Preseason Top 25
If you're a serious college football fan, you already know the significance of the date Nov. 3. That's the night the defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide invades Tiger Stadium.
It could also very well decide another national championship.
For LSU fans still smarting over last year's humbling 21-0 loss to Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game, the season can't start soon enough. After seeing such a great season end on such a sour note, Tiger fans are longing for a happier ending this year. The feeling here is they will get their wish.
1. LSU (13-1) — I'm not ready to canonize first-year starter Zack Mettenberger just yet, but he should at least upgrade the Tigers' quarterback play.
Just about everything else is in place, including a softer non-conference schedule.
If the Tigers can get by Alabama (which is definitely no given), they should be back in the national championship game.
2. USC (10-2) — Unlike LSU, the Trojans have no questions at quarterback due to the presence of Heisman favorite Matt Barkley. Robert Woods and Marquise Lee provide Barkley with two prolific targets. In all, nine offensive starters are back from a unit which averaged 35.8 points per game last season.
Boasting arguably the best linebacker corps in college football, the Trojans have talent on the defensive side, too.
In order to end the SEC's six-year stronghold on the national championship, however, the Trojans must improve against the pass after ranking 102nd last season.
3. Alabama (12-1) — Even a Nick Saban-coached defense can expect to have some dropoff after losing seven starters.
Efficient but effective quarterback A.J. McCarron is a proven winner. The receivers are inexperienced, but the Crimson Tide will be able to run the ball on anybody (with the possible exception of LSU).
Reigning Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones is among four starters returning to anchor the best offensive line in the country.
Freshman kicker Adam Griffith was brought in to solve the Tide's most glaring weakness —long-range field goals.
4. Florida State (9-4) — Injuries and struggles on the offensive line were the main culprits as the Seminoles regressed in year two under coach Jimbo Fisher.
An improved offensive line, the continued growth of Quarterback E.J. Manuel and a dominant defense point to a big year for the Seminoles.
5. Oregon (12-2) — Quarterback Darron Thomas' surprise decision to enter the draft early left some questions as to who will be running the Ducks' prolific offense. Regardless of whether it's Bryan Bennett, Marcus Mariotta or a combination of the two, Scoregon will likely continue to flourish.
As usual, the Ducks will encounter problems stopping the elite teams. Like USC, for instance.
6. Oklahoma (10-3) — Last year's preseason No. 1 pick won its first six games, before closing out the regular season 3-3, including an embarrassing 44-10 meltdown at Oklahoma State in the season finale.
Four incumbent offensive linemen will make quarterback Landry Jones' task of bouncing back from a disappointing finish easier.
The biggest offseason news in Norman was the return of defensive coordinator Mike Stoops (the brother of head coach Bob Stoops). Mike inherits a defense which grew soft during his four-year absence as Arizona's head coach.
7. South Carolina (11-2) — Running back Marcus Lattimore returns from a mid-season injury and Connor Shaw is the most talented QB that Steve Spurrier has had during his tenure in Columbia.
Meanwhile, the Gamecocks have quietly built an upper-echelon defense.
8. Michigan (11-2) — Brady Hoke worked magic in his first year in Ann Arbor, but depth issues on defense and a Sept. 1 season-opening matchup vs. Alabama will make duplicating last year's 11-win campaign a challenge.
On the other hand, quarterback Denard Robinson and an explosive offense might be enough to help the Wolverines reclaim the Big 10 title.
9. Georgia (10-4) — The Bulldogs' possess the nastiest defensive unit in the SEC West and a friendly league schedule which excludes Alabama, Arkansas and LSU.
Offensively, the Bulldogs are counting on incoming freshman Keith Marshall to fill the void left following the dismissal of Isaiah Crowell, last year's leading rusher.
If Georgia can get past an Oct. 6 road trip to South Carolina, a return to the SEC championship game is likely.
10. Wisconsin (11-3) — For the second straight year, the Badgers will have a transfer behind center. If Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien works out half as well as N.C. State transfer Russell Wilson did last year, a third straight Big 10 title could be within reach.
Wisconsin must replace three starters up front, but Heisman Trophy candidate Montee Ball (1,932 yards, 39 TDs) will make the young group's transition easier.
11. Arkansas (11-2) — Prior to former coach Bobby Petrino's infamous motorcycle ride, the Razorbacks were a consensus top five team.
Interim coach John L. Smith's financial problems have created another distraction.
There are fewer problems on the field, particularly offensively, thanks to the playmaking prowess of running back Knile Davis and quarterback Tyler Wilson. On the other side of the ball, the Hogs are looking for improvement from a unit which ranked ninth in the SEC in total defense.
Arkansas plays eight home games, including dates with Alabama (Sept. 15) and LSU (Nov. 23) in Fayetteville.
12. Ohio State (6-7) — With the arrival of Urban Meyer, plus nine holdover defensive starters, look for the Buckeyes to right the ship quickly after a rare losing season. Ohio State's passing attack ranked an abysmal 115th nationally last season, but that is certain to change under Meyer.
Ohio State, however, will have to wait another year to go bowling because of sanctions from the Jim Tressel reign.
13. Texas (8-5) — One of the quarterbacks, David Ash or Case McCoy, needs to distinguish himself.
Both ends (Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor) and corners (Quandre Diggs and Carrington Byndum) return from a defense that ranked 11th in total yards allowed in 2011.
14. Michigan State (11-3) — A punishing ground game, a veteran offensive line and a tough defense should have the Spartans in the hunt for the Big 10 title.
15. West Virginia (10-3) — It's common knowledge that the Mountaineers can score (ask Clemson). Wide receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey will make the transition to the Big 12 smoother.
16. Oklahoma State (12-1) — Running back Joseph Randle is the face of the offense following the losses of QB Brandon Weeden and WR Justin Blackmon. True freshman Wes Lunt is being thrown into the fire behind center.
Eight starters return on defense, but the unit needs to improve after ranking 107th nationally last season.
Last year's plus-21 turnover margin — tops in the nation — will be difficult to duplicate.
17. Clemson (10-4) — Quarterback Tajh Boyd, running back Andre Ellington and wide receiver Sammy Watkins are proven playmakers, but a 70-33 Orange Bowl shellacking at the hands of West Virginia exposed the defending ACC champs' defensive shortcomings.
18. Virginia Tech (11-3) — Only three offensive starters return. The good news is that nine starters are back on defense, quarterback Logan Thomas returns to direct the offense and the Hokies' special teams are always among the nation's best. Besides, Frank Beamer tends to squeeze the maximum number of wins out of his teams.
19. TCU (11-2) — A 50-48 season-opening loss to Baylor and a 40-33 overtime loss to SMU were all that stood between the Horned Frogs and an undefeated season in 2011.
TCU enters the Big 12 armed with eight returning starters, including QB Casey Rachall, from an offense that averaged 40.9 points per game last season.
20. Nebraska (9-4) — Following a 7-1 start, the Cornhuskers limped to a 2-3 finish. Taylor Martinez emerged as a one of the Big 10's top passers last season, though the Huskers were physically overmatched by the likes of Wisconsin and Michigan.
21.Kansas State (10-3) — Quarterback Collin Klein is a difference-maker and Wildcats don't beat themselves — they were 8-1 in games decided by seven points or less last fall. K-State's ball control style continues to frustrate foes in the wide open Big 12.
22. Auburn (8-5) — Coming off of a rebuilding season, the Tigers welcome back 16 returning starters, although new coordinators are in place on both sides of the ball. Look for QB Kiehl Frazier to be given more opportunities to throw this season. Defensively, the Tigers ranked an uncharacteristic 11th in the SEC last year, but a more mature unit should be better this time around.
23. Boise State (12-1) — If the reloading Broncos can knock off Michigan State in the season opener on Aug. 31 at East Lansing, look out.
24. Stanford (11-2) — I'll resist the temptation for a bad Luck joke, but the Cardinal have too many holes to fill to duplicate last year's run. Besides quarterback — Brett Nottingham and Josh Nunes emerged from a pack of five hopefuls in the spring — Stanford is short on experience at the receivers, both lines and in the secondary.
25. Florida (7-6) — Despite having 17 returning starters, there is a curious shortage of playmakers in Gainesville. Will Muschamp will need at least another year to bring the Gators back to national relevance.