ESPN preseason Top 25 - 01

ESPN is rolling out its preseason Top 25; here are teams 25 through 1:

No. 25 Notre Dame

Last summer, the Fighting Irish were riding the momentum of a four-game winning streak into a relatively favorable schedule, talking of BCS expectations along the way. But the 2011 campaign was sandwiched by a pair of two-game losing streaks, with quarterback controversies and turnover issues popping up across the season. Arguably the toughest schedule in the nation awaits the Irish in 2012, and the QB derby remains clouded. Can Notre Dame thrive under the radar this season? Can Notre Dame ever even be considered under the radar? Facing six teams coming off 10-win seasons, the Irish are in an unusual position in 2012, with their season opener in Dublin against Navy -- and without incumbent QB Tommy Rees, who is suspended for the opener. -- Matt Fortuna, ESPN.com Notre Dame blogger

No. 24 Boise State

The most successful, and most acclaimed, senior class in Boise State history is gone. No more Kellen Moore. No more Doug Martin. No more Shea McClellin or Tyrone Crawford or George Iloka or Byron Hout, Tyler Shoemaker, Billy Winn or Chase Baker. There is no question this is the biggest rebuilding job coach Chris Petersen has had, with only seven starters returning on offense and defense. That includes just two off a defense that ranked in the top 20 last season. There are more experienced players returning on offense, but no answers yet about who will replace Moore, the record-setting quarterback who was the heart of this team for so many years. D.J. Harper is set to get the nod at tailback, hoping his various injuries are completely behind him. There are some talented players returning at receiver, from Geraldo Boldewijn to Matt Miller to Mitch Burroughs. And of course, Petersen returns for his seventh season in charge. The last time Boise State lost its starting quarterback and had so few starters returning was in 2004, when the Broncos went 11-1. Petersen would much rather use the term reload than rebuild. Despite all of the losses, they are still the favorite to win the Mountain West in their final year in the league. -- Andrea Adelson, ESPN.com Big East blogger

No. 23 Florida

Will Muschamp's first season in Gainesville did not go well. Florida went winless in October and it took a bowl game victory over Ohio State for the Gators to avoid their first losing season since 1979. Improvement in 2012 depends on new offensive coordinator Brent Pease and new offensive line coach Tim Davis. Pease has plenty of work ahead of him. The Gators don't yet have a quarterback -- Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett continued their battle into camp -- and they're still searching for two or three consistent players to emerge at receiver. Davis already seems to have made a difference with a line that got handled pretty easily last season, especially during losses to Alabama, LSU and Georgia. The defense will keep the Gators in games, but the offense needs to be good enough to win a few. -- Mike DiRocco, GatorNation

No. 22 Oklahoma State

The Cowboys don't have Justin Blackmon and Brandon Weeden anymore, but they do have a system in place under Mike Gundy that has produced equal or greater wins in every season Gundy's been in charge. Last season's 12-win mark will be tough to match, but 18-year-old true freshman Wes Lunt will grab the reins at quarterback and try to do it. He'll have plenty of help in the backfield with 1,200-yard rusher Joseph Randle and rumbler Jeremy Smith. -- David Ubben, ESPN.com Big 12 blogger

No. 21 Nebraska

Taylor Martinez is finally 100 percent healthy, and after an offseason spent on footwork and passing mechanics, the junior quarterback expects much better results in 2011. Not to simplify Nebraska's situation, but in many ways it's all about the quarterback. Martinez's supporting cast is strong, headlined by All-America candidate Rex Burkhead at running back. The Blackshirt defense hopes to replace star power (Lavonte David, Alfonzo Dennard) with greater overall depth, particularly in the secondary. Nebraska fell short of inflated expectations during its first year as a Big Ten member, but Huskers players and coaches should be more comfortable in their second go-round. The Legends Division won't be easy and Nebraska must get past the Michigan schools to have a chance for its first league title since 1999. -- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN.com Big Ten blogger

No. 20 Kansas State

Quarterback Collin Klein and linebacker Arthur Brown are among 17 returning starters from last season's 10-win team that finished second in the Big 12, but Bill Snyder's Wildcats are still picked to finish just sixth in the league this season. The biggest reason? The Wildcats won eight games by less than a touchdown, winning several with fourth-quarter comebacks, despite being outgained in total yardage. Still, this year, it's clear this team will have plenty to prove, even if it's only proving something to everyone outside Manhattan. The Wildcats will get a couple of chances early when they host Miami and travel to Big 12 favorite Oklahoma. -- David Ubben, ESPN.com Big 12 blogger

No. 19 Virginia Tech

The Hokies should once again have one of the top defenses in the country, and they could have one of the nation's top quarterbacks in returning starter Logan Thomas. There are questions about the supporting cast. Of the 11 starters gone from last season's Coastal Division championship team, eight were on offense, including four offensive linemen, a pair of four-year starters at receiver and ACC player of the year David Wilson. There is enough experience returning that the staff is still confident in the offensive line, but there is more potential than experience at running back, where a true starter has yet to emerge. Defensively, the front seven will be the strength, as only two starters have to be replaced, and both were in the secondary. -- Heather Dinich, ESPN.com ACC blogger

No. 18 TCU

TCU might be the new guy on the block, but the Horned Frogs have plenty of experience against Big 12 competition in recent seasons, matching up against and beating teams such as Oklahoma and Baylor. How will they handle the week-to-week schedule? Maybe better than some think. The Horned Frogs are 8-3 against top-25 opponents since 2008, and coach Gary Patterson spent the offseason studying up on the Big 12, watching video of every Big 12 game in the past two seasons on his laptop.
-- David Ubben, ESPN.com Big 12 blogger

No. 17 Texas

After two years of being an also-ran on the national stage and in the Big 12, Texas appears poised to move out of the wings. The Longhorns return eight starters from a defense that was No. 11 nationally last season and have added quality depth at the always-critical defensive tackle position. Defensive lineman Brandon Moore and linebacker Steve Edmond could be breakout stars for Texas. Offensively, Texas is still trying to find the next Colt McCoy. It has become rather clear it is not his brother, Case. The younger McCoy continues to be locked in a quarterback battle with sophomore David Ash. Whoever wins will have the benefit of what appears to be the Big 12's best and deepest backfield with sophomores Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron as well as the nation's top running back recruit in Johnathan Gray.
-- Carter Strickland, HornsNation

No. 16 Clemson

Clemson is one of the most talented teams in the country when it comes to the offensive skill positions, but the overriding storyline heading into this season is how the Tigers will replace three starters each on the offensive and defensive lines. Clemson's offense still should take another step forward in the second season under coordinator Chad Morris, as record-setting receiver Sammy Watkins returns along with quarterback Tajh Boyd and 1,000-yard rusher Andre Ellington. The defense will go through a transition under first-year coordinator Brent Venables and will rely on defensive end Malliciah Goodman to help compensate for the loss of leading pass-rusher Andre Branch. The Tigers have a legitimate chance to defend their ACC title and can put an embarrassing Orange Bowl loss behind them, but they have to improve quickly up front in order to be ready for the season opener against Auburn. -- Heather Dinich, ESPN.com ACC blogger

No. 15 Wisconsin

While Ohio State and Michigan generated the most Big Ten offseason hype, it's Wisconsin that has gone to the past two Rose Bowls. The Badgers have few obstacles in their path toward the Big Ten championship game, with Leaders Division rivals Penn State and Ohio State benched by postseason bans. They also have plenty of returning talent, including 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball at running back, the Big Ten's two leading tacklers in linebackers Chris Borland and Mike Taylor, wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, and, of course, that always-imposing offensive line. Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien will try to follow Russell Wilson's footsteps and go from the ACC to Pasadena in one year. Don't be surprised if Bret Bielema's team makes it three Rose Bowls in a row. -- Brian Bennett, ESPN.com Big Ten blogger

No. 14 Ohio State

The buzz is back at Ohio State after a rare losing season, and not even a postseason ban can put a damper on the beginning of the Urban Meyer era. The Buckeyes won't be eligible for a bowl and can't play for the Big Ten title, but they can still have a heavy influence on the latter as they work with an eye toward the future. Braxton Miller heads into his sophomore campaign already a seasoned starter, and Meyer has big plans for a quarterback who might be the perfect weapon in his spread attack. The Buckeyes might need a few other playmakers to emerge on offense, but that's not a problem defensively, where arguably the best line in the nation will be deployed. -- Austin Ward, BuckeyeNation

No. 13 Stanford

After back-to-back appearances in BCS bowl games, the Cardinal are beginning life anew without quarterback Andrew Luck. The guy under center might be different, but the philosophy and personality of the team shouldn't be. Stanford's identity is a run-first power football team. That won't change as Stepfan Taylor returns after posting back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. The Cardinal also return six of the starting front seven on defense. Plus, linebacker Shayne Skov is back after a knee injury, which should make them that much better because he is widely regarded as one of the top middle linebackers in the country. Luck might be gone, but the Cardinal will continue to do what they do best: grind on offense and punish on defense. -- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN.com Pac-12 blogger

No. 12 Michigan State

After recording 11 wins in each of the past two seasons, Michigan State has its sights set on bigger goals. The Spartans aim for their first outright Big Ten championship and their first Rose Bowl appearance since the 1987 season. Although they lost most of their key skill players on offense, including quarterback Kirk Cousins, they return one of the nation's top defenses. Coordinator Pat Narduzzi leads a unit that returns eight starters, including All-America candidates William Gholston and Johnny Adams and the linebacker tandem of Max Bullough and Denicos Allen. All eyes will be on junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell as he moves into a leading role, although he'll have help from running back Le'Veon Bell. Michigan State faces a challenging schedule, beginning with an Aug. 31 opener against Boise State. -- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN.com Big Ten blogger

No. 11 Arkansas

The offseason bombshell wasn't what anyone wanted or expected at Arkansas, but the Hogs remain as committed as ever to breaking through in the SEC's Western Division and taking their shot at the national title. John L. Smith moves in for Bobby Petrino, who was ousted in April after guiding the Hogs to 21 wins in the past two seasons. The players wanted athletic director Jeff Long to stay within the family in replacing Petrino, and Long obliged. At the skill positions, the Hogs have very few peers. Quarterback Tyler Wilson, running back Knile Davis, receiver Cobi Hamilton and tight end Chris Gragg form the nucleus of what should be an explosive offense. The big question is on defense, where Paul Haynes takes over as coordinator. Can they play at a championship level in the key games, namely when Alabama and LSU come to town? -- Chris Low, ESPN.com SEC blogger

No. 10 South Carolina

The Gamecocks have taken major steps each of the past two seasons, winning 11 games for the first time in school history in 2011 and making their first appearance in the SEC championship game in 2010. The obvious next step would be winning an SEC title, which remains Steve Spurrier's goal. Quarterback Connor Shaw ended last season playing his best football, and the "Head Ball Coach" loves Shaw's work ethic. On defense, the Gamecocks again should boast one of the best and most active front sevens in the league, and sophomore end Jadeveon Clowney is poised to go from talented freshman to one of the premier defensive playmakers in the SEC. The October schedule is brutal, but this is a program that's on the move. -- Chris Low, ESPN.com SEC blogger

No. 9 West Virginia

Dana Holgorsen is back in the Big 12 after a season in which he coached West Virginia to a Big East championship and a BCS bowl win over Clemson. Holgorsen never has been part of a Big 12 champion, but he's come pretty close in nine combined seasons at Texas Tech and Oklahoma State. He has a team capable of nabbing a Big 12 title this season, headlined by Big 12 preseason player of the year Geno Smith at quarterback and receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. -- David Ubben, ESPN.com Big 12 blogger

No. 8 Michigan

Michigan might be a more talented team than last season, but it did itself no favors by scheduling Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State. Oh, and the Wolverines also open the season Sept. 1 against defending national champion Alabama in Arlington, Texas. The Wolverines' offense will go as far as senior quarterback Denard Robinson's arm and fleet feet can take it as he shoots for a second straight double-digit-win season and potentially Pat White's NCAA quarterback rushing record. Defensively, Michigan has its most talented secondary in years with all four starters returning, but has major concerns on the line, where it breaks in three new starters and has a fourth, Craig Roh, changing positions from last season. -- Michael Rothstein, WolverineNation

No. 7 Florida State

Gaudy expectations are nothing new at Florida State, but coach Jimbo Fisher is more than happy to underscore the belief that, yes, this is the year for the Seminoles to recapture past glory. The reason for all of the optimism starts on defense, where FSU returns the bulk of a unit that finished fourth in the nation in total defense last season. Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner form one of the best pass-rushing duos the Seminoles have had in years, while Xavier Rhodes and Lamarcus Joyner are All-America candidates in the secondary. The key to FSU's season, however, might be the offensive line, which was a disaster last season, limiting the running game and forcing QB EJ Manuel to absorb a lot of hits. If the line progresses as expected this season, the Seminoles certainly appear poised to make good on Fisher's promises. -- David Hale, NoleNation

No. 6 Georgia

On paper, Georgia has every reason to believe it has a legitimate shot to contend for the BCS title. The Bulldogs are coming off a 10-4 season and their first SEC East title since 2005, and return nine starters from one of the nation's top defenses. The question is how many of those starters will be available early in the season, and coach Mark Richt isn't saying. Four could face disciplinary suspensions, yet Georgia believes it has enough defensive depth to keep winning until a full complement of players is available. Despite a few lineup questions -- particularly at offensive line and tailback, and in the secondary -- the Bulldogs have a manageable schedule and the star power to potentially continue last season's progress. -- David Ching, DawgNation

No. 5 Oregon

Oregon, the three-time defending Pac-12 champion, welcomes back 14 starters from a team that beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl and finished 12-2 and No. 4 in the nation. Two headliners, however, are gone in running back LaMichael James and quarterback Darron Thomas. Although James, one of the most productive backs in conference history, was often spectacular, experienced backup Kenjon Barner is a proven commodity, and everyone saw at the Rose Bowl what De'Anthony Thomas can do. The more intriguing question is replacing Darron Thomas, with Marcus Mariota surging with a strong spring game in his competition with Bryan Bennett. But it is the Ducks' defense, not their fancy-pants offense, that makes this squad a national title contender. With A-list talent at all three levels, word in Eugene is this could be the program's best unit since the days of "Gang Green." -- Ted Miller, ESPN.com Pac-12 blogger

No. 4 Oklahoma

Oklahoma opened as ESPN's preseason No. 1 last year. Then running back Dominique Whaley broke his ankle, receiver Ryan Broyles tore his knee and the Sooners nosedived in November. But in the offseason, Landry Jones decided to quarterback the Sooners one more year, and coach Bob Stoops brought brother Mike back to resuscitate a defense that ranked outside the top 50 the past two seasons. Optimism has returned to Norman. Jones will operate behind a veteran offensive line and have a pair of talented wideouts to throw to in junior Kenny Stills and freshman Trey Metoyer, the star of the spring. If Whaley comes back healthy to help balance the attack and Mike Stoops cures a secondary guilty of surrendering too many big plays, OU will be a team in the hunt. And a far cry from the one that nosedived. -- Jake Trotter, SoonerNation

No. 3 Alabama

The championship shine already has worn off. Alabama's crystal football trophy was shattered during the offseason, and the metaphor might hold up, as coach Nick Saban must piece together anew a championship contender. The nation's No. 1 defense was raided by the NFL, surrendering six starters. The offense was hurt as well, losing a Heisman Trophy finalist at running back and all four of the team's top pass-catchers. But all is not lost in Tuscaloosa. The Tide return AJ McCarron at quarterback and will have more depth and talent on the offense than in several years. Eddie Lacy is an explosive tailback, and the offensive line is poised to be one of the best in the country. The test will be how a young, gifted defense establishes its own identity. -- Alex Scarborough, TideNation

No. 2 LSU

A team that came so close to having one of the great seasons in the BCS era in 2011 might be more talented this time around. Four defensive starters, including defensive end Sam Montgomery, are projected first-round NFL draft picks. However, Heisman Trophy finalist cornerback Tyrann Mathieu was kicked off the team Friday for violating unspecified school and team rules. Experienced offensive linemen and talented running backs abound. There is, however, a lingering question: After last season's 21-0 BCS title game debacle against Alabama, will this team generate the passing offense to beat an elite defense? For that, an LSU team so full of veteran stars rests its hopes on a player who has never taken a meaningful SEC snap: new starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger, whose powerful right arm delivers perfect passes to receivers and, LSU hopes, a crystal trophy to Baton Rouge. -- Gary Laney, GeauxTigerNation

No. 1 USC

The Trojans return from a two-year bowl ban with a team many people believe is capable of winning the national title. There is a lot of offensive firepower, led by Heisman Trophy-favorite quarterback Matt Barkley, who is joined by pair of 1,000-yard running backs (counting the recent transfer of Silas Redd from Penn State), a pair of 1,000-yard receivers and four starters on the offensive line. The back seven of the defense also returns intact. Depth issues could be a factor due to sanctions-imposed roster limits, but with 19 total returning starters (including kickers), there still is plenty of talent to make a run. USC faces Oregon at home Nov. 3 and could play the Ducks again in the Pac-12 title game Dec. 1. -- Garry Paskwietz, WeAreSC