It’s that time TSHQ nation. The time where we begin looking at the CFB offseason and what better way to prepare for 2012-2013 than to look at the top 25 teams heading into next season. Some CFB “experts” like to post their top 25 immediately following the national title game, as if that somehow proves something. They come up with some catchy nickname like “The Far Too Early Top 25″ or “The Wow I’m So Smart I Can Predict The Top 25 Before I Know Who is Coming Out Top 25.” That’s cool and all. I’m not impressed. You know what I’d rather do? Wait till I know who is gone from school, what schools pulled in for recruiting classes and then base my judgement on whether a team is top 25 or not by what they are, not what they might be. “Woopdie-doo Bryan, what’s the fun in that? What do you know anyways?” You know what I knew last year? Arkansas was a top 10 team even without Ryan Mallet (placed them 8th). You know who didn’t know that? A LOT of writers didn’t. Being the first to post your top 25 doesn’t mean much if it’s wrong. Now I won’t pretend to be perfect. I had some terrible picks. I had some great picks outside of Arkansas. These things are never flawless. But if I’m going to be wrong, I’ll be wrong with info I can say I relied on instead of the guessing game. But enough self-promotion, there’s enough of that all the time on here….
To make it clear, this top 25 (as all top 25’s should be) is based on the teams I believe are the 25 best in America. I don’t care what their records may be. Season predictions will come in August. If a team is likely to lose 2-3 games in league play, I’m not ranking them lower than a team who may lose only once if I think the 2-3 loss team is better. This will be broken down into 3 parts starting now with the #18-25 teams in College Football heading into 2012. Don’t agree? Let me know why. Want to tell me I’m brilliant? I’ll welcome that too. I had two guys who stood out most noticeably last season in my offseason previews. One guy was an Iowa fan who took exception to my projections for his Hawkeyes who I projected at 4th or 3rd in their division with about 7-8 wins. I hit Iowa on the head last year. The other was a BYU fan who thought at worst they were 10-2 with 11-1 potential. I said 9-3 preseason and then he persuaded me to go with 10-2 come predictions time and well, the Cougars went 9-3. Bastard…
Here you go, my personal, potentially different on purpose, bound to look good and bad at various points top 25 for the 2012-2013 College Football Season…..Teams #18-25:
Writer’s Note: ***Returning starters are based on PhilSteele.com. I’ve scoured the internet for hours and the consensus from many I’ve asked is to use his numbers. If you’re a fan and feel the numbers are wrong, take it up with him. I’ve seen 1000 different numbers for each team.
Five who just missed the cut (in no order): Louisville, Florida, Utah, Texas Tech, Texas A&M
25. Tennessee Volunteers
2011 Record: 5-7 (No Bowl Game)
Returning Starters: 10 offense, 8 defense
Key Games: 9/1 vs NCST (Kickoff Classic), 9/15 vs. Florida, 11/10 vs. Missouri
Synopsis: Last year Tulsa was a team who preseason I liked a lot coming into the season despite their daunting non-conference schedule. In 2012, my “Woah” team of the rankings is none other than the Tennessee Volunteers. Last season the Vols were decimated with injuries and forced to play a lot of inexperienced players at key positions. However 2012 looks to be far more promising for the Vols and coach Derek Dooley who is expected to face strenuous pressure this season to improve the team after two mediocre seasons. The Volunteers bring back 19 of 22 starters and most importantly get stud QB Tyler Bray and stud WR Justin Hunter back in the fold alongside Da’Rick Rodgers, an all-SEC WR performer a year ago. Add in the fact they bring back their entire starting offensive line and the Vols will be not only one of the most experienced teams in the SEC, but the whole country. Despite a putrid offense once the injuries hit, the Vols did have the #28 defense in the country and #11 pass D. That pass defense should be tough once again with the entire secondary returning in 2012. A year ago we saw Vanderbilt take major strides with a team that brought a lot back. Tennessee could be that team this year. As talented as UGA and South Carolina will be, there’s room for 3rd place in the SEC East and I believe it’s Tennessee’s for the taking in 2012. After all, I told you in the intro I’m not afraid to back a team who will lose multiple games. Games at Georgia, at South Carolina and home vs Bama make for 3 likely losses and the Vols may even drop a 4th but I like this Vols team quite a bit entering 2012 and you can put me down now for a Vols win over whoever they play in their bowl game assuming they don’t completely stun the world and make a BCS game or something crazy like that. The recruiting class was solid overall with a ton of talent at the skill positions. The Vols loaded up at WR and DB while also bring in a few DEs. Dooley should save his job and keep Tennessee on the fringe of the top 25 I think if there’s no major injuries.
Update: Da’Rick Rogers has left school and will attend Tennessee Tech.
24. Auburn Tigers
2011 Record: 8-5 (Beat Virginia in Chick-Fil-A Bowl)
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 9 defense
Key Games: 9/1 vs. Clemson (Kickoff Classic), 10/6 vs. Arkansas, 10/24 at Alabama
Synopsis: Auburn in one calendar year goes from the least experienced teams in college football to one of the most experienced with 18 (2 ST) starters returning from the 2011 squad. One of the biggest questions facing Auburn in 2012 is the same one they had all of 2011 and something that plagued numerous teams: Who is their QB? Kiehl Frazier was Gus Malzahn’s pet project as Auburn’s offensive coordinator. A Gatorade National Player of the year in HS, Frazier was being groomed into the next great option QB under Malzahn but now with Malzahn gone to Arkansas St., the question becomes what is the plan for Frazier. Clint Moseley and Barrett Trotter did NOTHING in 2011 to make Frazier worry about beating them out regardless of what offense is run. Along with Malzahn went Michael Dyer, their National Championship hero from two years ago. Onterio McCalebb will remain to handle the backfield duties while a limited passing game will still have the luxury of Philip Lutzenkirchen, the senior TE who it feels like has been there since the Jason Campbell days. Defensively the Tigers return 9 starters to a defense that for the most part in 2011 was poor. Despite playing in a conference with a number of very good to elite defenses, Auburn was gashed repeatedly last season giving up 30+ points 7 times last year and getting absolutely mauled by Alabama, LSU and Georgia. The five juggernaut offenses they held below 30 points? Samford, Mississippi, Florida, South Carolina and Florida Atlantic. The ONE cause for optimism this season for Auburn’s defense is the fact 10 of 11 defensive projected starters will be juniors or seniors. There’s a lot of experience on this defense and frankly it’s hard to imagine they could be much worse than last year. The recruiting class ranked 11th by Rivals put a lot of emphasis on the offensive line and skill positions with four 4-star offensive linemen in the class. End of the day, this team still plays in the loaded SEC West and anything above a 4th place finish again would be very surprising.
Update: Barrett Trotter is not returning to Auburn for his senior year electing to forgo that season.
23. Oklahoma State Cowboys
2011 Record: 12-1 (Beat Stanford in Fiesta Bowl)
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 8 defense
Key Games (Dates and Locations TBD): Oklahoma, Kansas St., TCU
Synopsis: Good news Cowboys fans, I drastically underrated your team last year when I figured the losses of Dana Holgorsen and Kendall Hunter would drop you back from a fringe top ten team to mid-teens. Bad news, I’m of the same belief in 2012. The Cowboys don’t lose a ton from their Fiesta Bowl team. In fact they bring back 8 starters from their defense as well as top cornerback Broderick Brown who some thought might leap to the NFL. Offensively is where the hits come from however. Although there is still some talent left in the cupboard, namely in 2011 all-conference RB Joseph Randle who went for over 1200 yards and 24 TDs on the season, they were decimated elsewhere. Starting with the most obvious is the lethal pass-catch combo of Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon. Weeden graduated and will attempt to start a shortened NFL career while Justin Blackmon wisely departed after two consecutive seasons as the nation’s best WR. It’s not always about how much you lose but who you lose and those two are a classic example of that. Not to be under appreciated are the losses of 3 starting offensive linemen, including Levy Adcock and Grant Garner, each members of the All-Big 12 first team this past season. Mike Gundy is an offensive wizard and has rebounded from big losses before, but he has his work really cut out for him this year. Under the radar WRs Josh Cooper and Hubert Anyiam also are gone meaning the Cowboys will enter the 2012 season down 3 of their top 4 WRs from a year ago. The biggest question in 2012 is who replaces Brandon Weeden at QB. 3 candidates are in the running now but we’ll touch more on them when we get to Oklahoma State later this off season. As everyone knows though, there’s not many defensive battles in the Big 12 so the Cowboys will have to find a guy who can get them in the end zone next fall if they have hopes of trying to defend their Big 12 crown.
22. Michigan State Spartans
2011 Record: 11-3 (Beat Georgia in Outback Bowl)
Returning Starters: 4 offense, 8 defense
Key Games: 9/29 vs. Ohio St, 10/20 at Michigan, 11/3 vs. Nebraska
Synopsis: Ahh Michigan State. One of the few crushes I cheated on Clemson with during the past couple seasons, the Spartans have been a scrappy bunch the past couple years who haven’t overwhelmed teams with talent but had smart, tough football players who delivered when it mattered. Frankly, I could absolutely see me eating my words on this bunch this season despite the losses they will attempt to overcome. Mark D’Antonio has turned Michigan State into a Big Ten contender and he’ll be put to the test again in 2012 to silence his doubters who said he couldn’t repeat the 2011 season they had. The biggest glaring notice right away for the Spartans is the massive overhaul on offense. Much like I mentioned before, the Spartans didn’t have earth-shattering offensive talent and in fact their NCAA ranks wouldn’t lead you to believe they were that great a unit. However Kirk Cousins was a well-groomed senior QB who leaves Michigan State as the school’s all-time leader in wins for a reason and that is because he rarely made mistakes and played to his offense’s strengths. Those strengths included RB Edwin Baker (albeit in a much smaller role last season) and a plethora of WRs and TEs each of whom depart with Cousins this season. The top 4 pass catchers from last season are all gone led by B.J Cunningham. What does this mean for 2012? More Le’Veon Bell. Bell managed to overtake the starting role and carries from Baker last year but still wasn’t able to break 1000 yards on the season. With a passing game that won’t be anywhere as reliable or experienced, it is essential Bell takes on a heavier load this year and becomes a standout back capable of 13-1500 yards. With all that said, the Spartans can rely on one thing that constantly keeps you in games in the Big Ten, defense. A Spartans defense that led the Big Ten last year in rushing defense, total defense, 3rd-down defense, interceptions and sacks returns 8 starters including 9 juniors or seniors and five all-conference performers. The Spartans defense will be stout again in 2012 and will have to carry the team most of the year if they’re going to have any shot of contending in a challenging Leaders division. On top of the offensive losses, one major issue facing Michigan State in 2012 is the schedule. Boise St and Notre Dame make up 2 of their out of conference games and then they have a stretch from September 29th to November 3rd without a bye where they play Ohio St., Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska. That’s tough enough for your average CFB team, let alone one with this many question marks on the offensive side of the ball.
21. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
2011 Record: 8-5 (Lost Citrus Bowl to Florida State)
Returning Starters: 8 offense, 6 defense
Key Games: 9/22 vs. Michigan, 10/27 at Oklahoma, 11/24 at USC
Synopsis: I really want to put Notre Dame behind Michigan St. just on pure preference. I’m not a Notre Dame hater by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I’d say in an average game I’d pull for them, but everyone knows the stigma that comes with the Irish. When will they earn a ranking? Well, they didn’t come close to earning the praise I gave them one preseason ago when I had them in the top 20. As a Tommy Rees backer, he did very little to validate my affection for him when he turned into a 4th quarter Peyton Manning every time he entered the red zone. So why rank them this season? Why keep Notre Dame in the top 25 entering 2012? Brian Kelly’s track record in year 3 is pretty good at his last stops and I like the talent he’ll have at his disposal in 2012. His 3rd year at Central Michigan saw the Chippewas get to 9 wins and a MAC title. His 3rd year at Cincy was a Texas FG from perhaps putting them in the national championship game. Beyond Tommy Rees the Irish also welcome back All-American TE Tyler Eifert who many were surprised to hear returned to school instead of jumping to the pros. Despite the loss of Michael Floyd, the Irish return most of their offensive talent and all will be upperclassmen this year. Call me a fool, but I think the Irish finally play up to their offensive expectations in 2012 and Rees shows why Kelly has so much trust in him. Defensively the Irish aren’t great but like Eifert welcome back LB Manti Te’o who was all but a foregone conclusion to leave for the NFL in most people’s eyes within the program. They’ll have experience back in their front 7 but the secondary is where they’ll see the most questions and concerns this upcoming season. On the recruiting front Notre Dame did what Notre Dame always seems to do which is find itself relatively high in the rankings at #22. The Irish went heavy on the defensive side of the ball but without question the biggest catch and attention-driver behind their recruiting class was QB Gunner Kiel, the highly touted prospect who committed and decommitted from Indiana and LSU causing LSU to question his “chest”. How Kelly handles the incoming freshman will be something to watch in the spring given his early enrollment. Perhaps he gives him a chance to compete for the job or perhaps he redshirts him. The QB position broke ND and my expectations for them in 2011 and there’s a good chance it will determine both again this year. Best case: Rees gets it together and the Irish are a steady Top 25 team with a couple big wins. Worst case: He’s a wreck again and Brian Kelly goes all Masshole on him on the sidelines for another fall. The Irish schedule is brutal this year with games against the usual Michigan, Michigan State, USC, Stanford but this year games against Miami, BYU, Wake Forest again and Oklahoma on the road are tossed in. One way or another, we’ll all be entertained America.
20. Texas Longhorns
2011 Record: 8-5 (Beat California in Holiday Bowl)
Returning Starters: 10 offense, 7 defense
Key Games (Dates and Locations TBD): 10/6 vs. Oklahoma (Dallas, TX), Oklahoma State, TCU
Synopsis: Texas has a very Notre-Dame like feel to them the last couple seasons. This traditional power seems to be slipping a bit nationally with back to back seasons now that nobody who follows this sport closely would consider acceptable given the resources available to the program. Mack Brown has long been one of the most well-compensated coaches in his profession and he has to be feeling the heat at this point. That national championship with Vince Young wasn’t yesterday and the Holiday Bowl won’t cut it after a bowl season at home in 2010. For the Longhorns it is all about the talent they’ve compiled just maturing into the players they were expected to be when they committed to Texas. Last season they had the #3 class in the nation according to Rivals and this year they brought in the #2 class bringing in talent at nearly every position on the field. The transfer of QB Garrett Gilbert means we’re down to 2 in the QB chase for 2012 with David Ash and Case McCoy both vying for that spot. Neither was brilliant when given the chance in 2011 and for that reason it’s reasonable to expect Texas to again rely on their rushing attack which was the strength of the 2011 offense. Malcolm Brown will be back to carry the load and may see pressure from incoming freshman Johnathan Gray, a local product who was the #1 RB in the nation and #5 overall prospect according to Rivals. He’s been touted as one of the best HS talents Texas has ever produced and his combination of speed and vision has some thinking he could be an impact offensive star from day 1. If Texas can get consistent production from the pass game, they could get themselves back into contention status in the Big 12. Defensively, 7 starters return including 3 all-conference performers: defensive linemens Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor and CB Carrington Byndom. The question for the Longhorns defense will be the linebacker core that lost two starting members and played a huge role in helping them turn out a dominant run defense nationally last year. The non-conference schedule is very soft this year so the Longhorns bowl prospects will come down to their Big 12 play as there should be no scenario where they don’t enter league play 3-0.
19. Virginia Tech Hokies
2011 Record: 11-3 (Lost Sugar Bowl to Michigan)
Returning Starters: 3 offense, 9 defense
Key Games (Dates to be Announced): vs. Florida State, at Clemson, vs. Georgia Tech
Synopsis: Go ahead and tell me about the massive loss on offense. Tell me how important David Wilson was. Tell me how Georgia Tech is still a threat. Tell me about Virginia Tech’s weak schedule and how they were beaten in the 3 “tough” games they played. LONG HAIR, DON’T CARE. Virginia Tech lost Tyrod Taylor last season and were coming off a beat down loss to Stanford in the Orange Bowl. They had only 13 total starters back last year as well. They were on the decline according to most. Yet this past season there they were, #5 in America heading into the ACC championship game and they ended up getting a Sugar Bowl bid. Hell, they should have won the game too. They dominated Michigan for 4 quarters, gave up a couple mistakes and then had a questionable TD overturned in OT that eventually led to the loss. Virginia Tech’s run game and WRs don’t concern me much. They replaced Ryan Williams and I’m confident they’ll replace David Wilson as well. Their passing game last season was nothing special and it didn’t matter much. It all comes back to one man: Logan Thomas. Logan Thomas couldn’t be stopped last season except by Clemson (talk about irony). With him back in the fold the Hokies are in decent shape already. The offense doesn’t need to be phenomenal, just respectable given their defense. That’s right, once again Bud Foster has a loaded defense coming back in Blacksburg featuring 9 returning defensive starters and the bulk of the backups as well. Last season this unit ranked 10th in the nation and was nearly as stout against the pass as they were against the run. With a ton of juniors and seniors back in the bunch, this could be one of the best Hokies defenses Foster has had in a few years. If someone is ready to pick against them in the Coastal, be my guest, I’m not betting against Beamer and Foster this year.
18. Stanford Cardinal
2011 Record: 11-2 (Lost Fiesta Bowl to Oklahoma St.)
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 7 defense
Key Games: 9/15 vs. USC, 10/20 at California, 11/17 at Oregon
Synopsis: I wasn’t sure what to make of the Cardinal when Jim Harbaugh left but frankly I thought Andrew Luck made Jim Harbaugh. I guess I was a little off on that. Honestly, I think he made David Shaw too so I’ll be proven wrong on that too before I actually call David Shaw a great coach. The one thing that’s keeping Stanford in my top 25 at all, a team who I didn’t think was much better than a fringe top 10 team last year, is their ground game. Stepfan Taylor returns for his senior season after rushing for over 1300 yards and 10 TDs this past season and the O-Line which was considered one of the best in the country last year returns 3 starters. Now you add in that this Stanford recruiting class is being called by some “the best OL recruiting class ever” (and by ever they mean since these players have been rated) and well, who am I to argue? I don’t follow high school football at all. You tell me a kid is a 5-star OG, I’ll take your word for it and make my own judgments on them once I see the O-Line play. Last year though the line was solid and was part of what made the Stanford offense so tough. You couldn’t afford to drop 7-8 in coverage against Luck’s arm because they’d run down your throat. Defensively is where I want to see if anything changes. Last year, say what you will about Stanford’s 26th ranked defense and 3rd ranked run D. I called bluff on them throughout the season and in their biggest games that defense validated what I suspected. USC scored big on them. Oregon scored big on them. Oklahoma St scored big on them. Heck, Washington and Cal didn’t have bad games against them. The PAC-12 was just a weak league. That’s what it boiled down to. They’ll be strong up front again, but lets see how they do against the best O’s in the league. As for Luck’s replacement, 3 guys, all with 4.0 or higher GPA’s in HS (showing they’re truly following in Luck’s footsteps), will contend for the spot. All are considered tall, strong-armed QBs and like Oklahoma State’s QB situation, we’ll address this race later in the offseason. I’ll be absolutely stunned if Stanford beats out Oregon for the PAC-12 North. They’re a safe bet for 2nd again (possibly 3rd).