The Top Fan's Top 25 - Preseason
Posted By:Brett Haynes - Greenville, SC Tags:
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The defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide will debut at number one in my poll for 2012. The Tide have become a force to be reckoned with, and until they get beat, they will occupy the top spot....
1. Alabama Crimson Tide - As long as Nick Saban is the coach here, you can expect the Tide to be among the nation's elite teams. He has had success everywhere he has coached, from Michigan State to LSU to Alabama, and he seems to be firmly planted in Tuscaloosa. He has recruited plenty well enough to keep his team in the national title race in the years to come. His 2012 version - the defending national champs - will feature AJ McCarron at QB behind a very good offensive line. The defense has some question marks, but if I were an Alabama fan, I wouldn't be overly concerned there. I look for Alabama to once again be in the middle of the national title talks all year long.
2. Michigan Wolverines - One of these top two in my rankings will not last very long as Michigan and Alabama square off in week one in Dallas. That, my friends, should be a doozy! I didn't rank Michigan way up here just because of Denard Robinson returning at QB. I really think Head Coach Brady Hoke has instilled a winning attitude to a team that already had a bunch of good talent on roster when he took over two years back...If the Wolverines can get past the Tide in that opening game in the Jerry Dome, I see five or six straight games afterwards that they should win. This could be a really big season in Ann Arbor.
3. Oregon Ducks - The Ducks have had lots of very good QB's to replace over the years from Joey Harrington to Dennis Dixon to Jeremiah Masoli (dismissed from team but still a heck of a player to replace). They will need to do it again this year, as Darron Thomas is now gone, winning the Rose Bowl on his way out of town. And I do think they will be able to find another stud QB as any athletic player will have luck in Head Coach Chip Kelly's system. The new signal caller - a heated battle between sophomore Bryan Bennett and redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota - will have running back De'Anthony Thomas alongside him in the backfield to make things easier. The Duck defense is drawing rave reviews from the various publications and while I already know what the O can do, this news of the defensive unit's strength is what makes me wonder if Oregon hasn't put it all together for 2012. If the defense lives up to the hype, this team will be a national title contender again. The Ducks play USC in LA later in the season, but I see them blazing through the rest of their games.
4. LSU Tigers - LSU is that mystery team that seems to get by on talent and luck alone (if by saying "getting by" you mean going to national title games, then yeah). Again in 2012, top recruits from throughout the South will suit up for the Bayou Bengals, looking to be the latest to carry on the tradition of winning in odd ways for Head Coach Les Miles (75-18 now at LSU entering his eighth season). The key players for this year's LSU squad are on the offensive line. Four starters return on a unit that was among the country's best. On a down note, safety Tyrone Mathieu, a Heisman finalist a year ago, was dismissed from the team last week. The Honey Badger will be missed, but the talent on the sideline will find him replaced soon enough. As for the schedule, Alabama is at home, as is South Carolina. Road trips at Auburn and Florida are always tough.
5. West Virginia Mountaineers - With Geno Smith returning at QB, and Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey returning at WR, the 'Neers potent offensive attack should pick up where it left off - scoring 70 on Clemson in a BCS game. This team will be going through its first season in the Big 12, and I think they will hold up just fine. TCU and Oklahoma are at home. Texas and Oklahoma State are on the road. If they go 2-2 in those games, I see WVU going 10-2 for the regular season. Coach Dana Holgorsen had an uber impressive first season in Morgantown. It will be interesting to see how he does in his second season playing a different schedule.
6. USC Trojans - It wasn't very long ago that Lane Kiffin was looked at as a joke of a coach. Living off of his father's name, he mixed mediocrity with controversy in an embarrasing one-year stint at Tennessee. Now though, entering year three in LA, Kiffin has his team nationally ranked in most all of the preseason publications. The main reason for the lofty rankings is the return of senior QB Matt Barkley who begins 2012 as a Heisman contender. He has nine returning starters to work with on offense. On defense, USC returns seven players - not bad...The Trojans get Oregon at home in a game that will most-likely be repeated for the Pac-12 title in early December.
7. Oklahoma Sooners - OU is the proud owner of seven national titles and probably another 20 preseason national crowns. It seems like every year the Sooners are ranked up near the top of the preseason polls, only to finish more in the top-15 range. In 2012, OU will again field a very good squad under Head Coach Bob Stoops, and are again ranked in the top five of almost every poll I have seen. But I am not sure yet if they are ready to challenge the very best and make a run at national title number eight. They have a lot to work with, including QB Landry Jones who came back for his senior season, but OU hasn't had that huge year in over a decade now. With some luck though, this team could make a run at numero uno and grab another crystal football.
8. Wisconsin Badgers - Year in and year out, I don't know if there is a program that performs better than is predicted of them by the talking heads than the Badgers. Once again, UW is not predicted by most to win the Big 10, but guess who has represented the league in the past two Rose Bowls? Yep, Wisconsin. So as we go into 2012, the Badgers will depend on another ACC transfer QB to lead them to success. A year ago it was Russell Wilson, who transferred from NC State, that lead UW to the Rose Bowl. This year, it looks like Danny O'Brien, who has transferred from Maryland, will earn the starting spot. Wisconsin is as solid as it gets perennially, and once again I expect them to contend for the Big 10 crown...and better.
9. Florida State Seminoles - Many publications are ranking the 'Noles up in the top five. I even saw one magazine that had them in the two spot. And while I agree that they have the talent to do big things, I am not yet sold that they are "back" to competing in the national title picture like they were ten years ago. They do have 17 starters returning - including nine on defense - and QB EJ Manuel is back to run the offense. On paper, yes, things look pretty darned good following a nine-win season. But I just don't know if they are ready to be considered an elite team. Clemson and Florida are at home, but not guaranteed wins. And road games at NC State, Miami and Virginia Tech could also wreck any shot at a national title. In the end, I think FSU is better, and a legit top 15 team. But top five? We'll see.
10. South Carolina Gamecocks - Head Coach Steve Spurrier is crowing like he did back in his glory days as Florida coach in the 90's, so he must think he has something good goin' on. The Gamecocks are thinking big things in 2012 with QB Connor Shaw impressing Spurrier, Marcus Lattimore - a proven tailback - returning to provide key yards, and a talented defense anchored by sophomore DE Jadeveon Clowney. The schedule sets up well, also, with a tough trip to LSU, but every other game very winnable. Road games at Florida and Clemson will be challenges as well, but in the end USC may be poised for one of their better seasons in school history. A home game with Georgia midseason could be a game to see if this squad has a huge year or a so-so year.
11. Arkansas Razorbacks - I am taking a risk here with this spot. Arkansas has a new coach (John L. Smith), a new QB (Tyler Wilson) and just six returning starters on defense. And here I am putting them way up my top 25. I guess I just feel that the overall state of that program is pretty good, and that this is a team that could beat anyone on any given day. That said, this program could go to shambles quickly if Smith doesn't gel with his players and team chemistry sucks under the new head man. The offense brings back seven guys to help Wilson, and LSU and Alabama are both at home. Road trips to Auburn and South Carolina will be tough, but I think this team will have another solid year.
12. Michigan State Spartans - The state of Michigan is alive and well in football! With the Spartans becoming a yearly top 25 program of late, and rival Michigan returning to power, this rivalry is set to really get hot. The Spartans return eight guys on defense - where it counts. On offense, they don't have as many returning, but I am thinking they will find a way to score enough to win most all of 'em. One of the most intriguing games of the year goes down in week one, when Boise State comes into Spartan Stadium August 31. We will know right away which of those two teams belongs in the top 25. I like this team, and this program, but they have a tough task with road trips to Michigan and Wisconsin. I foresee another New Year's Day Florida bowl for Sparty - which is good - rather than a Rose Bowl.
13. Georgia Bulldogs - About four years back I stated that UGA Head Coach Mark Richt was on the hot seat, and people thought I was crazy. But last year, after an 0-2 start, Richt was on the hottest seat in America! He responded by winning ten straight to dig himself out, but he then lost his last two games - including a pummeling by LSU in the Georgia Dome (where Boise State beat them to start the year) and a bowl loss to Michigan State...All this rambling leads me to say that he is still on the hot seat. He is in year-twelve in Athens, and while Alabama, Florida, LSU and Auburn have all won national crowns for the SEC during this span, UGA has not challenged for one under his guidance. Let it be known that I like Mark Richt as a person, but I really doubt if Georgia will ever be much more than a top-15 team with him coaching. He has a talented group of players coming back, with 16 returning starters including QB Aaron Murray. Maybe - just maybe - this will be his year!
14. Ohio State Buckeyes - Head Coach Urban Meyer brings instant - and I mean instant - credibility to this program in his first year on the sideline in Columbus. He is one of the better coaches of our era, and with a very highly recruited group of players to work with, I expect to see OSU jump straight into the mix of the national talks, but no national title this year. In fact, no bowl game at all. The Buckeyes are on probation, but a big 2012 season could pave the way for a huge 2013. Sophomore Braxton Miller can continue to improve this season as he has cemented the starting role at QB. This team will be exciting to keep up with this year despite the cloud hanging over the campaign...Michigan vs Ohio State is in Columbus the final weekend of the regular season. That should be one to circle and make sure not to miss.
15. TCU Horned Frogs - Everyone keeps asking how TCU will do in the Big 12. I think this isn't even a question. The Frogs will come into this league and be just fine. I think they will compete in the top third of the conference and easily qualify not just for a bowl, but a very good bowl. They are led by an outstanding coach in Gary Patterson (109-30 in twelve years at TCU), and they return twelve starters that know darned good and well how to play football. TCU has defeated top 25 teams and teams from major conferences for years now, so I don't see this jump as that huge of a deal. In the end, I expect TCU to go around 9-3 or 10-2 and play in a very nice bowl.
16. Clemson Tigers - This has been one of the longest offseasons ever for Clemson fans. The Tigers lost to rival South Carolina for a third-straight time to end the regular season, and were embarassed on national TV in the Orange Bowl a month later, surrendering 70 points to West Virginia. But there is little time to moan and groan. The opening game against Auburn is just around the corner, with national TV cameras awaiting once again in the Georgia Dome. To make matters more stressful, CU will be without All-American WR Sammy Watkins for that game. But there are other options. WR is one position that Clemson happens to be very deep, and QB Tajh Boyd and RB Andre Ellington bring experience and skill...Speaking of the 70 points, CU went out and stole one of the top DC's in the nation from Oklahoma in Brent Venables. If Venables is able to tighten that group up (and the talent is there), then Clemson could be darned good. If he can't, another 9-4 type of season is on deck.
17. Nebraska Cornhuskers - Balance is what Nebraska returns for 2012. Seven guys on offense. Seven guys on defense. 14 guys that started a year ago return for Head Coach Bo Pelini (.710 win percentage at UN entering season five). Two of those seven guys on offense are pretty dadgum good at what they do, and that is QB Taylor Marrtinez and RB Rex Burkhead. If Nebraska can find a way to get the most out of those two, then this could be a big year. The defense will be good, it always is, but it needs the offense to stay on the field and give it some points to work with. The key to 2012 for the Cornhuskers is Martinez and Burkhead living up to their potential, buying time for the defense to stay fresh, and putting pressure on the opposing team to match scores on a tough D.
18. Virginia Tech Hokies - For years, people have waited on VT to have that big unbeaten season, bringing a crystal football back to Blacksburg. But for whatever reason, that just hasn't happened. In 2012, it appears that once again VT is set for a good-but-not-great type of year. Junior QB Logan Thomas returns to lead the offense, but only two other starters return with him on that side of the ball. The defense returns nine, but if the offense has trouble scoring, then a loss or two could easily happen along the way. Looking at VT's schedule, I see four games right away as potential losses: Georgia Tech at home to start the year, at Clemson midseason, at Miami two weeks later, and Florida State at home one week after that. Even if they go 3-1 in that tough group, that still brings another good-but-not-great type of season. VT is one of the most respected football programs out there, but I see a 9-3 year on the way and still waiting for "the big one."
19. Auburn Tigers - The Tigers are one of those teams that could rocket up the charts for three reasons. First is that they are a proven name with mad talent, which leads to the second reason. The second reason is that they have players that could blow up fast as they were 5-star recruits and just haven't been let out of the cage yet. The third reason is that they play two very high-profile games early in the season. The first big game is against Clemson on national TV from the Georgia Dome opening weekend. They then play LSU at home a couple of weekends later. If they get off to a 4-0 start, they will go into a managable midseason stretch ranked in the top 10. The Tigers bring 15 starters back for 2012, nine of which are on defense. Sophomore Khiel Frazier (2010 national high school offensive player of the year) and junior Clint Mosely are still battling it out to be the starting QB.
20. Florida Gators - It just doesn't make sense to me that Florida is battling to get back up to the top. They have plenty of talent as they recruit great. They also have a coach who I think knows what he is doing in Will Muschamp. On top of that, outside of South Carolina, the East Divsion of the SEC hasn't been overly impressive. So why is UF a fringe top 25 program right now? I don't know. I do know that the Swamp will be jam-packed with fans here in a few weeks to see the Gators chomp their way back to Atlanta and the SEC Championship Game. They must journey to Texas A&M and Tennessee (both winnable), but get LSU, South Carolina, Missouri and Georgia at home. Florida has the entire defense back and seven guys on offense back. When the dust clears, this team right here could be the biggest surprise of 2012.
21. Boise State Broncos - As long as Chris Petersen is around as head coach, BSU will field a team that is disciplined and has a very precise gameplan. They will also field a team that has a damned good chance to go 11-1 or 12-0 due to the slate of opponents. The schedule for 2012 is similar to what we have come to expect from the Broncos. There is a real tough early season game (ala at Oregon 2008, Oregon at home 2009, Virginia Tech in Baltimore 2010, and Georgia in Atlanta 2011) against Michigan State in East Lansing, but after that the Broncos can put things on cruise control. Following the game with the Spartans, I see no reason for them to lose. If BSU wins that game, we can all expect to hear the same Boise State/BCS title game argument we have heard for a decade now.
22. Kansas State Wildcats - QB Collen Klein is one of 17 starters back for KSU. The Wildcats are not one of those teams you think of to be top 25 on a regular basis in football, but that could be starting to change. They finished second in the Big 12 last year, and have a chance to do that and then more this year. They have a huge, winnable home game early on vs Miami to get folks excited. But trips to Oklahoma and West Virginia are almost certain losses. TCU is another probable road trip L and Oklahoma State is tough at home. I see 8-4 for the Wildcats in 2012, not disrespectable at all.
23. Oklahoma State Cowboys - Mike Gundy is one of the better coaches in America, and that is a good thing to know if you are a Cowboys' fan. In 2012, he will have to rebuild like crazy, turning over the reins to young freshmen Wes Lunt to guide his offense at QB. Talk about a talent this kid must be! Lunt is ten years younger than Brandon Weeden, who led the Cowboys to a Fiesta Bowl win eight months ago. On top of that, Lunt has just four returning offensive starters to work with. When I started this capsule I had OSU at number 17. I am bumping them back after studying them more. I think the world of Gundy ("I'm a man! I'm 40!"), but this may be too tall of a task to stay in the top 25 in 2012.
24. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets - The Jackets will know a lot about their team in the first half of the 2012 season. They play road games at Virginia Tech and Clemson, sandwiching home games with Miami and Virginia. The season's second half features road games at UNC and Georgia. To deal with this schedule, Tech Head Coach Paul Johnson will rely on 14 returning starters and a very annoying offensive running game that plays ball-control and eats clock. Senior Tevin Washington - mainly a running QB - returns to lead the Jacket offense.
25. Stanford Cardinal - With QB Andrew Luck gone to the NFL, and Jim Harbaugh now two years gone (also to the NFL), I have to believe that the magic of that Stanford squad of two years back has now dissolved away into the Pacific....This team may have some good players, but I think Luck and Harbaugh were the two key people instrumental in why Stanford had a nice two-year run, making the BCS twice. With them gone, I think Stanford will remain a team that hovers around the edge of the top 25, but is no longer a team that will be a threat to get up into the top ten.
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