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My way-early top 25: LSU starts on top, rejuvenated USC at No. 2

by | CBSSports.com College Football Insider
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NEW ORLEANS -- Don't look now, but next year is officially here. Now that the Rematch of the Century has been played, we can look ahead to next year. Or make that this year.

Even though my 2012 Associated Press preseason ballot is not due for seven months, why wait?

Here is my really, really early AP preseason ballot for 2012, but don't worry: I'm sure I will make some major changes when more players make their decisions whether to leave early for the NFL and considering other factors, such as injuries or transfers. All early NFL Draft projections are through Monday.

My preseason Top 25 for 2012:

1. LSU: Monday night's BCS national title game had not even been played and LSU coach Les Miles already was being asked about returning to next year's BCS title game. And for good reason: the Tigers return seven offensive starters and eight defensive starters from one of the most dominating teams in college football history. At quarterback, Zach Mettenberger should be more than an adequate replacement for Jordan Jefferson. Also, of the Tigers' two-deep from Monday's game, 20 of LSU's top 44 players were either freshman or sophomores. LSU's schedule is not quite as tough as 2011's, but it does include home games vs. Washington, Alabama and South Carolina and road trips to Auburn, Florida, Texas A&M and Arkansas. And after Monday night's humiliating loss, the Tigers certainly won't lack motivation.

2. Southern California: QB Matt Barkley is back -- and so is USC as a contender for the BCS national title. Barkley threw for 3,528 yards with 39 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. Barkley is among nine returning starters, along with All-America WR Robert Woods, leading rusher Curtis McNeal and freshman WR sensation Marqise Lee, on an offense that averaged 41 points in USC's final eight games. However, the Trojans did lose offensive lineman Matt Kalil to the NFL. Defensively, FS T.J. McDonald headlines eight returning defensive starters. Because of the NCAA sanctions the Trojans are still thin depth-wise, but shouldn't be challenged in the Pac-12 South. But do they have enough to challenge for the national title?

3. Georgia: Coach Mark Richt and the Bulldogs made a nice recovery after an 0-2 start in 2011, reeling off 10 consecutive victories before losing to LSU in the SEC title game and Michigan State in the Outback Bowl. Now this year, the Bulldogs could be legitimate national title contenders because of their returning talent plus the SEC's easiest schedule. QB Aaron Murray and seven starters are back from the SEC's third-best offense. The defense, though, is where the Bulldogs will be special with nine returning starters, including LB Jarius Jones and FS Bacarri Rambo, off the nation's fifth-best unit. In SEC play, the Bulldogs have to visit South Carolina, but avoid Alabama, LSU and Arkansas from the SEC West.

4. Alabama: Make no mistake: the Crimson Tide will be very good in 2012, just not as good as last year's national championship model. If running back Trent Richardson leaves for the NFL (as of Monday he had not made a decision), Alabama will only have five returning starters on offense. The nation's No. 1 defense also will sustain significant losses. It will return, at most, only six starters -- DE Jesse Williams, DE Damion Square, MLB Dont'a Hightower, WLB Nico Johnson, CB Dre Kirkpatrick and SS Robert Lester. However, there's no guarantee some of those returners might opt to leave early for the NFL. The Crimson Tide certainly are going to be in the national title picture again as they try to become the first repeat national champion since USC in 2003 and 2004. It won't take long to see how strong the Crimson Tide are when they open against Michigan on Sept. 1 in Arlington, Texas. Alabama's SEC schedule features road games at Arkansas and LSU, while Texas A&M and Auburn come to Tuscaloosa. Alabama does not play SEC East favorites Georgia and South Carolina.

5. Oregon: RB LaMichael James has run off to the NFL, but Oregon remains stocked at running back with Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas. QB Darron Thomas, who is 23-3 as a starter the past two seasons, threw for 2,761 yards, 33 TDs and seven interceptions. The defense returns seven starters and only lost six players off their two-deep on defense. The nonconference schedule is much more forgiving. LSU is not on this year's schedule and the Ducks won't be challenged by Arkansas State, Fresno State and Tennessee Tech. In Pac-12 play, the Ducks look for a fourth consecutive Pac-12 title and will have four home games and five road games. The biggest is a Nov. 3 visit to USC.

6. South Carolina: The Gamecocks are coming off the first 11-win season in school history and they possibly could be even better. South Carolina returns 16 starters -- nine on offense, seven on defense. WR Alshon Jeffery will be tough to replace after leaving early for the NFL Draft, but a big key this fall for South Carolina will be the play of QB Connor Shaw and how RB Marcus Lattimore returns from a 2011 knee injury. Without Lattimore, the Gamecocks finished 75th nationally in total offense, which is mind-boggling for a Steve Spurrier team. The defense lost CB Stephen Gilmore to the NFL Draft, but Devin Taylor decided to return which will give the Gamecocks two imposing bookends at defensive end in Taylor and Jadeveon Clowney.

7. Oklahoma: The good news for Oklahoma is the Sooners won't have to carry the burden as the preseason No. 1 this fall. Picked to win the 2011 national title by the AP and coaches' polls, the Sooners finished tied for third in the Big 12 and instead became only the third preseason No. 1 to finish out of the top 10 in the final AP poll in the past 27 years. The expectations in 2012 won't be quite as lofty with the loss of WR Ryan Broyles. However, returning 16 starters off the Insight Bowl team -- including QB Landry Jones, who will return for his senior season -- should secure an 11th season with 10 wins or more in Bob Stoops' 14 seasons.

8. Arkansas: The Razorbacks only finished third in the SEC West, but were fifth in the nation in 2011. Even though Arkansas enters this season as the third best team in the SEC West again, the Razorbacks still could be headed for another top 10 finish in the national polls. It all starts with QB Tyler Wilson. He's among seven returning starters on offense, and that does not include RB Knile Davis, who missed all last season because of a broken ankle. Arkansas returns only six starters on defense but should be improved. The Razorbacks do get both LSU and Alabama at home, but must travel to South Carolina.

9. Baylor: This is pretty simple for Baylor: If Heisman Trophy-winner Robert Griffin III returns the Bears are a legitimate top 10 program. If Griffin opts for the NFL Draft (as of Monday he had not made a decision), the Bears may plummet from my Top 25. With Griffin, Baylor will have one of the nation's most potent offenses. Even though the Bears lose WR Kendall Wright, the offense still returns eight starters and has plenty of firepower. The defense also returns eight starters, but they must show marked improvement to have any chance at competing for the Big 12 title. The non-conference schedule is ridiculously easy. In Big 12 play, the Bears must travel to Oklahoma and Texas, but get Oklahoma State and Kansas State in Waco.

10. Michigan: Coach Brady Hoke had a pretty good debut with the Wolverines and Year Two has a chance to be even better. QB Denard Robinson, RB Fitzgerald Toussaint and WR Roy Roundtree are among seven offensive starters returning from Michigan's 11-win Sugar Bowl-winning team. Defensively, the Wolverines made the biggest improvement from 2010 to 2011 and eight starters off that unit are back next year. Michigan does have some big losses in WR Junior Hemingway and DE Mike Martin. It won't take long to see if the Wolverines are a legit top-10 team, opening against Alabama in Arlington, Texas, on Sept. 1. The toughest road trips are against Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State, while the home schedule is fairly easy with the biggest challenge in Ann Arbor is against Michigan State.

11. TCU: The Horned Frogs finally have settled on their conference destination and will begin play in the Big 12 this fall. TCU has proven it can knock off the big boys in nonconference play, but will the Horned Frogs be able to maintain that consistency each week in league play against what was the nation's best conference in 2011? The defense, which didn't play up to TCU standards in 2011, should be improved with seven returning starters, including the entire defensive line. The Horned Frogs' offense will be loaded, returning QB Casey Pachall along with their three leading rushers, three of their top four receivers and two starting offensive linemen. Gary Patterson, who is 109-30 (78.4 percent), ranks fourth among active coaches in winning percentage, but can he and the Horned Frogs keep up that pace in the Big 12?

12. West Virginia: We're still not sure whether West Virginia will be competing in the Big 12 or the Big East, but wherever it is the Mountaineers should be stronger than in 2011. West Virginia returns nine starters on offense, including QB Geno Smith, WRs Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin and RB Dustin Garrison, as well as seven defensive starters. After being promoted to head coach last summer, Dana Holgorsen didn't have much time to prepare for his first season as a head coach, but still won a share of the Big East title and lit up Clemson with 70 points in the Orange Bowl. With a solid showing in Holgorsen's first-ever season as a head coach, the Mountaineers -- especially the offense -- should be even stronger in 2012.

13. Clemson: No, West Virginia did not just score again. Well, maybe they did. The Tigers were the laughingstocks of the bowl season after losing 70-33 in the Orange Bowl. This year, Clemson should be in good position to make a run as repeating as ACC champions. QB Tajh Boyd, big-play WR Sammy Watkins and RB Andre Ellington are among seven offensive returning starters. TE Dwayne Allen left early for the NFL Draft. Defensively, seven starters are back -- which depending your view of the Orange Bowl performance -- might or might not be a good thing. Clemson faces a pair of SEC teams (Auburn and South Carolina) in nonconference play, while the Tigers' biggest potential pitfalls in ACC play are home against Virginia Tech and at Florida State.

14. Nebraska: The Cornhuskers have plenty of regulars back -- eight offensive starters and nine defensive starters -- from last season's 9-4 Capital One Bowl team. It was Coach Bo Pelini's fourth consecutive season with four losses. Is this finally the year Pelini loses less than four? The Cornhuskers return all of their key skill position players -- QB Taylor Martinez, RB Rex Burkhead and WRs Quincy Enunwa and Kenny Bell. However, NU must replace three of five starters on the offense line. The Blackshirts return nearly intact, but must improve from last year when they allowed at least 28 points in six games (had only allowed three in previous two years combined). The biggest losses are LB Lavonte Davis, CB Alfonzo Dennard and DT Jared Crick, who missed the second half of the season because of a torn pectoral muscle. The Cornhuskers should have no trouble getting through the nonconference schedule unscathed (Southern Miss., UCLA, Arkansas State and a team to be added). The Big Ten slate features home games vs. Wisconsin and Michigan and road games at Ohio State and Michigan State.

15. Florida State: Based on returning talent, Florida State should probably be ranked much higher, but I'm hesitant to put the Seminoles higher after last season when FSU was arguably the nation's most disappointing team. A top five preseason team, the Seminoles failed to even win the ACC Atlantic Division. Injuries played a part. This season the Seminoles have nine returning starters each on offense and defense. The key will be the effectiveness of QB EJ Manuel and playmakers Chris Thompson and Rashad Greene. The Seminoles' defense, which led the ACC and ranked fourth nationally, could be even better, especially with DE Brandon Jenkins and CB Greg Reid opting to return for their senior seasons. Florida State's toughest road trip will be to Virginia Tech, while the Seminoles get West Virginia, Florida and Clemson in Tallahassee.

16. Ohio State: Coach Urban Meyer's first season in Columbus should be better record-wise than last season, but no matter how many games they win, they'll still be at home for the holidays as the Buckeyes must serve a one-year bowl ban. The offense, which scored 24 points or less in eight games, can't be that inconsistent again, right? QB Braxton Miller, one of six returning offensive starters, should thrive in Meyer's spread attack, but the biggest reason for optimism in Meyer's return is the defense. The Buckeyes return 10 defensive starters, spearheaded by DE John Simon and safety Christian Bryant. The schedule is favorable: four nonconference home games to start the season against Miami (Ohio), UCF, Cal and UAB as part of an eight-game home schedule. The Buckeyes' biggest tests are at Michigan State and Wisconsin and home against Nebraska and Michigan.

17. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys must replace -- or make that try to replace -- record-setting QB Brandon Weeden and WR Justin Blackmon, the two-time Biletnikoff Award winner as the nation's top receiver. Only five starters return on offense, led by RB Joseph Randle and WR Tracy Moore. The biggest question will be who takes over for Weeden. Oklahoma State's defense, which led the nation in takeaways, has eight starters back and 12 of the Cowboys' two-deep on defense in 2011 were sophomores or freshmen. That unit should be vastly improved in 2012. Coach Mike Gundy guided the Cowboys to their first-ever top three finish in the final Associated Press Top 25 Poll in school history, their first Big 12 title and a BSC bowl. Gundy was finally rewarded with an eight-year extension and a raise. He'll have to earn it this year.

18. Michigan State: For the first time in what seems like forever, the Spartans will have a starting quarterback not named Kirk Cousins. The three-year starter is one of five offensive starters Michigan State must replace this year. Also gone is WR B.J. Cunningham. Andrew Maxwell is projected as Cousins' replacement and making his transition easier is that four offensive line starters are back -- tackles Fou Fonoti and Dan France, center Travis Jackson and guard Chris McDonald -- along with running back Le'veon Bell. Even with DT Jerel Worthy's early departure to the NFL, the Spartans are loaded on defense. Nine starters return from the Big Ten's top rushing and overall defense led by DE William Gholston, LBs Denicos Allen and Max Bullough, SS Isaiah Lewis and CB Johnny Adams. The Spartans have another key contributor returning as defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi turned down an offer from Texas A&M. The schedule features home games against Boise State, Notre Dame and Ohio State in the season's first five weeks. In the second half of the schedule, Michigan State has as difficult a three-game stretch as anyone with consecutive games at Michigan, at Wisconsin and home vs. Nebraska.

19. Virginia Tech: Last year, Virginia Tech limited eight opponents to 17 points or less and the Hokies return virtually everyone from that unit, including DEs James Gayle and J.R. Collins, LBs Tariq Edwards and Jack Tyler and CB Kyle Fuller. The Hokies also get back LBs Bruce Taylor and Jeron Gouveia-Winslow and DT Antoine Hopkins, who missed all or part of last season because of injuries. RB David Wilson's departure is a blow, but QB Logan Thomas continues to get better. The nonconference schedule is tougher than last season, featuring a pair of Big East teams (Pittsburgh and Cincinnati), while the Hokies toughest ACC tests will be home against Florida State and at Clemson.

20. Kansas State: Only Bill Snyder could win 10 games last season with these numbers: Kansas State had the nation's 101st-ranked offense, the Big 12's worst passing offense and 72nd-ranked defense. The Wildcats, though, somehow, someway finished with 10 victories -- of course eight of those were by seven points or less -- and a Big 12 runner-up finish. This year, the Wildcats return eight offensive starters and six defensive starters. Collin Klein is one of the nation's most productive and underrated quarterbacks. He rushed for 1,141 yards and 27 TDs and threw for 1,918 yards and 13 scores. Kansas State certainly can't continue its success without improving its offensive and defensive numbers, can it? The Wildcats get Oklahoma State at home, but must travel to Oklahoma and Baylor.

21. Utah: Despite losing starting QB Jordan Wynn in the fourth game, the Utes rallied behind Jon Hays and won six of their final nine games to finish 8-5. Both quarterbacks return as Utah has nine returning starters on offense. John White, who was the Pac-12's second-leading rusher, also is back after rushing for a school record 1,519 yards. He had the winning touchdown in the Utes' overtime Sun Bowl victory against Georgia Tech. Seven starters are back on defense, making the Utes the second-best team in the Pac-12 South behind USC. There's a huge gap between the Trojans and Utes, but Utah appears on track for a seventh consecutive season with eight or more victories.

22. Wisconsin: The two-time Big Ten champion Badgers almost lost as many coaches as they did starters off last year's team. When offensive coordinator Paul Chryst went to Pittsburgh, he also took assistants Bob Bostad, Dave Huxtable and Joe Rudolph with him. So Bret Bielema has to replace nearly half his coaching staff. The best news is record-setting RB Montee Ball surprised a lot of folks by returning for his senior season. Ball will not have the luxury of playing with QB Russell Wilson, but three starting linemen -- C Travis Frederick, G Ryan Groy and T Ricky Wagner -- are back. Six starters also return on the Badgers' defense that held six Big Ten opponents to 17 or fewer points. In Big Ten play, Wisconsin avoids Michigan and of its three toughest league games -- Nebraska, Michigan State and Ohio State -- only Nebraska is away from Madison.

23. Florida: Florida coach Will Muschamp said the Gators' performance last season was "totally unacceptable." This year, however, should be more to the liking of Muschamp and Florida fans. Even though the Gators lose QB John Brantley and RBs Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps along with offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, Florida still returns seven starters on offense. Defensively, the Gators will be solid with 10 returning starters. As of Monday, Florida still had not replaced Weis as offensive coordinator and that hire obviously will be huge. But a new coordinator should help what was mostly a dormant offense. As usual Florida State is the lone test in nonconference play while the Gators catch a break in SEC play in that they miss Alabama and Arkansas from the SEC West.

24. Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights were picked to finish last in the 2011 Big East media poll, but instead went 9-4 and finished a game out of first. While WR Mohamed Sanu opted to leave early for the NFL, LB Khaseem Greene, the co-Big East defensive player of the year, is among 15 returning starters. However, it could be a familiar face returning who could make the biggest impact. QB Tom Savage, who began his career at Rutgers, may return to RU if his hardship is approved by the NCAA, allowing him to play this fall. Another big addition -- literally -- is R.J. Dill, a 6-foot-7, 300-pound transfer from Maryland, where he started three years. He has already graduated and would be eligible immediately. The Scarlet Knights' schedule is cushy because of Tulane, Howard, Kent State and Army. If West Virginia moves to the Big 12 this year, then Rutgers could go from worst to first in the media's preseason poll.

25. Louisville: If teams didn't beat Louisville in 2011, they'll find it much tougher this year. The Cardinals, who had one of the nation's youngest starting lineups last season, return 19 starters -- nine on offense, 10 on defense -- from the team that tied for the Big East title. Of the returning starters, nine were freshmen in 2011 and six were sophomores. The Cardinals expect to be a year older and a year better especially QB Teddy Bridgewater, who was a freshman All-American last season. After stringing together consecutive 7-6 seasons, Charlie Strong's third season could be a breakout year.

Ten more teams I considered for my really, really early Top 25 (in alphabetical order): Auburn, Boise State, BYU, Georgia Tech, Illinois, Notre Dame, Stanford, Texas, Texas A&M, Washington.

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