HP’s Top 10 Teams, Pre-Spring Edition

The quest for the national championship is really just the Heisman Trophy race writ large, so I would be remiss if I failed to provide the proper, bigger-picture context for my views. For instance, a commentator asked me below “Why not Keith Price for the Heisman?” To which I responded that I do not think that Washington will be good enough for Price to warrant such attention. Which really means that, as good as Price is–and I think he’s very good–he’s probably not good enough to elevate his team to the level that, say, Robert Griffin III elevated his team. Which means he ain’t going to win the Heisman.

That all said, it’s time to put in my two cents on how the team race is shaping up. A lot will change between now and September. Knees will blow out, arrests will be made, tests will be flunked and recruiting classes will be added, thus ensuring that this list changes down the road. But for now, here’s how I see it:

1. USC — The Trojans have the best combination of elite talent and favorable schedule in 2012, so they nab the top spot for now. The roster features the nation’s finest collection of skill players (including what I think is the most talented receiving corps in college football history), plus four returners on the offensive line, a four-year starter and Heisman front runner at quarterback and everyone from the defensive back seven. Add in the likelihood of being favored by double digits in 11 of 12 regular season games and it all points to the kind of season that even Lane Kiffin can’t screw up. Right?

2. Georgia — The Bulldogs return perhaps the SEC’s best quarterback in Aaron Murray. They’ve got perhaps the best defensive player in linebacker Jarvis Jones. The combination of sophomore Isaiah Crowell and freshman Keith Marshall at tailback should be lethal. This is a team that hit its stride toward the end of last year. I think it will carry over into 2012 and, more importantly, there’s no early-season matchup with the likes of Boise State.

3. Clemson — To all those who think that Clemson’s Orange Bowl disaster has any bearing on how it will do in 2012, I say pshaw! Clemson’s 2011 squad was loaded with young and inexperienced talent and managed to win the ACC anyway. I don’t buy the ‘oh, it’s Clemson and Clemson always messes up’ line. The old Tiger choke squads wouldn’t have won the ACC with a first-year starting quarterback and a bevy of freshmen all over the place. Most of those players are back and saltier from the experience. Quarterback Tajh Boyd had a huge year as a sophomore and he’ll be even better as a junior. All the top rushers return. Rising sophomore Sammy Watkins is the nation’s best wide receiver. The defense returns most of its key performers. This is a team ready to move up in class and challenge for the national title.

4. Oregon — The inexplicable entry of quarterback Darron Thomas into the NFL draft will actually improve the Ducks in the long run. Either Brian Bennett or Marcus Mariota will have Oregon at 8-0 heading to the Coliseum for the huge matchup with the Trojans in November. Unfortunately for Oregon, it has no one who can cover USC’s receivers. This will be yet another explosive and high-quality squad led by Heisman candidate De’Anthony Thomas, but the Ducks might be a year away from being truly dominant.

5. Florida State — I’m not a big fan of Jimbo Fisher as a head coach, to put it mildly, but there might be enough talent on hand this time to overwhelm his glaring shortcomings. The Seminoles should field a special defense led by end Bjoern Werner and safety LaMarcus Joyner, while the offense should be solid so long as E.J. Manuel and the offensive line stays healthy. There are a lot of playmakers on hand and if Fisher can finally figure out how to use them with consistency, this team could be special.

6. Oklahoma — The Sooners return everyone on offense except for record-setting wide out Ryan Broyles. Quarterback Landry Jones is back for the umpteenth year, but I’d like to see more Blake Bell, thank you very much. The Sooners defense returns eight starters and the schedule is manageable. This team should hit the ground running.

7. Alabama — Most early polls have Bama and LSU in the top 3. Mine doesn’t. The Tide lost a lot of big-time players on defense and I think Ed Lacy is a clear dropoff from Trent Richardson at running back. The Tide also loses its top four pass catchers. This team is still loaded, but much of the talent is young and will need a learning curve. The schedule includes a neutral site tilt with Michigan and trips to Arkansas, Missouri and LSU. Look out for Bama again in ’13, but this is a bit of a rebuilding year.

8. TCU — If any of the other non-AQ teams were thrust into a major conference like the Big 12, I would worry for them and their ability to adjust. Not so with TCU which, after all, used to be part of the famed Southwest Conference, so this is merely a return to its rightful place in a prominent league. TCU brings a unique style to the Big 12 and I think it’s one that much of the conference will have difficulty adjusting to at first. This is a loaded Horned Frog team coming off an 11-2 season in which it lost two games by a combined 9 points. Things could be even better this year.

9. Michigan — The Wolverines start out the season in an enviable position. To wit, the opener against Alabama is really a no-lose situation. An early loss wouldn’t really ruin the season, while an unexpected win over a Tide team fresh off a national title could spark Michigan to a title run of its own. Brady Hoke has this program on the right track and a top-flight recruiting class should give quarterback Denard Robinson enough support to finish out his career on a high note.

10. Arkansas — The Razorbacks lose some real playmakers at wide receiver, but they do return quarterback Tyler Wilson plus elite running back Knile Davis. Once again, this offense should be quite good. However, question marks remain on defense. If they ever get solved, this could be a dark horse title contender.

On the cusp: West Virginia, LSU, South Carolina, Ohio State, Stanford, Kansas State

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About Heismanpundit

Chris Huston, A.K.A. ‘The Heisman Pundit‘, is a Heisman voter and the creator and publisher of Heismanpundit.com, a site dedicated to analysis of the Heisman Trophy and college football. Dubbed “the foremost authority on the Heisman” by Sports Illustrated, HP is regularly quoted or cited during football season in newspapers across the country. He is also a regular contributor on sports talk radio and television.

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17 Responses to HP’s Top 10 Teams, Pre-Spring Edition

  1. Mat January 18, 2012 at 1:10 am #

    Care to share your reasoning for leaving out LSU?

  2. Heismanpundit January 18, 2012 at 1:41 am #

    Sure. The Tigers, I thought, benefitted greatly this season from the kind of plays that you really can’t count on every season. Plays like Honey Badger stripping the ball, batting the ball, returning the ball, etc., at key times to turn games. Or Eric Reid making that key, fortuitous play to secure that game vs. Bama at the goal line. These are rare types of plays that you really can’t plan for. And it took all of them to happen for LSU to get to the title game, especially with such an anemic offense. The title game showed how LSU plays when it doesn’t get those turnovers, when the ball doesn’t bounce its way. It can be quite ordinary, even awful. Add in the loss of Claiborne (which will serve to make the Honey Badger less effective) and the loss experience at QB (even though it was bad this year), and you have a situation that is not ideal for being a top 5 team.

  3. Dave January 18, 2012 at 6:36 am #

    What keeps the Irish off your list: Schedule is too tough? Brian Kelly is a horrible coach? Both? Other?

  4. HP January 18, 2012 at 11:13 am #

    I think Kelly is a good coach, but the Irish are still a year or two away from being really good, I believe. The defensive side is being re-tooled, and the talent there is excellent, but the offense still needs some work. When Aaron Lynch is a junior and Gunner Kiel is a sophomore, look out! Also, games against Michigan, Stanford, Oklahoma and USC this year don’t exactly help either.

  5. Nathan Tiras January 18, 2012 at 11:38 am #

    “Add in the likelihood of being favored by double digits in 11 of 12 regular season games and it all points to the kind of season that even Lane Kiffin can’t screw up.”

    Why do you still think Kiffin is not a good coach? The scoring offense has increased by an average of 6.5 points/game EVERY SINGLE PLACE he’s coached, and has declined after his departure.

    He took a USC team with nothing to play for after the most abusive (and in this case undeserved) NCAA sanctions since SMU and turned them into a 10-2 top 5 team.

    What in the resume suggests he isn’t a good coach? That his success is predicated upon him not screwing up rather than him performing at a high level and coaching his teams to success?

  6. Heismanpundit January 18, 2012 at 11:49 am #

    No need to get all worked up. The comment was semi-ironic.

    As for your point, numbers can be massaged a lot of different ways to come up with positives.

    Consider this exercise:

    If I told you before last season that Matt Barkley would throw 39 TD passes, that USC would have 2 1,000 yard receivers, that Robert Woods would break the Pac-12 single-season receiving record, that the offensive line would not only lead the nation in fewest sacks allowed, but set a school record in doing so and that Curtis McNeal would rush for over 1,000 yards, where would you guess the following would be:

    1. USC’s scoring average.
    2. USC’s rank in total offense.

    Please be honest. Then, after, tell me if the reality jibed with what those numbers would usually point to. Thanks.

    • Nathan Tiras January 19, 2012 at 9:51 am #

      Given that information, I would assume USC fielded one an offense on par with the 2005 offense with Bush/White/Jarrett/Smith/Leinart. The numbers are fairly similar.

      1. probably 40+ points a game.
      2. probably top 10 total offense.

      I haven’t checked anything, but I’d assume those are both wildly high, especially considering the offense’s poor showings in games against MN, Utah, and other early season games.

      Does reality Jibe with my assumptions? USC before ND, not really. USC after the ND game? Definitely.

      ———————————Checking scores now——————————

      Now that I checked scores, I think those numbers jibed with reality. No performances under 30 points after the ND game. Average pts/game total: 35.75.

      What am I missing?

      • Nathan Tiras January 19, 2012 at 10:01 am #

        rushing yardage/game was extremely low. #51 overall. PY/G was #20, much more in the expected range. And PPG was #16.

        This year’s numbers:
        RYG: #51- 162.6
        PYG: #16 – 298.4
        PPG: #20 – 35.8

        Last year’s numbers:

        RYG: #45 – 189.3
        PYG: #25 – 250.5
        PPG: #39 – 30.8

        A modest dropoff in Rushing, but significant yardage increase in passing, total ypg, and 5 ppg.

        Ultimately, the improvement in the defense was probably more significant in increasing the win total than the improvements in the offense, but the offense DID improve.

  7. graham January 18, 2012 at 12:25 pm #

    how do you not have michigan state on the list or even on the cusp? They’ve only had back to back 11 win seasons and return a majority of the defense and the O-line, Baker, and Bell. All they loose is the quarterback and some receivers when they primarily are a running team in the first place.

  8. Heismanpundit January 18, 2012 at 12:59 pm #

    I think losing Cousins hurts too much. But this is only a pre-spring top 10.

    • David January 18, 2012 at 1:37 pm #

      I agree, wheres State? ESPN’s way to early poll has Michigan State at 9. I think with with with the few more surprising players leaving for the draft they could go up another spot or 2. Even in your top ten, you really cant look past the fact Clemson didnt just loose, they got blown out. They couldnt put up a fight. Oregon lost Thomas so they probably wont be starting out to fast with a new QB in that offense. TCU will be starting in the Big 12 this year and yes while they did run their schedule the past couple years the these will be different teams, that are a little better quality teams lining up every saturday

      • Heismanpundit January 18, 2012 at 2:20 pm #

        Every year there are some teams that don’t perform up to expectations and teams that exceed expectations. ESPN has been wrong before and will be wrong again, just like all of us. I just don’t see State as a top 10 team right now, not until we see how they replace Cousins and a few other key players like Worthy.

  9. Sam January 20, 2012 at 10:04 am #

    Clemson?? Really?? I mean, sure they can win the ACC, but this is a team that almost lost to Maryland, couldn’t handle NC State, has been dominated by USC, and has a really pedestrian/mediocre coach, staff and defense. They got 70 points put on them by West Virginia. There are FCS teams that would allow fewer points to WVU. And you’re forgetting this is Clemson. Every year they are ranked in the top 10, they slip up and end with a mediocre, 4 loss season. I’m sorry, but I just don’t see them being in the top 15 by the end of the year.

  10. William January 21, 2012 at 6:07 am #

    I completely agree with Sam. Clemson has no right to even be in the top 20. Why are they in the top 3? Georgia is definitely not as high as you say the are, they will always have a 3 or 4 loss season and are extremely overrated. LSU deserves to be in the top 10. FSU? NOOOO! Clemson and FSU have the same problem, they have the best talent in the country but coaching destroys them. We learned that lesson last year. Clemson is mediocre at best. You are either very bias, or actually believe these teams will be good.

    • Kelvin January 23, 2012 at 7:59 am #

      Sam & William,

      Your not fooling anyone with your Gamecock mentality. Go away

  11. Andy January 23, 2012 at 7:48 am #

    Did any of you read his reasoning for putting Clemson in the Top Ten? By your remarks, I don’t think you did.
    I don’t agree that they should be in the top 3 either, but it’s and opinion, whether right or wrong. However, the reasoning is justified.

  12. Rob Scorpio March 6, 2012 at 11:21 am #

    Hey Chris…great article. As you know I’m not much into college Football, but you make it an easy read. Makes me harken back to those days we spent at Hooters in Norfolk watching UCLA on Saturday and the Chargers on Sunday…