By Adam Hoge-
(CBS) It’s never too early to look ahead to next year. A lot will change in the offseason, starting with National Signing Day Feb. 1, but here’s how I see the top 25 college football teams for 2012 as of today:
1. USC Trojans
They’re back. Eligible for the postseason for the first time in three seasons, quarterback Matt Barkley decided to return for his senior year and the Trojans have a legit chance to win it all. Nine starters return on each side of the ball and USC gets Oregon at home. There’s a good chance the Pac-12 Championship Game will be played at the Coliseum and a trip to the BCS National Championship could be on the line.
2. LSU Tigers
LSU seems to be the consensus No. 1 for next season and while the Tigers blossomed a year early before losing in the title game this year, I can’t put a team with those quarterback issues on top of my preseason rankings. Georgia transfer Zach Mettenberger will battle with Phillip Rivers’ little brother, Stephen, for the starting QB job. A few key guys left early for the NFL (including shutdown corner Morris Claiborne), but there’s still a lot of talent on this team. The schedule is also easier in 2012.
3. Oregon Ducks
When I first heard that quarterback Darron Thomas decided to leave early for the NFL, my first reaction was to drop them out of my top five. Instead, I’m leaving them right where I had them at the end of the 2011 season. New QB Bryan Bennett was going to push Thomas for his job anyway this year and Chip Kelly’s system is friendly to new QBs (see Thomas replacing Jeremiah Masoli). The Ducks’ defense is underrated and running backs Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas will make everyone forget about LaMichael James.
4. Georgia Bulldogs
I really jumped on the Georgia bandwagon midway through the 2011 season and that was looking pretty good at halftime of the SEC Championship Game. The second half showed the Dawgs were still a year away though. Now Georgia returns 10 starters on defense and quarterback Aaron Murray is back with receiver Malcolm Mitchell.
5. Arkansas Razorbacks
The Hogs have to replace their top three receivers, but there’s some depth at that position and quarterback Tyler Wilson is back. Wilson is a legitimate Heisman candidate in 2012 and, with a very good defense on the other side of the ball, the Razorbacks have one of the more complete teams coming back.
6. Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama loses seven starters on each side of the ball, including RB Trent Richardson, LB Dont’a Hightower and CB Dre Kirkpatrick. That said, Outland Trophy winning OT Barrett Jones is back along with QB AJ McCarron. Nick Saban reloads with the best of them so the Tide will be tough again in 2012.
7. West Virginia Mountaineers
I was reluctant to give West Virginia credit in 2011, but it’s too hard to ignore the 70 they hung on Clemson. Pretty much everyone is back on offense and with a year under their belt in Dana Holgorsen’s offense, quarterback Geno Smith and the Mountaineers could be unstoppable in 2012. The biggest question is what conference they end up playing in. West Virginia is set to go to the Big 12, but the Big East is whining like a baby and won’t let them go. We saw how Nebraska struggled to get through an entire schedule of new opponents and this will affect West Virginia. Otherwise, they should roll through the bad Big East.
8. Oklahoma Sooners
The Sooners were a big disappointment in 2011, but they had a lot of injuries and QB Landry Jones is back. Theoretically they have the talent to win it all, but this program has underachieved for a few years now so it’s hard to put the Sooners higher than No. 8.
9. Michigan Wolverines
Just like that, the Wolverines are on top of the Big Ten again. After winning the Big Ten bowl season with a Sugar Bowl victory, Michigan brings back the most talent in the conference. The biggest problem is the schedule though. Despite being better, it might be hard to duplicate their 11-2 record with a neutral site game against Alabama and road trips to Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State.
10. South Carolina Gamecocks
South Carolina lost some giant pieces in WR Alshon Jeffrey and DE Melvin Ingram, but RB Marcus Lattimore returns from need injury and there’s enough skill on defense to replace five starters.
11. Ohio State Buckeyes
Don’t sleep on the Buckeyes. They had top 15 talent last year, they just couldn’t overcome the distractions and got a little lost without Jim Tressel on the sidelines. It’s scary to think about what Urban Meyer can do with QB Braxton Miller and we already know the defense will be great. The only question is motivation as Ohio State is banned from postseason play.
12. TCU Horned Frogs
TCU started slow in 2011, but really improved throughout the year. A lot of that can be attributed to QB Casey Pachall who figures to be one of the best quarterbacks in the country next season. The defense will be improved with a strong front four, but can the Frogs adapt to a full season of BCS competition in the Big 12?
13. Florida State Seminoles
I’m not completely in love with ranking the Seminoles this high, but after failing to live up to lofty expectations with a 9-4 record in the 2011, FSU figures to be improved. Defensive end Brandon Jenkins and cornerback Xavier Rhodes skipped the leap to the NFL and decided to come back. If E.J. Manuel puts together a good season, the ‘Noles could be as good as anyone.
14. Kansas State Wildcats
Head coach Bill Snyder and QB Collin Klein will keep Kansas State competitive again next year, but the question is, can the defense improve? Linebacker Arthur Brown will lead a group that has to play better, but either way, the Wildcats will be legit again in 2012.
15. Nebraska Cornhuskers
The Cornhuskers were wildly inconsistent in 2011. A lot of that was because of QB Taylor Martinez, but I also attribute it to essentially playing 13 non-conference games. After a year to adjust to the Big Ten, I expect Nebraska to play better. The problem is, the Huskers have to replace LB Lavonte David and CB Alfonzo Dennard.
16. Stanford Cardinal
Stanford brings back a lot on defense, including linebackers Chase Thomas and Shayne Shov (suffered a season ending injury in September). That said, they still won’t have Andrew Luck. Expect the Cardinal to run the ball more with Stepfan Taylor and stay in the Pac-12 North race.
17. Michigan State Spartans
Many consider the Spartans a top 10 team next season, but I just don’t see it, at least not at the start of the season. Quarterback Kirk Cousins is gone, along with tailback Edwin Baker and the team’s top four receivers. The defense should be great despite the loss of defensive tackle Jerel Worthy and that will keep Michigan State competitive in the Big Ten, but it will take time for the offense to adjust. There are high hopes for QB Andrew Maxwell, but he won’t have the experience and leadership of Cousins.
18. Wisconsin Badgers
Running back Montee Ball is back and will be a top three Heisman candidate, but the Badgers have to figure out how to replace QB Russell Wilson, WR Nick Toon and six, yes six, assistant coaches. An inconsistent defense should be better and the offensive line will reload, but they’ll take a major step back at quarterback. That said, with Ohio State ineligible for postseason play, the Badgers have a great shot at representing the Leaders Division in the Big Ten Championship Game again.
19. Virginia Tech Hokies
The loss of running back David Wilson is big, but quarterback Logan Thomas is back. Unfortunately, Thomas is about all the offense has returning. The top two seniors and four offensive linemen are gone as well. Fortunately, nine starters return on the defense and that will be enough to put the Hokies towards the top of the ACC.
20. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
I’m usually the guy doubting the Irish, but I went all in this past season. Whoops. Theoretically, Notre Dame should be better as LB Manti Te’o and TE Tyler Eifert decided to return. The quarterback position is up for grabs and you can add incoming freshman Gunner Kiel to the mix. I expect Notre Dame to play better in 2012, but the schedule will be tough with road games against Michigan State, Oklahoma and USC and home contest against Michigan.
21. Texas Longhorns
I have no idea why the state school in Texas can’t find a legitimate quarterback, but for whatever reason, it can’t. The good news for the Longhorns is that they return an already great defense and Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown will provide a solid running game. If Texas can get some stability at quarterback, it should be a contender in the Big 12 next season.
22. Clemson Tigers
Here’s a team you’ll see projected all over the top 25. The Tigers have some of the best talent in the country returning next season, but the beatdown they received in the Orange Bowl — and the 2-4 finish — has left some serious questions. QB Tajh Boyd and WR Sammy Watkins will be deadly next year, but the Tigers have to replace four offensive linemen and figure out how to be more consistent on defense.
23. Boise State Broncos
The fact that I have Boise State ranked at all proves that the Broncos have successfully garnered respect over the years. Kellen Moore, the winningest quarterback in NCAA history, is gone, as are seven defensive starters. Chris Petersen is a great coach, however, and the Boise State will still be the best team in the Mountain West with TCU jumping to the Big 12.
24. Auburn Tigers
The Tigers are still in the process of reloading since winning the national championship last year, but they’ll improve in 2012. The loss of running back Michael Dyer to Arkansas State isn’t nearly as big as the loss of offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, who took the head coaching job there. But 10 starters return on defense for the Tigers and if they can find any kind of consistent offense, they’ll be fine.
25. Purdue Boilermakers
I’m warning you right now, Purdue will be everyone’s “surprise team” in the Big Ten next year so let me be the first to overhype the Boilermakers. Injuries at quarterback have killed Purdue in recent years, but the result is that they should have four healthy guys with experience at that position next year. Ralph Bolden is an underrated running back and returns from a knee injury that cost him all of the 2010 season. The strength, however, will be the defense, which could be the best in the Big Ten next year.
Next five: Oklahoma State, Louisville, Georgia Tech, North Carolina State, Florida
Adam is the Sports Content Producer for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.