John Clay's pre-season top 25 college football teams

August 29, 2012 

1. Alabama

With a near-pathological drive to win championships, Coach Nick Saban has assembled such a stockpile of usable talent that it would be foolish to say the Crimson Tide couldn't win back-to-back titles.

2. Southern Cal

On the one hand, Lane Kiffin is an immature brat. On the other hand, he might coach the most talented team in all of college football. He also has Matt Barkley as his quarterback.

3. LSU

Was all ready to place the pre-season crown atop Les Miles' head until Tyrann Mathieu was booted out of Baton Rouge. Replacing Mathieu will be tough, but the key will be the development of quarterback Zach Mettenberger.

4. Oklahoma

The return of quarterback Landry Jones was huge, but the return of Mike Stoops as defensive coordinator might be the shot in the arm the Sooners need to get back in the BCS title game.

5. Florida State

The Seminoles' improved recruiting should start to pay dividends this year, especially if quarterback EJ Manuel can play well enough to help out Florida State's stellar defense.

6. Oregon

The Ducks will try to fly away from an off-season that included an NCAA investigation and the near-escape of head coach Chip Kelly, who almost departed for the NFL. Kelly must find a quarterback to replace Darron Thomas.

7. Texas

This ranking might be a bit high early on for the Longhorns, but Mack Brown has 16 starters returning. And if he can decide correctly between Case McCoy and David Ash at quarterback, Texas should return to prominence.

8. Michigan

Head coach Brady Hoke is zeroed in on winning the Big Ten title, but the truth is that with a break here or there, the Wolverines could be in the national title hunt. Quarterback Denard Robinson needs running back Fitz Toussaint to overcome his off-season suspension.

9. Georgia

The Bulldogs lost top running back Isaiah Crowell, but quarterback Aaron Murray returns for his junior year. Jarvis Jones leads an improving Georgia defense. Georgia should win the SEC East.

10. West Virginia

It's the second year for high-flying coach Dana Holgorsen, who played for Hal Mumme. Better still, quarterback Geno Smith returns for his second year in the system, and the Mountaineers join the Big 12.

11. Wisconsin

Ultra-productive running back Montee Ball was attacked and beaten outside a bar in Madison over the summer. Provided he has recovered, the only thing that might hold the Badgers back is breaking in a new quarterback.

12. Arkansas

The Razorbacks were rocked by the sudden fall of head coach Bobby Petrino, but interim replacement John L. Smith knows the talent, led by quarterback Tyler Wilson. The return of running back Knile Davis from knee surgery is an important piece of the puzzle.

13. Oklahoma State

The Cowboys must replace the 1-2 punch of quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon. Coach Mike Gundy has an offensive system in place that is basically plug-and-play, however.

14. South Carolina

As much as Steve Spurrier loves to throw the football, the key for the Gamecocks will be the health of running back Marcus Lattimore, who is coming off knee surgery.

15. Clemson

The Tigers have top-10 talent, but Dabo Swinney has to improve a defense that allowed nearly 30 points a game last season. Former Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables is the new man in charge of the defense.

16. Nebraska

Running back Rex Burkhead rushed for 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns last year as a junior. He is the son of former Clark County and Eastern Kentucky University star Rick Burkhead. He's also a key reason Nebraska could win the Big Ten.

17. Stanford

Hard to imagine that the Cardinal could lose a quarterback as talented and celebrated as Andrew Luck and still be a force, but Stanford has enough talent to contend in the Pac-12. Playing Southern Cal the third week of the season will be tough, however.

18. Michigan State

Eight starters return for a Michigan State defense that is expected to carry the Spartans. Meanwhile, MSU must find a quarterback to replace Kirk Cousins.

19. Virginia Tech

There's a lot riding on quarterback Logan Thomas, who threw for 25 touchdowns and completed 61.4 percent of his passes a year ago. VT should be strong again on defense and in special teams.

20. Florida

Will Muschamp struggled through a mediocre first season, but the addition of new offensive coordinator Brent Pease, who once held the same job at Kentucky, should work in Florida's favor. Pease's biggest task will be finding a quarterback.

21. Auburn

The Tigers are two years removed from winning the national title, but Gene Chizik's most important move was hiring Brian VanGorder to run his defense. The Tigers are another team trying to decide on a quarterback.

22. Boise State

The Broncos return just two offensive starters, which is clearly a cause for concern. Chris Petersen's team will be young, but should still be the class of the Mountain West.

23. Kansas State

Returning quarterback Collin Klein leads a Bill Snyder team that figures to be in the hunt of what could be a packed Big 12. The defense, middle-of-the-pack last year in the league, must improve for the Wildcats to make a leap.

24. TCU

After years of probably being the best non-BCS team, the Horned Frogs will be playing their first year in the Big 12. Casey Pachall is back at quarterback, which should help. In a surprise, some are questioning TCU's defense, however.

25. Notre Dame

The Irish's schedule is a nightmare, but Brian Kelly should have enough pieces in place by this time for his program to take a step forward. The team's best player is senior linebacker Manti Te'o.

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