Join the conversation: CFB Saturday Live

NCF Nation: first-2012-power-rankings

The college football season is officially over. So it's time to break out the crystal ball and offer our projections for the preposterously-too-early 2012 Big Ten power rankings.

1. Michigan State: The Spartans must replace a lot of leadership, including quarterback Kirk Cousins, receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin and All-American defensive tackle Jerel Worthy. But nine starters return off the Big Ten's top overall defense, featuring Will Gholston, Denicos Allen and Isaiah Lewis as potential breakout stars. Le'Veon Bell could have a big year as the No. 1 tailback, and if Andrew Maxwell can adequately fill in for Cousins, the offense should be fine, especially if Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett gets his waiver to become immediately eligible at receiver. Plus, the road schedule (at Central Michigan, at Indiana, at Michigan, at Wisconsin, at Minnesota) is far more manageable than what the team navigated in 2011.

2. Michigan: A lot of things went right for the Wolverines in 2011, including a favorable schedule. That slate gets harder in 2012, beginning with Alabama at Cowboys Stadium and including road trips to Nebraska and Ohio State. Still, Denard Robinson and Fitz Toussaint form one of the most dangerous offensive duos in the league, and the second year under Brady Hoke and his staff should mean more familiarity and comfort. Coming off a BCS win, Michigan could start the season in the Top 10.

3. Wisconsin: The Badgers will have to overcome many challenges to reach their third straight Rose Bowl. The biggest concern is at quarterback, where there's no experience to replace Russell Wilson and his record-breaking efficiency level. Bret Bielema will have to remake almost his entire offensive coaching staff after Paul Chryst took several assistants with him to Pittsburgh. Still, Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball returns to keep the Wisconsin running game among the best in the country. And the two Big Ten teams who beat the Badgers in 2011 -- Michigan State and Ohio State -- must come to Madison in '12.

4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes aren't eligible to make the Big Ten title game, but don't be surprised if they put up the best record in the Leaders Division. A transition period can be expected as Urban Meyer takes over as head coach and installs an entirely new offensive system. But Ohio State had a small senior class in 2011 and brings back many talented players, such as defensive lineman John Simon, quarterback Braxton Miller and running back Carlos Hyde. A schedule that features eight home games should equal much improvement over this year's 6-7 record.

5. Nebraska: Few teams will be as experienced on offense as Nebraska, which returns seven starters and just about every key skill player on that side of the ball. Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead should be even better with another year in offensive coordinator Tim Beck's system. The questions are on defense, where the Huskers struggled at times in 2011 before losing their top two players in linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. Nebraska must get tougher up front defensively to handle the Big Ten grind and has difficult road assignments looming at Ohio State and Michigan State.

6. Penn State: For the first time since 1965, we'll see what a Penn State team looks like that is not coached by Joe Paterno to start the season. New coach Bill O'Brien made a wise decision to retain defensive assistants Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden, and even without All-American lineman Devon Still, that side of the ball should stay stout with standouts like Gerald Hodges, Jordan Hill and hopefully a healthy Michael Mauti. O'Brien's biggest impact should come on offense. The former New England Patriots offensive coordinator will try to bring the Nittany Lions attack into the 21st century with a competent passing game. Tailback Silas Redd provides a nice crutch while that transition occurs.

7. Iowa: After two straight 7-5 regular-season finishes, the Hawkeyes will look to get back into Big Ten contention. But they'll have to overcome the losses of star receiver Marvin McNutt, offensive tackle Riley Reiff, defensive linemen Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns and cornerback Shaun Prater. When he's on, James Vandenberg is as good a dropback passer as there is in the Big Ten, but making up for McNutt's production won't be easy. Assuming Marcus Coker returns from suspension, the running game should be very good. The defense simply has to improve after giving up too many big plays in 2011, and Kirk Ferentz hasn't yet named a successor to veteran defensive coordinator Norm Parker, who retired.

8. Purdue: The Boilermakers have a chance to make a move in a Leaders Division that is marked by coaching changes. They return most of the major pieces of their Little Caesars Bowl-winning team, and the return of Rob Henry from his season-ending knee surgery opens up some interesting possibilities at quarterback. Kawann Short should be one of the top defensive linemen in the league if he decides to return for his senior year. We'd still like to see more consistency from Danny Hope's program before we rank Purdue too high, however.

9. Northwestern: Dan Persa and his record-breaking accuracy are gone, along with top receiver Jeremy Ebert. Yet we're not too concerned about the offense and like the multi-dimensional options that Kain Colter provides with his all-around athleticism. Northwestern's issue is whether it can fix a defense that had trouble stopping anybody. The fact that the Wildcats lose their top three defensive backs from a secondary that was routinely torched does not inspire confidence.

10. Illinois: New coach Tim Beckman has his work cut out for him in Year One. He has to completely revamp an offense that couldn't shoot straight in the back half of 2011 while implementing a new spread style. He has to try to maintain the defense without coordinator Vic Koenning or All-American defensive end Whitney Mercilus. And he faces a schedule that sees the Illini going to Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan, all three of which won in Champaign this past season. There's still talent on defense, led by promising linebacker Jonathan Brown. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase needs to build on his second-half showing in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.

11. Minnesota: After a horrible start, the Gophers showed a lot more fight down the stretch in 2011, beating Iowa and Illinois at home. Jerry Kill knows how to build a program, and the team can't help but be better in 2012, especially if MarQueis Gray continues to develop at quarterback. But Minnesota still has some holes on its roster that can only be fixed through recruiting, and while the Gophers could make a run at bowl eligibility this year, they'll be hard-pressed to make too much noise in a stacked Legends Division.

12. Indiana: The good news for the Hoosiers is that they played a ton of freshmen in 2011, and the growing pains should start to pay off for guys such as Tre Roberson and Mark Murphy in 2012. The second year under Kevin Wilson should also bring progress. Still, this is a team that went 1-11 in 2011 with no wins over FBS teams, so it remains an uphill climb.

Early 2012 ACC power rankings

January, 10, 2012
1/10/12
3:00
PM ET
It’s way too early for this. But that’s the fun of it. Heck, the ACC is impossible to predict from week to week, let alone in January. Consider this a starting point. A base for your offseason arguments. Don’t like it? I’ve got a mailbag. Learn how to use it. Let the debate begin …

1. Florida State: I know, I know, you’ve heard this one before. But it’s impossible to ignore the fact that nine starters return to one of the nation’s best defenses. Quarterback EJ Manuel will be back, and the Noles again have some of the nation’s best recruits.

2. Clemson: Quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins were record-setters in their first seasons as starters. There’s plenty of incoming talent, and the Tigers should contend for the Atlantic Division again if the defense improves.

3. Virginia Tech: This staff knows how to develop players, and that quality will again be critical as the Hokies have to rebuild their offensive line and will lose their top playmaker in David Wilson. Quarterback Logan Thomas could be the best in the ACC, though, if the supporting cast emerges.

4. NC State: Consider the Pack the darkhorse candidate for the 2012 race. If NC State can stay healthy, it should have two of the league’s top players in quarterback Mike Glennon and cornerback David Amerson.

5. Georgia Tech: The majority of the Jackets’ roster returns, and it should be better after growing pains in 2011. With an experienced offensive line, and the bulk of playmakers returning, Georgia Tech should again be a contender in the Coastal Division.

6. Virginia: If the Cavaliers were playing for the division title in just the second season under coach Mike London, there’s no reason to doubt them in his third. There were some important lessons learned down the stretch, and it was a strong season for UVa to build on.

7. Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons were a field goal away from winning the Atlantic Division title in 2011, and quarterback Tanner Price is good enough to put them in position to do it again.

8. North Carolina: The Tar Heels have another transition to go through with first-year coach Larry Fedora, and the defense will have to fill some big shoes. Offensively, though, there is enough in place that UNC can surprise some people in the Coastal Division race.

9. Boston College: The Eagles’ strong finish to 2011 left a lot of optimism within the program, and despite the loss of linebacker Luke Kuechly, the defense should still be strong. The return of running back Montel Harris will certainly help, but again the team must adjust to another offensive coordinator.

10. Miami: The biggest thing Miami has in its favor right now is a strong recruiting class. With eight starters leaving early for the NFL draft and the departures of the Class of 2008 -- plus possible NCAA sanctions looming -- there’s a lot of uncertainty in the program now.

11. Maryland: Look at it this way: It can’t get much worse. The hire of Mike Locksley as offensive coordinator will help, especially in recruiting, but how much, how fast? And has the dust finally settled, or will there be more changes?

12. Duke: Somebody has to be last, and until Duke proves otherwise, it’s status quo in Durham. Duke suffered from many of the same problems last year that it did in 2010.

Early 2012 Big East power rankings

January, 10, 2012
1/10/12
3:00
PM ET
Because I love you all so much, I now present to you my early 2012 Big East power rankings. The season is one day old, so I reserve the right to change my mind based on spring practice and then fall practice. To say these are way early is to say West Virginia beat Clemson. Understatement!

1. West Virginia.* You see the asterisk there for obvious reasons. Will the Mountaineers be in this league in 2012, or will somebody else get to be called the favorite in the preseason? Should West Virginia return to this league, that performance in the Orange Bowl should frighten the rest of this conference. Now granted, there will be some major questions on this defense, but if Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey can put up half a hundred every week, the Mountaineers are going to be really tough to beat.

2. Rutgers. This was a tough call for me. The Scarlet Knights still have quarterback issues, a nonexistent running game and are losing Mohamed Sanu. But they also return 16 starters, including Co-Big East Defensive Player of the Year Khaseem Greene. Everything should be in place for this team to make a serious run. The offensive line will be better; I firmly believe the quarterback play will be better; and there is enough talent at receiver to make up for Sanu's loss.

3. Louisville. Right now, I think it is a toss up between Louisville and Rutgers. The Cardinals also return a majority of their starters, including freshman of the year Teddy Bridgewater, along with a talented receiving corps and an offensive line that solidified itself as the season went on. What I worry about most right now is maturity and leadership. Louisville seems to thrive in an underdog role, and that will not be the case in 2012.

4. Cincinnati. The Bearcats lose 21 seniors, including Offensive Player of the Year Isaiah Pead, Co-Defensive Player of the Year Derek Wolfe, defensive leader JK Schaffer and starting quarterback Zach Collaros. There is a lot of young talent on this team, but the key word is young. How will the Bearcats handle themselves without so many of their best players?

5. USF. This has got to be the year the Bulls make a serious run at the Big East. The only problem is they have no idea how to win Big East games, and that prevents me from listing them higher than middle of the road in this league. There are going to be a lot of returning starters and returning seniors on this team, and plenty of talent. But there are some holes that have to be filled on the offensive line, defensive line and in the secondary. B.J. Daniels must win this season.

6. Pitt. I truly believe Paul Chryst is the best hire Pitt could have made this time around. But does that mean he has what he needs to be able to turn this team into a serious Big East contender? There are major question marks at quarterback, offensive line, defensive line and linebacker. The defense was the strength of this team but it's losing most of its best players. How does Ray Graham come back from knee surgery? I think of all the Big East teams, the Panthers have the most questions headed into the offseason.

7. UConn. Should we talk again about quarterback issues for the Huskies? It was the same theme in the preseason last year. We are no closer today to knowing who is going to lead this team, because there will be yet another quarterback competition. Running back should be an area of strength, just like last season, and there are some good players returning on the defensive line. But offensive line and secondary are also two major questions that must be improved for this team to contend again.

8. Syracuse. The Orange lost their best players on defense in Phillip Thomas, Chandler Jones and Mikhail Marinovich, along with 1,000-yard rusher Antwon Bailey. There are also depth questions on the offensive line, defensive line and at receiver. Ryan Nassib took a good first step this season, but he's got to make bigger steps this year. First and foremost, this team must find an identity and solve all the issues that plagued them at the end of this season.

Early 2012 SEC power rankings

January, 10, 2012
1/10/12
3:00
PM ET
We officially said goodbye to the 2011 season Monday night and crowned the Alabama Crimson Tide as college football's new champions. Now, it's time to shift our focus to 2012. Here's to hoping the Mayans were wrong:

1. Alabama: The defense will get hit the hardest by graduation and the NFL draft, but Alabama's offense should be better. While it's almost a forgone conclusion that junior running back Trent Richardson will declare for the NFL draft, Alabama returns a veteran offensive line, has a good set of up-and-coming receivers and has some pretty talented running backs to work with, including pounder Eddie Lacy. Oh, and that quarterback ain't too bad, either.

2. LSU: The Tigers might have come up short in the big one, but it's not like LSU is going anywhere. That defense that ranked second nationally was made up by a slew of youngsters. LSU returns double-digit starters next year, including most of its front seven. A major bright spot for this team is that former Georgia quarterback Zach Mettenberger will now get his chance, and has skill that Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee lacked.

3. Georgia: The Bulldogs might return more starters next year than LSU. After surpassing expectations and challenging LSU for the SEC title, the Bulldogs should enter next fall as the favorites in the SEC East. Stud quarterback Aaron Murray returns and so do most of his weapons. With arguably the easiest schedule (again) in the SEC, Mark Richt will be expected to take his Dawgs back to Atlanta.

4. South Carolina: There won't be any sleeping on the Gamecocks in 2012. After getting 11 wins for only the second time in school history, South Carolina should compete for the SEC East for the third straight year. The Gamecocks return a slew of talent, especially on defense, and saw tremendous improvement in quarterback Connor Shaw. Also, running back Marcus Lattimore should be back and healthy after his devastating season-ending knee injury.

5. Arkansas: The Razorbacks will lose a lot of key players that have helped Arkansas get to where it is under Bobby Petrino. Defensively, five seniors will say goodbye, while the offense will lose three NFL wide receivers. However, that offensive line, which grew up as the season progressed, will be much better and star running back Knile Davis should be back and healthy. Quarterback Tyler Wilson is back, so there shouldn't be much dip in the passing game even with some new faces at receiver.

6. Auburn: Those youngsters on the Plains will be more mature and much improved in 2012. That has to be a scary thought for other SEC members. Auburn doesn't lose much from its 2011 team and gets a great addition to the defensive side of the ball in new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. Offensively, there are weapons everywhere, but the key will be finding the right quarterback ... again.

7. Florida: Will Muschamp's first year as the Gators' head coach didn't go as planned, but there is still a lot of talent in Gainesville, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Florida loses just one starter on defense and should have one of the fastest, most aggressive defensive units around the SEC. Getting that offense going will be key to Muschamp's second year, but with all that turnover, it should be a fresh start for this unit.

8. Missouri: This new group of Tigers enters 2012 as a factor in the SEC East. Missouri returns nearly everyone from 2011, including quarterback James Franklin and running back Henry Josey, who both put up solid numbers in 2011. The Tigers will no doubt hit some snags as they transition into their new home, but with all the talent that returns, Missouri won't be a pushover in its first year in the SEC.

9. Tennessee: Derek Dooley has the pieces in place on both sides of the ball to compete in the SEC East. That young defense won't be so young in 2012 and quarterback Tyler Bray returns with his deep-threat sidekicks at wide receiver. With a solid offensive line, the next step for Tennessee is to find a consistent running back to help take the pressure off of the passing game. There's a lot of pressure on Dooley to get things done, and he has the talent to in 2012.

10. Texas A&M: The Aggies have the pleasure of entering the SEC as a Western Division team. That's not exactly a warm welcome. It doesn't help that Texas A&M is losing a ton from its 2011 team. There could be six NFL draft picks who won't be back in College Station next season. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill and top safety Trent Hunter are gone, and so is receiver Jeff Fuller. Christine Michael should do well as Cyrus Gray's replacement at running back, but the core of this team will be gone.

11. Vanderbilt: Year 1 of the James Franklin era was a success and there shouldn't be a lot of drop-off for the Commodores next season. Vandy loses top defenders Chris Marve, Tim Fugger and Casey Hayward, but a lot of veterans return on that side of the ball. Jordan Rodgers is back at quarterback, Zac Stacy returns at running back and wide receivers Chris Boyd and Jordan Matthews will be back. Running back and specialist Warren Norman should be back too and the offensive line returns four starters.

12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs lose a lot on both sides of the ball in 2012, but should have a top cornerback combo in Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield. Losing Fletcher Cox up front will leave a hole on the defensive line and saying goodbye to linebacker Brandon Wilson won't be easy. Tyler Russell will probably get the first crack at quarterback for the Bulldogs, but he will be without his safety net in running back Vick Ballard. The good thing is that the receivers are back, but this team will have to grow up in a hurry.

13. Kentucky: The offensive line will have some missing pieces in 2012 and the defense loses six starters, including star linebacker Danny Trevathan. Maxwell Smith and Morgan Newton will battle at quarterback, but with how 2011 ended, Smith might have the advantage. This team struggled mightily on offense and the problem was that there wasn't a lot of improvement throughout the year. The offseason should be dedicated to find ways to get this offense moving.

14. Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze steps into a tough situation at Ole Miss. His first order of business needs to be improving the discipline on this team. It was awful in 2011, and if Ole Miss wants to improve it has to clean that up. The defense should get a boost with leader D.T. Shackelford returning from his season-ending knee injury and offensive playmakers Jeff Scott, Donte Moncrief and Nickolas Brassell are back. The offensive line loses some key components, and the quarterback situation is far from figured out.

Early 2012 Pac-12 power rankings

January, 10, 2012
1/10/12
3:00
PM ET
It's never too early to look ahead, and even if it is, it's not against the law or anything.

And so we have our way-too-early 2012 power rankings.

By the way, schedule does not factor into these. This is a projected pecking order based on where a team stands right now -- Jan. 10, 2012.

And, by the way No. 2, if you don't like where your team is in the way-too-early power rankings, then I'd suggest whining about it until you get to play better.

By the way No. 3, Nos. 1 & 2 were easy. The rest is pretty darn murky, not in small part due to four new coaches.

1. USC: The Trojans welcome back 19 starters from a top-five team, including quarterback Matt Barkley. They beat Oregon in Autzen Stadium on Nov. 19. USC might be the preseason No. 2. Or No. 3.

2. Oregon: The Ducks have a strong mix of talent coming back from a team that won the Rose Bowl, but it's not just about 16 returning starters. If you want a reason to favor the Ducks over the Trojans, it's depth. Oregon welcomes back most of its two-deep. By the way, old Ducks fans probably grin about the idea of their team having better depth than USC.

3. Utah: The Utes welcome back 18 starters, though replacing both offensive tackles will be a huge task this spring. The defense has a chance to be beastly. The key? Utah proved it can win eight games with poor-to-middling quarterback play. But does a healthy Jordan Wynn -- back to late 2009, early 2010 form -- mean 10 wins?

4. Stanford: Many will count out the Cardinal, post-Andrew Luck. The Pac-12 blog will not. The over-under with this team is eight wins. Two gigantic holes on the offensive line and at both safeties are major issues, as is quarterback.

5. Washington: The Huskies welcome back seven starters on both sides of the ball, including up-and-coming quarterback Keith Price. The question is how quickly the defense can improve under Justin Wilcox.

6. California: While Cal only welcomes back 11 starters, there's plenty of intriguing talent on the roster, particularly on defense. Will quarterback Zach Maynard take a step forward? And what about his receivers after Keenan Allen? The pressure is on Jeff Tedford to win inside a renovated Memorial Stadium in 2012. If things come together, he just might do that.

7. Arizona: The Wildcats have more potential than most realize, starting with five returning starters on the offensive line and three defensive starters returning from injury, as well as an experienced quarterback in Matt Scott, who looks like a nice fit for Rich Rodriguez's spread-option offense.

8. Washington State: With 18 starters back, I'll go ahead and type it: New coach Mike Leach will lead the Cougars to a bowl game. And, hopefully, someone tips their cap to former coach Paul Wulff for collecting some solid talent, including two quarterbacks, Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday, who appear capable of flinging the rock as Leach likes to, as well as a potential All-American receiver in Marquess Wilson.

9. Oregon State: The Beavers could be a surprise team if all the young players who were inconsistent in 2011 grow up in 2012, starting with true freshman quarterback Sean Mannion. With 17 starters back, experience won't be an issue. But those returning players went 3-9, so it's difficult to project a top-half finish. At least, not at this point.

10. UCLA: New coach Jim Mora doesn't start with an empty cupboard -- 16 starters are back. But the overall talent is dubious and, even more challenging, Mora needs to rebuild a culture. Further, taking the Bruins back to a pro-style offense, if that's the ultimate plan, might be a struggle in Year 1. First question: Is Kevin Prince the quarterback, or does Mora go with talented redshirt freshman Brett Hundley?

11. Arizona State: The Sun Devils tumbled in these rankings when quarterback Brock Osweiler, curiously, opted to enter the NFL draft. With just 10 starters back, a quarterback with no real game experience -- whoever wins the job -- and a challenging locker room, new coach Todd Graham might find the going rough in Year 1.

12. Colorado: The Buffs welcome back 13 starters from a team that went 3-10 and ranked last in both scoring offense and scoring defense. The rebuilding job on offense, in particular, will be significant with the loss of quarterback Tyler Hansen, running back Rodney Stewart and receiver Toney Clemons. The rebuilding job in Boulder won't happen overnight-- or over two seasons -- for second-year coach Jon Embree.

Early 2012 opponent power rankings

January, 10, 2012
1/10/12
3:00
PM ET
With 2011 in the rearview mirror, here is an early look at Notre Dame's 2012 opponents, with the game date and site in parantheses.

1. USC (Nov. 24, away): Matt Barkley's return makes the Trojans a trendy preseason national title pick and Barkley a likely preseason Heisman frontrunner. They host the Irish in the regular-season finale, and how sweet it would be for Notre Dame should they knock their rivals off with the highest stakes on the line.

2. Oklahoma (Oct. 27, away): Like the Trojans, the Sooners return their prized quarterback (Landry Jones) and will, at the very least, enter 2012 as the Big 12 favorite.

3. Michigan State (Sept. 15, away): Kirk Cousins and Keshawn Martin are gone, but the Spartans return four offensive linemen and plenty of production on the defensive side of the ball as they go for a third-straight 11-win season.

4. Michigan (Sept. 22, home): Denard Robinson and several key skill players likely return, but the Wolverines lose a lot on each line and will rely on several young players to fill the void.

5. Stanford (Oct. 13, home): Perhaps the biggest mystery entering 2012. We just don't know how much this team will drop off following the likely loss of Andrew Luck. Time will tell.

6. BYU (Oct. 20, home): Another wild card. Much will depend on the growth of dual-threat QB Riley Nelson and the Cougars' offense.

7. Purdue (Sept. 8, home): The Boilermakers finished 2011 with back-to-back wins for the first time this season and have a bit of momentum under Danny Hope. Some see them as a darkhorse Leaders Division contender in 2012.

8. Miami (Oct. 6, Chicago): The Hurricanes will likely be led by a defense that returns eight starters for Al Golden's second year.

9. Wake Forest (Nov. 17, home): Quarterback Tanner Price is back, but the Demon Deacons must eliminate the mistakes that cost them five of their final six games and two assistants their jobs.

10. Boston College (Nov. 10, away): The Eagles got better as the season went on and hope new offensive coordinator Doug Martin can bring the unit up to speed with the defense, which loses Luke Kuechly.

11. Navy (Sept. 1, Dublin): Can Trey Miller build off 2011, when he was forced in midseason for the injured Kriss Proctor?

12. Pitt (Nov. 3, home): New coach Paul Chryst will have his work cut out for him on a team with quarterback, protection and, at least in the past calendar year, coaching issues.

Early 2012 Big 12 power rankings

January, 10, 2012
1/10/12
1:00
PM ET
With the season over, it's time to take a look at the Big 12 in 2012. For now, that means assuming a few things. And we all know what assuming does.

It makes us all look like geniuses.

So, for the purpose of this, I'll assume a few predictions. First, I'll assume Robert Griffin III is heading for the NFL. I'll also assume Mike Stoops lands back at Oklahoma.

That said, it's time to project what this league looks like in 2012.

And, before we start, let me make this clear: The Big 12 from 1-6 is absolutely wide open. Last year, the league only had three legitimate title contenders: Oklahoma, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State. This year, every one of the top six teams (and maybe seven, if RG3 returns) can win the Big 12 in a realistic scenario. The difference between Nos. 2 and 6 is minuscule and could change a ton by the end of spring practice.

And for the curious: I would have Missouri behind Kansas State on this list, and I'd have Texas A&M right behind Texas.

1. Oklahoma: The Sooners moved into the familiar role of favorite after Landry Jones announced he'd return in 2012, but not nearly as heavy a favorite as they were in 2011. Injuries hurt Oklahoma late this season, and replacing Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Frank Alexander, along with linebacker Travis Lewis and corner Jamell Fleming won't be easy. Receivers Kenny Stills and Jaz Reynolds have to play big for the Sooners to get the win.

2. Kansas State: The big question mark for this team is can it take care of business and not get stuck in close games in 2012? The Wildcats were 8-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less this season. They can't count on duplicating that in 2012. They should be better, and return most of the big pieces from this season's 10-win team, most importantly quarterback Collin Klein and linebacker Arthur Brown. Next season is the time to prove it.

3. West Virginia: Who else is excited to see Geno Smith, Dana Holgorsen and the Mountaineer Express show up in Big 12 country next season? Like I wrote last week, giving up 33 points and still winning by five touchdowns is the Big 12 way of life. The Mountaineers broke Baylor's week-old bowl scoring record with 70 points, and bring back most of a good Big East champion team in 2012. The transition won't be easy, but they've got a chance to make a big splash in their inaugural year. The Big 12 and West Virginia are both convinced that the Mountaineers will join the Big 12 in 2012 and are planning as if it will happen, though pending lawsuits with the Big East mean it's still unofficial.

4. TCU: The transition will be more difficult for TCU, methinks. Depth could be an issue. There aren't any weeks off in the Big 12. Not even Kansas. Ask Baylor about that one. New Mexico's staying behind in the Mountain West. Eventually, I think TCU has a chance to be on par with Texas and Oklahoma on the recruiting trail and on the field. Being the only team in the metroplex is a huge deal. And it'll bring back a great team with lots of offense, headlined by QB Casey Pachall and receivers Josh Boyce and Skye Dawson, along with Brandon Carter. It'll be fun to watch.

5. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys should sustain success from this year, even though they lose Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon. They don't have to worry about a losing season, but with a first-year starter at quarterback, the odds are against them winning the Big 12. First-year starters have only won the Big 12 twice. Look out for Joseph Randle to have a huge year in 2012. I'm also betting on Clint Chelf to grab the starting QB job, but keep an eye on early enrollee Wes Lunt.

6. Texas: The Longhorns should be better and have lots of upside, but it's looking more and more like this team will only go as far as David Ash will take it. We'll learn just how far that is during spring and summer. This offseason is paramount for Ash's development. He's got to show something big next fall. The defense should be stingy, the offensive line improved and the backfield loaded. It's up to him.

7. Baylor: Sounds like 2012 may be the Nick Florence Show in Waco. Baylor will take a step back without RG3, but we'll see just how much he had around him, which is to say, a lot. Kendall Wright and Terrance Ganaway will be gone, but Terrance Williams and Tevin Reese will get a chance to shine. Oregon transfer Lache Seastrunk will get plenty of preseason attention, too. The Bears look like a fringe bowl team with some upside without RG3.

8. Texas Tech: Tech and Oklahoma State probably have the most upside of any team in these power rankings. The Red Raiders were better than 5-7 this season, but will have to prove it in 2012, and have to stay healthy. Seth Doege, Eric Stephens and Darrin Moore could be a dynamic set of triplets in 2012, and don't rule out a top-three finish for the Red Raiders in 2012.

9. Iowa State: The Cyclones may have a bit of a quarterback controversy in the spring after Steele Jantz reclaimed the quarterback job in the second half of the Pinstripe Bowl. Paul Rhoads joked about it after the game, but he's not joking when it comes to needing one of those guys to push the other. Jared Barnett has more upside, and the Cyclones could certainly grab a third bowl bid in four years if he plays well in 2012. ISU's a good team, but it's stuck in an absurdly deep conference that could have as many as seven (six, most likely, depending on RG3) Top-25 teams to start the season.

10. Kansas: There's a new flavor at KU, and the variables will be unpredictable for this team through spring and fall. The season should be fun. Can Charlie Weis redeem himself? What about Dayne Crist? Was Notre Dame just not the right fit for either? The opportunity to do something special at Kansas is here, and the bar is very, very low after a miserable two years. The defense can't be worse, and the Jayhawks have solid, maturing running backs.

SPONSORED HEADLINES