Commentary

Tide strengthen spot in 2013 Top 25

Originally Published: February 11, 2013
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

College football's signing day is (thankfully) in the rear-view mirror, and the start of spring practice is right around the corner.

There's not a better time for the second edition of the 2013 Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25.

Alabama, the two-time defending BCS national champion, remains No. 1 after signing what is considered the country's best recruiting class. But Oregon, which was previously No. 2 when it looked like coach Chip Kelly would stay, falls to No. 5 after he left for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Stanford, Ohio State and Texas A&M climbed up a spot, and Florida, Notre Dame and Michigan also were big climbers after signing top-10 recruiting classes.

Along with Oregon, South Carolina, Clemson, Texas, Oregon State and Boise State fell a few notches.

Say good-bye to Wisconsin, which lost coach Bret Bielema to Arkansas and hired former Utah State coach Gary Andersen to replace him, and USC, which remains a mess under coach Lane Kiffin.

Previously unranked Kansas State and Vanderbilt replaced the Badgers and Trojans.

1. Alabama Crimson Tide

Previous rank: 1
College football's rich continued to get embarrassingly richer on national signing day, as two-time defending BCS national champion Alabama landed the country's No. 1 recruiting class for the second year in a row. If the Crimson Tide are going to win their third consecutive national title, they'll have to rebuild their offensive line and replace a few key guys on defense, such as nose guard Jesse Williams and safety Robert Lester. But quarterback AJ McCarron is coming back to lead what should be an explosive offense, along with tailback T.J. Yeldon and wide receiver Amari Cooper. Signees like linebacker Reuben Foster, running backs Alvin Kamara and Derrick Henry and tight end O.J. Howard might provide some immediate depth. The Crimson Tide dodged a bullet by keeping highly regarded defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who interviewed for head-coaching jobs at Arkansas and Auburn.

2. Stanford Cardinal

Previous rank: 3
After playing in three consecutive BCS bowl games and winning the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio this past season, Stanford signed the country's No. 40 recruiting class, according to ESPN RecruitingNation. But don't think for a second that its low ranking really matters. Stanford continues to do more with less than perhaps any Football Bowl Subdivision program in the country. Even after losing three underclassmen (tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo and cornerback Terrence Brown) to the NFL draft, the Cardinal should be a contender for a Pac-12 title in 2013. The Cardinal must also replace senior tailback Stepfan Taylor, who ran for 1,530 yards with 13 touchdowns, but quarterback Kevin Hogan figures to get better with more experience. Cardinal coach David Shaw and his staff signed only 12 recruits, but receiver Francis Owusu and three tight ends might provide some immediate help.

3. Ohio State Buckeyes

Previous rank: 4
Boy, the expectations surrounding Urban Meyer's program at Ohio State are really going to be off the charts. After leading the Buckeyes to a 12-0 record in his first season in 2012, Meyer signed the country's No. 3 recruiting class. Meyer set out to add SEC-like speed to his roster, and that's exactly what he did by signing receivers Jalin Marshall, Dontre Wilson, James Clark and Corey Smith. Defensive backs Eli Apple, Gareon Conley, Vonn Bell and Cam Burrows might help OSU's much-maligned defense. 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 might emerge as a serious BCS championship contender. The Buckeyes have plenty of holes to fill on defense, especially on the line, where star end John Simon and tackle Johnathan Hankins must be replaced.

4. Texas A&M Aggies

Previous rank: 5
Riding the momentum of an 11-2 finish in their first season in the SEC, the Aggies staked their claim to the fertile recruiting ground of Texas. The Aggies signed the No. 8 recruiting class in the country, beating out former Big 12 rivals Oklahoma and Texas for many top players in the process. Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin found plenty of playmakers to surround Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, including wide receivers Ja'Quay Williams and Kyrion Parker and athletes Ricky Seals-Jones and LaQuvionte Gonzalez. Manziel will have to handle the pressure of having a big target on his back as a sophomore after passing for 3,706 yards with 26 touchdowns and running for 1,410 yards with 21 TDs in 2012. He'll also have a new offensive coordinator after Kliff Kingsbury left to become Texas Tech's new head coach. Sumlin hired West Virginia quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital to work as co-offensive coordinator with running backs coach Clarence McKinney. Texas A&M will spend the spring trying to replace left tackle Luke Joeckel and defensive end Damontre Moore, who left early for the NFL draft.

5. Oregon Ducks

Previous rank: 2
The day Oregon football fans feared for so long finally came on Jan. 16, when Kelly left the Ducks to become head coach of the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles. Oregon promoted offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, who will continue to direct the Ducks' high-powered attack. With as many as eight starters on offense and seven on defense returning from a team that finished 12-1 in 2012, there shouldn't be much of a decline without Kelly on the sideline. But there always seems to be at least a little bit of a transition with a coaching change. The Ducks can only hope it's as smooth as when former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh handed over his program to Shaw. Quarterback Marcus Mariota ranked in the top 10 in the country in passing efficiency in his first season as a starter, throwing 32 touchdowns against only six interceptions. The Ducks will miss tailback Kenjon Barner, but De'Anthony Thomas and highly regarded freshman Thomas Tyner might be just as explosive this fall. The Ducks' lack of depth at linebacker is still a concern.

6. Georgia Bulldogs

Previous rank: 6
Georgia's recruiting class might have lacked the high-profile signees its fans were hoping for, but the Bulldogs signed a big crop of 32 players, many of whom might provide immediate depth on defense. UGA will have to replace nine starters on defense, including star linebackers Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree, who left early for the NFL draft. The Bulldogs had 13 comimits enroll in classes early, and safety Tray Matthews, nose tackles Chris Mayes and John Atkins and defensive end Leonard Floyd might be asked to help right away. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham decided to remain in Athens after interviewing with the NFL's New Orleans Saints last week. The good news is the Bulldogs might have one of the most explosive offenses in the country in 2013 after quarterback Aaron Murray decided to return for his senior season. UGA scored a school-record 529 points while going 12-2 in 2012, and receiver Tavarres King will be the only departed starter on offense. But depth on the offensive line will be a concern, especially after the Bulldogs missed out on Laremy Tunsil, the No. 1 offensive tackle prospect in the country.

7. Florida Gators

Previous rank: 10
Will Muschamp guided the Gators to 11 victories in his second season as a head coach in 2012, and it hasn't taken him long to re-establish their success on the recruiting trail, either. The Gators' class was ranked No. 2 nationally and addresses some of UF's most glaring deficiencies. The Gators needed help at wide receiver, and Demarcus Robinson, Alvin Bailey and Ahmad Fulwood might end up being major upgrades. Linebacker Alex Anzalone of Wyomissing, Pa., and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III of Tampa, Fla., were two of the highest-rated players in the country. The Gators did suffer a big loss in January when defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, the architect of top-10 defenses the past two seasons, left for the same position with the Seattle Seahawks. Muschamp promoted linebackers coach/special teams coordinator D.J. Durkin to defensive coordinator. The Gators will spend much of the spring trying to improve an offense that ranked 114th nationally in passing (146.3 yards), 103rd in total offense (334.4 yards) and 106th in sacks allowed (three per game).

8. Louisville Cardinals

Previous rank: 8
The Cardinals' move to the ACC in 2014 can't get here soon enough. After finishing 11-2 and upsetting Florida 33-23 in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, Louisville really didn't seem to seize its momentum. The Cardinals' class was ranked No. 43 in the country, and wide receiver James Quick of Louisville was the only signee ranked in the ESPN 150. But it's not like the Cardinals needed a lot of immediate help. Louisville will bring back seven starters on offense, including quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who threw for 3,718 yards with 27 touchdowns and 8 interceptions in 2012. The offensive line will need some work in the spring after losing center Mario Benavides (a Rimington Trophy finalist) and left tackle Alex Kupper. Coach Charlie Strong also welcomes back 10 starters from a rapidly improving defense. If Louisville can dominate the Big East in its final season in the league, it figures to be a major player in the BCS title race in 2013.

9. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Previous rank: 12
After unexpectedly leading the Fighting Irish to a 12-0 record during the regular season in 2012 and a spot in the Discover BCS National Championship, coach Brian Kelly landed the school's first top-five recruiting class since 2006. Even without All-American linebacker Manti Te'o, the Irish figure to again be stingy on defense in 2013, especially with star nose guard Louis Nix III and defensive end Stephon Tuitt coming back. Kelly added a lot of speed and athleticism in this recruiting class for his defense, including linebackers Jaylon Smith and Doug Randolph, tackle Eddie Vanderdoes and safety Max Redfield. There's also more help for the offense, including running back Greg Bryant. The Irish bring back seven starters on offense, and quarterback Everett Golson figures to be a better passer in his second season as a starter. Notre Dame's schedule in 2013 again looks daunting, with road games at Michigan and Stanford and home contests against Michigan State, Oklahoma and USC, plus a matchup against Arizona State at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

10. South Carolina Gamecocks

Previous rank: 7
The Gamecocks didn't have the signing day splash of some other top SEC programs, but coach Steve Spurrier always seems to field an SEC East contender. Running back David Williams of Philadelphia was one of South Carolina's top signees, and he might be asked to step in right away after injured tailback Marcus Lattimore left early for the NFL draft. Spurrier also likes quarterback Connor Mitch of Raleigh, N.C., who picked the Gamecocks over Alabama, Auburn and North Carolina. Returning quarterback Connor Shaw will miss spring practice after undergoing foot surgery. South Carolina will have to replace seven starters on defense, but star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is coming back and might emerge as a top Heisman Trophy candidate in 2013. The Gamecocks will have to replace three starting linebackers and two starting defensive backs, so the defense will get a lot of attention during spring practice.

11. Clemson Tigers

Previous rank: 9
With quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins coming back to run offensive coordinator Chad Morris' spread offense, the Tigers are the team to beat in the ACC in 2013. But unless their defense improves dramatically, they might not be much of a factor in the BCS title race. Clemson made some strides under first-year defensive coordinator Brent Venables in 2012, ranking No. 48 nationally in scoring defense (24.8 points per game) and No. 63 in total defense (396.2 yards). Clemson coach Dabo Swinney focused his recruiting efforts on that side of the ball, signing four defensive recruits in the ESPN Top 150, including No. 2 cornerback Mackensie Alexander, linebackers Ben Boulware and Dorian O'Daniel and defensive end Ebenezer Ogundeko. Clemson should be explosive on offense, even after losing tailback Andre Ellington and receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who left early for the NFL draft. Boyd threw for 3,896 yards with 36 touchdowns and 13 interceptions and ran for 514 yards with 10 TDs last season.

12. Michigan Wolverines

Previous rank: 23
With the way Michigan coach Brady Hoke and his staff have recruited the past two years, the Wolverines aren't just going to concede a Big Ten championship to hated rival Ohio State. Hoke landed a top-10 class for the second consecutive year, hauling in perhaps the country's best crop of offensive linemen. A few of the freshmen might have to provide immediate depth after the Wolverines lost three starting linemen. It would have been worse if star left tackle Taylor Lewan hadn't surprised many NFL scouts by deciding to return to school for his senior season. Michigan signed six offensive line prospects, including No. 2 guard David Dawson. They'll help pave the way for No. 5 running back Derrick Green, who might see early action, especially if Fitzgerald Toussaint is slow in recovering from a broken leg. Junior Devin Gardner takes over at quarterback after Denard Robinson departed. Gardner went 3-2 as a starter, completing 59.5 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns.

13. LSU Tigers

Previous rank: 13
Not many FBS programs could recover from losing a whopping 10 underclassmen to the NFL draft. Then again, not many programs have stockpiled talent like LSU has over the past few seasons. The Tigers will certainly have to do some rebuilding in 2013, but coach Les Miles got off to a good start by signing another top-10 recruiting class. LSU's personnel losses were especially heavy on the defensive line after junior ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery and tackle Bennie Logan bolted for the NFL. Junior tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson are ready to become LSU's next stars on the defensive line, and the Tigers added three ESPN Top 150 prospects (tackles Greg Gilmore and Maquedius Bain and end Tashawn Bower) to help shore up the defensive front. The Tigers were really young on offense last season, and injuries on the offensive line didn't help matters. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger will have to improve as a passer if LSU is going to challenge Alabama in the SEC West; the Tigers ranked only 92nd in passing (200.5 yards per game) and 85th in total offense (374.2 yards) in 2012. Hiring former Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron should help revamp the Tigers' offense.

14. Texas Longhorns

Previous rank: 11
Texas coach Mack Brown is hoping the growing pains of having a young team last season pays big dividends in 2013. The Longhorns started five freshmen and sophomores on offense in 2012, including quarterback David Ash, who made major strides in his second season as a starter. Ash completed 67.3 percent of his passes for 2,699 yards with 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Ash wasn't perfect under center last season, but he showed enough promise to give the Longhorns hope moving forward. 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. UT's defense was even younger in 2012, with seven freshmen and sophomores starting in the Alamo Bowl, but nine starters are coming back. Texas signed a relatively small recruiting class of 15 signees, but it addressed major concerns on the offensive line. UT signed three ESPN Top 150 linemen: No. 1 center Darius James, No. 4 tackle Kent Perkins and No. 9 tackle Jake Raulerson.

15. Oklahoma Sooners

Previous rank: 17
The Sooners will have a pretty long to-do list in spring practice: replace record-setting quarterback Landry Jones and rebuild a defense that didn't live up to expectations in the pass-happy Big 12 in 2012. Oklahoma gave up 398.3 yards per game last season, the highest average in school history. OU coach Bob Stoops tried to address big deficiencies on defense by signing 14 prospects for that side of the ball, including seven linemen and five defensive backs. The Sooners will have to replace safety Tony Jefferson and linebacker Tom Wort, who left early for the NFL draft, along with three starters along the defensive line. Sophomore Blake Bell, known as the Belldozer because of his 6-foot-6, 254-pound frame, is the favorite to win the starting quarterback job, but he'll have to hold off junior Drew Allen and freshmen Trevor Knight and Kendal Thompson. The Sooners also signed a pair of highly regarded skill players on offense: No. 3 running back Keith Ford and No. 13 quarterback Cody Thomas, who might opt to play pro baseball if he's drafted high enough in June.

16. Florida State Seminoles

Previous rank: 16
The Seminoles underwent a complete facelift after finishing 12-2 last season. Coach Jimbo Fisher lost six assistants from his staff, including defensive coordinator Mark Stoops (Kentucky's new coach) and offensive coordinator James Coley (same position at Miami). Fisher hired former Alabama assistant Jeremy Pruitt as his defensive coordinator and has yet to hire an offensive coordinator, although Fisher will probably continue to call FSU's plays. Despite the staff overhaul, Fisher was able to bring in the country's ninth-best recruiting class, which included No. 4 cornerback Jalen Ramsey, No. 5 defensive tackle DeMarcus Walker and No. 10 outside linebacker Matthew Thomas. The Seminoles will spend the spring looking for a new quarterback after losing EJ Manuel, who won four bowl games. They'll also have to rebuild their defensive line, especially after star end Bjoern Werner left for the NFL draft.

17. TCU Horned Frogs

Previous rank: 14
After a trying campaign both on and off the field in their first season in the Big 12, the Horned Frogs probably didn't get the boost they were expecting on the recruiting road. TCU's class ranked only 49th nationally, and it signed only one player in the ESPN Top 300 (No. 18 running back Kyle Hicks). But TCU coach Gary Patterson and his staff have always done a nice job of identifying hidden gems, so maybe there isn't too much to worry about. TCU's biggest pickup was former starting quarterback Casey Pachall, who enrolled in classes and rejoined the team in January. Pachall was suspended from the team after a DUI arrest in early October and spent time in a drug treatment facility. He'll battle Trevone Boykin for the starting job in spring practice. TCU was very young last season, and it will bring back six starters on offense and 10 on defense. There's a lot of room for improvement in its second season in the Big 12.

18. Oregon State Beavers

Previous rank: 15
Oregon State's Mike Riley has long been considered one of the country's most underrated coaches, and he proved his worth again when the Beavers improved from 3-9 in 2011 to 9-4 last season. If the Beavers are going to continue moving up the Pac-12 North ladder, they'll have to settle on a starting quarterback (Cody Vaz or Sean Mannion) and rebuild the middle of their defense. OSU loses starting defensive tackles Castro Masaniai and Andrew Seumalo, middle linebacker Feti Taumoepeau and star cornerback Jordan Poyer. As a result, Riley emphasized defense in recruiting, signing six defensive linemen, including junior college transfers Kyle Peko and Edwin Delva. Dashon Hunt, the No. 16 cornerback in the country, was the only ESPN Top 300 prospect to sign with the Beavers.

19. Kansas State Wildcats

Previous rank: NR
Defending Big 12 champion Kansas State loses record-setting quarterback Collin Klein and most of its defense, but does anyone do a better job of plugging in new faces than coach Bill Snyder? The Wildcats signed 32 prospects, including six junior college transfers, a few of which have already enrolled in classes. Quarterback Jake Waters, who led Iowa Western Community College to a juco national championship, will battle sophomore Daniel Sams for the starting job this spring. Waters, who has already enrolled at Kansas State, set a national juco record by completing 73.3 percent of his passes last season. He threw for 3,501 yards with 39 touchdowns and three interceptions. Juco cornerbacks Nate Jackson and Travis Green and defensive end Devon Nash also might be counted on to help on defense immediately. While it might be hard for Kansas State to duplicate last season's success, it might still be good enough to win 10 games or more in 2013.

20. Oklahoma State Cowboys

Previous rank: 24
The Cowboys will have new coordinators on both sides of the ball in 2013, but coach Mike Gundy has done a great job with roster and staff turnover in recent seasons. After losing quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon, the Pokes still averaged 45.7 points in 2012 despite playing four quarterbacks because of injuries. Gundy will have to choose a starting quarterback during spring practice; Wes Lunt, Clint Chelf and J.W. Walsh will battle for the starting job. Last week, Gundy hired Mike Yurcich of Division II Shippensburg (Pa.) as his new offensive coordinator after Todd Monken left to become Southern Miss' new coach. Gundy also fired defensive coordinator Bill Young after OSU ranked 80th in total defense (421.6 yards per game) and 110th in pass defense (280 yards). Linebackers coach Glenn Spencer was promoted to replace Young.

21. UCLA Bruins

Previous rank: 21
UCLA coach Jim Mora put last season's disappointing finish in the rearview mirror by signing the country's No. 12 recruiting class. The Bruins were able to beat rival USC for a few prospects, including defensive end Kylie Fitts, a onetime Trojans commitment. Mora emphasized rebuilding his defense and offensive line in the class. While starting three freshmen on the offensive line last season, UCLA gave up 52 sacks, which was second most among FBS teams. They'll get some help from three ESPN Top 300 linemen: center Scott Quessenberry and guards John Lopez and Caleb Benenoch. The Bruins' defensive haul was even more impressive: No. 5 safety Priest Willis, No. 7 OLB Deon Hollins Jr. and No. 9 safety Tahaan Goodman. Mora already had a good foundation in place, including sophomore quarterback Brett Hundley, who threw for 3,740 yards with 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions as a freshman. But tailback Johnathan Franklin, who ran for 1,734 yards with 13 touchdowns, will have to be replaced.

22. Boise State Broncos

Previous rank: 19
If winning 10 games for the seventh consecutive season is considered a ho-hum campaign, then you realize how far the Boise State program has come under coach Chris Petersen. The Broncos were never much of a factor in the BCS championship race in 2012, but they'll make another run at a BCS bowl game this coming season in the Mountain West after the school elected not to join the Big East. Petersen once again focused on defense in his recruiting class, with 13 of the 21 signees projected to play on that side of the ball. The Broncos also signed six junior college transfers -- the most in Petersen's tenure -- and cornerback Cleshawn Page and tackles Tutulupeatau Mataele and Justin Mataele might provide some immediate help. The Broncos will spend the spring rebuilding their defense after losing both starting cornerbacks and four other starters. Seven starters also left on offense, but quarterback Joe Southwick is coming back.

23. Nebraska Cornhuskers

Previous rank: 20
Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini hopes there is help on the way for his reeling defense, which was embarrassed by Wisconsin, 70-31, in the Big Ten championship game and 45-31 by Georgia in the Capital One Bowl to end the 2012 season. Nebraska's defense loses eight starters, so it's no surprise that Pelini emphasized that side of the ball in recruiting. Pelini wants faster, more athletic defensive linemen, and he hopes junior college transfer Randy Gregory can become a disruptive pass-rushing end. There's also help coming for the linebacker corps, including Marcus Newby, the No. 19 outside linebacker. 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.

24. Northwestern Wildcats

Previous rank: 22
After Northwestern ended college football's longest postseason drought -- defeating Mississippi State 34-20 in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl for its 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 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.

25. Vanderbilt Commodores

Previous rank: NR
Here's what the Commodores accomplished during the 2012 season: They won nine games (their most since 1915), won five SEC contests (their most since 1935), played in back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history and ended the campaign with a seven-game winning streak. How's that for momentum? Vanderbilt coach James Franklin will have to replace leading passer Jordan Rodgers and leading rusher Zac Stacy, but he's bringing back seven starters on both offense and defense in 2013. Wyoming transfer Austyn Carta-Samuels and sophomore Patton Robinette will battle for the quarterback job this spring. The Commodores bring back top receiver Jordan Matthews, who led the SEC with 94 catches for 1,323 yards, and they signed ESPN Top 150 receiver Jordan Cunningham and ESPN Top 300 receivers DeAndre Woods and Carlos Burse to help him.

Mark Schlabach | email

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