After a brief hiccup for a few years, it looks like it’s back to business as usual for the mighty Trojans program. Depth might be a bit of an issue after a few years of sanctions, but from one to 22, this will be among the most talented and athletic teams in America. The difference will be in the experience. Getting left tackle Matt Kalil back for one more season would have been nice, but the return of Matt Barkley (pictured) to quarterback the loaded attack makes up for it. Robert Woods and Marqise Lee form the nation’s best 1-2 receiving punch, and the backfield is loaded with options. Defensively, the return of huge-hitting safety T.J. McDonald for his senior year means the starting back seven will remain intact, led by a trio of sophomore linebackers who can flat-out fly. The one concern is a defensive front that has to replace both tackles and loses pass-rushing end Nick Perry.
Preseason Top 10 for 2012
Here is CFN's latest look at the top teams for 2012. -- PETE FIUTAK (@ColFootballNews) Complete rankings: 1-10 | 11-25 | 26-50 | 51-75 | 76-100 | 121-124
Let’s try this again. Florida State was just about everyone’s sleeper team to play for the national title last season, but the offense didn’t do enough in key situations and the D wasn’t special enough in the biggest games. This year, though, it’s time to really and truly be as good as projected thanks to a defense that won’t allow a thing. This could be the best Seminole defense in a decade only two players off the two deep depth chart done; no one will run on this line. Offensively, quarterback EJ Manuel (pictured) has the size and the skill set to go from good to top-ten-overall-draft-pick good, but he could use some help from the receivers. The running game was abysmal last year, but the line gets three starters back and Devonta Freeman is a promising young back to work around. Kicker Dustin Hopkins will be on the Lou Groza short list.
No. 9 Michigan
One more year. It might take one more season for Michigan to truly be back to being Michigan, but everything is on the right track with one of the nation’s top recruiting classes coming in and a great base of talent in place to work around. Quarterback Denard Robinson (pictured) is back for one more season before he becomes an NFL receiver, but he’ll lose target Junior Hemingway and he’ll have to run – especially in the opener against Alabama – behind a line that has to replace center David Molk and right tackle Mark Huyge. The defense, which made tremendous strides last year, should go to another level in the secondary. The linebacker corps, featuring Jake Ryan, is talented and emerging. The line needs help, but there’s plenty of size to make up for the lack of experience.
No. 8 Texas
Enough is enough. The defense that led the Big 12, and finished 11th in the nation despite playing in a conference loaded with top offenses, will be fantastic. It’s deep, talented, and full of next-level playmakers even with tackle Kheeston Randall, MLB Keenan Robinson, and WLB Emmanuel Acho gone. End Jackson Jeffcoat should be in for a huge year, while Quandre Diggs and Carrington Byndom form a good corner tandem for a great secondary. And then there’s the offense. David Ash (pictured at right) is expected to take the starting quarterback job by the horns, but he’ll have to fight to keep it. Malcolm Brown (pictured at left) has the ability and potential to be the program’s best back since Cedric Benson, while the receiving corps of Jaxon Shipley, Marquise Goodwin, and Mike Davis could be the best Texas has had in a decade. The O line that started four underclassmen should be a rock. The biggest loss might be clutch kicker Justin Tucker.
No. 7 Arkansas
The Razorbacks just so happened to be in the toughest division in college football, with the two best teams in college football. Under Bobby Petrino (pictured), though, the talent level is getting to the point where it might be time to knock off an Alabama or LSU and get back to the SEC title game. This could be the team to do it if a few playmaking receivers are found early on to replace Jarius Wright and Joe Adams. Most of the offensive line returns, as does quarterback Tyler Wilson and a slew of running backs. If Knile Davis is healthy and ready to go, the running game could be the SEC’s best. The defense loses a few heart-and-soul types, such as end Jake Bequette and linebackers Jerry Franklin and Jerico Nelson, but just enough key players return to prevent a disaster. Unlike other SEC teams, Arkansas will have the offense to make up for any defensive issues.
No. 6 Oregon
Assuming head coach Chip Kelly (pictured) doesn’t chip out – sorry – and take the money grab of an NFL coaching gig, it’ll be more of the same for one of college football’s new superpowers. LaMichael James is off early to the NFL, but there’s more where he came from with speed to burn in the backfield thanks to the return of Kenjon Barner and the expected expanded role for receiver/runner De’Anthony Thomas. Losing James will still hurt, but the biggest hit is at quarterback where Darron Thomas stunningly chose to take off early for the NFL. Bryan Bennett isn’t going to come in cold, but he has to prove he can run the attack like Thomas did. The secondary will lose some key parts and the linebacking corps has to replace both starters on the outside, but Kelly has proven over the last few years that coming up with fill-ins isn’t a problem. Michael Clay will emerge as a star in the middle after leading the team in tackles, and John Boyett is a terrific free safety who’ll be in the mix for all-star honors.
No. 5 Oklahoma
You’ve heard it all before, and you don’t believe Oklahoma can get through a season without losing at least one game. But if the running back situation can be settled, the offense should be devastating with quarterback Landry Jones (pictured) back for another year and backup Blake “Belldozer” Bell a scoring machine around the goal line. Four starters are back up front, and the young receiving corps should be ready to shine. Defensively, the biggest plus is getting former Oklahoma assistant and Arizona head coach Mike Stoops back as a co-defensive coordinator. Most of the key playmakers are back, including linebacker Tom Wort and defensive tackles Casey Walker and Jamarkus McFarland. Top cover corner Jamell Fleming is done, but the secondary should still be among the Big 12’s best. Can the D put it all together for a full season? If not, the offense will pick up the slack
No. 4 Georgia
It wouldn’t be Georgia without a few early entries into the NFL draft, but tight end Orson Charles is the only big loss. Free safety Bacarri Rambo is coming back. The defending SEC East champs are loaded. Quarterback Aaron Murray (pictured) will have a more mature receiving corps to throw to and a burgeoning star in Isaiah Crowell – if he can stay in one piece – to handle the rushing workload. The O line, which has been a work in progress, has even more retooling to do, but that’s nothing new for coach Mark Richt. The defense should be a next-level killer, losing only one starter – cornerback Brandon Boykin – and with depth to spare. The line should be a brick wall if 2011 superstar junior-college transfer John Jenkins can be the NFL nose tackle he was expected to be right away last season. Jarvis Jones could be the SEC’s best pass rusher from his outside linebacker spot. Both placekicker Blair Walsh and punter Drew Butler are gone after tremendous careers.
No. 3 Alabama
Remember, the Tide had to replace quarterback Greg McElroy, running back Mark Ingram and wide receiver Julio Jones in 2011, so the idea of losing starters – and offensive coordinator Jim McElwain – isn’t all that big a deal for coach Nick Saban and his program. Running back Eddie Lacy is a big playmaker who’s ready for a bigger role. The linebacker corps will need to be redone with Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw gone and C.J. Mosley a question mark at the moment considering the horrible injury he suffered in the BCS Championship Game. On the plus side, Outland Trophy-winning tackle Barrett Jones (pictured) is coming back to join Chance Warmack to anchor the left side of the offensive line to keep BCS championship hero A.J. McCarron clean, and D.J. Fluker is back at right tackle. The young receivers who looked so strong against LSU should play a bigger role.
No. 2 LSU
The Tigers won’t be as good, but that might only bring them back to the pack just a little bit. Rarely does a national title-level team lose its starting quarterback and become better because of it. Jordan Jefferson's problems against Alabama showed just how much the offense needs more of a passing threat under center. Enter Zach Mettenberger, a transfer from Georgia who was the presumed frontrunner for the starting job two years ago before having some off-field issues. He has a phenomenal stable of running backs to hand off to. The offensive line that was so dominant gets enough starters back to be a killer again. The defense will be every bit as nasty with Anthony Johnson and Bennie Logan forming one of the best defensive tackle rotations in America. The linebacker corps loses both starters on the outside, and star defensive back Morris Claiborne is turning pro – Tyrann Mathieu (pictured) isn’t eligible yet to leave – but coach Les Miles has stockpiled enough talent to keep his worries minimal.