- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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The SEC still rules the college football world, with Alabama winning the league's sixth consecutive BCS national championship at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Monday night with a 21-0 victory over LSU.
However, with seven starters coming back on offense and on defense, it's the Tigers who figure to be the team to beat in 2012. LSU will have to find a new quarterback, but its running game should be stout and its defense menacing.
Four SEC teams are ranked in the top 10 of the first edition of the 2012 Way-Too-Early Top 25: No. 1 LSU, No. 3 Alabama, No. 6 Georgia and No. 10 South Carolina.
The SEC's stiffest competition in 2012 might come from the Pac-12 or Big 12. The Pac-12 has two teams ranked in the top four -- No. 2 USC and No. 4 Oregon -- and the Big 12 has six teams in the top 25 (if we're including No. 7 West Virginia).
With more than seven months before the start of the 2012 season, the teams and their order figure to change frequently, but it's never too early to take a look at the Way-Too-Early Top 25 for 2012:
1. LSU Tigers:
Believe it or not, the Tigers might be even stronger in 2012 than they were in 2011. LSU might bring back seven starters on both offense and defense, although junior cornerback Morris Claiborne is considering entering the NFL draft. The Tigers will have to find a new quarterback with both Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee leaving. Georgia transfer Zach Mettenberger and incoming freshman Gunner Kiel will be the top candidates to start under center next season. Linebackers Stefoin Francois and Ryan Baker will have to be replaced, but six defensive starters and five top backups were freshmen or sophomores in 2011. After playing Pac-12 champion Oregon and Big East champ West Virginia this past season, LSU has a 2012 schedule that doesn't look nearly as daunting. The Tigers will play eight home games, and they'll play at SEC West foes Texas A&M and Arkansas.
2. USC Trojans:
Quarterback Matt Barkley's surprising decision to return to USC for his senior season puts the Trojans right in the thick of the BCS title race. USC is expected to bring back nine starters on both offense and defense, although replacing All-American offensive tackle Matt Kalil won't be easy. USC is expected to return its leading rusher, top three receivers, four starting offensive linemen and five of its top six tacklers. That's a recipe for success. The Trojans were one of the country's younger teams this past season, with 10 freshmen and sophomores starting. The Trojans will play six home games and six road games in 2012, including a Sept. 15 road trip to Stanford and a Nov. 3 home game against Oregon. Most importantly, USC will be eligible to play in the postseason after NCAA sanctions prevented the Trojans from playing in bowl games each of the past two seasons.
3. Alabama Crimson Tide:
After winning the BCS national championship on Monday night, the Crimson Tide figure to take a step back in 2012. But with the way coach Nick Saban and his staff have recruited, it's hard to imagine Alabama slipping too far. The Tide might lose as many as seven starters on offense (if junior tailback Trent Richardson enters the NFL draft, as expected) and as many as seven on defense (if junior linebacker Dont'a Hightower and junior cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick go pro). The good news: All-American offensive tackle Barrett Jones already said he's coming back to school, and quarterback AJ McCarron was only a sophomore this past season. The Tide open the 2012 season against Michigan in Arlington, Texas, on Sept. 1 and play only four true road games, including trips to Arkansas on Sept. 15 and a stop at LSU on Nov. 3.
4. Oregon Ducks:
Oregon, a three-time defending Pac-12 champion, should be an overwhelming favorite to win the Pac-12 North again. But the Ducks might have to beat the Trojans twice in 2012 to win the conference, first at USC on Nov. 3 and again in the Pac-12 championship game. The Ducks are expected to bring back six starters on both offense and defense. All-time leading rusher LaMichael James already has announced he's leaving to enter the NFL draft as a junior, but speedy De'Anthony Thomas and Kenjon Barner will form a potent tailback duo. Quarterback Darron Thomas should be even better as a senior, and Oregon's defense was much improved after rebuilding before the 2011 season. Oregon will play a soft nonconference schedule (home games against Arkansas State, Fresno State and FCS foe Tennessee Tech), and five of its first six games will be played at Autzen Stadium.
5. Oklahoma Sooners:
The Sooners fell short of their lofty No. 1 preseason ranking, but a 10-3 finish wasn't bad, especially after OU lost its leading rusher and top receiver to season-ending injuries. Quarterback Landry Jones' decision to return means OU will have one of the country's most explosive offenses, even without all-time leading receiver Ryan Broyles. Four starting offensive linemen are expected back, as well as young receivers Kenny Stills and Jaz Reynolds. Top tailback Dominique Whaley also is coming back from a broken ankle. There are a few key pieces to replace on defense -- ends Frank Alexander and Ronnell Lewis and linebacker Travis Lewis. OU's schedule for 2012 hasn't been finalized, but it figures to be more difficult with TCU and possibly West Virginia (if the Mountaineers can leave the Big East) joining the Big 12. The only finalized game to date is an Oct. 27 home contest against Notre Dame.
6. Georgia Bulldogs:
Georgia struggled to run the ball and close out games this past season, but it rebounded nicely from a 6-7 finish in 2010 to go 10-4 in 2011. Georgia's defense and its schedule are the biggest reasons it will be favored to win the SEC East in 2012. Georgia is expected to bring back 10 starters on defense, with only cornerback Brandon Boykin expected to depart. The Bulldogs also have a lot of firepower coming back on offense, including quarterback Aaron Murray and receiver Malcolm Mitchell. The biggest concerns are whether tailback Isaiah Crowell will be more dependable and durable as a sophomore (or whether an incoming freshman such as speedy Keith Marshall can provide immediate help), as well as replacing three starters on the offensive line. UGA's special teams also continue to be trouble spots and it loses punter Drew Butler and kicker Blair Walsh. Georgia doesn't play SEC West heavyweights Alabama, LSU or Arkansas in the regular season for the second straight year and it plays four of its first five games at home.
7. West Virginia Mountaineers:
WVU fans finally saw a glimpse of how explosive coach Dana Holgorsen's spread offense can be in the Mountaineers' 70-33 rout of Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl. Holgorsen's first season has to be considered a roaring success after a 10-3 finish, but the Mountaineers might have just scratched the surface with his high-powered offense. Quarterback Geno Smith is coming back for his senior season in 2012, along with eight other offensive starters, including leading rusher Dustin Garrison and top receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. The Mountaineers will have to replace four starters on defense and might lose coordinator Jeff Casteel, who is considering taking a job on Rich Rodriguez's staff at Arizona. West Virginia's schedule for 2012 is undetermined because it's trying to leave the Big East for the Big 12, a decision that might be finalized in court.
8. Florida State Seminoles:
We're taking the bait on the Seminoles again, even after they failed to live up to very high aspirations with a 9-4 finish in 2011. But FSU's lofty preseason billing might have been a year premature, and injuries plagued the Seminoles throughout the season. FSU's defense is as good as advertised and it might be even better in 2012 with nine starters coming back. Defensive end Brandon Jenkins and cornerback Greg Reid both passed up entering the NFL draft to return to school. If FSU is going to become a legitimate BCS contender, though, its offense has to be better and more explosive. The Seminoles had young skill players in 2011 and they started four freshman offensive linemen against Notre Dame in the Champs Sports Bowl. Another concern will be replacing All-American punter Shawn Powell. FSU plays seven home games, but it will travel to Virginia Tech during ACC play.
9. Michigan State Spartans:
The Spartans continue to make tremendous strides under coach Mark Dantonio, winning 11 games for the second straight season. The Spartans also won a Big Ten Legends Division title and their first bowl game in his tenure, 33-30 over Georgia in the Outback Bowl. MSU will rely on its defense and running game in 2012, with quarterback Kirk Cousins and his top four receivers departing. Tailback Le'Veon Bell is expected back, along with four starting offensive linemen. All-Big Ten defensive tackle Jerel Worthy is leaving for the NFL draft, but eight defensive starters are expected to return. The Spartans play nonconference home games against Boise State on Aug. 31 and Notre Dame on Sept. 15, and they'll have to play perhaps the two best teams from the Leaders Division (against Ohio State at home on Sept. 29 and at Wisconsin on Oct. 27).
10. South Carolina Gamecocks:
In the past two seasons, coach Steve Spurrier guided the Gamecocks to their first SEC East title in 2010 and their first 11-win season in 2011. If South Carolina can rebuild its defense in 2012, it figures to be right back in the SEC East title hunt. The Gamecocks will bring back eight starters on offense, including tailback Marcus Lattimore, who missed much of the season with a knee injury. Quarterback Connor Shaw should be better after having an entire offseason as the team's starter, and the offseason should be more pleasant without former quarterback Stephen Garcia's distractions. Top receiver Alshon Jeffery declared for the NFL draft, along with junior cornerback Stephon Gilmore. The Gamecocks also will have to replace four other defensive starters, including top linemen Travian Robertson and Melvin Ingram. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson left to become the coach at Southern Miss. South Carolina plays seven home games, including an Oct. 6 contest against Georgia and a Nov. 10 game against Arkansas. The Gamecocks will play road games at LSU on Oct. 13 and at Florida on Oct. 20.
11. Michigan Wolverines:
Brady Hoke might not have been Michigan's first choice to replace Rich Rodriguez as coach, but he turned out to be the right one. In his first season, Hoke guided the Wolverines to their first 11-win season since 2006, defeating Virginia Tech 23-20 in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Just as important, Hoke ended UM's seven-game losing streak against rival Ohio State, defeating the Buckeyes 40-34 in the regular-season finale. The Wolverines will have to replace several key linemen -- center David Molk, offensive tackle Mark Huyge, and defensive tackles Mike Martin and Will Heininger -- but most of their key skill players are coming back. Quarterback Denard Robinson made good strides in offensive coordinator Al Borges' balanced attack, and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison rebuilt one of the country's worst defenses from 2010. Michigan opens the season against Alabama in Arlington, Texas, and plays true road games at Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State.
12. Kansas State Wildcats:
Bill Snyder, 72, continued to work his magic at Kansas State, guiding the Wildcats to a surprising 10-2 finish. Even a 29-16 loss to Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl couldn't tarnish KSU's return to national prominence. With quarterback Collin Klein and linebacker Arthur Brown coming back in 2012, the Wildcats might be among the Big 12 favorites, along with Oklahoma and West Virginia (if the Mountaineers get to leave the Big East). Klein will enter next season as a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate after totaling more than 3,000 yards of total offense and scoring 40 touchdowns. Top tailback John Hubert and receiver Chris Harper are also coming back, but three starting offensive linemen will have to be replaced. Five starters are also leaving on defense.
13. Nebraska Cornhuskers:
Nebraska fans are starting to get a little impatient with coach Bo Pelini, whose teams lost four games in each of his first four seasons. The Cornhuskers went 9-4 in their first season in the Big Ten in 2011, losing to South Carolina 30-13 in the Capital One Bowl. Nebraska probably won't get better quickly unless quarterback Taylor Martinez becomes a more efficient passer. Nebraska brings back top tailback Rex Burkhead, but it will have to replace three starting offensive linemen. Eight defensive starters are coming back, but the Cornhuskers will miss star linebacker Lavonte David. Nebraska will play road games at UCLA, Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa, and it plays Wisconsin and Michigan at home.
14. Arkansas Razorbacks:
The Hogs have made major strides under coach Bobby Petrino, finishing 11-2 and defeating Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl. But the Razorbacks have been unable to get past SEC West heavyweights Alabama and LSU, which has prevented them from becoming a legitimate BCS title contender. The Hogs are expected to bring back seven starters on offense and six on defense, but they'll lose a lot of star power. Receivers Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Greg Childs are leaving on offense, along with guard Grant Cook and tackle Grant Freeman. Defensive end Jake Bequette, linebacker Jerry Franklin and safety Tramain Thomas are big losses on defense. The defense looked better under new coordinator Paul Haynes in the Cotton Bowl. The best news for 2012: Arkansas plays Alabama and LSU at home.
15.TCU Horned Frogs:
The Horned Frogs are making the jump from the Mountain West to the Big 12 in 2012. TCU has won 11 or more games in seven of the past nine seasons after finishing 11-2 this past season. TCU will take an eight-game winning streak into the Big 12 after finishing 7-0 against MWC foes in its last season in the league. TCU brings back much of its firepower on offense, with quarterback Casey Pachall, tailbacks Waymon James and Ed Wesley, and receivers Josh Boyce and Skye Dawson coming back. Three starting offensive linemen will have to be replaced, along with star linebacker Tank Carder on defense. TCU's schedule in the Big 12 hasn't yet been finalized, but it's scheduled to play nonconference games against FCS foe Grambling State (home), Virginia (home) and SMU (road).
16. Oklahoma State Cowboys:
All the Pokes did the past two seasons was win 23 games and the school's first conference title since 1976. If OSU coach Mike Gundy is going to keep his program near the top of the Big 12, he's going to have to replace record-setting quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon, who are both leaving. Rising junior Clint Chelf, redshirt freshman J.W. Walsh and incoming freshman West Lunt (who already has enrolled at OSU) will battle for the starting quarterback job this spring. The Pokes also must replace starting left tackle Levy Adcock and two other starting offensive linemen. Eight starters are expected back on defense, but safety Markelle Martin is a big loss. Most of OSU's 2012 schedule hasn't been finished, other than a road game at Arizona and a home game against Louisiana-Lafayette.
17. Stanford Cardinal:
There's no question that Stanford won't be as good without quarterback Andrew Luck, who is expected to be the No. 1 pick in this spring's NFL draft. But there were doubts the Cardinal would survive without former coach Jim Harbaugh, and first-year coach David Shaw guided them to an 11-2 record and a BCS bowl game. Brett Nottingham has the inside track at replacing Luck, and, if he does, he'll get plenty of help from playmakers such as tailback Stepfan Taylor and receiver Ty Montgomery. Tackle Jonathan Martin and guard David DeCastro are big losses on the offensive line. The defense should be pretty good again, especially if linebacker Chase Thomas comes back for his senior season and linebacker Shayne Skov comes back strong from a knee injury. The Cardinal host USC on Sept. 15 and play at Oregon on Nov. 17.
18. Virginia Tech Hokies:
If there's one thing you can count on every season, it's that Virginia Tech will win at least 10 games and be in contention in the ACC title race. With a new quarterback and revamped defense, the Hokies went 11-3 in 2011. Virginia Tech will have to rebuild its offense to do it again in 2012. Quarterback Logan Thomas will be back for his second season as a starter, but the Hokies won't have record-setting tailback David Wilson, who is leaving for the NFL draft as a junior. They're also losing four starting offensive linemen and top receivers Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale. The good news is that as many as nine starters might be back on defense -- if junior cornerback Jayron Hosley comes back. The Hokies play nonconference games at Pittsburgh and against Cincinnati at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., and they play ACC road games at Miami, North Carolina and Clemson.
19. Wisconsin Badgers:
The Badgers are the two-time defending Big Ten champions and they've won 10 games or more in three straight seasons under coach Bret Bielema. But the Badgers face as much upheaval as any team in the country. After falling in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Vizio for the second season in a row, Wisconsin is losing 11 starters and five assistant coaches. Quarterback Russell Wilson, receiver Nick Toon and three starting offensive linemen are departing. Offensive coordinator Paul Chryst left to become Pittsburgh's new coach and took three Badgers assistants with him. Receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander also left for Arizona State. The good news is that tailback Montee Ball, who ran for 1,923 yards and scored 39 total touchdowns in 2011, decided to return to school for one more season.
20. Boise State Broncos:
The Broncos are 73-6 in coach Chris Petersen's six seasons and probably will finish in the top 10 for the third straight year. But the Broncos will face more uncertainty than ever under Petersen in the 2012 season, their last campaign in the Mountain West before moving to the Big East in 2013. Not only is Boise State losing star Kellen Moore, the winningest quarterback in NCAA history, but also top tailback Doug Martin and receiver Tyler Shoemaker. The Broncos also will lose all four starting defensive linemen, linebacker Byron Hout and two starting defensive backs. Rising junior Joe Southwick will be the favorite to replace Moore, but he'll get competition from rising sophomore Grant Hedrick and incoming freshman Nick Patti.
21. Texas Longhorns:
After a head-scratching 5-7 finish in 2010, the Longhorns improved this past season, finishing 8-5 and defeating California 21-10 in the Bridgeport Education Holiday Bowl. Although the defense made big strides under first-year coordinator Manny Diaz, the UT offense continued to sputter because of poor quarterback play. David Ash will have the edge entering spring practice, but he'll continue to be pushed by Case McCoy. The running game should be better if tailbacks Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron can stay healthy, and incoming freshman Johnathan Gray might provide immediate help. The Horns will have to replace linebackers Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho, as well as defensive tackle Kheeston Randall. Texas' Big 12 schedule isn't finalized, but it will play nonconference games against Wyoming (home), New Mexico (home) and Ole Miss (road).
22. Clemson Tigers:
Tigers coach Dabo Swinney can only hope his team uses its embarrassing loss in the Orange Bowl as motivation in the offseason. Clemson won an ACC title and started 8-0, but a 2-4 slump down the stretch left some serious concerns. Quarterback Tajh Boyd should be better in his second season running offensive coordinator Chad Morris' high-octane attack. Tailback Andre Ellington is considering jumping to the NFL draft, and junior tight end Dwayne Allen has already decided to turn pro. The Tigers also must replace four starting offensive linemen, and there isn't a lot of depth in the trenches. Five starters must be replaced on defense, including top linebacker Andre Branch. The Tigers will open the season against Auburn in one of the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game matchups and will play ACC foes Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech at home.
23. Notre Dame Fighting Irish:
The jury still seems to be out on whether coach Brian Kelly can return the Fighting Irish to national prominence. There's no question the Irish are a better defensive team under Kelly, but the offense continues to struggle because of turnovers and poor quarterback play. Kelly will again oversee a quarterback battle in the offseason, with Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson battling for the starting job. The Irish will be without star receiver Michael Floyd, but tight end Tyler Eifert decided to come back for one more season. The defense should continue to improve as young linemen such as Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt get stronger. Notre Dame's schedule in 2012 is daunting, with nine games against teams that played in bowl games, including road contests at Michigan State, Oklahoma and USC.
24. NC State Wolfpack:
After a 2-3 start, in which Wolfpack coach Tom O'Brien was criticized for turning quarterback Russell Wilson loose, NC State rallied to win six of its last eight games, including a 31-24 victory over Louisville in the Belk Bowl. Quarterback Mike Glennon ended up being a more-than-capable replacement for Wilson, throwing for 3,054 yards with 31 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He'll be without three of his top four receivers in 2012, with wideouts T.J. Graham and Jay Smith and tight end George Bryan each departing. Seven defensive starters are expected back, but the Pack will have to rebuild the defensive line and linebacker corps. The secondary should return intact, including ball-hawking cornerback David Amerson. NC State opens the '12 season against Tennessee in one of the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game matchups and plays nonconference games against Connecticut (road) and FCS foes South Alabama (home) and The Citadel (home).
25. Louisville Cardinals:
Coach Charlie Strong has done a nice job of rebuilding the Cardinals, guiding them to back-to-back bowl games and a share of a Big East title in 2011. Louisville finished 7-6 this past season despite having one of the youngest teams in the country. The Cardinals started 12 freshmen or sophomores, and 11 true freshmen started at least one game in 2011. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, tailback Dominique Brown and receiver DeVante Parker give the Cards a nice foundation on offense, and their defense should get better as a young secondary matures. Louisville's Big East schedule hasn't yet been released, but it will play nonconference games against Kentucky (home), FCS foe Missouri State (home), North Carolina (home) and Florida International (road) in 2012.
Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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