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A very early Top 5 for 2012

Which teams could be primed for standout seasons next fall? Dave Miller

Print This January 11, 2012, 01:30 PM EST

An incredibly early NFP Top 25 for 2012? That seemed a little too insane, even for my love of college football.

Actually, that’s coming on Thursday.

Today, we get a sneak peek at how the Top 5 could shake out when all is said and done in 2012. Could Alabama repeat as BCS national champions? Will LSU rebound from its atrocious offensive showing and deliver Les Miles another title? Or is there a dark horse squad lurking?

Let’s take a look ahead at which teams could project to sit atop next year’s final rankings…

Note: These rankings are definitely subject to change.

Eddie LacyICONEddie Lacy is ready to step in at RB if Trent Richardson leaves for the NFL.

1. Alabama: Until the Crimson Tide get beat, they will remain on top as the defending BCS national champions. They’ll lose a ton of talent on defense to either graduation or the NFL Draft — Courtney Upshaw, DeQuan Menzie, Mark Barron, Dont’a Hightower and Dre Kirkpatrick may have all played their last game in Tuscaloosa. But we all know how Nick Saban reloads, and there are always replacements ready to step in, including young defenders such as defensive backs Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix and Dee Milliner. And the team’s offense will be better despite the likely loss of Heisman Trophy finalist Trent Richardson. Eddie Lacy certainly has the talent to step in at running back fulltime and perform at a high level, and quarterback AJ McCarron proved Monday night in New Orleans that he can handle an increased workload. Throw in a veteran offensive line and a receiver corps featuring Kenny Bell and Kevin Norwood that is one year older and very talented, and the Tide should be even more efficient on offense. Finding a replacement for coordinator Jim McElwain, who is leaving to take over the program at Colorado State, remains the biggest issue.

Game to Watch: vs. Michigan, Sept. 1 (Arlington, TX); at LSU, Nov. 3

2. LSU: The Tigers certainly didn’t look like an undefeated team Monday night in their 21-0 loss to Alabama, but frustrated Bayou Bengal fans don’t have to worry about subpar quarterback play any longer. Former Georgia quarterback Zach Mettenberger is ready to step in for Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee, and he possesses the big arm that is capable of connecting with the Tigers’ talented receivers for big plays down the field. Odell Beckham returns, and Kadron Boone could step in if Rueben Randle decides to turn pro early. The running back depth will still be the envy of the nation, the offensive line will be strong once again and the schedule gets easier — even though Les Miles did navigate through his tough 2011 campaign with an unblemished mark until Monday night. Most importantly, that deep, talented, fast and physical second-ranked defense in the nation isn’t going anywhere, as the two-deep is loaded with underclassmen.

Game to Watch: vs. Alabama, Nov. 3

3. Oregon: The Ducks had one of the most impressive bowl performances of the postseason, finally delivering head coach Chip Kelly his signature win in Eugene with a victory over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl — a game that turned into a track meet from the very beginning. And Pac-12 freshman of the year De’Anthony Thomas is one of the biggest reasons why the Ducks will have a standout season once again next year. Quarterback Darron Thomas will return, and Kenjon Barner should fill the shoes of LaMichael James very well. In all, 16 starters are expected to return, including many from a defense that really grew up in the second half of the year, including linebacker Kiko Alonso. Oregon’s toughest competition in the Pac-12 will come from USC, but I like the depth of the Ducks a little bit better.

Game to Watch: at USC, Nov. 3

Landry JonesICONCan Landry Jones and the Sooners bounce back after a disappointing 2011 campaign?

4. Oklahoma: It’s a little bit of a reach slotting the Sooners at No. 4 considering they’re coming off of a three-loss season. But I really think that losing running back Dominique Whaley and receiver Ryan Broyles really affected quarterback Landry Jones, who will return for one more year in Norman. Broyles will be gone next year, but Jones can still rely on receivers Kenny Stills, Jaz Reynolds and Kameel Jackson. Plus, Whaley should be able to return to full health. The major questions for OU come on the defensive side of the ball. Injuries certainly had their effect, but can the Sooners regain their defensive swagger? And could Mike Stoops possibly be on the way to help it along?

Game to Watch: vs. Notre Dame, Oct. 27

5. USC: The Trojans will likely have 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 season. Star quarterback Matt Barkley returns to lead an offense that will be explosive once again, with a receiver duo of Marqis Lee and Robert Woods that is the country’s best. Thousand-yard rusher Curtis McNeal returns, but left tackle Matt Kalil is leaving for the NFL, so Barkley will have a new face protecting his blind side. Defensively, this team made big strides in Monte Kiffin’s second season as coordinator, and the unit proved how far it came when it beat Oregon at Autzen Stadium in late November. The Trojans get the Ducks and Notre Dame at home next year as well.

Game to Watch: vs. Oregon, Nov. 3; vs. Notre Dame, Nov. 24

Email dave.miller@nationalfootballpost.com or follow me on Twitter at Miller_Dave

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