Posted: Wednesday January 11, 2012 12:29PM ; Updated: Wednesday January 11, 2012 3:59PM
Andy Staples
Andy Staples>COLLEGE FOOTBALL POWER RANKINGS

Loaded Tigers, Trojans headline very early look at 2012 rankings

Story Highlights

Despite getting walloped in the title game, LSU looks like the 2012 No. 1

Matt Barkley's return will put the preseason spotlight squarely on USC

Michigan State is the Big Ten team best equipped to challenge the SEC

Way-Too-Early 2012 Top 25
I love the web, and I hate the web. On the one hand, the web gives me a place to publish rambling treatises about college football and videos of myself gobbling gourmet treats. On the other hand, this stuff might hang around forever.

This is especially bothersome when it comes to rankings. I imagine a day thousands of years from now, when the humans revolt against the aliens that have taken over the planet and destroyed our civilization. As man rebuilds, someone re-invents the iPad and finds a way to hook into our primitive network. Then, standing amid the rubble from an intergalactic war, that man will say, "Dang, Andy really overrated Florida State in 2011."

So, to accompany my way-too-early predictions for 2012, I'm offering my excuses, apologies and I-told-you-sos for my 2011 way-too-early predictions. You'll find far too many of the first category and not nearly enough of the third.
 
1
LSU Tigers
2011 record: 13-1
Yes, the Tigers looked terrible in the BCS title game. They also creamed two AQ conference champs and beat the eventual national champ in Tuscaloosa. LSU could lose a few key players to early entry into the NFL (cornerback Morris Claiborne and defensive tackle Michael Brockers, for example), but depth wasn't an issue on defense. LSU is still loaded with defensive end Sam Montgomery -- who has said he is coming back -- defensive tackle Bennie Logan, cornerback Tyrann Mathieu and 12th man and punter Brad Wing. LSU fans also will be relieved that there will be new blood at quarterback in 2012. Junior Zach Mettenberger, redshirt freshman Stephen Rivers (brother of Phillip) and freshman Gunner Kiel will square off for the starting job.

Last year in this spot: Oklahoma

Actual AP poll finish: 16

Why I'm a sportswriter, not a doctor: Obviously, no one could have predicted the season-ending injuries to Oklahoma tailback Dominique Whaley and receiver Ryan Broyles. It also would have seemed improbable that those injuries would completely cripple the Sooners' offense.
 
2
USC Trojans
2011 record: 10-2
Quarterback Matt Barkley's return guarantees the preseason spotlight will shine bright on a program that has managed to fly somewhat under the radar in the entertainment capital of the world. The Trojans have the nation's best returning receiver duo in Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, and the defense brings back rising stars such as linebacker Hayes Pullard and cornerback Nickell Robey.

Last year in this spot: Oregon

Actual AP poll finish: 4

Why I'm somewhat accurate: Had the Ducks decided against scheduling LSU and pasted some poor slappy, Oregon would have gotten serious consideration for the BCS title game. Lesson learned. The Ducks' 2012 nonconference schedule: Arkansas State, Fresno State and Tennessee Tech.
 
3
Oregon Ducks
2011 record: 12-2
LaMichael James is gone, but De'Anthony Thomas proved this year that he is Oregon's next breakout star. Kenjon Barner will keep scoring as well. The Ducks will not slow down, and the Pac-12 likely will come down to a title-game rematch of the Nov. 3 meeting between Oregon and USC in Los Angeles.

Last year in this spot: LSU

Actual AP poll finish: 2

Why I was so close: Silly me for thinking the SEC's streak of national title game appearances would end. It's never a good idea to underestimate a loaded defense.
 
4
Arkansas Razorbacks
2011 record: 11-2
Tuesday's announcement that tailback Knile Davis -- who missed the 2011 season following a knee injury -- will return gives Arkansas a huge boost going into 2012. Even without some of his top targets from 2011, quarterback Tyler Wilson will still throw plenty. On defense, the Razorbacks bring back most of their secondary. Most importantly, Arkansas gets Alabama and LSU at home.

Last year in this spot: Alabama

Actual AP poll finish: 1

Why I underestimated the eventual champ: I didn't know if Alabama's offense would be good enough with a new quarterback and unheralded receivers. Trent Richardson and a bruising line carried the offense for much of the year, but quarterback AJ McCarron played a sensational national title game.
 
5
Alabama Crimson Tide
2011 record: 12-1
Unless a group of defenders abruptly decides to pass up NFL riches for another year in Tuscaloosa, 2012 will be very similar to 2010 for the Crimson Tide. They'll have an experienced quarterback, but the defense might make some missteps as talented young players go from spot duty to full-time roles. By season's end, that inexperience probably won't matter. Unfortunately, the Tide go to Fayetteville on Sept. 15.

Last year in this spot: Stanford

Actual AP poll finish: 7 (though I voted the Cardinal five)

Why I'm a genius (not a Stanford-level genius, but still): Oregon just seemed like a bad matchup for the Cardinal in 2010, and nothing had changed in 2011 to suggest the Ducks wouldn't beat Stanford again. The Cardinal, meanwhile, were a matchup nightmare for everyone else on their regular-season schedule. Unlike my fellow pollsters, I don't believe the Cardinal should be penalized for an overtime loss to a very good Oklahoma State team.
 
6
Michigan State Spartans
2011 record: 11-3
If a Big Ten program is going to challenge an SEC power before Urban Meyer gets things rolling at Ohio State, it's going to be Michigan State. The Spartans may lose Kirk Cousins, but they remain the most athletic team in the Big Ten. No one in the league has a specimen like defensive end William Gholston, and tailback LeVeon Bell should ease the loss of Edwin Baker to the NFL. The Spartans also retained defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who had received interest from Texas A&M.

Last year in this spot: Ohio State

Actual AP poll finish: Unranked

Why I'm an idiot: In my defense, the NCAA hadn't caught Jim Tressel in a lie when we published last year's way-too-early Top 25. But I should have realized the havoc the suspensions of Terrelle Pryor, Boom Herron, Devier Posey, Michael Adams and Solomon Thomas would wreak on an already young team.
 
7
South Carolina Gamecocks
2011 record: 11-2
The Gamecocks lose quite a bit; receiver Alshon Jeffrey, cornerback Stephon Gilmore and defensive end Melvin Ingram played huge roles in South Carolina's first 11-win season. But Steve Spurrier and his staff have recruited well. Tailback Marcus Lattimore, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in October, will be back. So will defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, a physical freak who will have the benefit of his first collegiate offseason program. Meanwhile, Spurrier finally has a quarterback he likes in Connor Shaw.

Last year in this spot: Texas A&M

Actual AP poll finish: Unranked

Why I can't hold a second-half lead: The Aggies fired Mike Sherman for a reason. They had top 10 talent, but they gagged away too many leads. Think about it this way: Texas A&M had Oklahoma State and Arkansas on the ropes and couldn't hold on. Those two teams finished in the top five.
 
8
Oklahoma Sooners
2011 record: 10-3
The Sooners bring back quarterback Landry Jones, who will have an entire offseason to adjust to playing without receiver Ryan Broyles. Tailback Dominique Whaley should be back from a broken ankle and will get to run behind an offensive line that should return five starters. Plus, the Sooners now know they can always turn over the reins to Blake (the Belldozer) Bell near the goal line. Meanwhile, linebackers Tony Jefferson and Tom Wort will lead an experienced back seven on defense.

Last year in this spot: TCU

Actual AP poll finish: 14

Why I need to accept that some programs don't reload as fast: TCU lost a lot from the team that beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. It was unrealistic to think the Horned Frogs could simply plug in new starters and keep dominating. Of course, it didn't take TCU's new starters long to adjust.
 
9
Georgia Bulldogs
2011 record: 10-4
The Bulldogs might have the nation's best defensive player in linebacker Jarvis Jones, and Jones will be surrounded by a host of experienced, talented players -- most notably the excellently named safety Bacarri Rambo. At the moment, it seems both are headed back to Athens instead of to the NFL. Aaron Murray is an elite quarterback, and even if the Bulldogs lose tight end Orson Charles to the NFL, they'll still have receiver Malcolm Mitchell and tailback Isaiah Crowell. Many of my colleagues have Georgia ranked even higher, so why are the Bulldogs here? Because they have to replace most of the offensive line, and because they need to prove they can beat South Carolina after losing the past two in the series. Moving that game to October should give each team a chance to find its identity.

Last year in this spot: South Carolina

Actual AP poll finish: 9

Why I deserve a pulled pork sandwich slathered in mustard-based sauce: South Carolina always seems to lose one it shouldn't. In 2011, that loss came to Auburn. Beyond that, the Gamecocks won all the games they should have won, and they dominated a Clemson team that won the ACC title.
 
10
TCU Horned Frogs
2011 record: 11-2
By the time the Horned Frogs beat Boise State on the blue turf in 2011, it was clear TCU's youngsters had gotten over their early-season jitters. TCU will bring a loaded team into the Big 12 thanks to quarterback Casey Pachall and a fully intact front four on defense led by defensive end Stansly Maponga.

Last year in this spot: Florida State

Actual AP poll finish: 23

Why I need to stop drinking the Kool-Aid: The Seminoles simply haven't lived up to their hype since the turn of the century. FSU has a legitimate excuse for 2011, though. Teams that lose five offensive line starters to season-ending injuries don't compete for conference or national titles.
 
11
Michigan Wolverines
2011 record: 11-2
The Wolverines may be better in 2012 than they were in 2011, but their record may not reflect it. Quarterback Denard Robinson and company open against Alabama in Arlington, Texas, and then have to turn around and prepare for Air Force's option the next week. The Wolverines get Michigan State -- owner of a four-game win streak against Michigan -- in Ann Arbor, but they'll have to go to Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State. Still, Michigan has the talent to win the Legends Division and play for the Big Ten title.

Last year in this spot: Boise State

Actual AP poll finish: 8

Why I shouldn't feel blue about this pick: The Broncos already had lost a chunk of the players who dominated in 2009 and 2010, so it seemed logical they might slip up once along the way. TCU caused said slip-up.
 
12
Wisconsin Badgers
2011 record: 11-3
Montee Ball put up spectacular numbers in 2011, but in 2012 he'll try to reprise that performance without quarterback Russell Wilson and center Peter Konz, who declared for the NFL draft on Tuesday. The Badgers should find an adequate replacement for Konz. Good offensive linemen seem to grow on trees in America's Dairyland. Huge trees with sturdy trunks. Meanwhile, Curt Phillips, Jon Budmayr and Joe Brennan will compete to replace Wilson. On defense, middle linebacker Chris Borland will lead an experienced group.

Last year in this spot: Nebraska

Actual AP poll finish: 24

Why I misread the Big Ten's ability to haze the new guy: The Cornhuskers finished 1-2 on trips to Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan. Nebraska also lost a headscratcher to Northwestern.
 
13
West Virginia Mountaineers
2011 record: 10-3
I try not to put too much stock into a great or terrible bowl performance because there are so many factors that simply don't apply in the regular season, but it's difficult to ignore what the Mountaineers did to Clemson in the Orange Bowl. With no awkward coach-in-waiting arrangement to cause problems, West Virginia should enjoy a drama-free offseason that should allow quarterback Geno Smith and his talented receivers to master coach Dana Holgorsen's Air Raid (v. 3.0) offense.

Last year in this spot: Missouri

Actual AP poll finish: Unranked

Why I should avoid trendy picks: The Tigers had the misfortune of being a pretty good team in a very good conference. They finished with four wins in a row, which should give them confidence as they head into the SEC.
 
14
Clemson Tigers
2011 record: 10-4
Clemson will have top 10 talent in 2012. If not for USC's Barkley and his receiving duo, the Tigers' quarterback-receiver tandem of Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins could be the nation's best. But the ACC has simply laid too many eggs for any of its teams to start the season in the top 10. If Clemson can handle what should be a pretty good Auburn team on Sept. 1, it might be considered for a move up.

Last year in this spot: Auburn

Actual AP poll finish: Unranked

Why I underestimated the power of Cam Newton: The Tigers had some promising young players, but I didn't truly appreciate how good Newton was until I saw the dropoff from 2010 to 2011.
 
15
Kansas State Wildcats
2011 record: 10-3
Quarterback Collin Klein and company aren't going to sneak up on anyone in 2012. Still, it's unwise to bet against Wildcats coach Bill Snyder, especially when he brings back all his skill position players on offense and outstanding linebacker Arthur Brown.

Last year in this spot: Wisconsin

Actual AP poll finish: 10

Why the NCAA's best rule killed me: When I wrote last year's way-too-early Top 25, Russell Wilson had yet to decide what he wanted to do for the 2011 season. Had I known he had a craving for brats, I would have ranked the Badgers higher.
 
16
Nebraska Cornhuskers
2011 record: 9-4
The Cornhuskers will get one more year from Rex Burkhead, even though it feels as if Burkhead must have his Ph.D by now. If Taylor Martinez can develop as a passer -- receiver Kenny Bell can help in this respect -- then Nebraska's offense could be tough to stop. On defense, the Cornhuskers bring back a host of experienced players, but someone needs to become a star with linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard gone.

Last year in this spot: Michigan State

Actual AP poll finish: 11

Why I feel like I got flattened by Jerel Worthy: I simply underestimated how much talent the Spartans had on their roster. Coach Mark Dantonio has recruited well, and that's why I'm so high on Michigan State in 2012.
 
17
Florida State Seminoles
2011 record: 9-4
The announcements that defensive end Brandon Jenkins and cornerback Xavier Rhodes will return lends further credence to the idea that Florida State could be much, much better next year. The Seminoles will get several offensive linemen back from injury, and some of their young linemen showed promise at the end of 2011. Rashad Greene would be the best receiver in the ACC if Sammy Watkins didn't play in the ACC. This all sounds fantastic, but I'm not letting FSU make a fool of me again. I buy in every year, and every year I look stupid. (Now watch the Seminoles compete for a national title and make me look like an idiot again.)

Last year in this spot: Arkansas

Actual AP poll finish: 5

Why I should be forced to listen to hog calls every second until September: I underestimated the depth and talent in the Arkansas receiving corps and the improvements on defense. I won't make that mistake again.
 
18
Virginia Tech Hokies
2011 record: 11-3
Tailback David Wilson will head to the NFL, but the Hokies always seem to have someone ready to plug into the backfield. More interesting is the passing game, which could blossom with Logan Thomas throwing to Marcus Davis (6-foot-4, 228), D.J. Coles (6-3, 224) and Dyrell Roberts (6-2, 196). Virginia Tech also brings back its entire front seven on defense, but because the Hokies play in the ACC, I refuse to get too excited until they prove they can win outside the league. Since Virginia Tech's best out-of-conference games are against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, that proof may not come until January 2013.

Last year in this spot: Oklahoma State

Actual AP poll finish: 3

Why I hate deadlines: When we published last year's way-too-early Top 25, receiver Justin Blackmon and quarterback Brandon Weeden hadn't announced their NFL decisions yet. Assuming they would leave, I ranked Oklahoma State low. They announced they would come back the following day. Whoops.
 
19
Boise State Broncos
2011 record: 12-1
The Broncos lose quarterback Kellen Moore, the heart and soul of their team. They also lose coordinator Brent Pease, who will attempt to sort out the mess that is Florida's offense. Still, coach Chris Petersen hasn't been standing pat on the recruiting trail while Moore's class racked up victories. Contributions of youngsters such as receiver Matt Miller (62 catches for 679 yards and nine touchdowns) attest to that. Boise State might not be a national title contender, but it won't fall off the map, either.

Last year in this spot: Virginia Tech

Actual AP poll finish: 21

Why I was correct, then wrong, then correct, then wrong, then correct again: The Hokies shot up in the rankings by beating weak opponents before dropping after getting clobbered by Clemson in Blacksburg. Then Virginia Tech rose again by beating weak opponents before getting clobbered by Clemson in the ACC title game.
 
20
Stanford Cardinal
2011 record: 11-2
The Cardinal aren't going to replace quarterback Andrew Luck. Their smashmouth philosophy should ease the transition to a non-Luck existence, but only a few quarterbacks in each generation have the physical and mental tools to reproduce Luck's skill set. But Stanford's offense won't need to score much. The Cardinal bring back some of their best defenders. Linebacker Chase Thomas passed on the NFL for another year on The Farm, and linebacker Shayne Skov should come back recovered from the knee injury that knocked him out in September.

Last year in this spot: West Virginia

Actual AP poll finish: 17

Why an Orange Bowl outburst made me wrong: The Mountaineers played down to the level of their competition at times, which explains the Syracuse and Louisville losses. But the show West Virginia put on in the Orange Bowl showed how good this team was.
 
21
Texas Longhorns
2011 record: 8-5
In coordinator Manny Diaz's first year in Austin, Texas finished first in the Big 12 in total defense and second in scoring defense. So that wasn't the problem. For the Longhorns to get back among the nation's elite, they need an offensive identity. The constant switching between quarterbacks David Ash and Case McCoy didn't help, and neither did injuries to backs Fozzy Whitaker and Joe Bergeron. Texas may be able to develop that identity in 2012, though. With Bergeron, Malcolm Brown and incoming freshman Jonathan Gray, the Longhorns could be an excellent power running team. They don't see that sort of thing much in the Big 12, and it could be awfully difficult to stop.

Last year in this spot: Georgia

Actual AP poll finish: 19

Why I need to consider schedule more: The Bulldogs had a tough start -- losing to Boise State and South Carolina -- but the rest of their schedule could not have been easier. Coach Mark Richt and his staff kept the team from going into the tank after the 0-2 start, and the Bulldogs responded by winning 10 in a row.
 
22
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
2011 record: 8-5
The Fighting Irish should have a fine defense in 2012 led by linebacker Manti Te'o and rising sophomore defensive end Aaron Lynch, a player Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel said would be "all-world" after an up-close meeting in the Champs Sports Bowl. Notre Dame's biggest question is at quarterback. Essentially, coach Brian Kelly must figure out which of his signal callers will throw the ball to the other team the least. It should be an interesting competition between Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson.

Last year in this spot: Mississippi State

Actual AP poll finish: Unranked

Why you can't rank every SEC West team: Mississippi State finished fifth in the SEC West and 15th in the nation in 2010. It was foolish to believe something like that could happen again.
 
23
Auburn Tigers
2011 record: 8-5
The Tigers got two pieces of encouraging news this week. First, they hired defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder away from the Atlanta Falcons. As long as VanGorder doesn't pull a stunt like he did at South Carolina -- taking the job and then leaving for the Falcons without coaching a game in Columbia -- he should enjoy inheriting a defense that returns 10 starters who did a lot of learning on the job in 2011. The other piece of good news came from tailback Onterrio McCalebb, who announced he would return to the Plains. The loss of tailback Michael Dyer -- since transferred to Arkansas State -- didn't seem to bother the Tigers in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, but the loss of offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn will have a far greater impact.

Last year in this spot: Arizona State

Actual AP poll finish: Unranked

Why my poll ballots sometimes fall off the map: The Sun Devils looked great to start the season. After the USC win, it seemed certain they would win the Pac-12 South. Then they simply fell apart.
 
24
Oklahoma State Cowboys
2011 record: 12-1
Now comes the test for the Cowboys. At the Fiesta Bowl, megabooster T. Boone Pickens said Oklahoma State isn't chasing anyone in terms of facilities or coaching salaries. So, with essentially the same resources as the more historically successful programs in the Big 12, can the Cowboys sustain their success? The loss of quarterback Brandon Weeden will hurt, as will the loss of receiver Justin Blackmon. Coordinator Bill Young gets most of his defense back, and that group might have to carry the Cowboys until the offense finds its groove.

Last year in this spot: Notre Dame

Actual AP poll finish: Unranked

Why this mistake always happens: Like Florida State, every year seems to bring increased hope at Notre Dame. And the Fighting Irish were decent this season. If not for crushing turnovers against South Florida and Michigan, the Irish would have won 10 games.
 
25
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
2011 record: 8-5
When Yellow Jackets coach Paul Johnson brings back his entire offensive line as well as his quarterback (Tevin Washington), A-back (Orwin Smith) and B-back (David Sims), expect plenty of rushing yards. Georgia Tech also brings back some of its best playmakers on defense, including linebacker Julian Burnett.

Last year in this spot: Utah

Actual AP poll finish: Unranked

Why USC is the only Pac-12 South team to have faith in: Beyond USC, the Pac-12 South was as mediocre as mediocre gets. The Utes weren't bad, but they weren't great, either.
 
Next five: Baylor, BYU, Rutgers, Florida, Ohio State
 

 
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