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Alabama, USC, LSU headline SI 2012 Preseason Top 25

SI's 2012 Preseason Top 25
Alabama returns just four defensive starters from its 2011 championship team; LSU dismissed Heisman finalist Tyrann Mathieu last week. No matter: Last season's BCS championship participants rank first and third, respectively, in Sports Illustrated's preseason Top 25. In total, our ranking features six teams from the SEC, five each from the Big 12, Big Ten and ACC, three from the Pac-12 and one from the non-AQ ranks.

Below you'll find our Top 25 order, plus an excerpt from each team's scouting report and a link to the full team preview. For more season primer coverage, visit our preseason content archive.
 
1
Alabama Crimson Tide
By Lars Anderson
Alabama could become just the second school in more than six decades to win three national titles in four years (the other: Nebraska, in 1994, '95 and '97). The strength of the Tide will be its offensive line, which features three potential first-round NFL draft picks: center Barrett Jones, left tackle D.J. Fluker and left guard Chance Warmack. This talented front wall will be ripping open holes for junior tailback Eddie Lacy, who as a backup for the last two seasons has rushed for 1,080 yards and 13 TDs on 151 carries. "Eddie is a proven player to all of us," said quarterback AJ McCarron. "It's exciting to think about what he'll be able to do with more touches and being more involved in the offense."
Alabama team preview continued
 
2
USC Trojans
By Andrew Lawrence
Much of what made last year's USC team successful remains unchanged. Quarterback Matt Barkley, who bypassed going to the NFL because, he said, USC "has some unfinished business to attend to," is under center for the fourth straight season and is a Heisman Trophy favorite. Behind him in the backfield are two 1,000-yard running backs (senior Curtis McNeal and Penn State transfer Silas Redd), and to Barkley's left and right are a pair of 1,000-yard receivers (junior Robert Woods and sophomore Marqise Lee). On the other side of the ball, senior All-America safety T.J. McDonald -- another Trojan who delayed going to the pros -- is among six lettermen returning to the defense.
USC team preview continued
 
3
LSU Tigers
By Lars Anderson
Though LSU lost 10 starters from a team that held the nation's No. 1 ranking for most of last season and tied a school record with 13 wins, the 2012 Tigers are loaded with former four-and five-star recruits -- a testament to Miles's ability to entice elite high school players to Baton Rouge. The offense will feature quarterback Zach Mettenberger, the best passer Miles has had, as well as heavy doses of barreling running back Spencer Ware, who will be operating behind one of the SEC's most skillful offensive lines.
LSU team preview continued
 
4
Oregon Ducks
By George Schroeder
Oregon has much of its nucleus from 2011 intact. The defense, the strength of which is a veteran linebacking corps, could be the most effective that the Ducks have fielded in recent years. Though the exciting Darron Thomas and LaMichael James are gone, the offense features an experienced line anchored by redshirt sophomore center Hroniss Grasu as well as playmakers in running backs Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas (who will also continue to play receiver).
Oregon team preview continued
 
5
Oklahoma Sooners
By Stewart Mandel
Despite a slew of injuries on the offensive line, Oklahoma's strong suit will likely remain its familiar up-tempo attack, led by four-year starting quarterback Landry Jones. "One thing about Oklahoma, we're going to be able to score points," said Mike Stoops. "That should take some pressure off the defense."
Oklahoma team preview continued
 
6
Wisconsin Badgers
By Chris Mahr
Bret Bielema can afford to be magnanimous because his roster remains well stocked. Star runner Monteé Ball (a Heisman candidate) is joined in the backfield by James White and Melvin Gordon; the latter dominated the spring game with 159 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries. The main imponderable is at quarterback, where for the second straight year a transfer from the ACC will take the helm. While Danny O'Brien (formerly of Maryland) lacks the explosiveness of predecessor Russell Wilson, he compares favorably with former Badger Scott Tolzien and will keep Wisconsin's play-action attack humming. White thinks the unit won't lose a beat. "Our offense is about being efficient and everyone being on the same page," he said. "I think our younger guys can step up."
Wisconsin team preview continued
 
7
South Carolina Gamecocks
By Andy Staples
After setting a school record for wins, the Gamecocks return enough talent to compete for the SEC title. And a team that can compete for the SEC title can compete for the national title. Defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles said the Gamecocks embrace those expectations, declaring that attitude part of "the New Carolina" concept that he gleaned from former Gamecock Melvin Ingram -- one of the team's cornerstones last season. With defensive ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor terrorizing opposing quarterbacks and tailback Marcus Lattimore returning from a knee injury to lead a zone-read-heavy offense, the team's upside may depend on quarterback Connor Shaw.
South Carolina team preview continued
 
8
Michigan State Spartans
By Mallory Rubin
Mark Dantonio isn't interested in resting on laurels. The Spartans are coming off consecutive 11-win seasons and will enter 2012 as a preseason top 10 team, but their coach isn't satisfied. "None of us can be complacent," Dantonio said. "Last year is the past. We need to move forward." Michigan State will be taking those steps without Kirk Cousins, the winningest quarterback in program history. He'll be replaced by two-year backup Andrew Maxwell, who impressed his coaches and teammates even after spraining his right knee in mid-April.
Michigan State team preview continued
 
9
Georgia Bulldogs
By Lars Anderson
Particularly given the early-season suspensions to safety Bacarri Rambo and linebacker Alec Ogletree, quarterback Aaron Murray holds the key to beginning quickly. One of 15 returning starters, the 6-foot-1, 211-pounder threw for a school-record 35 touchdowns in 2011. He has started 27 games at Georgia, and when he's on, he can pick apart a defense with ruthless efficiency. Last season Georgia finished second in the SEC in passing (244.5 yards per game) and third in total offense (408.5). And he likes the taste of victory. "Since peewee football I've been on teams that basically won every game," he said. Richt loves his quarterback's progress since he arrived in Athens. "Aaron has grown up," the coach said. "He has outstanding fundamentals, he's very prepared and he has great knowledge of our system."
Georgia team preview continued
 
10
West Virginia Mountaineers
By Stephanie Apstein
With the departure after last season of defensive coordinator and 3-3-5 guru Jeff Casteel to reunite with former West Virginia head coach Rich Rodriguez at Arizona, current Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen knew the defense's days were numbered. The hiring of defensive coordinator Joe DeForest, fresh off 11 years with new Big 12 rival Oklahoma State, confirmed it. As Holgorsen (who coached at Texas Tech for eight seasons and at Oklahoma State for one) and DeForest know, West Virginia will face much more high-powered offenses in the Big 12 than it did in the Big East. The coaches decided that a 3-4 scheme would give the Mountaineers the best chance to compete.
West Virginia team preview continued
 
11
Florida State Seminoles
By Cory McCartney
Florida State returns 17 starters, the most of any ACC team, from the group that rebounded from a 2-3 start to win seven of its last eight games last year. That includes a devastating defensive front headlined by ends Brandon Jenkins (eight sacks) and Bjoern Werner (seven sacks) and an offense headlined by quarterback EJ Manuel. The fifth-year senior QB enters the season with the third-highest career pass efficiency rating in league history (146.1), trailing only Seminoles' Heisman winner Chris Weinke (151.1) and ex-Georgia Tech star Joe Hamilton (148.1).
Florida State team preview continued
 
12
Arkansas Razorbacks
By Matt Gagne
This is a team that lost only to Alabama and LSU last season. The offense, led by Heisman hopefuls Tyler Wilson and Knile Davis, is fortified by several players who shone last season, while the defense forced 19 turnovers during Arkansas' final nine games. Two of those came against Kansas State in a 29-16 Cotton Bowl win. In that game -- Paul Haynes' first at Arkansas after leaving Ohio State -- the Razorbacks held the Wildcats to 87 yards rushing. "We have some of the most explosive players in the SEC," linebacker Tenarius Wright said. "We have to take that dynamite and let everyone know we're a great team no matter who's leading us out of the tunnel on Saturdays."
Arkansas team preview continued
 
13
Michigan Wolverines
By Dan Greene
Denard Robinson, the offensive dynamo who accounted for 7,621 total yards and 68 touchdowns over the past two seasons, remains the axis of the Wolverines' attack. But his words seem apt given that he may have found his running mate in the form of 5-foot-10, 195-pound tailback Fitz Toussaint, a shifty runner who down the stretch last season had four games of 120 yards or more. Toussant was temporarily suspended from the team after his July 21 DUI arrest and will now have to compete for the starting role, but, if he returns to form, he could ease the burden on his quarterback. "If we can cut down a bit on Denard's reps at times as far as rushes go," said Hoke, "I think it [will help] him with staying healthy."
Michigan team preview continued
 
14
Clemson Tigers
By Gabriel Baumgaertner
Despite a bit of a tumultuous offseason that included a drug arrest of superstar receiver Sammy Watkins (he will sit out the first two games of 2012) and the academic-induced departure of heralded running back Mike Bellamy, Clemson returns the core of its speedy offense that averaged 441 yards per game in 2011 and recorded the third-most total yards in ACC history. That's not what fans and pundits are worried about. The concern is on defense. That's why the Tigers added Brent Venables, who was already one of the nation's top-paid assistants, to try and sew up a porous 2011 unit that allowed opponents to convert over 40 percent of their third downs and surrendered 14 pass plays of more than 40 yards.
Clemson team preview continued
 
15
Texas Longhorns
By Elizabeth McGarr
The offense had growing pains under new coordinator and play-caller Bryan Harsin -- "Last year was kind of get to know each other," said Mack Brown -- though the backfield, with its 202.6 yards per game, had its best season since 2007, even despite injury woes. Now running backs Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron are healthy, and five-star freshman Johnathan Gray joins them. The run defense, stout under first-year coordinator Manny Diaz last season, is led by All-Big 12 first-teamers Alex Okafor and Kenny Vaccaro and should be even stronger in 2012.
Texas team preview continued
 
16
Kansas State Wildcats
By Gary Gramling
The returning stars from a year ago make this year's team one of the most talented in program history. Collin Klein is a Heisman candidate, and backfield-mate John Hubert is a 1,000-yard threat. Kansas State's receivers are dangerous with the ball, especially sophomore Tyler Lockett, who as a true freshman was a Walter Camp first-team All-America return specialist. There are questions on the offensive line, but between the spring emergence of redshirt freshmen Boston Stiverson and Cody Whitehair, and the arrival of highly regarded JUCO transfer Tavon Rooks, the Wildcats should be able to provide adequate protection for Klein.
Kansas State team preview continued
 
17
Stanford Cardinal
By Stewart Mandel
The most prolific quarterback in school history may be gone, but that doesn't mean Stanford's offense will change. "We're going to run power," said Cardinal running back Stepfan Taylor. "That's what we hang our hat on." While two-time Heisman runner-up and No. 1 draft pick Andrew Luck garnered the lion's share of credit for Stanford's 23-3 record and consecutive BCS bowl berths over the past two seasons, the offense implemented by former coach Jim Harbaugh and his successor, David Shaw, is a physical, run-first attack. The Cardinal ran the ball on 55 percent of its offensive snaps lastseason, and with a loaded backfield this fall, that number could rise.
Stanford team preview continued
 
18
Virginia Tech Hokies
By Dan Greene
There are givens with Virginia Tech, but there are also uncertainties. And it's with the latter -- and particularly Logan Thomas' supporting cast -- where the bulk of the work must be done if Virginia Tech is to win at least 10 games for the ninth consecutive season. Gone from last year's Sugar Bowl team are eight offensive starters, including runningback David Wilson, the 2011 ACC Offensive Player of the Year, and wideouts Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale, the program's two all-time leading pass-catchers. The primary receiving replacements aren't necessarily young -- though speedy Demetri Knowles is a redshirt freshman, D.J. Coles, Marcus Davis, and Dyrell Roberts are all seniors -- but they've yet to be relied upon to the extent that they will be now. The same goes for the offensive line, where returning junior center Andrew Miller will be joined by four first-time starters, headlined by mammoth senior tackles Vinston Painter (6-foot-6, 304 pounds) and Nick Becton (6-6, 328 pounds). "There's some guys there," Frank Beamer said of the line. "We've just gotta get them playing well."
Virginia Tech team preview continued
 
19
Nebraska Cornhuskers
By Zac Ellis
In his fifth year of coaching, Bo Pelini will have a roster of returning players with the necessary pieces to build off, not least of whom is junior quarterback Taylor Martinez, who threw for 13 touchdowns and rushed for nine more in his second season as Nebraska's starter. Martinez ranks fifth in career rushingyards by a Nebraska quarterback but spent much of the offseason tweaking his inconsistent passing game, especially his technique. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck saidthat overall "there's a different confidence level about Taylor." Martinez won't be the team's lone weapon on offense. Tailback Rex Burkhead, who accounted for nearly half the Huskers' ground game in 2011, will reprise his role in the backfield, while junior guard Spencer Long is one of two returning starters on the offensive line. Last year's top wideout, Kenny Bell, will lead a group of receivers that should see more action thanks to Martinez's development.
Nebraska team preview continued
 
20
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
By Cory McCartney
The Jackets return their top three rushers -- quarterback Tevin Washington (987yards, 14 touchdowns), B-back David Sims (698 yards, seven touchdowns) and A-back Orwin Smith (615 yards, 11 touchdowns) -- and a Omoregie Uzzi-led offensive line, which helped them lead the ACC in rushing (316.4 ypg), total offense (458.7ypg) and scoring (34.3 ppg). And while they'll still have to find a replacement at receiver for first-round draft pick Stephen Hill, they have an intriguing candidate in 6-foot-2 sophomore Jeff Greene, who played in 12 games last fall. The more pressing concern is shoring up a defense that faded down the stretch, allowing an average of 30-plus points over its last four games, including an overtime loss in the Sun Bowl to Utah.
Georgia Tech team preview continued
 
21
TCU Horned Frogs
By Dan Greene
If offensive line coach Eddie Williamson can work his usual magic with three first-year starters, doubters will find little to question about a Frogs offense that includes standout quarterback Casey Pachall, speedy All-MWC receiver Josh Boyce and two 700-yard running backs. Such weaponry will be needed to keep pace with the country's highest scoring conference. Said Gary Patterson, "You've gotta learn how to make people kick field goals."
TCU team preview continued
 
22
Ohio State Buckeyes
By Gary Gramling
This is shaping up to be a transitional year. Urban Meyer returns to Columbus (where he was a graduate assistant) with plenty of talent to work with -- on defense, anyway. The Buckeyes arguably have the best line in the nation. Defensive end John Simon, a third-team All-America last year, earned Meyer's highest praise when the coach (invoking his Florida tenure) referred to his defensive leader as "Tebowish." He is joined by junior defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, an absurdly athletic 317-pounder. The secondary, headed by junior safety C.J. Barnett, is deep and experienced, and the linebacking corps, while green, is talented.
Ohio State team preview continued
 
23
Boise State Broncos
By Gabriel Baumgaertner
Chris Petersen has yet to announce a starting quarterback for the Broncos' season opener against AP No. 11 Michigan State, Boise State's fourth consecutive season opener against a ranked foe (and third on the road). The most experienced candidate is redshirt junior Joe Southwick, who has appeared in 16 games in his Boise State career and has thrown for two touchdowns. Southwick will have to fend off redshirt sophomore Grant Hedrick and true freshman Nick Patti. "I think we have four good quarterbacks," Petersen said. "You just need to see where they are physically and where they are knowledge-wise. They're all talented; we just need to push the envelope and get these guys ready for what we want to do."
Boise State team preview continued
 
24
Auburn Tigers
By Lars Anderson
The key to the season will be how quickly sophomore quarterback Kiehl Frazier can develop into a top-tier SEC starter. Playing primarily out of the Wildcat last season, Frazier carried the ball 76 times for 327 yards while completing five of 12 passes for 34 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. Gene Chizik hasn't officially named Frazier the starter -- junior Clint Moseley will also vie for snaps with the first unit -- but all signs point to Frazier commandeering the job. He possesses elite physical skills: He can throw the ball 75 yards and run the 40-yard dash in 4.65 seconds. This spring Frazier showed improved accuracy, and several of his veteran teammates will look you in the eye and say he has a little Cam Newton in him.
Auburn team preview continued
 
25
NC State Wolfpack
By Dan Greene
For the Wolfpack, the lineup is heavy on experience. In addition to the secondary, the defensive line returns upperclassmen and part-time starters Brian Slay (three sacks in 2011) and Darryl Cato-Bishop (five) at defensive end, alongwith sophomore Art Norman, whose breakout freshman season featured a team-best seven sacks and 30 quarterback pressures. The offense brings back the deepest and most experienced line of O'Brien's six-year tenure to block for last season's leading rusher, senior James Washington (897 yards, 4.0 yards per carry), and junior Mustafa Greene, the program's top rusher from 2010 (597 yards, 4.5 per carry) who missed last season with an injured foot. Leading the attack will be senior Mike Glennon, a 6-foot-6 slinger who shook off the constant Russell Wilson comparisons to throw 31 touchdowns last season -- tied for second-most in NC State history -- while competing 62.5 percent of his passes.
NC State team preview continued
 

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