I’m going to preface this article by completely contradicting the entire basis of writing it, and I feel it’s necessary to warn our readers. I think preseason rankings in college football (and college basketball for that matter) are pointless. That’s right, I said pointless. I suggest you digest that concept for a second, and then I will tell you why I said it.
We haven’t seen any of the teams play in months, and in most cases, we will be seeing a vastly different product on the field from one year to the next, due to the constantly revolving coaching carousel and player departures. Furthermore, these rankings often also serve as a convenient means for pollsters and media to fulfill their incessant need to overhype early season non-conference matchups. I fear that these rankings too frequently revolve around name recognition and propaganda, rather than the projected product that each team will put on the football field.
Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I’m going to go into my hemi-contradiction and offer my personal preseason college football top 15. Why did I say hemi-contradiction? Well, I said that because I plan on establishing my top 15 rankings by actually breaking down each team’s offensive and defensive units and ranking these teams with a blind eye to the names that will be featured on their jerseys.
Offense Grade: A+. Matt Barkley is the odds on favorite to win the Heisman this year, and why wouldn’t he be? He gets to throw to the ball to Robert Woods and Marqise Lee the entire season. Throw in the addition of Penn State defect Silas Redd to a backfield that already featured a solid presence in the form of thousand-yard rusher Curtis McNeal, and you have an offense that can put up points very quickly and very efficiently.
Defense Grade: B+. This unit is talented, but somewhat thin and relatively inexperienced. Devon Kennard’s preseason torn pectoral muscle has made an already shallow defensive line unit even thinner. However, USC‘s defense can count their blessings for having such a talented offensive unit; this should force opposing offenses to become predictable as they try to keep up with the juggernaut that is Barkley and Co.
Odds of being BCS National Champion: 7/2
Offense Grade: A-. The Crimson Tide get last year’s national championship-winning signal caller back in the form of A.J. McCarron, and he will be protected by the best offensive line in college football. It hurts that Cris Carter’s son, promising young wide receiver Duron Carter, is no longer with the team. However, running back Eddie Lacy should help take a good portion of the load off McCarron’s shoulders.
Defense Grade: A. Replacing a handful of key starters from one of the top defenses in college football won’t be an easy task. The new members of this defense will require fans to have a program handy to learn the new names. However, with another elite recruiting class stepping onto campus, don’t expect a huge drop in production this year; Kirby Smart and Nick Saban will have this unit reloaded and ready to roll.
Odds of being BCS National Champion: 9/2
Offense Grade: A-. With the exit of Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee, Zach Mettenberger’s long-awaited debut as LSU’s starting quarterback will finally come to fruition. However, the strength on this side of the ball lies in the legs of Michael Ford, Spencer Ware, and Alfred Blue, an insanely deep and talented running back trio. They should have a very good offensive line to run behind with the return of Hurst and Faulk at the tackle positions.
Defense Grade: A. This unit lost All-American starting corners Morris Claiborne to the NFL draft and Tyrann Mathieu to an apparent synthetic marijuana addiction. Why the A, then? Well, how do you mask a lack of experience at corner? You can start by having the best defensive line in college football. No opposing quarterback will remain calm when they see Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
Odds of being BCS National Champion: 6/1
4. Florida State
Offense Grade: A-. 5th-year senior E.J. Manuel is back for his final year leading the Seminoles offense. Manuel is a proven playmaker, and the Seminoles’ rotation at receiver should be talented and deep this season. If Chris Thompson can play like his pre-injury old self, then Jimbo Fisher will have game-changers at all the skill positions. Fans of the Garnet and Gold just have to hope the offensive line isn’t as porous as it was in 2011.
Defense Grade: A. I already said LSU has the best defensive line in the country; Florida State’s D-line is a very close second. Florida State has one of the best defensive units it has had in the past decade, and it all begins up front. Defensive End Brandon Jenkins has the most career sacks of any active player heading into 2012, and Bjoern Werner is a stud as well. However, it is the dismissal of senior CB Greg Reid that prevents this unit from receiving an A.
Odds of being BCS National Champion: 7/1
Offense Grade: A-. I can’t say I am honestly surprised that Mariota won the starting job in Eugene; he possesses the skill set required to be successful in Chip Kelly’s offense and has a more accurate arm than Bennett. The loss of Lavasier Tuinei’s leadership and hands will hurt, but how can you not love an offense that gets to put Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas on the field at the same time?
Defense Grade: A-. John Boyett is the undisputed spearhead of this solid defense as a four-year starter, and Kiko Alonso is an NFL-ready middle linebacker with great size and speed. Add a very stout defensive line and some young, but experienced corners, and Oregon probably has the best defense in the PAC-12. We’ll see how they match up with USC’s explosive offense in the regular-season duel in Los Angeles, and most likely again in the PAC-12 championship game.
Odds of being BCS National Champion: 8/1
Offense Grade: A-. This could’ve been a straight A unit if not for the dismissal of 2011 SEC Freshman of the Year, running back Isaiah Crowell. Nonetheless, Aaron Murray is a dark horse Heisman candidate and Tavarres King should band together with his fellow receivers to offer plenty of options for their talented quarterback. The stability of the veterans on the offensive line should help make Mark Richt’s offense one of the most efficient in the SEC.
Defense Grade: B+. The Bulldog’s defense is anchored by the best defensive player in all of college football this year – Jarvis Jones. Jones is an absolute menace, physically imposing his will on blockers and relentlessly flying to the ball. It seems that the back seven of this unit should be fine, but it must be said that the defensive line isn’t exactly intimidating.
Odds of being BCS National Champion: 15/1
Offense Grade: A. The remote possibility of lingering struggles with inaccuracy that plagued Landry Jones in 2011…that’s the only thing stopping me from giving this unit an A+. The fairy tale of walk-on Dominique Whaley should continue, as he has the capability to be All-Big 12 this year if he fully recovers from a horrific broken ankle. Add an experienced offensive line and Kenny Stills and Trey Metoyer on the outside, and you have a recipe for some offensive fireworks all season in Norman.
Defense Grade: B. The Sooners’ defense is filled with upperclassmen that have matured together to form a cohesive, experienced unit. The problem is, the individual pieces that make up the defense are lacking something – talent. If Mike Stoops can work just a little magic under his brother, the boys in Crimson and Cream might be able to play for a national title on the wings of the offense.
Odds of being BCS National Champion: 12/1
Offense Grade: A. Knile Davis led the SEC in rushing in 2010 before going down just prior to the 2011 season with injury. Now that he is on the mend, his running ability should open up the field for Tyler Wilson, making both these guys longshot Heisman contenders. Cobi Hamilton and Chris Gragg are large, speedy, and tough. They will give Wilson two solid, potentially outstanding go-to receivers.
Defense Grade: B. In a league where the best athletes typically end up on the defensive side of the ball, Arkansas has flipped the script. Alonzo Highsmith was the one bright spot for this defense in 2011, and he needs to rally the troops to perform at a higher level if Arkansas expects to compete with LSU and Alabama in the SEC West.
Odds of being BCS National Champion: 20/1
Offense Grade: A-. Wisconsin employed their ACC QB-transfer acceptance strategy again this season, bringing in Danny O’Brien from Maryland. I just want to clarify something – Danny O’Brien is not the same caliber player Russell Wilson was, and it’s not even close. That being said, Wisconsin still has arguably the best offensive line in college football, and unarguably the best running back in college football in Montee Ball.
Defense Grade: B+. Chris Borland and Mike Taylor both registered 140+ tackles for the Badgers last season from the linebacker position, and the tremendously talented duo will anchor an improving defensive unit yet again this season. The Badgers’ secondary has multiple key players returning from previous injuries and should mesh to form a solid back four.
Odds of being BCS National Champion: 25/1
10. Michigan State
Offense Grade: B. The Spartans lost key players at every skill position to the 2012 NFL Draft, so this unit will lack experience beyond workhorse running back Le’Veon Bell and his viable back-up, Larry Caper. However, Bell is capable of going for 1,200+ yards if he stays healthy. The departure of team leader Kirk Cousins will thrust the very capable, but inexperienced backup Andrew Maxwell into the spotlight under center. Unfortunately, the losses of the sure-handed B.J. Cunningham and super-elusive Keshawn Martin removes two huge weapons Michigan State possessed the last several years which helped them move the chains.
Defense Grade: A. If the Spartans plan on fending off Nebraska and in-state rival Michigan in the Big Ten Legends Division, it’ll start on the defensive side of the ball. The green and white faithful will quickly forget about the departure of man-eating defensive tackle Jerel Worthy, as Vanderbilt transfer James Kittredge should team up with William Gholston to wreak havoc up front. Denicos Allen and Max Bullough head up a linebacker core that figures to be one of the best in the country. Finally, for the first time in a long time, the corner position will be a definitive strength for the Spartans, as All-Big Ten talent Johnny Adams teams up with the continually improving Darqueze Dennard.
Odds of being BCS National Champion: 30/1
11. South Carolina
Offense Grade: B+. The Gamecocks have the best running back in college football not named Montee Ball, in the form of half-man, half-machine Marcus Lattimore. If Lattimore can stay healthy, he’ll be a definite contender for the Heisman in 2012.Connor Shaw is the undisputed starter this season under center. He played like a winner in 2011 while replacing nogoodnik Stephen Garcia, and he should continue to do so in 2012. He has refined running and passing skills, and an offseason of starter work will make him that much better.
Defense Grade: B+. This unit is solid across the board, with no noticeable weaknesses, but no overwhelming strengths…well, okay, one overwhelming strength – Jadeveon Clowney. Clowney lived up to the hype last season, bringing an unbelievably athletic game to an already menacing defensive line. I pity the lineman that is forced to line up across from this mutant and attempt to block him; he’s an absolute freak of nature.
Odds of being BCS National Champion: 30/1
Offense Grade: A-. Denard Robinson is a lightning rod; he’s the most exciting player to watch in college football, but he is often one of the most erratic as well. Nevertheless, Michigan’s signal caller will be in his second year in Al Borges’ West-Coast system, so expect to see more consistency out of Shoelace in the passing game. Pending his currently indefinite suspension, Michigan also returns thousand-yard rusher Fitzgerald Touissant, and has lots of experience on an offensive line anchored by the best tackle in the Big Ten, Taylor Lewan.
Defense Grade: B. The Michigan defense made great strides in their first year under Greg Mattison, and I expect (modest) improvement to continue for the defenders in maize and blue. That being said, Mattison can only do so much with the talent he has; the stout Michigan defense of old won’t return for another season or two. The back seven features a solid all-around cast, including tackling guru Kenny Demens at the middle linebacker spot. Outside the presence of Craig Roh, the loss of both Ryan Van Bergen and Mike Martin to the NFL leaves the Wolverines thin and inexperienced up front.
Odds of being BCS National Champion: 30/1
13. West Virginia
Offense Grade: A-. Geno Smith is a gamer and should be able to pick apart Big 12 defenses without much of a problem this season, but the real game-changer on this side of the ball is wide receiver Tavon Austin. Austin led the nation in all-purpose yards last season, and his explosive speed and playmaking ability will be displayed regularly for Mountaineer fans—much to the detriment of the opposition’s defensive strategies. Both Smith and Austin should be considered dark horse Heisman candidates.
Defense Grade: B. Though the defense is breaking in a new 3-4 and 4-3 hybrid defensive scheme, the unit does return seven starters from 2011. The experience on the defense is in the secondary, with players like Darwin Cook and Pat Miller; the move to the pass-happy Big 12 makes the back four that much more important. Having said that, I still believe Terence Garvin is the unquestioned leader of the Mountaineer defense, and is arguably the best athlete on that side of the ball as well.
Odds of being BCS National Champion: 35/1
Offense Grade: B-. David Ash has won the starting job for the boys in burnt orange, but God only knows how long that will last. The Longhorns have a stable of somewhat talented young running backs, but the three of them splitting carries is going to limit their opportunities to have an impact. That said, the offensive line is going to be key to success, whether in the passing game or rushing attack. If the offensive line lacks consistency, it’s going to be a very long season.
Defense Grade: A+. Defensive ends Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor head one of the scariest, most-talented defenses in the country. The two combined for 14.5 sacks in 2011 and have the potential to hit the 20-sack level between them this season. The breakout star of the defense this year might be junior Jordan Hicks, who finally started to play to his potential in the Holiday Bowl. The Horns haven’t had a truly great linebacker since Derrick Johnson went to the NFL, so we’ll see if Hicks can finally live up to his billing for a full season.
Odds of being BCS National Champion: 25/1
15. Virginia Tech
Offense Grade: B-. Going into the 2012 season, the biggest question facing the Hokies is how they will replace the loss of eight offensive starters. Luckily for the Va Tech faithful, junior quarterback Logan Thomas returns this season. With Thomas behind center, the Hokies have the pieces on offense to be at least decent in 2012. Outside of Logan Thomas, at 6’4″ and 230-pounds, wide receiver Marcus Davis is a rare athlete who has the talent to be one of the top receivers in the country.
Defense Grade: A. This defense is loaded with talent and experience, and I would expect nothing different from a team coached by Frank Beamer. The star of the unit might be corner Kyle Fuller; his 14.5 tackles for loss led the team last year, and he demonstrated versatility, playing the nickel linebacker spot, as well as corner last year.
Odds of being BCS National Champion: 40/1
Other Teams that received consideration: Clemson, Nebraska, Florida, Notre Dame
I really enjoyed your analysis of this year’s preseason rankings (especially #10 MSU!!). Do you think the rankings would have been different if Ohio State and Penn State hadn’t received violations?
Ohio State would’ve been considered for the top 15, and I think they would’ve ended up with a spot somewhere between 13 and 15. Penn State, on the other hand, is very far removed from top 15 consideration.