Posted: Tue January 22, 2013 12:34PM; Updated: Tue January 22, 2013 5:19PM
Andy Staples

'Bama, Texas A&M top Way-Too-Early 2013 Top 25

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After rushing for 1,108 yards in 2012, 'Bama's T.J. Yeldon should see an even greater role next season.
After rushing for 1,108 yards in 2012, 'Bama's T.J. Yeldon should see an even greater role next season.
John Biever/SI

My in-season rankings are usually wrong, but they do not compare to my Way-Too-Early rankings, which are usually spectacularly wrong. Last year, for example, I had LSU, USC and Arkansas in my top four in January. I came to my senses and ranked Alabama No. 1 heading into the season, but the sheer stupidity of my earliest crack at the 2012 season is mind-boggling.

So, in an attempt to hedge my bets, the 2013 edition of the Way-Too-Early rankings will include sections that will allow me to weasel out of my picks in either direction. I'll tell you why I might have ranked each team too low and why I might have ranked each team too high. Either way, come September, I'll still be wrong.

Alabama Crimson Tide
2012 record: 13-1
Replacing Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker on the offensive line won't be easy -- even for a program that essentially selects 25 of the nation's top 200 high school players each year. But if any team can overcome that loss, it's Alabama. The Crimson Tide have proven themselves uniquely capable of reloading after national title runs. AJ McCarron showed in the BCS title game why he's one of the best quarterbacks in the country, and he'll still get to hand off to T.J. Yeldon and throw to Amari Cooper. Meanwhile, linebacker C.J. Mosley returns for his senior season. Even though everyone knows Mosley is one of the nation's best at his position, he wants to prove to coach Nick Saban that he can be a full-time player. Such is the embarrassment of riches in Tuscaloosa. Even an elite talent can't always get on the field.

Why this ranking could be too low: N/A

Why this ranking could be too high: If the offensive line doesn't mesh during spring practice and preseason camp, Alabama's offense can't dominate the way it did in 2012.
Texas A&M Aggies
2012 record: 11-2
The return of offensive tackle Jake Matthews is huge. Quarterback Johnny Manziel is the nation's most dynamic player, but he had plenty of help from a fantastic offensive line. The loss of left tackle Luke Joeckel to the NFL will certainly hurt, but remember one thing: Mike Sherman may have had his shortcomings on game day, but he knew how to recruit. He left the cupboard stocked for Kevin Sumlin, whose blend of schematic acumen and unshakable confidence gives the Aggies a serious edge. Oh, and in case you forgot, here's what the aforementioned Mr. Football can do.

Why this ranking could be too low: If the Aggies beat Alabama on Sept. 14 in College Station, expect them to ascend to No. 1.

Why this ranking could be too high: If Texas A&M can't find a pass rusher to replace Damontre Moore or production at linebacker, Johnny Football may be under pressure to win a shootout most weeks.
Stanford Cardinal
2012 record: 12-2
Tailback Stepfan Taylor and tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo are gone, but the Cardinal return four starting offensive linemen and 10 starters from the defense that went to Eugene and shut down Oregon. Also, quarterback Kevin Hogan -- who helped reinvent Stanford's offense after his midseason promotion -- will have a full offseason as the starter. While announcing his return via Twitter earlier this month, Cardinal defensive end Ben Gardner wrote about "another big #partyinthebackfield." If this defense can get even better, that will be quite a celebration.

Why this ranking could be too low: If any team is capable of matching Alabama smash for mouth, it's Stanford.

Why this ranking could be too high: With the exception of USC, which could really feel the sting of NCAA scholarship reductions this season, the rest of the Pac-12 is getting better fast. A team that lost to Washington last year could get upset by any number of teams on the wrong day.
Oregon Ducks
2012 record: 12-1
I already had Oregon ranked beneath Stanford before Chip Kelly took the Eagles job -- these rankings were written last week and would have run but for the fallout from a certain fake girlfriend -- and I was tempted to drop the Ducks lower after Kelly's departure. But then I thought about Stanford. Jim Harbaugh made Stanford nationally relevant, but David Shaw has kept the Cardinal that way by following the blueprint Harbaugh drew. At this point, Shaw's achievement is equal to Harbaugh's. So we know it's possible to continue thriving after the guy who built the brand leaves. There is no reason Mark Helfrich can't do the same thing Shaw did. The Oregon brand is the Blur offense and slick uniforms. Maybe Kelly's playcalling was the X-factor, but what if it wasn't? What if he set up a system that can be duplicated with the proper stewardship? That's why I'm betting on Helfrich to succeed as long as the NCAA doesn't hit Oregon too hard for paying a recruit's handler with a $25,000 check. (Kelly's departure should ease things on that front. If he has any loyalty to the Ducks, he'll tell the Committee on Infractions that it was all his fault. Jim Tressel did this in 2011, and Ohio State probably will start 2013 in the top five.) In the short term, losing tailback Kenjon Barner might sting, but with a year-older, year-wiser Marcus Mariota running the offense, Oregon should look as blurry as usual to opposing defenses. The defense loses five starters, but thanks to coordinator Nick Aliotti's line-change substitution, the Ducks are never without experience on that side of the ball.

Why this ranking could be too low: Mariota is the best quarterback of the Blur offense era. If he can handle a bigger workload, De'Anthony Thomas could eclipse LaMichael James as the best back of the Kelly era. Colt Lyerla is as unique an offensive weapon as any player in the country.

Why this ranking could be too high: You've already read why Stanford could repeat as the Pac-12 champ. The Ducks play in Palo Alto this season. Also, UCLA will be better. Ditto for Arizona.
Ohio State Buckeyes
2012 record: 12-0
The history of Urban Meyer in Year Two:

• 2002 Bowling Green: 9-3
• 2004 Utah: 13-0, Mountain West champion, first non-AQ team to bust the BCS
• 2006 Florida: 13-1, SEC champion, national champion
• 2013 Ohio State: ????

Ohio State performed better in Year One than any of Meyer's previous teams, but the Buckeyes also lost more on defense than any of those teams. Meyer's 2012 and 2013 recruits will have to contribute quickly. The offense should be more dynamic, and quarterback Braxton Miller will make a lot of preseason Heisman Trophy lists. While it will make it more difficult for the Buckeyes to dominate the Big Ten, Ohio State needs the rest of the league to improve in the worst way. The Buckeyes' nonconference schedule is soft again, and a weak Big Ten could hurt Ohio State with computer rankings and human voters. A stronger Big Ten would help a lot, but the catch is the team most likely to help make the conference more respectable is Michigan. Ohio State must go to Ann Arbor this year. If we're lucky, we'll see an epic showdown in the Big House.

Why this ranking could be too low: If the teams on the schedule aren't better than expected, the Buckeyes may buzzsaw the competition and voters may blindly move them up the polls without considering schedule strength.

Why this ranking could be too high: If an inexperienced defensive line falters, the Buckeyes could struggle against Wisconsin and Michigan. Also, a visit to Northwestern on Oct. 5 could prove tricky.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
2012 record: 12-1
Yes, the Fighting Irish looked terrible against Alabama. That doesn't erase the fact that Notre Dame won 12 games and proved it belongs in the national title conversation. Nose guard Louis Nix and defensive end Stephon Tuitt return, as do offensive tackle Zack Martin and quarterback Everett Golson. The schedule appears easier at first glance, but the Irish would have to earn another trip to the BCS title game. An early trip to Ann Arbor is perilous, and a season-ending trip to Palo Alto could have national title implications for the home team.

Why this ranking could be too low: We underestimated Notre Dame badly last year. Maybe the sting of the Alabama loss will cause us to underestimate the Irish again in 2013.

Why this ranking could be too high: Maybe the Irish caught all the breaks in 2012. If that's the case, it rarely happens two seasons in a row.
Louisville Cardinals
2012 record: 11-2
Congratulations Cardinals, you are the proud recipients of the West Virginia Memorial Overreaction to a Bowl Win Ranking. Louisville clobbered Florida in the Sugar Bowl. Louisville returns 20 starters. It only makes sense that quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and the Cardinals will dominate in 2013. That's the logic we used for the Mountaineers in 2012, and that imploded after five games. Here's the difference. Louisville won't be playing a Big 12 schedule in 2013. The Cardinals will play their final year in the Big East against what amounts to a reconstituted 2003-vintage Conference USA. The nonconference schedule is a breeze. Unless new Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville pulls off one of his vintage upsets, Rutgers is probably the only team on the schedule that can hang with Louisville. That said, the Cardinals did lose to Syracuse and Connecticut last season.

Why this ranking could be too low: Voters don't judge by the quality in the win column. They look for a zero in the loss column. Louisville should have a zero in the loss column.

Why this ranking could be too high: As mentioned above, the same team that clubbed Florida in 2012 also lost to Syracuse and Connecticut. Consistency must be proven.
South Carolina Gamecocks
2012 record: 11-2
How do you find Williams-Brice Stadium? Don't bother with your GPS. Just follow the trail of NFL scouts lined up to watch defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. (Hint: The worst NFL team in 2013 will get Clowney.) The Gamecocks also bring back two capable quarterbacks (Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson) and four starting offensive linemen. South Carolina will be young at linebacker, but Steve Spurrier's team has recruited well, and the attention paid to Clowney by opposing offenses should allow other playmakers to emerge.

Why this ranking could be too low: Because unlike the past three seasons, South Carolina has the easiest schedule draw of the SEC East contenders.

Why this ranking could be too high: The offensive line will be experienced, but it must get better this offseason to keep Shaw and Thompson healthy enough to last through the SEC schedule.
Florida Gators
2012 record: 11-2
The Gators do not receive the Clemson Memorial Overreaction to a Bowl Loss Ranking because a regular-season improvement from 6-6 in 2011 to 11-1 in 2012 has to count for something. Defensive tackle Shariff Floyd, safety Matt Elam and linebacker Jelani Jenkins left early for the draft, but the Gators still bring back plenty of talent. Defensive end Dominique Easley returns, and fellow end Ronald Powell should be recovered from the torn ACL he suffered in the 2012 spring game. Meanwhile, transfers Tyler Moore (Nebraska) and Max Garcia (Maryland) will be eligible to play and should contribute to an offensive line that got much better in 2012.

Why this ranking could be too low: If the Gators somehow assemble as many quality wins in 2013 as they did in 2012, they should at least be playing for the SEC title.

Why this ranking could be too high: Maybe the Sugar Bowl wasn't as fluky a performance as it seemed. If quarterback Jeff Driskel doesn't become a more dynamic passer, the line will have to dominate or defenses will be able to stuff the Gators.
Clemson Tigers
2012 record: 11-2
The return of quarterback Tajh Boyd makes the Tigers the favorite in the ACC. Tailback Andre Ellington and receiver Nuke Hopkins are gone, but if receiver Sammy Watkins can keep himself from getting suspended for early-season games, he can exit camp as the focal point of the offense and reclaim the magic that made him one of the nation's best receivers as a freshman. Coordinator Brent Venables had the defense playing better at season's end. If that improvement continues through the offseason, the Tigers will deserve this ranking.

Why this ranking could be too low: We'll know quickly how good this team is. The Tigers open against Georgia in Death Valley.

Why this ranking could be too high: It's Clemson with a preseason top-10 ranking. What could possibly go wrong?
Georgia Bulldogs
2012 record: 12-2
The Bulldogs should be fantastic on offense. Quarterback Aaron Murray leads one of the deepest groups of SEC passers in recent memory, and sophomore tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall give the Bulldogs a ferocious running game. The questions are all on defense, where Georgia will replace its entire secondary and most of its linebackers.

Why this ranking could be too low: Because we know some of Georgia's defenders -- linebacker Amarlo Herrera, for example -- are quite good. We also know coordinator Todd Grantham can coach. If the new starters on defense immediately shine, I'll have to move the Bulldogs way up.

Why this ranking could be too high: Barring terrible injury luck, it's difficult to imagine the Bulldogs being overrated at this spot.
Michigan Wolverines
2012 record: 8-5
The Outback Bowl showed that Devin Gardner can play quarterback at a high level. Notre Dame is the only defense on Michigan's 2013 schedule that can match the athleticism of the South Carolina defense Gardner faced and nearly beat. Plus, Gardner will have an entire offseason working with the first-team offense to help him improve even more. (What happens if freshman Shane Morris beats out Gardner? It means Morris is better than Gardner, who is pretty darn good. So that's a win-win competition.) The Wolverines need to replace the middle of their offensive line, but left tackle Taylor Lewan is back. Linebacker Jake Ryan will lead a defense that returns six starters. If coach Brady Hoke is as good of a recruiter as the Interwebs say he is, it will begin to show this season.

Why this ranking could be too low: The schedule is manageable. If the Wolverines can beat Notre Dame at the Big House in Week 2, they'll be in position for an excellent record.

Why this ranking could be too high: If the young defenders don't develop and the new offensive line starters don't form a cohesive unit, the Wolverines will face trouble from Penn State, Nebraska and Northwestern as well as Notre Dame and Ohio State.
Oklahoma Sooners
2012 record: 10-3
With four offensive linemen and their top two rushers (Damien Williams and Brennan Clay) returning, the Sooners should have little trouble moving the ball. Blake Bell will have to transition from Belldozer to Bellthrower, but he certainly appears capable. The defense is a bit of a mystery. The Sooners lose most of their defensive line, but given that group's performance last season, that might be a good thing. Safety Tony Jefferson entered the NFL draft, but cornerback Aaron Colvin returns.

Why this ranking could be too low: If Bell emerges as a star and some of the former four- and five-star recruits blossom on defense, the Sooners could be back among the nation's elite.

Why this ranking could be too high: The Big 12 as a whole is tough to project. TCU and Baylor could be major factors, and eventually Texas is going to put it all together.
LSU Tigers
2012 record: 10-3
Hopefully, the last draft-eligible junior in Baton Rouge turned off the lights. That was quite an exodus. Eleven Tigers gave up eligibility to turn pro. So why am I not dropping LSU lower after such a massive talent drain? Consider this quote from Tigers defensive coordinator John Chavis in September after LSU played 19 freshmen and 17 sophomores. "We play a lot of people," Chavis said. "We don't recruit guys to redshirt. ... If you've recruited the right kind of people, they're not going to be here for four years anyway." The Tigers will be just fine.

Why this ranking could be too low: Maybe this young group proves even better than the one that just left.

Why this ranking could be too high: Even at LSU, it's tough to lose that much talent in one shot.
TCU Horned Frogs
2012 record: 7-6
Receiver Josh Boyce and defensive end Stansly Maponga entered the draft early, but the Horned Frogs bring back a ton from a team that should have won more in 2012. Defensive end Devonte Fields was a breakout star last season, and cornerback Jason Verrett emerged as one of the nation's best at his position. Quarterback Casey Pachall is back after missing TCU's final nine games after being suspended for an arrest on suspicion of drunk driving. He'll compete with Trevone Boykin for the starting job, and Pachall probably will win it.

Why this ranking could be too low: This defense could be really, really good.

Why this ranking could be too high: Even a great defense sometimes has trouble with some of the better Big 12 offenses.
Florida State Seminoles
2012 record: 12-2
I made a promise last season, and I intend to keep it. I'm not going to go overboard on Florida State until the Seminoles prove they can avoid the random ACC road losses that have derailed their hopes of late. That said, if Florida State goes to Clemson and wins, the Seminoles will probably jump into the top 10. Florida State has the potential to be very good. Rashad Greene is a fine receiver, and most of the offensive line is back. The competition at quarterback between Clint Trickett and redshirt freshman Jameis Winston should be intriguing. Meanwhile, on defense, former five-star recruits Mario Edwards Jr. and Eddie Goldman will have a chance to show why they were so hyped coming out of high school.

Why this ranking could be too low: Florida State has had a bevy of athletes waiting in the wings. Those players might jell into an excellent team.

Why this ranking could be too high: Florida State's schedule probably isn't tough enough for the Seminoles to lose enough games to drop below this general area.
Texas Longhorns
2012 record: 9-4
I know I have a section below for such things, but I'll come right out and say it: I'm probably vastly underrating the Longhorns. Given the amount of quality players they return on offense and defense, they should compete for the Big 12 title and maybe even the national title. But I need to see it on the field. Since 2010, the Longhorns simply haven't lived up to their preseason billing. Until they prove differently, this is still the group that lost to TCU at home, got smoked by Oklahoma in Dallas and played porous defense against the run. The record will need to reflect the talent for the ranking to rise.

Why this ranking could be too low: A three-headed monster at tailback. A defense that has to get better after a bad year that seems like an anomaly. Why do I get the feeling Texas fans will be e-mailing me links to this column when their team cracks the top five?

Why this ranking could be too high: Because games aren't played on paper. Sometimes they're played in Dallas during the Texas State Fair.
Boise State Broncos
2012 record: 11-2
The Broncos had their rebuilding year. Now they're going to try to bust the BCS one more time before there is no more BCS. D.J. Harper is gone, but in his place is Jay Ajayi, who averaged 6.7 yards a carry last season. Quarterback Joe Southwick looked excellent at the end of 2012. Boise State always plays tough defense. The Broncos open at Washington, and a win against the Huskies could set the table for an impressive season.

Why this ranking could be too low: If the Broncos beat Washington, the Mountain West doesn't offer much that can stop them. The biggest challenge will be BYU on Oct. 26.

Why this ranking could be too high: Like Michigan State last season, Washington could beat the Broncos and leave them without many chances to earn back lost respect.
Kansas State Wildcats
2012 record: 11-2
I don't care that Collin Klein is gone. I refuse to doubt Bill Snyder's ability to keep the wins coming in Manhattan. (Except in the paragraph below in which I am contractually obligated to doubt Snyder's ability to rally this team to another good record.)

Why this ranking could be too low: The entire offensive line is back. So is receiver Tyler Lockett. The Wildcats will be able to score.

Why this ranking could be too high: Kansas State lost a lot on defense. In the Big 12, inexperience on that side of the ball can lead to some huge point totals.
Baylor Bears
2012 record: 8-5
Maybe it's also time to stop doubting Art Briles and his Bears. They struggled early in Big 12 play in 2012 but roared to the finish by winning five of their final six games. Tailbacks Glasco Martin and Lache Seastrunk played a huge role in those wins, and the duo finished the season with a combined 1,901 yards and 22 touchdowns. Even scarier is the fact that Martin and Seastrunk averaged 6.1 yards a carry. With such a potent ground game, defenses will have trouble pressuring new quarterback Bryce Petty, who should put up big numbers for Briles just as Robert Griffin III and Nick Florence did.

Why this ranking could be too low: If Baylor continues to run the ball like it did at the end of 2012, opponents could be in huge trouble.

Why this ranking could be too high: The Big 12 is packed with above-average teams. Games will come down to a few plays here or there.
Northwestern Wildcats
2012 record: 10-3
Now that the Wildcats have won a bowl game for the first time since 1949, they can go to work on their first Big Ten Legends Division title. They get Michigan at home this year, but they'll probably also have to win at Nebraska. Quarterback Kain Colter and the core of the offensive skill players return, but Northwestern will have to fill some holes on the offensive line. At this point, coach Pat Fitzgerald has to be watching what's happening at Stanford and thinking it's also possible in Evanston.

Why this ranking could be too low: That division title is no pipe dream. The Wildcats have enough talent to win it.

Why this ranking could be too high: Sometimes success is tougher to deal with than failure. The Wildcats will have to prove they weren't satisfied with 10 wins.
Nebraska Cornhuskers
2012 record: 10-4
We give you the first Nebraska Memorial Overreaction to a Conference Championship Game Loss Ranking. I know it was only one game, but holy smokes. The Cornhuskers' defense looked helpless against a Wisconsin team that finished the season with six losses. With Taylor Martinez still at the helm, the offense will continue to shred mediocre and bad defenses and struggle against good ones. Meanwhile, the defense must replace six starters.

Why this ranking could be too low: The defense has to replace six starters. Just as I wrote when discussing Oklahoma, that might not necessarily be a bad thing.

Why this ranking could be too high: The rest of the Big Ten is getting better. The Cornhuskers will have to get better with it.
Vanderbilt Commodores
2012 record: 9-4
Vanderbilt won nine games in 2012. Let that sink in. The losses, by the way, came to teams that finished a combined 44-9. This was a good football team, and coach James Franklin and his staff accomplished that feat using mostly players they inherited from the Bobby Johnson/Robbie Caldwell regime. Now, the Commodores will get bigger contributions from the players Franklin and his staff recruited. Those players, many of whom were sought by other SEC schools, represent a talent upgrade.

Why this ranking could be too low: If Vandy can shock Florida, Georgia or South Carolina, the Commodores could be in the thick of the SEC East race.

Why this ranking could be too high: It's Vanderbilt. Also, this year's SEC West draw includes a trip to College Station.
UCLA Bruins
2012 record: 8-5
The Bruins followed five consecutive wins with three consecutive losses, but that shouldn't dampen the enthusiasm heading into coach Jim Mora's second season in Westwood. Tailback Johnathan Franklin is gone, but quarterback Brett Hundley returns to lead a dynamic offense schemed up by coordinator Noel Mazzone. The Bruins return four offensive linemen and all three starting linebackers. The defending Pac-12 South champs look like the best team in the division again.

Why this ranking could be too low: Coach Jim Mora now has gone through a season in the modern college game. He probably noticed issues during the season that he wished he had addressed in the spring. Now, he'll have the chance, and the Bruins could be better for it.

Why this ranking could be too high: If no back emerges to fill Franklin's shoes, Hundley and the offense won't be as effective as last year.
Northern Illinois Huskies
2012 record: 12-2
So Jordan Lynch didn't light up Florida State in the Orange Bowl. That's OK. The Seminoles frustrate a lot of opposing quarterbacks. Lynch and his teammates still bring back enough talent to generate the highest possible amount of MACtion in 2013. Meanwhile, a nonconference schedule that includes visits to Iowa and Purdue is just easy enough to suggest another potential busting of the BCS.

Why this ranking could be too low: If the Huskies beat the Hawkeyes and the Boilermakers, an undefeated season is on the table.

Why this ranking could be too high: MACtion is a cruel mistress. In this league, Hump Day can be Dump Day.
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