On Wednesday, I offered a <a href=”http://www.nationalfootballpost.com/A-very-early-Top-5-for-2012.html” target=”_self”>very early look at my potential Top 5 heading into the 2012 college football season. Alabama headlines the list, as Nick Saban’s squad will enter the fall as the defending BCS national champions. LSU, Oregon, Oklahoma and USC followed the Crimson Tide.
Today, let’s look at the 20 teams that could follow the aforementioned powerful five — a way-too-early Top 25 for 2012.
Note: These rankings are definitely subject to change.
1. Alabama: They’ll lose a ton of talent on defense to either graduation or the NFL Draft, but running back Eddie Lacy and quarterback AJ McCarron will lead a stronger offense. The Crimson Tide just need to find a replacement for OC Jim McElwain, who is the new head coach at Colorado State.
2. LSU: Former Georgia quarterback Zach Mettenberger is ready to step in for Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee, and the Tigers return a lot of their deep, talented, fast and physical dominant defense.
3. Oregon: Darron Thomas and De’Anthony Thomas are two of what could be 16 returning starters, and the defense that really grew up in the second half of the year will be even better.
4. Oklahoma: Landry Jones will be able to rely on a promising set of receivers and running back Dominique Whaley, but new co-defensive coordinator Mike Stoops must help shore up a talented yet disappointing defense, particularly the secondary.
ICONMatt Barkley and the Trojans are no longer ineligible for the postseason.
5. USC: The Trojans could have as many as 19 starters back from a team that was playing as well as any squad in the country, with the exception of LSU and Alabama, by the end of the 2011 season. Star quarterback Matt Barkley returns to lead an offense that will be explosive once again, and Monte Kiffin’s defense was much improved in his second season running the unit.
6. Arkansas: Getting back quarterback Tyler Wilson and a healthy Knile Davis at running back will help the offense maintain its high-scoring ways despite some key losses at receiver. And the Razorbacks’ secondary returns mostly intact. Home games against Alabama and LSU give Bobby Petrino’s squad a real chance to make an impact on the national stage.
7. Virginia Tech: There’s a chance that Virginia Tech may not actually be the seventh-best team in the nation next year at this time. However, the Hokies have a quarterback in Logan Thomas who is primed for a huge year because of a deep receiving corps, and they always have a running back to step up when a star (David Wilson) moves on. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster will return his entire front seven, and the Hokies’ toughest non-conference games are against Big East foes Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. That schedule is the reason why the Hokies could find themselves in another BCS bowl game at the end of the year.
8. South Carolina: Marcus Lattimore not only should be fully recovered from his injury, but Steve Spurrier also finally found a quarterback he’s comfortable with in Connor Shaw. Ellis Johnson is no longer the defensive coordinator, but there’s too much talent on that side of the ball even with the departures of corner Stephon Gilmore and end Melvin Ingram.
9. Michigan State: The Spartans will once again have one of the best defenses in the nation under coordinator Pat Narduzzi, as the unit will be led by end William Gholston. LeVeon Bell will pace a strong rushing attack, but replacing the veteran presence of Kirk Cousins remains the team’s big question mark.
10. Georgia: The Bulldogs return much of the team that ran off 10 straight wins after an 0-2 start before falling in their final two contests. Most importantly, they have a 3-4 defense that was one of the most stout in the nation, led by linebacker Jarvis Jones and safety Bacarri Rambo. With quarterback Aaron Murray, running back Isaiah Crowell and receiver Malcolm Mitchell, the offense will score points. However, that offensive line will be rebuilt next fall.
11. West Virginia: Geno Smith showed how comfortable he is in Dana Holgorsen’s offensive attack in an Orange Bowl thrashing of Clemson, but how will the Mountaineers adjust to life in the Big 12 — if, in fact, they are granted an early release from the Big East?
12. Clemson: I hope I’m not sorry by having the Tigers this high, because they really were unimpressive after racing out to an 8-0 start this past fall. But the players love head coach Dabo Swinney, receiver/returner Sammy Watkins is a stud and the offense coordinated by Chad Morris is very prolific. There’s material on defense. Consistency is the key, and that's what the Tigers' new defensive coordinator will have to make happen.
CONTINUE TO PAGE 2 FOR NOS. 13-25