Commentary

LSU faces smooth road to title game

Originally Published: May 18, 2012
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

What has transpired since the last edition of the 2012 Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25?

Arkansas fired its head coach.

Wisconsin signed another free-agent quarterback.

Notre Dame's best player transferred to South Florida.

Another Georgia player was suspended.

And West Virginia scored on Clemson again.

OK, we're kidding about the last one.

With just more than 100 days left before the start of the 2012 college football season, it's time for the third edition of the Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25. There were a lot of interesting storylines during spring practice.

Oklahoma State replaced its 28-year-old quarterback with an 18-year-old freshman. A former Georgia quarterback is starting at LSU, and Oregon, Texas and Florida still haven't picked their starting QBs.

With Zach Mettenberger taking over as LSU's quarterback, the Tigers have jumped USC and Alabama for No. 1 in the preseason poll. The Trojans and Crimson Tide are probably just as talented, but the Tigers face an easier road to the Jan. 7 Discover BCS National Championship Game in Miami.

Oregon, Michigan, Wisconsin and Clemson also moved up, while Arkansas and Nebraska fell a few spots.

Say goodbye to Boise State and Notre Dame, which were replaced by newcomers Washington and Georgia Tech.

Here's the third version of the 2012 Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25:

1. LSU Tigers
Previous rank: 3
The Tigers finished 13-1 and reached the BCS National Championship Game with Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee playing quarterback in 2011. With juco transfer Mettenberger taking over under center, the Tigers might be balanced enough on offense to win a national title in 2012. Mettenberger showed off a strong and accurate arm during spring practice. With tailbacks Spencer Ware and Michael Ford coming back, LSU still figures to have a ground-oriented offense. At least Mettenberger gives LSU the threat of throwing the ball vertically. LSU's schedule might be easier this coming season, too. Nonconference games against North Texas, Washington, Idaho and FCS foe Towson don't seem nearly as difficult as last season's non-SEC slate.

2. USC Trojans
Previous rank: 1
With 19 starters coming back from a 10-2 team in 2011, including star quarterback Matt Barkley, USC seems armed to return to national prominence. But the Trojans' schedule seems much more difficult than LSU's this coming season. The Trojans play Pac-12 road games at Stanford on Sept. 15 and at Washington on Oct. 13, along with a Nov. 3 home game against Oregon and Nov. 24 home finale against Notre Dame. Still, if the Trojans can solidify their defensive line they'll be right in the mix for a BCS national championship. Opponents will have a difficult time slowing down Barkley and receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods.

3. Alabama Crimson Tide
Previous rank: 2
Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban seems determined to make sure the BCS national champion's defense goes smoother this season. After winning a BCS title in 2009, the Crimson Tide finished 10-3 in 2010. Alabama will have to rebuild its defense after losing star linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw and All-America safety Mark Barron. Saban really likes linebackers Adrian Hubbard and Xzavier Dickson, and juco transfer Deion Blue helped solidify the secondary during the spring. Quarterback AJ McCarron said the Tide plan to open up their offense with a downfield passing game this coming season, but it's hard to imagine them not running the ball often behind what might be one of the best offensive lines in school history.

4. Oregon Ducks
Previous rank: 6
After losing All-America tailback LaMichael James, it's hard to believe the Ducks might be even faster on offense in 2012. But with tailbacks Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas taking over, Oregon has two sprinters in its backfield. The quarterback battle between Bryan Bennett and Marcus Mariota might not be settled until preseason camp, but both players seem more than capable of running coach Chip Kelly's fast-paced offense. Oregon's defense must replace two starting linebackers and two defensive backs. The Ducks play five of their first six games at home and their nonconference schedule is much easier with home games against Arkansas State, Fresno State and FCS-foe Tennessee Tech. Road games at Southern Cal and California and a home game against Stanford might loom large in November.

5. Georgia Bulldogs
Previous rank: 5
With an SEC schedule that doesn't include games against Alabama, Arkansas, LSU, Mississippi State or Texas A&M, Georgia might have the most manageable road to the SEC championship game. But Georgia has to survive a Sept. 8 road game at Missouri without starting cornerback Sanders Commings and possibly All-America safety Bacarri Rambo, who face potential multi-game suspensions to start the season. Georgia moved receiver Malcolm Mitchell to cornerback during spring practice, and he'll play on both offense and defense early in the season. With nine starters coming back on defense, including All-America linebacker Jarvis Jones, Georgia figures to be as stingy as any team in the country. Quarterback Aaron Murray needs to eliminate turnovers and tailback Isaiah Crowell needs help from freshmen Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley.

6. Oklahoma Sooners
Previous rank: 4
Quarterback Landry Jones returns to lead what should be a high-scoring offense, but he'll have to work without All-American Ryan Broyles, the most prolific receiver in school history. Tailback Dominique Whaley returns from an ankle injury that caused him to miss the second half of the 2011 season. OU coach Bob Stoops hired his brother, former Arizona coach Mike Stoops, as his new defensive coordinator. Mike Stoops should help stabilize the Sooners' secondary, which struggled in the pass-happy Big 12 last season. OU's final three games -- at Big 12 newcomer West Virginia on Nov. 17, home against Oklahoma State in the Nov. 24 Bedlam game and at Big 12 newcomer TCU on Dec. 1 -- will probably determine whether it will be a BCS title contender in 2012.

7. Florida State Seminoles
Previous rank: 8
FSU's lofty preseason expectations might have come a year early in 2011. The Seminoles were ravaged by injuries on the offensive line last season, and quarterback EJ Manuel was hampered by shoulder and leg injuries. FSU has recruited as well as any team in the country the past few seasons, and it's starting to show on the field. FSU has perhaps the country's deepest receiver corps; Willie Haulstead and Kelvin Benjamin emerged as two more playmakers during the spring. FSU's running game remains a concern after tailbacks Chris Thompson, Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. missed most of the spring. FSU plays two FCS foes (Murray State and Savannah State) because West Virginia canceled a scheduled game after moving to the Big 12. The Seminoles also play their first four games at home and only three contests outside of Florida.

8. West Virginia Mountaineers
Previous rank: 7
West Virginia will take a step up in competition after moving from the depleted Big East to the Big 12 this coming season. But coach Dana Holgerson's high-powered offense could flourish in the Big 12, where defense sometimes seems to be an afterthought. Quarterback Geno Smith might be even better in Year 2 of Holgerson's offense, after throwing for more than 4,300 yards with 31 touchdowns in 2011. Receivers Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin are back, along with tailback Dustin Garrison, who is coming back from a torn ACL that caused him to miss the Orange Bowl. Defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel left for Arizona, and new co-coordinators Keith Patterson and Joe DeForest spent the spring replacing a 3-3-5 scheme with a more traditional 3-4 defense.


9. Michigan Wolverines

Previous rank: 14
In coach Brady Hoke's first season, the Wolverines finished 11-2, defeated rival Ohio State for the first time since 2003 and knocked off Virginia Tech 23-20 in the Sugar Bowl. Yet, Hoke wasn't satisfied because Michigan didn't win a Big Ten championship. With quarterback Denard Robinson and 13 other starters coming back, Michigan looks like the team to beat in the Big Ten in 2012. Michigan's defense was much better under coordinator Greg Mattison, but he'll have to replace tackles Mike Martin and Will Heininger and end Ryan Van Bergen. Michigan opens the season against defending BCS national champion Alabama in Arlington, Texas, on Sept. 1 and plays Big Ten road games at Nebraska on Oct. 27 and at Ohio State on Nov. 24.

10. South Carolina Gamecocks
Previous rank: 10
Over the past two seasons, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier guided the Gamecocks to their first SEC East title in 2010 and first 11-win season in 2011. Will the Gamecocks be good enough to win the SEC in 2012? Their chances might depend on the health of star tailback Marcus Lattimore, who missed the spring while recovering from a torn ACL. Spurrier said Lattimore will be ready for the start of the regular season. Quarterback Connor Shaw seemed more comfortable in the spring after he completed 70 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and two interceptions in the last four games of 2011 (all victories). South Carolina has to replace star defensive end Melvin Ingram and cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and C.C. Whitlock.

11. Michigan State Spartans
Previous rank: 9
The Spartans might have lost as much star power as any team in the country after the 2011 season. Quarterback Kirk Cousins and most of his receiver corps are gone, along with tailback Edwin Baker and All-America defensive tackle Jerel Worthy. But MSU coach Mark Dantonio has built a solid program that is capable of reloading. Quarterback Andrew Maxwell figures to replace Cousins, and tailback Le'Veon Bell ran for 948 yards with 13 touchdowns last season. MSU opens the season against Boise State at home on Aug. 31 and also plays a nonconference game against Notre Dame at home on Sept. 15. The Spartans play Big Ten road games at Michigan on Oct. 20 and at Wisconsin on Oct. 27.

12. Stanford Cardinal
Previous rank: 13
A lot of people expected Stanford to slip after coach Jim Harbaugh left for the San Francisco 49ers after the 2010 season. But first-year coach David Shaw guided the Cardinal to an 11-2 record and a spot in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl last season. Now the Cardinal have to survive without All-America quarterback Andrew Luck and many other star players. Luck was the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, and guard David DeCastro, tight end Coby Fleener and tackle Jonathan Martin were selected in the first two rounds. Sophomore Brett Nottingham looks like the heir apparent at quarterback, but Stanford figures to be a ground-oriented team with tailback Stepfan Taylor coming back. Stanford plays USC at home on Sept. 15 and at Oregon on Nov. 17.

13. Arkansas Razorbacks
Previous rank: 11
Can Arkansas survive in the SEC West without coach Bobby Petrino? Whether you liked Petrino or not, it's hard to argue he wasn't one of the best offensive playcallers in the country. Former Michigan State and Louisville coach John L. Smith was hired as an interim coach to replace Petrino. The Razorbacks bring plenty of firepower on offense, including quarterback Tyler Wilson and tailback Knile Davis, who is coming back from an ankle injury that caused him to miss all of the 2011 season. Wilson, who threw for 3,638 yards and 24 touchdowns last season, will have to operate without departed receivers Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Greg Childs. New defensive coordinator Paul Haynes takes over a squad that was better last season. The Razorbacks play Alabama and LSU -- the only teams to beat them last season -- at home this year.

14. TCU Horned Frogs
Previous rank: 15
It has been an offseason to forget for TCU coach Gary Patterson, who saw four of his players arrested as part of a campus-wide drug sting. But the Horned Frogs still head into the Big 12 with a lot of momentum. Quarterback Casey Pachall broke school single-season records for completions (228), completion percentage (66.5) and passing yards (2,921) in his first season as a starter. Three TCU running backs ran for more than 700 yards last season and three of its top four receivers are coming back. TCU's defense went through some early-season growing pains last season, and five starters are coming back this year. The Horned Frogs face a difficult five-game stretch to close the season: Oklahoma State (road), West Virginia (road), Kansas State (home), Texas (road) and Oklahoma (home).

15. Wisconsin Badgers
Previous rank: 18
There will be plenty of new faces at Wisconsin this coming season, from new coaches to another transfer quarterback. After losing offensive coordinator Paul Chryst and five other assistant coaches, Badgers coach Bret Bielema spent the spring acclimating his team to its new coaching staff. The Badgers also added former Maryland quarterback Danny O'Brien, who threw 29 touchdowns for the Terrapins the past two seasons. O'Brien replaces Russell Wilson, who spent one season at Wisconsin after transferring there from NC State. The Badgers also must replace star receiver Nick Toon and the right side of their offensive line, but tailback Montee Ball is back after passing on entering the NFL draft. The Badgers play at Nebraska and Penn State during Big Ten play, but don't play Michigan or Iowa from the Legends Division.

16. Clemson Tigers
Previous rank: 23
The Tigers spent the spring preaching consistency on offense, while trying to rebuild the confidence of its defense, which was blistered in a 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Discover Orange Bowl. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney fired defensive coordinator Kevin Steele after the embarrassing loss to the Mountaineers and replaced him with former Oklahoma assistant Brent Venables. Venables inherits a young defense, but at least Clemson's offense will keep it in most games. Quarterback Tajh Boyd is back, along with tailback Andre Ellington and receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins. The Tigers play at Florida State on Sept. 22 and play Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech at home in October.

17. Ohio State Buckeyes
Previous rank: 16
New Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer was a big hit during spring practice when he announced his team would run a no-huddle, fast-paced offense. Meyer plans for the Buckeyes to play even faster than his teams did at Florida. Quarterback Braxton Miller seems like a perfect fit for Meyer's spread offense, but the Buckeyes will have to find playmakers to help him. Tight end Jake Stoneburner and Jordan Hall looked like they could help during the spring. Nine starters are back on defense, including All-America candidate John Simon on the defensive line. OSU plays at Michigan State, Penn State and Wisconsin during Big Ten play.

18. Kansas State Wildcats
Previous rank: 12
Can the Wildcats find some help for quarterback Collin Klein? Klein seemed to do everything for Kansas State's offense last season, leading the team with 1,141 rushing yards with 27 touchdowns and 1,918 passing yards with 13 touchdowns. But Klein carried the ball a whopping 317 times in 2011, some 100 carries more than tailback John Hubert. Linebacker Arthur Brown is back to lead a defense that surrendered 27.9 points per game. The Wildcats' road schedule during Big 12 play is arduous, with games at Oklahoma, Iowa State, West Virginia, TCU and Baylor.

19. Texas Longhorns
Previous rank: 22
Is Texas finally headed back to national prominence? The Longhorns fixed their problems on defense last season, as first-year defensive coordinator Manny Diaz guided one of the most-improved units in the country. But Texas still has plenty of problems on offense. Quarterbacks Case McCoy and David Ash are still competing for the starting job, a battle that will probably stretch far into preseason camp. Tailbacks Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown need to stay health for the offense to click. The Longhorns got a break from the Big 12 schedule-makers, as many of their really difficult conference games (West Virginia, Baylor and TCU) will be played at home.

20. Florida Gators
Previous rank: 25
A 7-6 finish wasn't what coach Will Muschamp -- or Florida fans -- had in mind when he replaced Urban Meyer as the Gators' coach. But Muschamp didn't know how big of a mess he inherited from Meyer, either. Florida might not be too far away from contending for another SEC East championship. Muschamp replaced offensive coordinator Charlie Weis (who left to become Kansas' coach) with former Boise State coordinator Brent Pease. Pease spent the spring trying to rebuild the confidence of quarterbacks Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel, who struggled mightily as freshmen. The offense line was much improved during the spring, and the Gators will score more points if Mike Gillislee runs well and freshman Latroy Pittman emerges as a consistent playmaker. Florida's schedule is much more manageable, with Alabama and Arkansas dropping off and LSU playing at the Swamp.

21. Washington Huskies
Previous rank: NR
About the only defense that looked worse than Washington's during bowl season was Clemson's. The Huskies were ripped for 777 yards, including 482 rushing, in a 67-56 loss to Baylor in the Valero Alamo Bowl. As a result, Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian revamped his coaching staff, bringing in five new assistants, including former Boise State and Tennessee defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. The Huskies bring back quarterback Keith Price, who threw for 3,063 yards and 33 touchdowns last season. But they'll have to replace tailback Chris Polk, who ran for 1,488 yards and 12 touchdowns. Perhaps no team faces a more difficult start to the season; UW plays LSU (road), Stanford (home), Oregon (road) and USC (home) in its first six games.

22. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Previous rank: 19
Cowboys coach Mike Gundy is rolling the dice as he tries to rebuild his team following the best two-year stretch in school history. In a bit of a surprise, Gundy chose 18-year-old freshman Wes Lunt as his team's starting quarterback after spring practice. Lunt, who enrolled at OSU in January, led Rochester (Ill.) High School to two state championships. Lunt won the job over junior Clint Chelf and redshirt freshman J.W. Walsh. Lunt replaces former starter Brandon Weeden, who guided the Pokes to a 23-3 record the past two seasons and their first Big 12 championship last year. The Pokes also must replace receivers Justin Blackmon, Josh Cooper and Michael Harrison, as well as right tackle Levy Adcock. OSU's defense, which forced an FBS-high 44 turnovers last season, will have to play well to help Lunt get comfortable early in the season.

23. Virginia Tech Hokies
Previous rank: 20
If there is one thing we can seemingly count on every college football season, it's Virginia Tech winning 10 games. The Hokies have won at least 10 games in each of the past eight seasons, the longest such streak in the country. Seemingly every season, Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer and his assistants just plug in new players and move right along. But Virginia Tech faces a mammoth rebuilding job this coming season. The Hokies must replace star tailback David Wilson, as well as top receivers Danny Coale and Jarrett Boykin and four starting offensive linemen. At least quarterback Logan Thomas is back after throwing for 3,013 yards, 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last season. The Hokies will be very good on defense, but their offense figures to be a work in progress.

24. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Previous rank: 17
Is this the season Nebraska finally makes its move under coach Bo Pelini? The Cornhuskers played for a Big 12 title in each of the past two seasons in the conference, and then went 9-4 in their first season in the Big Ten last season. But the Cornhuskers lost four games in each of Pelini's first four seasons and they haven't won a conference championship since 1999. For Nebraska to challenge for a Big Ten title, quarterback Taylor Martinez is going to have to be better. He completed only 56.2 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions last season. Tailback Rex Burkhead is one of the most effective runners in the country, but Martinez has to produce some sort of passing game to keep defenses honest. Nebraska's defense also lost a star player at each level: tackle Jared Crick, linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard.

25. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Previous rank: NR
If the Yellow Jackets can find a big-play weapon on the perimeter, they might be right back in the ACC title hunt this coming season. Quarterback Tevin Washington doesn't do anything particularly spectacular, but he's steady and doesn't make many mistakes running coach Paul Johnson's triple-option spread offense. The Yellow Jackets bring back a couple of solid running backs, and Johnson believes the offensive line might be the best he has had at Georgia Tech. If the Yellow Jackets can find a consistent nose tackle, they should be better running coordinator Al Groh's 3-4 scheme. The Jackets get a break because they don't play Florida State or NC State during the regular season, but three of their most difficult games (Virginia Tech, Clemson and Georgia) will be played on the road.

Mark Schlabach | email

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