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Monday, February 6, 2012
Updated: February 10, 2:19 AM ET
USC earns top spot in latest 2012 look

By Mark Schlabach
ESPN.com

College football's recruiting season is in the rearview mirror, and many of the country's top teams have restocked the cupboards for runs at conference titles and BCS bowl games.

Which freshmen are the next Sammy Watkins and Jadeveon Clowney? Even the country's best teams might need immediate help from freshmen to make a serious run at the 2013 BCS championship.

USC, which signed a solid class despite limited scholarship numbers, moves into the No. 1 spot of the second edition of the Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25, after LSU seemed to lose a lot of its momentum after losing to Alabama 21-0 in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 9. The Tigers, who still bring back a boatload of talent in 2012, dropped to No. 3, behind the Trojans and Crimson Tide.

Oregon also slipped to No. 6 after unexpectedly losing quarterback Darron Thomas to the NFL draft, allowing No. 4 Oklahoma and No. 5 Georgia to each move up a spot.

NC State and Louisville fall out of the rankings, while Ohio State and Florida, each buoyed by signing one of the country's top recruiting classes, return to the rankings.

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

1. USC Trojans

Previous rank: 2
With nine starters back on offense and defense, including star quarterback Matt Barkley, the Trojans will have a legitimate chance at competing for a BCS national championship. They better do it this coming season, because the effects of NCAA sanctions and scholarship reductions will start being felt in 2013. Even with a smaller recruiting class, USC coach Lane Kiffin was able to add some much-needed help with linebacker Jabari Ruffin and receiver Nelson Agholor. 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 this season, including a Sept. 15 road trip to Stanford and a Nov. 3 home game against Oregon.

2. Alabama Crimson Tide

Previous rank: 3
With so many defensive stars leaving for the NFL draft, the Crimson Tide of 2012 might look a lot like the last Alabama squad that tried to defend a BCS national championship. Quarterback AJ McCarron should be better in his second season as a starter, and Eddie Lacy is going to be a more than capable replacement for tailback Trent Richardson. But the defense is going to be exceptionally young, after linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower and cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick and DeQuan Menzie departed. Help is on the way after Alabama coach Nick Saban signed the country's No. 1 recruiting class. The Tide signed 13 prospects from the ESPNU 150, including top safety Landon Collins and receivers Eddie Williams and Chris Black.

3. LSU Tigers

Previous rank: 1
Not much has gone right for the Tigers since their loss to Alabama. Receiver Rueben Randle, cornerback Mo Claiborne and defensive lineman Michael Brockers turned pro. Quarterback Gunner Kiel spurned the Tigers for Notre Dame, and LSU's recruiting class fell short of expectations. But it's still hard to imagine the Tigers slipping very far with so much talent coming back. Georgia transfer QB Zach Mettenberger better be pretty good, because LSU doesn't have much behind him. The Tigers will play eight home games, and they'll play at SEC West foes Texas A&M and Arkansas.

4. Oklahoma Sooners

Previous rank: 5
The Sooners are going to be really explosive on offense again, especially with quarterback Landry Jones and receivers Kenny Stills and Jaz Reynolds coming back. There's no question OU will sorely miss record-setting receiver Ryan Broyles, but the Sooners signed a deep corps of receivers in their 2012 recruiting class, including Sterling Shepard, Durron Neal and Derrick Woods. Oklahoma's defense should be better after coach Bob Stoops hired his brother, former Arizona coach Mike Stoops, as his team's defensive coordinator. OU will have to replace defensive ends Frank Alexander and Ronnell Lewis and linebacker Travis Lewis.

5. Georgia Bulldogs

Previous rank: 6
Georgia has to run the ball more effectively and learn how to finish games, but there might not be a more inviting schedule in 2012 than the one the Bulldogs will face. Georgia is expected to bring back 10 starters from a much-improved defense, including All-American linebacker Jarvis Jones and safety Bacarri Rambo. Incoming freshmen Josh Harvey-Clemons, Jonathan Taylor and John Atkins might provide some immediate help. Quarterback Aaron Murray and receiver Malcolm Mitchell are coming back, and UGA signed two highly regarded tailbacks -- Keith Marshall (already enrolled at UGA) and Todd Gurley -- to push sophomore Isaiah Crowell. Georgia doesn't play SEC West favorites Alabama, Arkansas and LSU during the regular season and plays four of its first five games at home.

6. Oregon Ducks

Previous rank: 4
The Ducks were stunned when Thomas entered the NFL draft, but it would have been much, much worse if coach Chip Kelly had left for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Kelly is always going to have plenty of speed and a plethora of skill players available, so the Ducks shouldn't have too many problems scoring points this season. Tailbacks De'Anthony Thomas and Kenjon Barner are ready to replace the departed LaMichael James and sophomore Bryan Bennett is in line to replace Thomas. Offensive tackle Arik Armstead was a big recruiting coup, along with tailback Byron Marshall and receiver Bralon Addison.

7. West Virginia Mountaineers

Previous rank: 7
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney might still be having nightmares about West Virginia's offense. Here's the really scary part: T he Mountaineers should be even better on offense in their second season in coach Dana Holgorsen's system. Quarterback Geno Smith is coming back, along with tailback Dustin Garrison and top receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. Holgorsen really likes his incoming skill players, including receiver Deontay McManus, and the Mountaineers signed four offensive linemen. With defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel leaving for Arizona, the Mountaineers are going to ditch his 3-3-5 stack scheme and go with a more traditional 3-4 or 4-3 defense.

8. Florida State Seminoles

Previous rank: 8
FSU coach Jimbo Fisher continues to sign top-five recruiting classes, and it's only a matter of time until the Seminoles' abundance of talent produces championships. FSU's defense was really good last season, and nine starters are coming back, including cornerback Greg Reid and defensive end Brandon Jenkins, who passed up entering the NFL draft as juniors. The Seminoles added the country's best crop of incoming defensive linemen, led by ESPNU No. 1 prospect Mario Edwards of Denton, Texas, and Eddie Goldman of Washington, D.C. FSU's offense was really young last season, and rising sophomores such as James Wilder Jr. and Nick O'Leary should be more effective in 2012. FSU plays seven homes games, but plays at Virginia Tech during ACC play.

9. Michigan State Spartans

Previous rank: 9
Michigan State is quietly becoming the Big Ten's most consistent program, winning 11 games in each of the past two seasons and winning its first bowl game during coach Mark Dantonio's tenure. Eight starters are coming back to a very stingy defense, but the Spartans will miss All-Big Ten defensive tackle Jerel Worthy, who left early for the NFL draft. Replacing quarterback Kirk Cousins and his top four receivers won't be easy, but tailback Le'Veon Bell will be back in 2012. Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett and four-star prospects Monty Madaris and Aaron Burbridge might be able to help at receiver immediately. 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

Previous rank: 10
If tailback Marcus Lattimore comes back healthy from torn knee ligaments, and if quarterback Connor Shaw develops into a more consistent passer, the Gamecocks will be right back in the SEC East hunt. USC is coming off its first 11-win season in school history, and coach Steve Spurrier added another solid recruiting class. The Gamecocks will miss receiver Alshon Jeffery and cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who left for the NFL draft, and they'll have to replace four other defensive starters, including All-American end Melvin Ingram. Incoming freshmen Shaq Roland and safety Chaz Elder might make big impacts right away. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson left to become Southern Mississippi's head coach, and three other assistants coaches left for other jobs or were fired.

11. Arkansas Razorbacks

Previous rank: 14
The Hogs continue to make major strides under coach Bobby Petrino, but they'll have to get better on defense to move past Alabama and LSU in the SEC West. Quarterback Tyler Wilson returns to lead a high-powered offense, but he'll have to do it without top receivers Greg Childs, Joe Adams and Jarius Wright. The Razorbacks missed out on top receiver target Dorial Green-Beckham, who signed with Missouri, but they did sign receivers D'Arthur Cowan of Olive Brach, Miss., and Keon Hatcher of Owasso, Okla. Arkansas will have to overcome heavy losses on defense, too, after defensive end Jake Bequette, linebacker Jerry Franklin and safety Tramain Thomas departed. Arkansas plays Alabama and LSU at home in 2012.

12. Kansas State Wildcats

Previous rank: 12
With quarterback Collin Klein and linebacker Arthur Brown coming back this season, 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 last season. 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. Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, 72, filled his team's biggest need by signing four top defensive linemen: juco transfers Chaquil Reed and Wesley Hollingshed and prep recruits Travis Britz and Demonte Hood.

13. Stanford Cardinal

Previous rank: 17
Stanford fans can stop worrying about whether the Cardinal would lose momentum after former coach Jim Harbaugh left to coach the NFL's San Francisco 49ers. Not only did coach David Shaw lead Stanford to an 11-2 record and BCS bowl game in his first season, but he signed arguably the best recruiting class in school history. Stanford signed an embarrassment of top offensive line prospects, including tackles Andrus Peat and Kyle Murphy and guard Josh Garnett. Tailback Barry Sanders Jr., the son of NFL Hall of Famer Barry Sanders, also was a big recruiting coup. Of course, the Cardinal have to replace quarterback Andrew Luck and top tackle Jonathan Martin and guard David DeCastro. But Stanford's future still looks really bright under Shaw.

14. Michigan Wolverines

Previous rank: 11
In his first season, Michigan coach Brady Hoke guided the Wolverines to their first 11-win season since 2006, defeating Virginia Tech 23-20 in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, then signed one of the country's best recruiting classes. Perhaps even more importantly, 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 2010-11. Mattison will get some help from the incoming freshman class, led by a duo from Detroit -- cornerback Terry Richardson and linebacker Royce Jenkins-Stone -- and Joe Bolden of Cincinnati.

15. TCU Horned Frogs

Previous rank: 15
The Horned Frogs started preparing for life in the Big 12 by signing a recruiting class that was heavy on defensive linemen. TCU's top signees were defensive end Devonte Fields and tackle Joey Hunt. The Horned Frogs are making the jump from the Mountain West to the Big 12 this season, after winning 11 or more games in seven of the past nine seasons. 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.

16. Ohio State Buckeyes

Previous rank: NR
New Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who guided Florida to BCS national championships in 2006 and '08, came out swinging in his first recruiting effort in the Big Ten. Even though the Buckeyes are facing a bowl ban this season as part of their NCAA sanctions, Meyer was able to assemble a top-10 recruiting class. The group had the dynamics of Meyer's best teams at Florida, with ESPNU 150 defensive linemen Noah Spence, Se'Von Pittman and Tommy Schutt leading the way. The Buckeyes will have to replace leading rusher Dan "Boom" Herron, receiver DeVier Posey and three offensive linemen, but rising sophomore QB Braxton Miller should be a pretty nice fit for Meyer's spread offense.

17. Nebraska Cornhuskers

Previous rank: 13
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. But the Cornhuskers might be a little more comfortable with their surroundings and opponents in their second season in the Big Ten. The Cornhuskers went 9-4 in their first season in the Big Ten, 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. Incoming freshman linebackers Michael Rose and Jared Afalava at least look like Big Ten linebackers.

18. Wisconsin Badgers

Previous rank: 19
After playing in the Rose Bowl in each of the past two seasons, Wisconsin is undergoing a major overhaul this offseason. Not only did the Badgers lose quarterback Russell Wilson, receiver Nick Toon and the right side of their offensive line, but six assistants left Bret Bielema's coaching staff. Offensive coordinator Paul Chryst was named Pittsburgh's new coach and took three assistants with him. Two other assistants left for Arizona State and Kansas. The Badgers did receive good news when tailback Montee Ball, who ran for 1,923 yards and scored 39 total touchdowns in 2011, elected to return for his senior season instead of entering the NFL draft. Six starters are coming back on defense and five will return on offense.

19. Oklahoma State Cowboys

Previous rank: 16
The Pokes won 23 games the past two seasons and claimed 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 rebuild his record-setting offense after losing quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon. 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. The Pokes signed six receivers and top tight end Dominic Ramacher in their recruiting class. Eight starters are expected back on defense, but safety Markelle Martin is a big loss.

20. Virginia Tech Hokies

Previous rank: 18
Frank Beamer has built one of the country's most consistent programs at Virginia Tech, but the Hokies face a major rebuilding job in 2012. It's not like Beamer hasn't done it before. With a new quarterback and revamped defense, the Hokies went 11-3 this past season. 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. Incoming tailbacks Drew Harris of Exton, Pa., and J.C. Coleman (who has already enrolled) of Chesapeake, Va., might have to play right away. The Hokies are also losing four starting offensive linemen and top receivers Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale. Incoming freshman Joel Caleb might need to emerge as a big-play threat early in his career. The good news is that as many as eight starters might be back on defense.

21. Boise State Broncos

Previous rank: 20
The Broncos went 73-6 in coach Chris Petersen's first six seasons and flirted with playing for a BCS national championship in each of the past two seasons. But the Broncos will face more uncertainty than ever under Petersen this 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 (who is already enrolled). The Broncos received good news when the NCAA awarded tailback D.J. Harper a sixth season of eligibility because of injuries. The Broncos added five linebackers and seven other defenders in their recruiting classes, including juco defensive end Demarcus Lawrence, who enrolled at Boise State in December.

22. Texas Longhorns

Previous rank: 21
The Longhorns rebounded nicely this past season, after a head-scratching 5-7 finish in 2010. Although the UT defense made big strides under first-year coordinator Manny Diaz, its 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 -- ranked the No. 1 running back in the ESPNU 150 -- might provide immediate help. The Horns will have to replace linebackers Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho, as well as defensive tackle Kheeston Randall. Incoming freshman Malcom Brown was the No. 12 prospect in the ESPNU 150.

23. Clemson Tigers

Previous rank: 22
The Tigers' inexplicable 70-33 flop against West Virginia in the Discover Orange Bowl really tarnished a nice campaign last season. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney shook up his coaching staff after the embarrassing loss, replacing defensive coordinator Kevin Steele with former Oklahoma assistant Brent Venables. Five starters must be replaced on defense, including top pass-rusher Andre Branch. Venables might get some help from the Tigers' incoming freshman class, including top safety Travis Blanks, defensive end Carlos Watkins and tackle Shaquille Lawson. Quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins are back on offense, but four starting offensive linemen will have to be replaced. The Tigers will open the season against Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game and will play ACC foes Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech at home.

24. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Previous rank: 23
There's no question the Fighting Irish are a better defensive team under coach Brian Kelly, and now he's trying to address his team's lack of overall speed through recruiting. The Irish 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, Everett Golson and freshman Gunner Kiel (who enrolled in January) 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. ESPNU 150 receiver Justin Ferguson was a major recruiting coup after losing Floyd. 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.

25. Florida Gators

Previous rank: NR
After limping through a 7-6 finish in his first season as Florida's coach, coach Will Muschamp is starting to overhaul the team's roster and address its problems on offense. Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, who directed a unit that ranked 105th in total offense (328.6 yards per game) and 71st in scoring (25.4 points), left to become Kansas' new coach. Muschamp lured former Boise State offensive coordinator Brent Pease to Florida, and he'll try to restore the confidence of rising sophomore quarterbacks Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel. The Gators lost top playmakers Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps on offense, but incoming freshman tight end Colin Thompson, receiver Latroy Pittman and running back Matt Jones might be able to help right away. Florida's offensive line has been a trouble spot, too, and Muschamp signed five-star tackle D.J. Humphries and ESPNU 150 tackles Jessamen Dunker and Dante Phillips. The defense was pretty solid last season, and 10 starters are expected back.

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.