Senior College Football Columnist

LSU, USC head into 2012 as the top two teams in the country


After missing all of 2011, Arkansas running back Knile Davis is a Heisman candidate in 2012. (US Presswire)  
After missing all of 2011, Arkansas running back Knile Davis is a Heisman candidate in 2012. (US Presswire)  

The NFL Draft has had its influence. Coaches have been hired. Transfers have ... transferred. It's time, then, for a somewhat settled preseason Top 25. Chew thoroughly, swallow and digest as usual but don't become settled.

It's also time to look at the game differently. We have to. How we view college football is about to change. If you believe the chatter, some sort of poll or another is going to determine a four-team playoff. OK, perhaps a modest one but it's still a playoff.

Think of these 25 as a starting point, a sort of lump of Play-Doh for you to shape when the BCS is altered in a couple of years. Playoff? Plus One? It has to start somewhere. No matter what, we're going to need polls. Here's my first of 2012:

1. LSU : The Alabama loss should provide all the motivation needed to go to back-to-back championship games. Tiger Nation is still trying to figure out what happened in New Orleans when the offense looked like it was trying to run the clock out -- without scoring a point. LSU gets better at quarterback with Zach Mettenberger, a year older in a loaded backfield and at least as nasty on defense. 'Bama comes to Baton Rouge for Game of the Century III(?)

What happened since the end of the season: Receiver Reuben Randle, corner Morris Claiborne and defensive lineman Michael Brockers are leaving early for the draft. Les Miles didn't blink. Wash, rinse, recruit, reload, repeat.

2. USC : Matt Barkley pulled a Leinart, staying for his senior year when the money and draftniks screamed otherwise. Good for him and good for Lane Kiffin, who is establishing his coaching legacy while leading the Trojans through NCAA probation. Defensive depth is an issue but otherwise this is the best USC has been since Pete Carroll left. In a year when Oregon is awaiting possible NCAA sanctions, the Trojans look like Pac-12 champions. At least.

What happened since the end of the season: With the end of the bowl ban, USC can play for a conference title for first time since 2009. It wasn't won the conference since 2008.

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3. Oklahoma : The loss of Dominique Whaley and Ryan Broyles to injuries probably kept quarterback Landry Jones on the roster for another season. Jones slumped in 2011 throwing a career-high 15 interceptions. OU really struggled after Broyles' ACL injury on Nov. 5. The Sooners' 2-2 finish tied for the program's worst in its last four games since 1997.

What happened since the end of the season: The realization that this team might be better than the 2011 team that was the preseason No. 1.

4. Oregon : The Ducks are even in bad news/good news issues since the Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin. Quarterback Darron Thomas went to the NFL way too early. Chip Kelly almost went to the NFL way too late –- slightly more than a week before signing day. Based on Kelly's history with offenses, Bryan Bennett will be an able replacement at quarterback. Look for De'Anthony Thomas to become a Heisman candidate. The difference in Pac-12 and national championship contention will be finding a way to win at USC.

What happened since the end of the season: Kelly said no to Tampa Bay. Had he left, the Ducks would have been paddling upstream big time.

5. Alabama : There are worse bets than to take Alabama in the national championship chase. The crystal football has resided in the state for the last three seasons. Nick Saban is coming off a masterful performance against LSU in the BCS title game. He made quarterback AJ McCarron an unexpected weapon. He made 'Bama and the SEC proud with his third BCS title, this one without winning the conference. No Trent Richardson in 2012? No problem. Junior tailback Eddie Lacy perhaps runs with more force than 'Bama's Heisman Trophy finalist. Linebacker Dont'a Hightower and corner Dre Kirkpatrick also left early.

What happened since the end of the season: Doug Nussmeier replaced Jim McElwain as offensive coordinator. Saban landed a No. 1 recruiting class. The Tide keeps rolling.

6. Wisconsin : Montee Ball might be the second-biggest "recruit" next to Barkley. Bret Bielema's record-breaking tailback decided to return despite all the signs pointing to an early entry. At least Ball will be well protected by a big, beefy offensive line. It doesn't matter if only two of them return. Wisconsin reloads with offensive linemen quicker than Lady Gaga changes outfits.

What happened since the end of the season: No matter what Biels meant by that "illegal" comment on signing day, Urban Meyer hasn't forgotten.

7. Arkansas : This is the year. This has to be the year. Bobby Petrino returns a Heisman-worthy tailback (Knile Davis, if healthy) and perhaps the SEC's best quarterback (Tyler Wilson). Alabama and LSU come to Fayetteville. The problem is, the nation's No. 7 team could be the No. 3 team in the SEC West. Much is expected of the Hogs. Can they deliver? In its last 27 games, Arkansas is 22-5. Four of those losses are to LSU, Alabama and Auburn.

What happened since the end of the season: In a year when Petrino could use a receiver or two, No. 1 recruit Dorial Green-Beckham chose Missouri.

8. Ohio State : The Buckeyes might be the best team you never saw. Presented with every possibility to take a bowl ban during a tumultuous 2011, the Ohio State administration was convinced it wouldn't get one from the NCAA. That will cost Meyer during his first season. The schedule and available talent, though, suggests the Buckeyes could "win" the Big Ten, or at least finish with the conference's best record. Watch for quarterback Braxton Miller to make a quantum leap.

What happened since the end of the season: Meyer punked almost everyone with a recruiting class that announced that things were about to change in the Big Ten -- and perhaps nationally -- for the NCAA-ravaged Buckeyes.

9. Georgia : Mark Richt went from hot seat to being a hot coach. After an 0-2 start, the Bulldogs finished 10-2 and played for the SEC title. Dawgs everywhere prefer to remember their team holding LSU without a first down in the first half rather than the 42-10 final score. The expectations remain. Georgia will be favored in various places to win the SEC East again. Quarterback Aaron Murray will succeed if Richt can successfully replace three starters on the offensive line.

What happened since the end of the season: A wait, still, for Richt's contract extension.

10. South Carolina : What does Steve Spurrier do after one of the best coaching jobs of his career? Do it again. Spurrier somehow milked a school-record 11 victories despite kicking his starting quarterback (Stephen Garcia) off the team and losing tailback Marcus Lattimore to injury. Look for the continued development of SEC defensive freshman of the year Jadeveon Clowney.

What happened since the end of the season: It's complicated. Veteran Ellis Johnson, who ran the defense, left for Southern Miss. Lorenzo Ward was defensive coordinator then was "promoted" when Johnson left. Only in the mind of Spurrier. Ward's secondary was part of a pass defense that was No. 2 nationally.

11. West Virginia : The offense certainly fits the Big 12 profile. Top 10 quarterback Geno Smith will throw to a top 10 receiver (Tavon Austin) in a top 10 offense. Don't be surprised if this is a top 10 team.

12. Clemson : The season can't come fast enough after West Virginia dropped 70 on the Tigers in the Orange Bowl. To some folks, Dabo Swinney went from Bobby Dodd national coach of the year to hot seat. The pressure is on for the defending ACC champs who can score with anyone but lost three of their last four.

13. Michigan : Here's a weird twist: If Michigan is going to evolve in Brady Hoke's image, Denard Robinson must do ... less. Less throwing on the run, less bad decisions. Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges continue to mold D-Rob into a more pro-style quarterback. Is that good?

14. Stanford : Is it possible this is a golden age for Cardinal football? Andrew Luck leaves and Stanford should still challenge for the Pac-12 North. In his second recruiting class, coach David Shaw landed Barry Sanders Jr. plus offensive line help.

15. Kansas State :'s 2011 national coach of the year Bill Snyder isn't slowing down. Quarterback Collin Klein and linebacker Arthur Brown return from Kansas State's first 10-win team in eight years.

16. Florida State : The Great FSU Turnaround continues. Penalties are still an issue. The 'Noles have committed 191 in Jimbo Fisher's two seasons (more than seven per game). Quarterback E.J. Manuel has to come through as a game changer. It's getting old writing about FSU's potential. It must deliver -- now.

17. Virginia Tech : Sorry, that wasn't a BCS bowl team you saw in the Sugar Bowl. But the Hokies do have possibilities. Quarterback Logan Thomas must improve to match one of Frank Beamer's best defenses.

18. Michigan State: Pat Narduzzi's defense was Alabama Jr. in 2011, leading the Big Ten in rushing defense, total defense, sacks and interceptions. Even with the loss of defensive tackle Jerel Worthy, this unit is one of the best in the country. We'll know about the Spartans early when they lead off against Boise State, go to Central Michigan, then host Notre Dame.

19. TCU : These Frogs have proved they can play with anyone. They should be a factor in their first Big 12 season. After a slow start to 2011, TCU won its last eight in a row. That's currently the second-longest streak in the country. Quarterback Casey Pachall and defensive end Stansly Maponga can be stars in any league. In this one they'll be competing for a BCS bowl.

20. Baylor : Nick Florence is no RGIII, but who is? In 2009, Florence started seven games in place of the injured Griffin and threw for almost 1,800 yards. Remember, the Big 12 is a quarterback league. As long as you have one, you've got a chance.

21. Florida : John Brantley, Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey are gone. However, the defense should be one of the strongest in the country. If the offense can improve in Will Muschamp's second season the Gators could be a surprise in the SEC East.

22. Nebraska : The Huskers fit in nicely in their first Big Ten season. They ran the ball and played defense. What else is new? For Nebraska to win at least nine games for the fifth straight season, Bo Pelini must get something more out of Taylor Martinez. Nebraska's quarterback has regressed since being a Heisman candidate the first half of 2010.

23. Utah : An inexplicable home loss to Colorado kept the Utes from playing for the Pac-12 title their first year in the league. A staff shuffling resulted in the promotion of Brian Johnson, 25, believed to be the nation's youngest major-college coordinator. How young is Johnson? So young he was the guy under center when the Utes beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

24. Texas : With Mack Brown getting an extension, David Ash seemingly settled in at quarterback and incoming super recruit Johnathan Gray ready to take over at tailback, there is reason to believe in Austin. The Longhorns won't win the Big 12, but they will be better. Small steps.

25. Oklahoma State : OK, so the school's greatest offense -- maybe its greatest team -- has been gutted by graduation and early entries. National coach of the year Mike Gundy has proved the Cowboys aren't going away any time soon. Why can't Joseph Randle rush for 1,200 yards again? Watch quarterback Clint Chelf. He's younger than Brandon Weeden -- who isn't? -- and is more of a dual threat.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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