- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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Alabama reinforced the SEC's dominance in college football, collecting the league's seventh straight BCS National Championship and the Crimson Tide's third in the past four years.
Notre Dame was overwhelmed and utterly dominated by the Tide on Monday night at Sun Life Stadium in Miami. The Fighting Irish made tremendous strides in 2012 and have every reason to be optimistic heading into 2013, but it will take some time for the sting from Monday night's thrashing to wear off.
If we learned something else after this bowl season, it's that a playoff cannot come soon enough. Anyone else interested to see how Oregon would have fared against the Tide? Me too.
With more than seven months before the start of the 2013 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 2013:
1. Alabama Crimson Tide:
Tired of Alabama yet? Get used to it. Unless coach Nick Saban unexpectedly leaves for the NFL, which isn't likely, two-time defending BCS national champion Alabama will again be the team to beat in 2013. Quarterback AJ McCarron is coming back, along with tailback T.J. Yeldon and wide receiver Kenny Bell. The Tide will have to rebuild their offensive line, though, with Rimington Trophy winner Barrett Jones and All-American guard Chance Warmack departing. On defense, nose guard Jesse Williams and safety Robert Lester are big losses, too. The Tide open the season with potentially challenging games against Virginia Tech in Atlanta and at Texas A&M, but they play most of their difficult SEC contests (Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU) at home. With the way Saban and his staff are recruiting, the Tide don't figure to stop rolling anytime soon.
2. Oregon Ducks:
Another Chip Kelly flirtation with the NFL appears to end once again with Oregon's coach staying in Eugene. It looked as though Kelly might be filling one of several NFL job openings after the Ducks' win over Kansas State in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. With or without Kelly, Oregon figures to maintain its frenetic offensive pace and contend with Stanford in the Pac-12 North. As many as eight starters on offense and seven on defense could be back from a team that finished 12-1. Quarterback Marcus Mariota ranked in the top 10 in the country in passing efficiency in his first season as a starter, throwing 32 touchdowns with only six interceptions. The Ducks will miss tailback Kenjon Barner, who is leaving after running for 1,767 yards with 21 touchdowns, but they'll still have De'Anthony Thomas and promising freshman Byron Marshall. Linebackers Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso, the team's top tacklers, also are departing.
3. Stanford Cardinal:
After playing in three consecutive BCS bowl games and winning the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio this season, Stanford might be poised to join the ranks of the perennial BCS national championship contenders. The Cardinal didn't miss a beat after losing Heisman Trophy finalist Toby Gerhart in 2009, coach Jim Harbaugh in 2010 and quarterback Andrew Luck in 2011. Not many programs in the country are equipped to overcome those kinds of losses, proving Harbaugh and current coach David Shaw haven't built a flash-in-the-pan program. Stanford might bring back as many as seven starters on offense and nine on defense if a few of its talented underclassmen don't leave early for the NFL draft. The Cardinal will miss senior tailback Stepfan Taylor, who ran for 1,530 yards with 13 touchdowns, but quarterback Kevin Hogan figures only to get better with more experience. The Cardinal look as if they're in the top 10 to stay, especially with uncertainty at USC.
4. Ohio State Buckeyes:
Is Ohio State capable of going unbeaten again when it really counts? The Buckeyes went 12-0 in coach Urban Meyer's first season, but they were ineligible to play in the Big Ten championship game or a bowl game because of NCAA probation. If quarterback Braxton Miller improves as a passer -- OSU ranked 101st nationally in passing with only 181.5 yards per game -- and his offensive line does a better job of protecting him (OSU quarterbacks were sacked 2.5 times per game), the Buckeyes should be better on offense. OSU will have to replace its entire defensive line, including star defensive end John Simon and defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, who's leaving for the NFL a year early. Two linebackers and cornerback Travis Howard also must be replaced from a defense that struggled mightily at times in 2012. Cornerback Bradley Roby's decision to return to Columbus for another season is welcome news for the Buckeyes' defense. OSU's schedule doesn't seem overly difficult; it plays nonconference games against Buffalo, San Diego State and Florida A&M at home and plays at California. The Buckeyes play Big Ten foes Wisconsin, Iowa and Penn State at home and don't play Nebraska or Michigan State in the regular season.
5. Texas A&M Aggies:
Here's what the Aggies accomplished in their first season in the SEC: They finished 11-2, upset No. 1 Alabama 29-24 on the road and blasted Oklahoma 41-13 in the Cotton Bowl, and quarterback Johnny Manziel became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy. What can coach Kevin Sumlin possibly do for an encore in his second season at Texas A&M? Manziel will be back after passing for 3,706 yards with 26 touchdowns and running for 1,410 yards with 21 TDs. He'll have to find some new targets because three of his top receivers (Ryan Swope, Kenric McNeal and Uzoma Nwachukwu) are departing. Left tackle Luke Joeckel, a projected top-10 pick in the NFL draft, won't be back, but tackle Jake Matthews announced he will return for his senior season. The Aggies also lose six defensive starters, including dominating junior end Damontre Moore, who's leaving for the draft.
6. Georgia Bulldogs:
The Bulldogs might have one of the most explosive offenses in the country in 2013, now that quarterback Aaron Murray has announced he's returning for his senior season. UGA scored a school-record 529 points while going 11-2 in 2012, and receiver Tavarres King will be the only departed starter on offense. Murray completed 64.5 percent of his passes for 3,893 yards with 36 touchdowns and 10 interceptions this past season. Freshman running backs Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley combined to run for 2,144 yards with 25 touchdowns, and the Bulldogs will get back injured receiver Michael Bennett, who missed much of 2012 with torn knee ligaments. UGA will have to rebuild much of its defense, with junior linebackers Alec Ogletree and Jarvis Jones leaving for the NFL draft. Nose guard John Jenkins, safety Bacarri Rambo and three other starters on defense also are departing. Georgia's schedule is much more difficult in 2013; it opens the season at Clemson and hosts South Carolina in its second game and LSU in its fourth.
7. South Carolina Gamecocks:
The Gamecocks finished 11-2 for the second consecutive season, even after losing star tailback Marcus Lattimore to a season-ending leg injury for the second year in a row. Lattimore is leaving for the NFL draft, but the Gamecocks should bring back seven starters on offense, including quarterback Connor Shaw (who had foot surgery last week and will miss spring practice) and top receivers Ace Sanders and Bruce Ellington. USC will have to replace seven starters on defense, but star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is coming back. The team will have to replace three starting linebackers and two starting defensive backs. The Gamecocks will play one of the country's most demanding nonconference schedules in 2013, including home games against North Carolina and Clemson and a road game at UCF. They also will play SEC road games at Georgia, Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri.
8. Louisville Cardinals:
Did any team (besides Alabama?) have a better ending to its season than Louisville? The Cardinals blasted Florida 33-23 in the Allstate Sugar Bowl to finish 11-2, a few weeks after locking up coach Charlie Strong to a long-term contract. They're also leaving the Big East for the ACC in 2014. Now here's the really good news: Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who threw for 3,718 yards with 27 touchdowns and 8 interceptions, was only a sophomore. The Cardinals will bring back six other starters on offense, but they'll have to replace center Mario Benavides (a Rimington Trophy finalist) and left tackle Alex Kupper. Strong figures to have 10 starters back from a rapidly improving defense; cornerback Adrian Bushell is the only starter expected to leave. If Louisville can dominate the Big East in its last season in the league, it figures to be a major player in the BCS title race. Its nonconference schedule will be very soft next season, with games against Ohio, FCS foe Eastern Kentucky, Kentucky and Florida International.
9. Clemson Tigers:
The Tigers exorcised a few postseason demons by coming from behind to upset then-No. 8 LSU 25-24 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on New Year's Eve. Quarterback Tajh Boyd's decision to return for his senior season means the Tigers might be playing on New Year's Day (or even later) next year. Boyd threw for 3,896 yards with 36 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, and ran for 514 yards with 10 TDs in offensive coordinator Chad Morris' high-powered spread offense. He'll be without his favorite target, junior receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who declared for the NFL draft after catching 82 passes for 1,405 yards with 18 touchdowns. Clemson will return six starters on offense and six on defense in 2013. They definitely will lose senior tailback Andre Ellington, who ran for 1,081 yards with eight touchdowns. The Tigers will play an aggressive nonconference schedule in 2013, opening the season against Georgia at Death Valley. They also will play The Citadel and Kent State at home and South Carolina on the road.
10. Florida Gators:
The Gators made major strides in coach Will Muschamp's second season, improving from 7-6 in 2011 to 11-2 this past season. But most of the improvement came on defense; UF's offense remains a big work in progress. The Gators ranked 114th nationally in passing (146.3 yards), 103rd in total offense (334.4 yards) and 106th in sacks allowed (3 per game). Muschamp and offensive coordinator Brent Pease must decide whether sophomore Jeff Driskel is their best option at quarterback, and they'll have to replace tailback Mike Gillislee (1,152 rushing yards with 10 touchdowns), two of their top offensive linemen and tight end Jordan Reed, who is leaving early for the NFL draft. There are big personnel losses on defense, too, with tackle Sharrif Floyd, linebacker Jelani Jenkins and safety Matt Elam leaving early and senior linebacker Jon Bostic and nose guard Omar Hunter also departing. Florida's 2013 schedule includes nonconference games against in-state rivals Miami (road) and FSU (home), as well as SEC road games at LSU and South Carolina.
11. Texas Longhorns: Will the Longhorns finally move back among the sport's elite? If quarterback David Ash plays the way he did in the second half of a 31-27 victory over Oregon State in the Alamo Bowl, UT will have a chance to be a lot better in 2013. But if Ash and backup Case McCoy continue to struggle, it might be another long season for coach Mack Brown, who might be on his last legs in trying to turn things around. The Longhorns started five freshmen and sophomores on offense last season, so there's a lot of experience coming back. Former UT quarterback Major Applewhite takes over the play calling (former offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin left to become Arkansas State's coach), and he's promising more toughness. The defense was even younger, with seven freshmen and sophomores starting in the Alamo Bowl. Only star end Alex Okafor and free safety Kenny Vaccaro are leaving. The returning players should have a better understanding of coordinator Manny Diaz's aggressive scheme. The Longhorns play nonconference games at BYU and home against Ole Miss, as well as Big 12 contests at TCU, West Virginia and Baylor (and against Oklahoma in Dallas).
12. Notre Dame Fighting Irish:
The Fighting Irish were probably a year ahead of schedule in reaching Monday night's Discover BCS National Championship. Even though they'll lose All-American linebacker Manti Te'o, much of the Irish's vaunted defense will return in 2013, including star nose guard Louis Nix III and defensive end Stephon Tuitt. The Irish might get back as many as seven starters on offense, and quarterback Everett Golson figures to be a better passer in his second season as a starter, although tailback Theo Riddick will be missed. Notre Dame's schedule in 2013 again looks daunting, with road games at Michigan and Stanford and home contests against Michigan State, Oklahoma, USC, plus a matchup against Arizona State at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The Irish might not go undefeated in the regular season again in 2013, but they might be back in the BCS championship hunt.
13. LSU Tigers:
The Tigers' surprising loss to Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl further exposed their problems on offense. LSU struggled to protect quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who was mediocre in his first season as a starter. The Tigers were supposed to open their vertical passing game this past season, but they ranked only 92nd in passing (200.5 yards per game) and 85th in total offense (374.2 yards). Part of the problem can be attributed to having such a young offensive line (two freshmen and a sophomore started against Clemson), but Mettenberger also needs to improve his accuracy. LSU still finished 10-3 because of its menacing defense, but it's losing the heart of that unit to the NFL draft. Safety Eric Reid, cornerback Tharold Simon, linebacker Kevin Minter, talented junior ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery, and tackle Bennie Logan have all declared for the NFL draft. Punter Brad Wing and tailback Spencer Ware are also leaving for the NFL. That's a boatload of talent to replace, even for a team as deep as LSU.
14. TCU Horned Frogs:
TCU limped to a 7-6 record in its first season in the Big 12, but it might have been Gary Patterson's best coaching job. The Horned Frogs were stung by a drug bust that cost them four players in the offseason, then lost quarterback Casey Pachall to off-field problems after four games (he might return in 2013). By the end of the 2012 campaign, TCU's leading passer (Trevone Boykin), rusher (B.J. Catalon) and pass-rusher (Devonte Fields) were freshmen. TCU will benefit next season, with six starters coming back on offense and 10 on defense. In fact, TCU played 28 freshmen this season, tied with LSU for the most in the country. Linebacker Kenny Cain, TCU's top tackler, is the only defensive starter leaving. The Horned Frogs' schedule won't be any easier; they open the 2013 slate against LSU at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and also play at Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Kansas State.
For more on how the Horned Frogs will look in 2013, check out TCU's recruiting profile.
15. Oregon State Beavers:
You knew that, after back-to-back losing seasons, it wouldn't be very long before coach Mike Riley had the Beavers back in the thick of the Pac-12 race. After starting 6-0, OSU lost four of its final seven games, including a disappointing bowl defeat. But with nine starters on offense and seven on defense coming back in 2013, Oregon State should have things turned around for the long run. Riley needs to settle on a starting quarterback; he shuffled between Cody Vaz and Sean Mannion throughout the 2012 season. The Beavers lose top receiver Markus Wheaton, but they'll have three senior starters on the offensive line, which is always a good commodity to have. Cornerback Jordan Poyer is another big loss on defense. The Beavers will play Stanford, USC and Washington at home next season and Arizona State and Oregon on the road.
For more on how the Beavers will look in 2013, check out Oregon State's recruiting profile.
16. Florida State Seminoles:
After the Seminoles won 31 games in coach Jimbo Fisher's first three seasons, they'll undergo a facelift in the offseason. Quarterback EJ Manuel, who won four bowl games, is gone, along with six starters on defense. Defensive coordinator Mark Stoops, who built his unit into one of the best in the country, left to become Kentucky's new coach, taking ends coach D.J. Eliot with him. Running backs coach Eddie Gran left to become Cincinnati's offensive coordinator, and quarterbacks coach Dameyune Craig was hired by Auburn, his alma mater. Clint Trickett, Jacob Coker and Jameis Winston will battle for the vacated starting quarterback job, and they'll still have an abundance of receivers to throw to. The heaviest personnel losses are on the defensive line, especially after star end Bjoern Werner left for the NFL draft. But because of recruiting well the past few years, the Seminoles have plenty of young, talented players waiting in the wings.
17. Oklahoma Sooners:
The Landry Jones era at OU ended with a thud in the Sooners' ugly loss to the Aggies at the Cotton Bowl. Now coach Bob Stoops and offensive coordinator Josh Heupel will begin the task of replacing Jones, a record-setting quarterback, who threw for 4,267 yards with 30 touchdowns and 11 interceptions this past season. Sophomore Blake Bell, affectionately known as the Belldozer because of his 6-foot-6, 254-pound frame, is the favorite to win the starting job, but he'll have to hold off junior Drew Allen and freshmen Trevor Knight and Kendal Thompson. The Sooners also will have to rebuild their defensive line and replace a couple of starters in the secondary. Even after former Arizona coach Mike Stoops took over the defense, it still struggled against high-powered offenses in the Big 12. The Sooners will play some difficult away games next season, with contests at Notre Dame, Kansas State and Oklahoma State, along with their annual showdown against Texas in Dallas.
18. Wisconsin Badgers:
The 2012 campaign was far from memorable for Wisconsin, which finished 8-6, losing to Stanford 20-14 in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio. The Badgers also lost coach Bret Bielema to Arkansas and replaced him with Utah State coach Gary Andersen. Andersen hired San Diego State offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig and Utah State defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, so the Badgers figure to have new looks on both sides of the ball in 2013. The Badgers certainly will miss departing tailback Montee Ball, who ran for 3,753 yards with 55 touchdowns the past two seasons. If Curt Phillips is granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, the competition for starting quarterback will likely be between him and Joel Stave, with Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien and freshman Bart Houston also in the mix. Seven starters are expected back on defense, but three starting defensive backs will have to be replaced. Andersen will get a break in his first season in the Big Ten: The Badgers don't play Michigan, Michigan State or Nebraska in the '13 regular season.
19. Boise State Broncos:
It wasn't a typical Boise State season in 2012; the Broncos relied on their defense to finish 11-2 after losing record-setting quarterback Kellen Moore and much of their offense. The Broncos were never a factor in the BCS title race after losing at Michigan State 17-13 in their opener, but they still won 10 games or more for the seventh consecutive season. After initially accepting an invitation to join the Big East, the Broncos decided to stay in the Mountain West. They'll be the team to beat once again in that league next season. Boise State will have to replace seven starters on offense, but quarterback Joe Southwick improved throughout his first season as a starter. Boise State coach Chris Petersen will also have to rebuild his linebacker corps and secondary. The Broncos will open the 2013 season at Washington and will play BYU on the road and Southern Miss at home.
For more on how the Broncos will look in 2013, check out Boise State's recruiting profile.
20. Nebraska Cornhuskers:
Just when it seemed Nebraska was ready to turn the corner under coach Bo Pelini, the Cornhuskers were embarrassed by Wisconsin 70-31 in the Big Ten championship game, then lost to Georgia 45-31 in the Capital One Bowl. Nebraska's defense was torched at the end of a 10-4 season, and now eight defensive starters are departing. Quarterback Taylor Martinez and seven other offensive starters are coming back, but the Cornhuskers will have to replace tailback Rex Burkhead, who ran for 675 yards with five touchdowns in 2012 despite missing six games to injury. Three starting linebackers and both starting safeties also will have to be replaced. Nebraska plays its first five games of 2013 at home, including nonconference games against Wyoming, Southern Miss, UCLA and FCS foe South Dakota State. The Cornhuskers won't play Wisconsin or Ohio State in the regular season, but they will play at Michigan and Penn State.
21. UCLA Bruins:
UCLA coach Jim Mora's first season ended with a thud; the Bruins lost their last three games and finished 9-5. If they can get better protection up front -- they gave up 52 sacks, second most among FBS teams -- they'll have a chance to be even better in 2013. UCLA started three freshmen on the offensive line this past season, and they were exposed in the Bruins' 49-26 loss to Baylor in the Holiday Bowl. The good news: Quarterback Brett Hundley is back after throwing for 3,740 yards with 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions as a freshman. The bad news: Tailback Johnathan Franklin, who ran for 1,734 yards with 13 touchdowns, is departing. UCLA will also have to rebuild its secondary; cornerback Sheldon Price and safety Andrew Abbott, who each picked off four passes, are leaving. After playing seven home games this past season, UCLA plays at Nebraska and will have to play Oregon and Washington in the regular season, which it didn't do in 2012.
22. Northwestern Wildcats:
After Northwestern ended college football's longest postseason drought -- the Wildcats defeated Mississippi State 34-20 in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl for first postseason win since 1949 -- it might enter 2013 with a preseason ranking. Northwestern loses four starters on each side of the ball, including three offensive linemen, but it brings back most of its star power on offense. Its two-headed quarterback combination (Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian) will be back, along with tailback Venric Mark, who ran for 1,366 yards with 12 touchdowns. The Wildcats will face a difficult schedule in 2013, including nonconference games against California (road) and Syracuse (home). They also play Big Ten games at Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska and play Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State at home.
For more on how the Wildcats will look in 2013, check out Northwestern's recruiting profile.
23. Michigan Wolverines:
The Wolverines are hoping they'll make the same improvement other recent teams have made in their coach's third season. Michigan went 8-5 in coach Brady Hoke's second season and never really seemed to recover from its 41-14 loss to Alabama in the opener. The good news is junior Devin Gardner got some experience at quarterback after Denard Robinson was injured midway through the season. Gardner went 3-2 as a starter, completing 59 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns in the five games he played under center. The Wolverines might have to replace four starting offensive linemen if junior left tackle Taylor Lewan leaves for the NFL draft. Six starters are coming back on defense, but they'll miss cornerback J.T. Floyd and safety Jordan Kovacs. Michigan's schedule won't be easy in 2013, with games at Penn State, Michigan State and Northwestern and home games against Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State.
24. Oklahoma State Cowboys:
If the Pokes can settle on a starting quarterback and stick with him -- they rotated freshmen Wes Lunt and J.W. Walsh and junior Clint Chelf throughout this past season -- they'll have a chance to improve on their 8-5 record of 2012. It still wasn't a bad rebuilding campaign after OSU lost quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon from its record-setting offense in 2011. The Pokes lose some of the firepower they had behind the quarterbacks after running back Joseph Randle opted to leave school early for the NFL, but Jeremy Smith will be back. The Cowboys had 20 players make their first career starts this past season; only five other FBS schools had more first-time starters. That experience should pay off in 2013, when OSU plays TCU, Kansas State and Oklahoma at home.
25. USC Trojans:
The Trojans can't be this bad, right? After starting 2012 at No. 1 in most preseason polls, USC limped to a 7-6 finish, including a listless 21-7 loss to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl. Quarterback Matt Barkley is gone, along with receiver Robert Woods, who was unhappy about his production and bolted for the NFL draft. Record-setting receiver Marqise Lee is coming back after catching 118 passes for 1,721 yards with 14 touchdowns last season. Freshman Max Wittek started the last two games after Barkley suffered a season-ending shoulder injury and goes into spring practice as the anticipated starter in 2013. The Trojans should have back seven starters on offense and eight on defense, so there's enough returning talent to get things turned around. USC fans are wondering whether coach Lane Kiffin is the man to do it, though.
3dKevin Stone, ESPN.com