ESPN's Way too Early Top 10
Mark Schlabach, ESPN.COM
The SEC still rules the college football world, with Alabama winning the league's sixth consecutive BCS national championship at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Monday night with a 21-0 victory over LSU.
However, with seven starters coming back on offense and on defense, it's the Tigers who figure to be the team to beat in 2012. LSU will have to find a new quarterback, but its running game should be stout and its defense menacing.
Four SEC teams are ranked in the top 10 of the first edition of the 2012 Way-Too-Early Top 25: No. 1 LSU, No. 3 Alabama, No. 6 Georgia and No. 10 South Carolina.
The SEC's stiffest competition in 2012 might come from the Pac-12 or Big 12. The Pac-12 has two teams ranked in the top four -- No. 2 USC and No. 4 Oregon -- and the Big 12 has six teams in the top 25 (if we're including No. 7 West Virginia).
With more than seven months before the start of the 2012 season, the teams and their order figure to change frequently, but it's never too early to take a look at the Way-Too-Early Top 25 for 2012:
1. LSU Tigers:
Believe it or not, the Tigers might be even stronger in 2012 than they were in 2011. LSU might bring back seven starters on both offense and defense, although junior cornerback Morris Claiborne is considering entering the NFL draft. The Tigers will have to find a new quarterback with both Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee leaving. Georgia transfer Zach Mettenberger and incoming freshman Gunner Kiel will be the top candidates to start under center next season. Linebackers Stefoin Francois and Ryan Baker will have to be replaced, but six defensive starters and five top backups were freshmen or sophomores in 2011. After playing Pac-12 champion Oregon and Big East champ West Virginia this past season, LSU has a 2012 schedule that doesn't look nearly as daunting. The Tigers will play eight home games, and they'll play at SEC West foes Texas A&M and Arkansas.
2. USC Trojans:
Quarterback Matt Barkley's surprising decision to return to USC for his senior season puts the Trojans right in the thick of the BCS title race. USC is expected to bring back nine starters on both offense and defense, although replacing All-American offensive tackle Matt Kalil won't be easy. USC is expected to return its leading rusher, top three receivers, four starting offensive linemen and five of its top six tacklers. That's a recipe for success. The Trojans were one of the country's younger teams this past season, with 10 freshmen and sophomores starting. The Trojans will play six home games and six road games in 2012, including a Sept. 15 road trip to Stanford and a Nov. 3 home game against Oregon. Most importantly, USC will be eligible to play in the postseason after NCAA sanctions prevented the Trojans from playing in bowl games each of the past two seasons.
3. Alabama Crimson Tide:
After winning the BCS national championship on Monday night, the Crimson Tide figure to take a step back in 2012. But with the way coach Nick Saban and his staff have recruited, it's hard to imagine Alabama slipping too far. The Tide might lose as many as seven starters on offense (if junior tailback Trent Richardson enters the NFL draft, as expected) and as many as seven on defense (if junior linebacker Dont'a Hightower and junior cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick go pro). The good news: All-American offensive tackle Barrett Jones already said he's coming back to school, and quarterback AJ McCarron was only a sophomore this past season. The Tide open the 2012 season against Michigan in Arlington, Texas, on Sept. 1 and play only four true road games, including trips to Arkansas on Sept. 15 and a stop at LSU on Nov. 3.
4. Oregon Ducks:
Oregon, a three-time defending Pac-12 champion, should be an overwhelming favorite to win the Pac-12 North again. But the Ducks might have to beat the Trojans twice in 2012 to win the conference, first at USC on Nov. 3 and again in the Pac-12 championship game. The Ducks are expected to bring back six starters on both offense and defense. All-time leading rusher LaMichael James already has announced he's leaving to enter the NFL draft as a junior, but speedy De'Anthony Thomas and Kenjon Barner will form a potent tailback duo. Quarterback Darron Thomas should be even better as a senior, and Oregon's defense was much improved after rebuilding before the 2011 season. Oregon will play a soft nonconference schedule (home games against Arkansas State, Fresno State and FCS foe Tennessee Tech), and five of its first six games will be played at Autzen Stadium.
5. Oklahoma Sooners:
The Sooners fell short of their lofty No. 1 preseason ranking, but a 10-3 finish wasn't bad, especially after OU lost its leading rusher and top receiver to season-ending injuries. Quarterback Landry Jones' decision to return means OU will have one of the country's most explosive offenses, even without all-time leading receiver Ryan Broyles. Four starting offensive linemen are expected back, as well as young receivers Kenny Stills and Jaz Reynolds. Top tailback Dominique Whaley also is coming back from a broken ankle. There are a few key pieces to replace on defense -- ends Frank Alexander and Ronnell Lewis and linebacker Travis Lewis. OU's schedule for 2012 hasn't been finalized, but it figures to be more difficult with TCU and possibly West Virginia (if the Mountaineers can leave the Big East) joining the Big 12. The only finalized game to date is an Oct. 27 home contest against Notre Dame.
6. Georgia Bulldogs:
Georgia struggled to run the ball and close out games this past season, but it rebounded nicely from a 6-7 finish in 2010 to go 10-4 in 2011. Georgia's defense and its schedule are the biggest reasons it will be favored to win the SEC East in 2012. Georgia is expected to bring back 10 starters on defense, with only cornerback Brandon Boykin expected to depart. The Bulldogs also have a lot of firepower coming back on offense, including quarterback Aaron Murray and receiver Malcolm Mitchell. The biggest concerns are whether tailback Isaiah Crowell will be more dependable and durable as a sophomore (or whether an incoming freshman such as speedy Keith Marshall can provide immediate help), as well as replacing three starters on the offensive line. UGA's special teams also continue to be trouble spots and it loses punter Drew Butler and kicker Blair Walsh. Georgia doesn't play SEC West heavyweights Alabama, LSU or Arkansas in the regular season for the second straight year and it plays four of its first five games at home.
7. West Virginia Mountaineers:
WVU fans finally saw a glimpse of how explosive coach Dana Holgorsen's spread offense can be in the Mountaineers' 70-33 rout of Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl. Holgorsen's first season has to be considered a roaring success after a 10-3 finish, but the Mountaineers might have just scratched the surface with his high-powered offense. Quarterback Geno Smith is coming back for his senior season in 2012, along with eight other offensive starters, including leading rusher Dustin Garrison and top receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. The Mountaineers will have to replace four starters on defense and might lose coordinator Jeff Casteel, who is considering taking a job on Rich Rodriguez's staff at Arizona. West Virginia's schedule for 2012 is undetermined because it's trying to leave the Big East for the Big 12, a decision that might be finalized in court.
8. Florida State Seminoles:
We're taking the bait on the Seminoles again, even after they failed to live up to very high aspirations with a 9-4 finish in 2011. But FSU's lofty preseason billing might have been a year premature, and injuries plagued the Seminoles throughout the season. FSU's defense is as good as advertised and it might be even better in 2012 with nine starters coming back. Defensive end Brandon Jenkins and cornerback Greg Reid both passed up entering the NFL draft to return to school. If FSU is going to become a legitimate BCS contender, though, its offense has to be better and more explosive. The Seminoles had young skill players in 2011 and they started four freshman offensive linemen against Notre Dame in the Champs Sports Bowl. Another concern will be replacing All-American punter Shawn Powell. FSU plays seven home games, but it will travel to Virginia Tech during ACC play.
9. Michigan State Spartans:
The Spartans continue to make tremendous strides under coach Mark Dantonio, winning 11 games for the second straight season. The Spartans also won a Big Ten Legends Division title and their first bowl game in his tenure, 33-30 over Georgia in the Outback Bowl. MSU will rely on its defense and running game in 2012, with quarterback Kirk Cousins and his top four receivers departing. Tailback Le'Veon Bell is expected back, along with four starting offensive linemen. All-Big Ten defensive tackle Jerel Worthy is leaving for the NFL draft, but eight defensive starters are expected to return. The Spartans play nonconference home games against Boise State on Aug. 31 and Notre Dame on Sept. 15, and they'll have to play perhaps the two best teams from the Leaders Division (against Ohio State at home on Sept. 29 and at Wisconsin on Oct. 27).
10. South Carolina Gamecocks:
In the past two seasons, coach Steve Spurrier guided the Gamecocks to their first SEC East title in 2010 and their first 11-win season in 2011. If South Carolina can rebuild its defense in 2012, it figures to be right back in the SEC East title hunt. The Gamecocks will bring back eight starters on offense, including tailback Marcus Lattimore, who missed much of the season with a knee injury. Quarterback Connor Shaw should be better after having an entire offseason as the team's starter, and the offseason should be more pleasant without former quarterback Stephen Garcia's distractions. Top receiver Alshon Jeffery declared for the NFL draft, along with junior cornerback Stephon Gilmore. The Gamecocks also will have to replace four other defensive starters, including top linemen Travian Robertson and Melvin Ingram. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson left to become the coach at Southern Miss. South Carolina plays seven home games, including an Oct. 6 contest against Georgia and a Nov. 10 game against Arkansas. The Gamecocks will play road games at LSU on Oct. 13 and at Florida on Oct. 20.