Below is my very, very early look at next fall's Top 25, subject to extreme change. This has nothing to do with the schedule they face; it is simply based on perceived quality. And if I did this again tomorrow, about two-thirds of this list would change. I'm already regretting Rutgers.
1. LSU Tigers. We might want to overreact to how bad the Tigers looked last night, but this team still returns a ridiculous amount of talent for next season: all major running backs, receivers Rueben Randle and Odell Beckham, three starting offensive linemen, defensive ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo, defensive tackles Michael Brockers and Bennie Logan, corners Tyrann Mathieu and (maybe) Morris Claiborne, free safety Eric Reid, punter/MVP Brad Wing. Despite losing Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee, the Tigers aren't going to get worse at the quarterback position either.
2. Alabama Crimson Tide. LSU and Alabama were by far the two best teams in the country this year, and to me, neither loses enough to fall from that perch. Next fall's defending champions will probably end up losing a bit more, however, depending on the final draft declaration decisions of players like Dont'a Hightower, Dre Kirkpatrick, Nico Johnson, and, of course, Trent Richardson. Richardson said he was returning earlier, but we'll see if the title changes his mind at all.
3. USC Trojans. The Trojans were a very, very good team over the season's final few weeks, and despite losing Matt Kalil and Nick Perry to the draft, they return an incredible amount of talent. Matt Barkley will have potentially the best receiver duo in the country (Marqise Lee and Robert Woods) at his disposal, plus the Trojans still return four starting offensive linemen, a ridiculously young linebacking corps, and an exciting secondary (as long as T.J. McDonald comes back).
4. Oregon Ducks. Yes, I know who they lose (La'Michael James, David Paulson, Eddie Pleasant, etc.). I also know who they return: Darron Thomas, De'Anthony Thomas, Josh Huff, three good offensive line starters, a deep defensive line (led by end Dion Jordan and a wealth of tackles), fast linebackers like Michael Clay, and an interesting secondary with corner Terrance Mitchell and safety John Boyett.
5. Florida St. Seminoles. Today's freshmen are tomorrow's sophomores, and while FSU will still be young enough to take a couple of accidental steps backwards, it is impossible to ignore the number of intriguing players they will have: ends Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Wener, quarterback E.J. Manuel, young receivers Rashad Greene, Kenny Shaw, etc., a deep (and still young) offensive line, corners Greg Reid and Xavier Rhodes, etc. The Seminoles become bigger, faster and deeper each year.
6. Georgia Bulldogs. The Dawgs could still lose a couple more players to the draft, but as currently constituted, they are looking very impressive. Quarterback Aaron Murray returns most of his running backs (including Isaiah Crowell) and interesting receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Tavarres King, and both the defensive front seven and secondary could be ferocious with players like linebacker Jarvis Jones and maybe safety Bacarri Rambo returning. Even if they don't, Georgia should be top-10 caliber.
7. Oklahoma Sooners. I really have no idea what to think about Oklahoma at this point, but on paper there is still quite a bit to like. Landry Jones will have another year with (healthy) receivers Kenny Stills and Jaz Reynolds, plus all five starting linemen from the bowl game return. On defense, you still have players like end R.J. Washington, tackles Stacy McGee and Jamarkus McFarland, nickel back Tony Jefferson, corner Demontre Hurst, etc.
8. Arkansas Razorbacks. I am not as confident in the Hogs as some, but none of the below teams deserve the No. 8 ranking either. The Hogs lose quite a bit -- receivers Jarius Wright and Joe Adams, end Jake Bequette, linebackers Jerry Franklin and Jerico Nelson; but Bobby Petrino has built a pretty fast, deep team, and quarterback Tyler Wilson will still have backs like Knile Davis and Dennis Johnson and receivers Cobi Hamilton and Marquel Wade (and tight end Chris Gragg) at his disposal.
9. Michigan Wolverines. A good number of this year's stars return -- Denard Robinson, Fitzgerald Toussaint, Jake Ryan, Craig Roh, Jordan Kovacs -- but I'm getting queasy giving them a single-digit ranking. We'll see.
10. Texas Longhorns. This is how confident I am in the Longhorns' defense. Just about everybody returns from this year's dreadfully young, inconsistent offense, but a defense with ends Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor, tackle Calvin Howell and linebacker Jordan Hicks and corners Quandre Diggs and Carrington Byndom gets them into the top ten.
11. West Virginia Mountaineers. If Tavon Austin returns, the WVU offense could be otherworldly. (It will be very good regardless.) But that defense scares me. It looks like they will lose longtime defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel, and every Mountaineer defenseman you can name -- Julian Miller, Bruce Irvin, Najee Goode -- is out of eligibility.
12. TCU Horned Frogs. Remember them? The Horned Frogs regained their old form late in the season, and despite losing Tank Carder and three defensive backs, they should begin to reassert themselves as a top-10 program (or close to it) next year. If the offensive line gels, this could be one of Gary Patterson's better offenses, too.
13. South Carolina Gamecocks. Here's where I run out of teams in which I have confidence. South Carolina must replace Alshon Jeffery, Melvin Ingram, Antonio Allen, Stephen Gilmore, and a couple of good offensive linemen, and there might be more draft declarations to come. But with Marcus Lattimore's return and quite a bit of freaky athleticism left in the front seven, I'll drop the 'Cocks in at 13.
14. Ohio St. Buckeyes. With no bowl game in their immediate future, Next Year's USC should be excellent on defense, but to end up in the top 15, Urban Meyer will have to figure out how to create something infinitely more consistent out of Braxton Miller and the offense.
15. Boise St. Broncos. How much respect do I have for Boise State? They are losing virtually every Bronco I can name, on both sides of the ball, but I just assume they won't take a huge step backwards. Expect a season not unlike TCU had in 2011, where the Broncos are mediocre in September, solid in October, and excellent in November, when the new pieces have gelled.
16. Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Everybody's favorite unstable team should be really fun on defense (linebackers Manti Te'o, Prince Shembo and Dan Fox return), but there are certainly losses (Michael Floyd, two solid offensive linemen, Darius Fleming, Gary Gray) for which to account.
17. Wisconsin Badgers. Russell Wilson is gone, as are Nick Toon, three interesting offensive linemen, and a few of the only quality pieces on a shaky defense (end Louis Nzegwu, to name one). But with Montee Ball, Jared Abbrederis, Chris Borland and a strong identity, the Badgers could still make a run at a division title.
18. Clemson Tigers. Oh, that defense. Andre Ellington is returning alongside quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins, so Clemson should absolutely be a top-25 team because of the offense alone, but to say the least, they have a lot to prove on the defensive side of the ball. ESPN's Matt Millen and Robert Smith both named the Tigers a top-five team for 2012, and ... yeah. Can't agree with that.
19. Missouri Tigers. Quarterback James Franklin, running back Kendial Lawrence (assuming no miraculous recovery from Henry Josey), receiver T.J. Moe, defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, cornerback E.J. Gaines and linebackers Zaviar Gooden and Andrew Wilson are all high-caliber, and Missouri could be wonderfully experienced after this year's youth and injuries.
20. Michigan St. Spartans. I'm all in on a defense that includes William Gholston, Denicos Allen, Max Bullough and a quality secondary. But it is difficult to overlook the losses on offense: quarterback Kirk Cousins, receivers Keshawn Martin and B.J. Cunningham, and disappointing running back Edwin Baker. Good luck with your 40 carries per game, Le'Veon Bell.
21. Stanford Cardinal. Both Jim Harbaugh and current
head coach Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football David Shaw have worked hard to establish an identity that goes beyond all-world quarterback Andrew Luck. In 2012, we'll find out how well they've done. I'm not going to predict a top-10 team by any means, but I'm confident the Cardinal will avoid outright collapse.
22. Rutgers Scarlet Knights. I was really, really impressed with Rutgers' defense this year, and if -- if -- linebacker Khaseem Greene returns to 100 percent following a gruesome ankle injury in the Pinstripe Bowl, next year's could be just as good. The offense loses receiver Mohamed Sanu, but he was a crutch; receivers like Tim Wright and Brandon Coleman and running back Jawan Jamison have decent potential. Don't make me look stupid, Rutgers!
23. Florida Gators. My logic for Florida: yes, they lose quarterback John Brantley and running backs Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps. But the offense can't, just can't, be any worse than it was this year. Call it faith, foolishness, or both. But if the offense remains at least mediocre, the defense could be outstanding.
24. Kansas St. Wildcats. This is a pure respect pick for quarterback Collin Klein and linebacker Arthur Brown. The offensive line loses three starters, the defensive front seven loses some quality (end Jordan Voelker, tackles Ray Kibble and Raphael Guidry, linebacker Emmanuel Lamur), and David Garrett (who, at times in his career, was KSU's best linebacker, cornerback and safety) is out of eligibility. But Kliein, Brown and corner Nigel Malone return, and for now, that's enough. Though I'm already regretting not going with Oklahoma State (whose trajectory I love despite an inevitable, and lengthy, step backwards in 2012) instead. Let's just move on.
Louisville Virginia Tech Texas A&M Nebraska Oklahoma State Georgia Tech Louisiana Tech Bulldogs. You're supposed to get a little wacky with your final pick (like Millen and Smith with Clemson), right? I like Louisville, I think Virginia Tech should always be in the Top 25, I think Kevin Sumlin has more to work with in College Station than we probably think, and Nebraska, Oklahoma State and Georgia Tech should certainly be considered here as well. But if we're going for an off-the-wall pick, consider that virtually every interesting piece from an underrated Louisiana Tech squad -- one that went 12 rounds with an improved TCU squad in their bowl game -- returns, including a coaching staff that wasn't picked apart by the big boys (yet). Tech returns quarterback Colby Cameron, receiver Quinton Patton, four starting offensive linemen, underrated defensive tackles Justin Ellis and Shakeil Lucas, and most of their secondary. They should be one of the country's best mid-major squads, so they get the Courtesy No. 25 here.