn the ship around, it has to start with the signal caller, whoever that may be.

     

    Greatest Strength: Pass rush

    The Horns return two all-conference ends in junior Jackson Jeffcoat and senior Alex Okafor. The two combined for 14 sacks and 29.5 tackles for loss in 2011.

South Florida Bulls

9 of 25

    Record This Season: 5-7

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Seven

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Nine

     

    Specialists Returning: Both

     

    Key Players Lost: A.J. Love WR, Jeremiah Warren OL*, Chaz Hine OL, Keith McCaskill DT, Patrick Hampton DE, Quenton Washington CB, Jerrell Young S*, Darrell Scott RB*#

     

    Biggest Questions: Winning the close ones

    In 2011, the Bulls went 1-4 in games decided by a field goal or less. If South Florida is to win the Big East, they will have to find a way to win winnable games.

     

    Greatest Strength: Offensive skill players

    USF returns their dual-threat quarterback and their top five pass catchers. They do lose Darrell Scott to the NFL, but Demetris Murray has plenty of experience and is ready to step into the featured running back role.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

10 of 25

    Record This Season: 9-4

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Eight

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Eight

     

    Specialists Returning: Both

     

    Key Players Lost: Tyler Legate FB, Brandon Kinnie WR, Jamarcus Hardrick OL, Mike Caputo C*, Marcel Jones OL, Terrence Moore DT, Jared Crick DT, Lance Thorell LB/DB, Lavonte David LB***, Alfonzo Dennard CB*, Austin Cassidy S 

     

    Biggest Questions: Balanced offense

    The Nebraska rushing attack is once again something to be feared. However, the offense and team will never be elite without a passing game to maintain offensive balance—a passing game it is currently lacking.

     

    Greatest Strength: The rushing attack

    Quarterback Taylor Martinez isn't much of a passer, but he keeps opponents on their toes. Moreover, running back Rex Burkhead is the toughest player in the Big Ten.

Oregon Ducks

11 of 25

    Record This Season: 12-2

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Eight

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Six

     

    Specialists Returning: Both

     

    Key Players Lost: Lavasier Tuinei WR, David Paulson TE*, Darrlon Weems OL, Mark Asper OL, Terrell Turner DE, Brandon Hanna DE, Josh Kaddu LB*, Dewitt Stuckey LB, Anthony Gildon CB, Eddie Pleasant ROV*, Cliff Harris CB, LaMichael James RB***#, Darron Thomas QB#

     

    Biggest Question: Pass defense

    Last season, injuries forced two freshmen into duty as cornerbacks. Both struggled at times, but they will be back next season. In order for the Oregon defense to get back to where it was in 2010, the pass defense will have to make strides.

     

    Greatest Strength: Offensive skill positions (non-quarterback)

    Whoever steps in for Darron Thomas as signal caller will have plenty of talent around him. Kenjon Barber should step right in for LaMichael James, and most of the Ducks top receivers return.

LSU Tigers

12 of 25

    Record This Season: 13-1

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Five

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Six

     

    Specialists Returning: Both

     

    Key Players Lost: Jordan Jefferson QB, Jarrett Lee QB, James Stampley FB, Mitch Joseph TE, DeAngelo Peterson TE, Will Blackwell OL*, Bob Hebert OL, Kendrick Adams DE, Stefoin Francois LB, Ryan Baker LB, Ron Brooks CB, Brandon Taylor SS, Morris Claiborne CB***#, Michael Brockers DT*#, Rueben Randle WR*#

     

    Biggest Questions: Quarterback

    The Tigers haven't had great quarterback play since 2006 and JaMarcus Russell, and they've done alright. Still, this is the position that could make a good offense great.

     

    Greatest Strength: Defense

    Despite losing tons of talent to the NFL draft, the LSU defense will still be one of the best in the country.

Michigan State Spartans

13 of 25

    Record This Season: 11-3

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Eight

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Five

     

    Specialists Returning: Both

     

    Key Players Lost: Kirk Cousins QB*, Todd Anderson FB, B.J. Cunningham WR*, Keith Nichol WR, Keshawn Martin WR, Brian Linthicum TE*, Garrett Celek TE, Joel Foreman OL*, Kevin Pickelman DT, Trent Robinson FS*, Jerel Worthy DT***#, Edwin Baker RB#

     

    Biggest Question: The passing game.

    MSU not only graduates their quarterback, but also their top four pass catchers. The returning wide receiver with the most experience is officially defensive back Tony Lippett, who played both sides of the ball last year. In 2011, he had four catches for 44 yards.

     

    Greatest Strength: Defense.

    In 2011, the Spartans led the Big Ten in rushing defense, total defense, sacks, interceptions and third-down defense. It's hard to imagine MSU failing to maintain that production, given how many starters are returning.

South Carolina Gamecocks

14 of 25

    Record This Season: 11-2

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Six

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Nine

     

    Specialists Returning: Neither

     

    Key Players Lost: Rokevious Watkins OL*, Terrence Campbell OL, Jay Wooten K, Travian Robertson DT, Melvin Ingram DE***, Rodney Paulk LB, Antonio Allen SPUR, C.C. Whitlock CB, Marty Markett CB, Joey Scribner-Howard P, Stephon Gilmore CB#, Alshon Jeffery WR*#

     

    Biggest Question: Passing offense

    Junior signal caller Connor Shaw played well, taking over for the dismissed Stephen Garcia. Now, it's time for him to step up and become a championship-winning quarterback. He will need help from the offensive line, which had issues all year protecting its quarterback.

     

    Greatest Strength: Rushing offense

    While the line has to step it up in the passing game, it shouldn't have any trouble in the running game with the return of Heisman hopeful Marcus Lattimore. Between Lattimore, Brandon Wilds and dual-threat quarterback Shaw, the Gamecocks should repeat as one of the top rushing O's in the SEC.

West Virginia Mountaineers

15 of 25

    Record This Season: 10-3

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Seven

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Eight

     

    Specialists Returning: Both

     

    Key Players Lost: Tyler Urban WR, Devon Brown WR, Don Barclay OL*, Tyler Rader OL, Bruce Irvin DE*, Julian Miller DT, Najee Goode LB*, Casey Vance LB, Keith Tandy CB, Eain Smith S*

     

    Biggest Questions: Front six

    The Big East's worst rush defense loses two full-time starters in the front six. Whichever conference WVU ends up in, they will have to improve in this area.

     

    Greatest Strength: Passing game

    Not only does All-Big East quarterback Geno Smith return, but his top three receivers also come back. Among them are All-Conference Tavon Austin and second-team All-Conference Stedman Bailey.

Michigan Wolverines

16 of 25

    Record This Season: 11-2

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Eight

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Seven

     

    Specialists Returning: Both

     

    Key Players Lost: Junior Hemingway WR, Martavious Odoms WR, Kelvin Grady WR, Kevin Koger TE, Steve Watson TE, David Molk C***, Mark Huyge OL, Mike Martin DT*, Will Heininger DT, Ryan Van Bergen DL, Troy Woolfolk CB 

     

    Biggest Question: Defensive line

    The Wolverines have to replace three full-time starters, including All-Conference defensive tackle Mike Martin.

     

    Greatest Strength: Quarterback Denard Robinson

    What Robinson lacks in passing acumen, he makes up for in playmaking ability and leadership. The Wolverines will win games for him, and he is always a threat to take it to the end zone.

Alabama Crimson Tide

17 of 25

    Record This Season: 12-1

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Five

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Seven

     

    Specialists Returning: Both

     

    Key Players Lost: Marquis Maze WR, Darius Hanks WR, Brad Smelley TE, Alfred McCullough OL, William Vlachos C*, Josh Chapman DT*, Nick Gentry DT, Jerrell Harris LB, Courtney Upshaw LB*, DeQuan Menzie CB, Mark Barron FS***, Trent Richardson RB***#, Dont'a Hightower LB***#, Dre Kirkpatrick CB*#

     

    Biggest Questions: Linebacker

    Bama has talent, but losing Upshaw and Hightower leaves a void in the middle of the Crimson Tide defense.

     

    Greatest Strength: Offensive line

    With or without Trent Richardson, the Bama rushing attack will be dominant. It will start up front where the Tide return four experienced linemen, including All-Conference guard Chance Warmack and Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones.

Ohio State Buckeyes

18 of 25

    Record This Season: 6-7

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: 10

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Nine

     

    Specialists Returning: Both

     

    Key Players Lost: Dan Herron RB, DeVier Posey WR, Mike Adams OL*, J.B. Shurgarts OL, Mike Brewster C*, Tyler Moeller LB/S, Andrew Sweat LB* 

     

    Biggest Question: The passing game

    Quarterback Braxton Miller was a true freshman, but his 12.2 passing attempts per game and 50 percent completion percentage is not enough to keep opposing defenses honest.

    The top pass catcher—tight end Jake Stoneburner—only had 14 receptions.

     

    Greatest Strength: Defense.

    New head coach Urban Meyer is known for his offense, but he also has a great track record for coaching up defenses. Three of his five Florida D's were top 10 squads.

    With most of OSU's defensive starters returning, expect a return to form for the hard-nosed defenses that Ohio State was known for under Jim Tressel.

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

19 of 25

    Record This Season: 8-5

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Seven

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Eight

     

    Specialists Returning: Both

     

    Key Players Lost: Roddy Jones RB, Embry Peeples RB, Tyler Melton WR, Jason Peters DE, Logan Walls DL, Steven Sylvester LB, Rashaad Reid SS, Stephen Hill WR#

     

    Biggest Question: Rush defense

    The ACC's ninth-ranked rush defense (YPC) loses two of its front three.

     

    Greatest Strength: Rush offense

    It goes without saying the Georgia Tech triple option offense will be tough to stop. However, it will be particularly potent with the return of its top three rushers and six experienced offensive linemen.

    This year, teams will either outscore Georgia Tech or lose.

Florida Gators

20 of 25

    Record This Season: 7-6

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: 10

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Eight

     

    Specialists Returning: Both


    Key Players Lost: John Brantley QB, Chris Rainey RB, Jeff Demps RB, Deonte Thompson WR, Dan Wenger OL, Jaye Howard DT, David Lerner P 

     

    Biggest Questions: Quarterback and passing offense

    One of the problems with the Gators in 2011 was the passing offense, which ranked seventh (passer efficiency rating) in the SEC. Perhaps a new quarterback will help solve that problem.

     

    Greatest Strength: Defense

    The SEC's fifth-ranked scoring defense returns all but three defensive players that registered a tackle in 2011, all but one of the players that registered a sack and all of the players that recorded an interception.

Oklahoma Sooners

21 of 25

    Record This Season: 10-3

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Seven

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Eight

     

    Specialists Returning: Both

     

    Key Players Lost: Ryan Broyles WR***, Dejuan Miller WR, James Hanna TE, Donald Stephenson OL, Frank Alexander DE*, Travis Lewis LB*, Jamell Fleming CB*, Sam Proctor S, Ronnell Lewis DE*# 

     

    Biggest Question: Living up to expectations

    Oklahoma is the winningest AQ program over Bob Stoops' tenure as head coach (1999-2011). However, Sooner fans have high expectations, and last season was considered an abject failure.

    This season, a Big 12 championship has to be considered the minimum.

     

    Greatest Strength: Offensive line

    The Sooners return five experienced offensive linemen. That will be the best antidote to reviving a running game that didn't live up to its billing in 2011.

Florida State Seminoles

22 of 25

    Record This Season: 9-4

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Nine

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Nine

     

    Specialists Returning: Kicker

     

    Key Players Lost: Ty Jones RB, Jermaine Thomas RB, Bert Reed WR, Beau Reliford TE, Ja'Baris Little TE, Zebrie Sanders OL*, David Spurlock OL, Nigel Bradham LB, Mike Harris CB, Terrance Parks SS, Shawn Powell P***

     

    Biggest Question: Offensive line

    The offensive line continues to be a thorn in the side of the Seminoles. That will have to stop in 2012 with only two linemen to replace.

     

    Greatest Strength: Defense

    The nation's second-best run defense also ranked first in the ACC in a number of other categories. With nine starters returning, there is no reason to think this D will take a step back.

Arkansas Razorbacks

23 of 25

    Record This Season: 11-2

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Six

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Seven

     

    Specialists Returning: Both

     

    Key Players Lost: Joe Adams WR*, Greg Childs WR, Jarius Wright WR*, Grant Cook OL, Grant Freeman OL, Jake Bequette DE*, Zach Stadther DL, Jerico Nelson LB, Jerry Franklin LB*, Greg Gatson CB, Isaac Madison CB, Tramaine Thomas S, Elton Ford S

     

    Biggest Questions: Defense

    If the Hogs are to take the next step and truly compete with LSU, Bama and Auburn, the defense will have to step up.

    For all he's done with the Arkansas offense, Bobby Petrino's Razorback D has never been ranked above No. 7 in conference scoring defense.

     

    Greatest Strength: Quarterback

    The Arkansas passing game under quarterback Tyler Wilson should be fine despite losing two All-Conference wide receivers.

    In fact, it might be more potent with the return of a rushing game in the form of Heisman hopeful Knile Davis, who missed most of last season with an injury.

Southern California Trojans

24 of 25

    Record This Season: 10-2

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Seven

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Nine

     

    Specialists Returning: Both

     

    Key Players Lost: Rhett Ellison FB, Mark Tyler RB, Brandon Carswell WR, Matt Khalil OL*#, Christian Topou NT, DaJon Harris DT, Chris Galippo LB, Nick Perry DE*# 

     

    Biggest Question: Defensive line

    With the early departure of Nick Perry, the Trojans have to replace three defensive linemen from a top 20 run defense, not to mention the Pac-12's sack leader (Perry).

     

    Greatest Strength: Passing game.

    USC not only got quarterback Matt Barkley back, but also its top three pass catchers, including All-American wide receiver Robert Woods and All-Pac-12 wide receiver Marqise Lee.

Georgia Bulldogs

25 of 25

    Record This Season: 10-4

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Nine

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Six

     

    Specialists Returning: Neither

     

    Key Players Lost: Bruce Figgins FB, Cordy Glenn OL*, Ben Jones C*, Justin Anderson OL, Blair Walsh K, DeAngelo Tyson DE, Brandon Boykin CB, Drew Butler P, Orson Charles TE*#

     

    Biggest Question: Offensive line

    UGA lost three full-time—and long-time—starters from the offensive front. Two of them were all-conference players. If the Dawgs can fix this issue, on paper, they might be the most complete team in the country.

     

    Greatest Strength: Passing game

    All-conference quarterback Aaron Murray returns, as do all of his wide receivers.