The 2012 College Football season has ended, thus we look ahead to 2013. Here is a preliminary Top 20, with all usual caveats about it being way too early to consider such an endeavor. No. 1 is no surprise.
1. Alabama: The Tide are the top seed until deposed. Alabama will see some turnover along both lines, though that will be “Nick Saban turnover.” A.J. McCarron returns. So do a multitude of playmakers and starters from what was a young defense. Roll Tide.
2. Oregon: Chip Kelly did not feel his business was quite finished. This should be a team that can do that. Marcus Mariota comes back, along with most of the offense. Perhaps a full season of awesomeness from DeAnthony Thomas? The question will be whether, unlike 2011 and 2012, they can avoid that hiccup that costs them a shot at the title game.
3. Stanford: The Cardinal have their quarterback in Kevin Hogan. They bring back almost every starter along the offensive line and on defense. That Top 10 recruiting class David Shaw reeled in during the 2012 cycle should creep in and start to make an impact.
4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes return pretty much the entire offense for Braxton Miller’s 2013 Heisman run. They also will have a year’s experience in Urban Meyer’s offense. The question will be their defensive front. There’s substantial turnover there, but also some scary young talent.
5. Oklahoma: Yeah, Bob Stoops has hit a plateau, but it is a high one. The 2012 Sooners team was underwhelming. That underwhelming team went 8-1 in a tough Big 12. Oklahoma should have more offensive line stability. They shed Landry Jones’ malaise. Some rebuilding to do along the defensive front, but if that side of the ball can be decent they should be slight favorites in the Big 12.
6. LSU: It seems like the entire team declared for the NFL Draft. This staff, though, has a proven track record of grooming defensive talent. They have a senior quarterback with a big arm and depth and talent returning on offense. It’s hard to trust the head coach, but it is equally hard to ignore the talent he recruits.
7. Florida: The Gators’ defense should withstand the personnel losses. We’re interested to see more from sophomore tailback Matt Jones. Can Florida develop something resembling a passing game? Or, will Will Muschamp continue throwing offensive coordinators at the problem until he has a down year and gets himself fired?
8. Oklahoma State: Mike Gundy can coach. The Cowboys suffered dramatic personnel attrition on offense in 2011. They went from a 28-year-old senior to freshmen at quarterback. They still finished third nationally in yards per play. This was the best eight-win team in the country and should bounce back in 2013.
9. South Carolina: Connor Shaw returns, as does most of South Carolina’s offensive line. Can Spurrier keep him healthy? The Gamecocks have the biggest game changer in the sport on defense, and one hell of one on offense and special teams presuming Ace Sanders comes back. As usual, they should be potent and perpetual risk to step on their own feet.
10. Texas A&M: Sumlin and Manziel had a magical year. They also inherited a veteran, loaded team. The Aggies lose a lot up front on defense. They have massive turnover at running back and wide receiver. A let down seems like a definite possibility. Much may depend on whether potential first-round tackles Joeckel and Matthews return.
11. Wisconsin: There will be adjustments with Gary Andersen replacing Bret Bielema, though it can be best not to mess with a functional machine. Almost everyone not Montee Ball returns for Wisconsin on offense. The Badgers have a ton of upperclassment up front on defense. They should bounce back strong in 2013.
12. Notre Dame: The Irish lost. It is now safe to discuss their weaknesses. Notre Dame’s offense needs work. They lose Manti Te’o on defense. This team should be competitive, though they can’t expect to ride slim victory margins and every marquee opponent having a down year for a second-straight year.
13. Boise State: We saw the floor under Chris Petersen, with Boise having close to if not the fewest returning starters in college football in 2012. That floor was 11-2 with a bowl win over the Pac 12. The Broncos’ defense should be formidable. We suspect Joe Southwick will build on a strong Las Vegas Bowl performance and get the offense running.
14. Texas: Texas brings back maybe the deepest running back corps in the country, its entire offensive line and almost its entire defense (which can’t be as bad as it was in 2012). Questions linger at quarterback and head coach. They get put here until those questions are resolved.
15. Florida State: This looks like your typical Florida State team under Jimbo Fisher. Ridiculous talent on the defensive line. Zero coherence on offense, which is supposed to be Jimbo’s specialty. This is another “FSU should go 11-0 heading into the Florida game” schedule. What signs have the Seminoles given to expect that?
16. Georgia: This should be a fun team to watch. Georgia finished No. 1 in yards per play offense, and has pretty much that entire side of the ball coming back, most notably Aaron Murray. On defense, though, the Dawgs are losing Jones, Jenkins, Rambo, Ogletree and a lot of depth. That was from a unit that underperformed in 2012. Mark Richt’s team won’t get to float against a soft schedule in 2013, playing three of their first four against Clemson, South Carolina and LSU.
17. TCU: Joining a tougher conference can be rough. So can losing your starting quarterback mid-season. The Horned Frogs will be back to Gary Patterson talent level on defense next year. They will have more experience at quarterback than they had in 2012. They are in that second tier that could step forward to make a run at the Big 12.
18. Clemson: Clemson will be Clemson. They kept Chad Morris and have a ton of receiving talent coming back. They will hope Tajh Boyd will be there to throw to him. The defense remains a work in progress, though they should outscore most opponents.
19. Nebraska: The Cornhuskers will have one of the top Big Ten offenses next season and be limited against good teams if unable to stop the run or reign in the turnovers. The fortunate thing? They dump Ohio State and Wisconsin from the schedule and that won’t be exposed until the bowl game.
20. Michigan: The Wolverines remain about two years away from critical mass with Brady Hoke’s recruits. Michigan will be a very young team next year. That said, those young players are well coached, competed with some very good teams this season and face a schedule that appears much kinder in 2013. Al Borges will also have an entire year to prepare Devin Gardner for quarterback duty.
[Photos via USA Today Sports]