Our Top 25
TheSignalCaller.com Preseason Top 25
By Jed Drenning
We saw during the Pete Carroll era what can happen when the Trojan Express gets a head of steam built up. That’s not much fun for the rest of the Pac-12, or for the rest of the country for that matter. Lane Kiffin welcomes back most of the moveable parts from last year’s 10-2 team, including senior quarterback Matt Barkley and All-American receiver Robert Woods. With the bowl ban and the worst of the NCAA black cloud now behind them, the men of Troy will be bent on making this a ‘statement year.’
Whether its Zach Mettenberger or Brent Musberger under center in Baton Rouge, the Tigers' QB will play behind a brutish o-line that features four returning starters and he will also enjoy the benefit of battle-tested RBs Spencer Ware and Michael Ford. Sam Montgomery and Barkevius Mingo return to give the Tigers perhaps the best pair of bookends in the nation, and even without the Honey Badger patrolling the backend (tossed from the team for violating school and team rules) LSU might just be stacked enough to make a title run. I had the Tigers here in the 2 spot when our magazine came out in June and - for these reasons and more - I'm keeping them here despite the loss of Mathieu. Getting the Tide at home this year can’t hurt their chances either.
Veterans return at several key spots offensively for Nick Saban’s defending champs – including signal caller A.J. McCarron. Could Alabama actually take a step forward on that side of the ball despite losing 1,600-yard rusher Trent Richardson to the NFL? Finding a suitable replacement for Josh Chapman at the nose in Kirby Smart’s 3-4 defense will be instrumental. In fact it could make or break Bama’s season. A season-opening test against Denard Robinson and the Wolverines will tell us a lot about the Tide’s potential defensively.
4. Florida State
One of Jimbo Fisher’s first orders of business when he succeeded Bobby Bowden was to address a porous FSU defense that finished 94th nationally in points allowed in 2009. Fisher brought in DC Mark Stoops – and a host of big bodied, athletic defenders – and voilà! Just two years later, the Noles bolted to no. 4 in Scoring Defense. This season, nine starters return from that nasty unit. Also back is three-time bowl winner E.J. Manuel at quarterback and one of the ACC’s deepest receiving corps. If o-line maestro Rick Trickett can get his young group to gel, the Seminoles will emerge as a national factor.
After a dalliance with the NFL, Chip Kelly returns to Eugene with a resume that includes 44 wins in four years. Standouts Darron Thomas and LaMichael James are gone, but the Ducks are never short on athletes. At quarterback, promising sophomore Bryan Bennett looks to fend off freshman challenger Marcus Mariota. Explosive senior Kenjon Barner moves into a starting role at RB after rushing for nearly 1,000 yards as a back-up last year and hybrid WR/RB/KR De’Andre Thomas is back after looking as dynamic as any player in the country as a freshman.
6. West Virginia
Believe it. With nine offensive starters returning, including the record-setting aerial trifecta of QB Geno Smith and receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, the sky could indeed be the limit for Dana Holgorsen’s attack as the Mountaineers jump headlong into the Big 12. West Virginia hopes to avoid speed bumps with a new defensive staff that will lean on a veteran unit (seven returning starters) as they implement a new playbook. The transition from one odd-front scheme (the “stack”) to another (the 3-4) shouldn’t be a drastic one. The focus will remain on two key elements: creating pressure and forcing turnovers. With one Co-Defensive Coordinator (Keith Patterson) who ran a Pitt unit last season that ranked no. 3 nationally in sacks and another (Joe DeForest) who was part of an Oklahoma State staff that led the country with 44 takeaways – those goals could be within reach.
A year ago the Sooners crumbled under the pressure of preseason hype. Can a similar meltdown be avoided with Landry Jones returning for his senior season as the most experienced starting quarterback in Oklahoma history? Replacing Ryan Broyles – the NCAA career receptions leader – will be a tall order, but a receiving corps that includes Kenny Stills, Jaz Reynolds and upstart freshman Trey Metoyer gives the Sooners multiple options. Defensively a new sheriff is in town, albeit one with a familiar name. DC Mike Stoops returns to OU and is tasked with replacing All-Big 12 defensive ends Frank Alexander and Ronnell Lewis and tackling machine Travis Lewis. A veteran secondary paced by all-conference cornerback Demontre Hurst will be asked to pick up the slack. The real question: can the Sooners flourish in the face of the roster attrition that has besieged them this summer?
Pop quiz: What do the Bulldogs have that no other SEC East team has? A difference maker at quarterback. Sure, having Aaron Murray back under center gives UGA a decided advantage in the division, but returning nine starters from college football’s 5th ranked defense doesn’t hurt either. If the Bulldogs can plug a few gaps in their o-line, watch out.
9. Michigan State
With QB Kirk Cousins and his merry band of pass catchers gone (including both starters at WR and MSU’s starting TE), the Spartan offense will hit the ground running. Upstart LeVeon Bell and veteran senior Edwin Baker could be formidable enough behind a veteran offensive line to get Sparty into the low-to-mid 20s on the scoreboard each week. That could be all that’s needed as Mark Dantonio welcomes back eight starters defensively, including half a dozen all-conference performers, from the top-ranked unit in the Big Ten.
10. South Carolina
The two biggest letters in Columbia aren’t “S” and “C” – they are “I” and “F.” IF standout RB Marcus Lattimore can return from ACL surgery at full strength and IF he can stay healthy, anything is possible for Steve Spurrier’s crew. Sure the Gamecocks rallied to win 5 of 6 down the stretch without Lattimore, but expecting similar success over the long haul is unrealistic. Lattimore pacing a veteran offense combined with a robust font seven defensively is an image that keeps opposing SEC coaches up at night.
The Wolverines defense took a quantum leap forward, rocketing up from a national ranking of 108 in scoring defense in 2010 to finish 6th last year. Offensively, Fitzgerald Toussaint returns as a 1,000-yard back but it’s still the Denard Robinson show in Ann Arbor. D-Rob enters 2012 needing just 1,252 yards to unseat West Virginia's Pat White as college football's all-time rushing leader among quarterbacks.
The offseason turmoil surrounding the Bobby Petrino firing might have been enough of a factor to knock Arkansas out of the top 10, but John L. Smith was a sensible choice as his replacement. Smith is familiar with the Razorbacks’ staff and more importantly with the personnel and he won’t be bent on fixing something that’s not broken. The real question is: can Arkansas take advantage of getting both Bama and LSU in Fayetteville this year? It helps that quarterback Tyler Wilson is leaps and bounds more advanced as a passer than any of his SEC West counterparts. Defensive holes notwithstanding, with Wilson pulling the trigger and standout RB Knile Davis returning from injury the Hogs will be a tough out.
The last time Stanford had to replace a no. 1 NFL pick at quarterback was in 1983 following John Elway’s final game season in Palo Alto. The Cardinal stumbled to a 1-10 mark that year. With 13 starters back, it’s safe to assume Head Coach David Shaw and company won’t suffer from a similar tumble in the post-Andrew Luck era, but will a veteran defense and a solid running game be enough to keep them among the Pac 12’s elite?
The reports of the Longhorns’ demise have been greatly exaggerated. Texas could easily have the most formidable rushing attack in the Big 12 and defensively, as usual, the Horns have athletes at all spots. Ends Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor return to anchor a unit that finished no. 11 overall a year ago. With a season’s worth of experience in DC Manny Diaz’ system now under their belts, expect the needle to keep pointing up. There’s no hiding the fact, however, that if Texas hopes to once again push for a league title more production from the quarterback position is a must.
15. Kansas State
In quarterback Collin Klein and linebacker Arthur Brown, the Wildcats return their best player on both sides of the ball. Klein and RB John Hubert made KSU the only team in the Big 12 last year with a pair of 1,000-yard rushers, but the Wildcats were at times an inefficient team offensively. Kansas State converted less than 40% of its 3rd downs (no. 62 nationally). The Wildcats need to improve on those numbers, which will only happen if KSU enhances its passing game. With veteran receivers back in the rotation and senior Travis Tannahill at TE, it’s not unreasonable to ask for Klein’s 57% completion rate to climb into the low 60s. That modest upgrade could go a long way toward solving the Wildcats’ third down issues.
Sure that “70-33 thing” still cuts deep, but one game – no matter how scandalously awful – does not break a program. Exhibit A? In 1996 Florida was lambasted 62-24 by Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl. The Gators rebounded to win the national championship the following season. With eight returning offensive starters - including triggerman Tahj Boyd and All-American WR Sammy Watkins – Clemson will have a puncher’s chance every time it takes the field, but the Tigers will go only as far as new Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables’ unit can take them.
In its Mountain West Conference days, returning a top flight quarterback and all four starters on the d-line might have been enough to secure the Frogs double-digit wins and a likely shot at a league title. The climate has quickly changed at TCU, however, and the requirements for a league crown have changed with it. Signal caller Casey Pachall exceeded all expectations when he replaced 4-year starter Andy Dalton last fall, but now an even greater challenge stands before him and the Frogs as they march into the Big 12. Gary Patterson’s crew isn’t making the journey empty-handed. They’ll bring with them three straight Mountain West titles, a talented stable of running backs and a disruptive defensive line led by explosive pass rusher Stansly Maponga, Jr.
Senior RB Rex Burkhead gives the Huskers a horse to ride, but Taylor Martinez needs to stabilize his game if Nebraska hopes to challenge in the Big Ten. Martinez was hot-and-cold as a passer, hitting just 51% of his 1st down throws (down from 71% in 2010) and leaving the Huskers in far too many 2nd and longs. Moreover, after rushing for a TD in each of the first six games, Martinez failed to reach the endzone down the stretch – going seven straight games without a score. Consistency will be the key for the junior signal caller in 2011.
19. Notre Dame
The biggest offseason story in South Bend has been the quarterback derby. Will it be incumbent Tommy Rees, hot shot recruit Gunner Kiel or even Everett Golson or the versatile Andrew Hendrix? The answer will most likely be found somewhere in the middle. The last time a single quarterback started every game for Brian Kelly in a season was Dan LeFevour at Central Michigan in 2006.
20. Virginia Tech
Frank Beamer’s invisible empire was at it again last season, winning ten games or more (11-3 in fact) for the eighth consecutive year. The Hokies’ 7th ranked scoring defense returns almost entirely intact. Couple that with the return of Logan Thomas under center and an always manageable schedule and it’s easy to figure that Tech will have a legitimate shot at extending its double-digit win streak to nine years.
Talk about an overhaul. In one offseason Bret Bielema has been forced to replace half a dozen assistant coaches, an all-conference quarterback, three starting offensive linemen and five of the Badgers top ten tacklers. Despite all that Wisconsin should remain a factor in the Big Ten’s Leaders Division in large part due to the return of Montee Ball, fresh off a 2011 season that saw him score a Barry Sanders-esque 39 touchdowns.
22. Ohio State
They say Rome wasn’t built in a day. Then again, Rome wasn’t just two years removed from a Sugar Bowl victory. Urban Meyer has returned home to his native Ohio and with him comes a career record (104-23) that even Jim Tressel can’t scoff at. Expect Meyer – a spread offense enthusiast - to get the most out of athletic sophomore QB Braxton Miller. The question is: what does “the most” look like?
Can anyone challenge Charlie Strong’s Cardinals in the Big East this year? Let’s do the math. Cincinnati is rebuilding, USF has to come to Papa John’s, Pitt and Rutgers are undergoing coaching transitions and West Virginia is off to the Big 12. Strong is building toward something, and playing 11 true freshman in 2011 could start to bear fruit for U of L this fall. If sophomore signal caller Teddy Bridgewater can continue to develop, and prove that his 3-interception bowl meltdown was an aberration, Louisville could be in business.
24. Oklahoma State
After winning its first conference title since the bicentennial and coming within a whisker of playing for the national championship, what can Mike Gundy’s crew do for an encore? With QB Brandon Weedon, three-fifths of the offensive line and Biletnikoff winner Justin Blackmon gone, the offensive cupboard isn’t nearly as stuffed as in recent years. After rushing for 24 touchdowns, All-Conference back Joseph Randall returns and will need similar production if the Cowboys hope to be in the Big 12 title mix. More realistically, the mantel in Stillwater will have to at least temporarily be passed to a defense that returns eight starters from a unit that forced an FBS-best 44 turnovers in 2011.
25. Boise State
In 1935 George Selkirk replaced Babe Ruth in right field for the New York Yankees, marking the end of an era in the Bronx. Boise State quarterback Joe Southwick is about to know that feeling. For the first time since 2007 the Broncos won’t have Kellen Moore under center. Why the big deal? Because in four years at Boise, Moore tossed 142 touchdowns and posted a record of 50-3. No Top 25 team got hit harder by graduation than Boise, but if anyone can pick up the pieces its head coach Chris Peterson.