We are a little late on bringing you our "way too early Top....." but we figured we would wait until all of the kids made their NFL decisions and for National Signing Day to come and go. For the purpose of this article when I refer to "returning starters" I am going to be using Phil Steele's figures that he posted on his website.
South Carolina finished #10 in our final poll of the year so it makes a lot of sense to have them here to start 2012. The Gamecocks exceeded our expectations last season by overcoming the loss of Marcus Lattimore and the demise of Stephen Garcia. They were just a three point loss to Auburn away from playing in the SEC Championship Game for the second straight year. This year the Gamecocks will have to replace a lot of talent (Alshon Jeffrey, Melvin Ingram, Antonio Allen, C.C. Whitlock, Stephon Gilmore) especially on the defensive side of the football. They return 7 starters on offense and 6 on defense. QB Connor Shaw grew into the position once he took over for Garcia but he's still more dangerous with his feet than he is with his arm. If he can improve his passing this season and create more balance for the Gamecocks they could be a very dangerous team. The schedule is not a killer (East Carolina, UAB, Wofford, Kentucky should be freebies) but they do get LSU and Arkansas out of the SEC West.
I did a double-take when I got a couple of ballots in from my voters but here is West Virginia. The Orange Bowl crushing of Dabo Swinney's dreams is still fresh in a lot of minds and maybe it will kick start the Mountaineers next season as they enter the Big 12. The Mountaineers finished 16th in our final poll and they return 8 starters on offense and 6 on defense. In their second year under Dana Holgersen they should be more consistent on offense and Geno Smith could turn out to be a Heisman contender. The big key for the Mountaineers is they have to get more from their ground game and they need their defense to make improvements as they will be playing a lot of high octane offenses.
Florida State was one of the most disappointing teams last year when you think about how hyped they were and how they delivered. They got bit by the injury bug last season, especially on the offensive line. I didn't personally put FSU in my top 10, but my other three voters all had them in their polls. The biggest thing in favor of FSU is that they play in the ACC and it is anybody's for the taking. In the ACC there is no 10,000 pound gorilla like Alabama, LSU, Oregon or Oklahoma that everybody has to look up to. FSU returns 6 starters on offense and 8 on defense. Despite finishing 23rd in our final poll, they definitely have the talent to finish in the Top 10 this season.
Arkansas flirted with being able to play with the big two in the SEC West but came up just short. A pretty good case could be made for the Razorbacks as the #3 team in the country last year and they finished 4th in our final poll. Despite losing a ton of talent at the WR position (Joe Adams, Greg Childs, Jarius Wright) I expect the Razorbacks to reload and might even have a better offense this season with a more experienced Tyler Wilson and a returning Knile Davis. My concern for Arkansas is on the defensive side of the football. They changed Defensive Coordinators but they also lose a bunch of talent (Jake Bequette, Jerico Nelson, Jerry Franklin, Tramain Thomas). Arkansas should be very good next season but I just don't see the defensive making enough improvement to get past Alabama and LSU.
Georgia finished 19th in our final poll and made huge strides from 2010 to 2011. The biggest concern about Georgia coming into this season is their ability (or lack thereof) to win the big game. Georgia beat every team on their schedule that they were supposed to beat but they went 0-4 against teams that finished in our Top 11 (Boise State, LSU, Michigan State, South Carolina). Georgia is banking on Todd Grantham's defense to take another step behind All-American LB Jarvis Jones, potential superstar Alec Ogletree (who missed half the 2011 season with a foot injury) and ball-hawking Safety Bacarri Rambo. Georgia returns nine starters on defense with Brandon Boykin being the biggest loss (as well as CB Sanders Comings missing the first two games with suspension). Georgia returns six starters on offense but has very talented young players. The key to this Georgia team will be how the offensive line comes together.
#5 Oregon Ducks
Oregon losses Darron Thomas, LaMichael James and David Paulson on the offensive side of the football. Those are big losses but under Chip Kelly, Oregon has become an offensive machine. Losing Chip Kelly to the NFL would have been a much bigger loss for this team. Expect Oregon to reload and be just as good this year on offense. Another positive for Oregon is that their schedule opens up very soft and that will allow them to get their feet under them. With a couple of breaks the Ducks could find themselves playing for the National Title again.
Alabama returns just four starters on defense and has to replace their Heisman Trophy contending RB Trent Richardson. If any other team lost this much they wouldn't be this high. But this isn't any other team. It's Alabama, and Nick Saban has built up and earned the benefit of the doubt. Alabama won't be as good next year but they will be good and will get better as the year goes on. Bama opens with Michigan (a team that just barely missed our poll) and then has Arkansas in the third game of the season. Those games are probably the lynch-pin of this season for the Tide. Another interesting storyline will be their new Offensive Coordinator and how quickly he can get them used to whatever changes he brings.
Oklahoma returns 8 startes on offense and 7 on defense and also has QB Landry Jones returning. Besides our number one team in this poll (keep reading you are almost there), Oklahoma was the only other team to receive a first place vote. A key for Oklahoma is to avoid injuries (they are part of the game but OU got killed with injuries last year). Oklahoma made some changes on their defensive staff and they should help the team get better this year. The offense should be explosive and if the defense can keep from getting gashed (like they did against Texas Tech), OU has a very good shot at playing for a title this year.
#2 USC Trojans
Oh Lane Kiffin, we want to hate you but we have to respect what you did last year. The signature win over Oregon still resonates in my mind and it's one of the reasons that many think USC will be a contender this season. USC returns 8 starters on offense and 7 on defense. Losing OT Matt Kalil will hurt and losing some beef up front on defense will also hurt. That being said, with Matt Barkley and his talented receivers you simply can't count the Trojans out.
#1 LSU Tigers
LSU was the team to beat for the majority of last season. They won their division and then they won their conference. After all that, they had to beat a team that they already beat and they just couldn't get up for that game. Tip your hats to Alabama and spread the blame around at LSU because there is enough for everybody. LSU will return 7 offensive starters and even though Rueben Randle is going pro I see no reason why LSU will not be better on offense this year. Zach Mettenberger will take over for Jordan Jefferson and he will give LSU an actual passing threat. The good news for LSU is with Spencer Ware, Michael Ford, Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard in the backfield it generally won't be up to Mettenberger to win games. On defense, LSU is still going to be supremely talented despite returning only five starters. Three out of four Zealots have LSU in the drivers seat going into spring ball.