13. TCU: Casey Pachall took over for veteran Andy Dalton, and the sophomore quarterback exceeded expectations in his first season as the starter. The Horned Frogs had a younger and more inexperienced team in 2011, but many of their starters return, including a stout front four on defense.
14. Michigan: The reason why the Wolverines were unable to crack my Top 10 right now is because of their schedule — defending national champion Alabama in Arlington, Texas, and road contests against Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State. But Brady Hoke proved in year one that Michigan is certainly back on the national map.
ICONCould Brandon Jenkins and the Seminoles finally get back into the Top 5?
15. Florida State: The Seminoles hope to use their come-from-behind win over Notre Dame in the Champs Sports Bowl as a springboard to big things in 2012 after disappointing their fans this fall. Coordinator Mark Stoops will have defensive end Brandon Jenkins and cornerback Xavier Rhodes back, and the ‘Noles should get much better offensive line play. A running game must be consistent, however, every week to help out quarterback E.J. Manuel.
16. Wisconsin: Quarterback Russell Wilson and center Peter Konz will be gone, as well as offensive coordinator Paul Chryst and a few other Badger offensive assistants. But this is Wisconsin, where a strong running game behind Heisman finalist Montee Ball will keep Bret Bielema’s squad in every game. The big question is who will win the quarterback derby and how the offense will move forward without Chryst.
17. Texas: Quarterback play is still the biggest issue for the Longhorns. Case McCoy is the better pure passer, but it seems as if coordinator Bryan Harsin prefers dual-threat David Ash. Or will someone else emerge? Most importantly, a sound rushing attack led by Malcolm Brown and a stingy Manny Diaz defense will be enough to make the ‘Horns a Top 25 team.
18. Kansas State: Dual-threat quarterback Collin Klein was the best player in the Big 12 not named Robert Griffin III, and he’ll get back many of his supporting skill players. Defensively, Bill Snyder’s squad will once again be sound, especially against the run.
19. Notre Dame: I think the Fighting Irish are in store for a better season than the one they endured this fall, but I have them at No. 19 because of their brutal schedule, which includes road tests at Oklahoma and USC. The defense will continue to get even better, but the quarterback position is the biggest question mark.
20. Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets will be dominant offensively once again next year with quarterback Tevin Washington and backs Orwin Smith and David Sims working behind an intact offensive line. Big-play receiver Stephen Hill’s decision to leave early for the NFL hurts, though.
21. Nebraska: The Cornhuskers re-shuffled their defensive staff a bit after the Blackshirts didn’t have the season that many expected. Losing linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard hurts, but the defense returns a lot of key contributors from 2011. And running back Rex Burkhead and quarterback Taylor Martinez pace a strong rushing attack. But, again, can “T-Magic” make enough plays through the air?
22. Stanford: Perhaps no team will be as fascinating as the Cardinal next season without star quarterback Andrew Luck, an institution on The Farm the last few years. The good news is that they’ll be able to rely on a sound ground game and a defense that returns linebackers Chase Thomas and Shayne Skov.
23. Oklahoma State: Now we get to see if Mike Gundy is worth the big bucks, as the Pokes will lose Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon. The pressure will increase for coordinator Todd Monken, who will need to find star power on offense. But Bill Young will get back many of his defenders on a unit that relied on the big play in 2011.
24. Auburn: The Tigers are intriguing next season because new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder will have every starter back except one. Losing offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, however, will have the biggest impact. Running back Onterrio McCalebb will return as the unit looks to find stability at quarterback.
25. Boise State: Even though the Kellen Moore era has ended, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Boise State well above this No. 25 ranking because of Chris Petersen, one of the best head coaches in the nation. Boise is on the map, something that hasn’t been lost on the solid recruits that have been brought in during Petersen’s tenure.
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