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Helwagen: Early Top 25 For 2013

The NFL deadline for underclassmen to declare for the 2013 draft has come and gone. So this is a good time to look ahead to next year and see which schools will contend for the national championship.

Five contenders for the 2013 national title: Alabama, Ohio State, Texas A&M, Oregon and Georgia

Obviously, that search begins with an easy choice in Alabama. Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide have won back-to-back national titles and three of the last four championships as well.

But any number of other schools will be competing for that crystal football, which will be presented next year on Jan. 6 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. This will also be the last BCS National Championship Game before the four-team playoff format begins for the 2014 season.

Before we look at the contenders for 2013, we have some notables to consider:

* NFL Departures – A record number of 74 underclassmen declared for the 2013 NFL draft, breaking the previous mark of 65 underclassmen last year. This is the third straight year there has been a record following a 56-player departure in 2010.

Some of the best players in the country have decided to make the dash for NFL cash, including Texas A&M OL Luke Joeckel, Alabama OL D.J. Fluker, Florida DB Matt Elam, Alabama CB Dee Milliner, Georgia LB Jarvis Jones, Florida State DL Bjoern Werner and 11 – count ‘em, 11 – players off the LSU roster. Thirty-two of these underclassmen are from SEC schools.

The good news is that some of college football’s best players – including South Carolina DL Jadeveon Clowney and USC WR Marquise Lee – will still be around as they head into just their third season in the college game.

* Conference Changes – The spinning carousel of conference affiliation changes will continue. Syracuse and Pittsburgh have left the Big East and will begin their first season in the ACC.

The Big East has invited Houston, SMU, Memphis and Central Florida to join that conference. San Diego State and Boise State were also due to join the Big East, but have opted to stay in the Mountain West.

This past fall, Maryland and Rutgers announced they would be leaving the ACC and Big East, respectively, and heading to the Big Ten. The earliest that will happen, though, will be the 2014 season. Likewise, Louisville was enticed by the ACC to replace Maryland either in 2014 or 2015.

* Coaching Changes – Twenty-nine FBS schools will have new coaches in 2013. Some of the notables include:

Arkansas, hired Wisconsin’s Bret Bielema; Auburn, hired Arkansas State’s Gus Malzahn; California, hired Louisiana Tech’s Sonny Dykes; Cincinnati, hired Texas Tech’s Tommy Tuberville; Kentucky, hired Mark Stoops; N.C. State, hired Northern Illinois’ Dave Doeren; Oregon, hired assistant Mark Helfrich; Purdue, hired Kent State’s Darrell Hazell; Syracuse, hired Scott Shafer; Tennessee, hired Cincinnati’s Butch Jones; Texas Tech, hired Kliff Kingsbury; and Wisconsin, hired Utah State’s Gary Andersen.

* Last Year Of The BCS – The 2013 season will mark the 16th and final year of the much-maligned Bowl Championship Series.

The good news is this will be the last year where only two teams can compete for the national championship. This past year also showed how lame the system is when some outstanding teams like Georgia, Texas A&M, South Carolina, Clemson and LSU were shut out of BCS bowls.

* The SEC’s Stranglehold On The Title – SEC teams have won the last seven national championships. That was Florida in 2006, LSU in 2007, Florida in 2008, Alabama in 2009, Auburn in 2010 and Alabama in 2011 and 2012.

Can a team from another conference or even this year’s runner-up, Notre Dame, put a stop to this amazing run?

* Heisman Trophy Race – Poor Archie Griffin. The former Ohio State star has been the sport’s only two-time Heisman Trophy winner. He survived when Florida’s Tim Tebow and Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford each won the Heisman as underclassmen.

But he may have a hard time hanging on to that distinction since Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel won the Heisman this past year as a redshirt freshman. He could have as many as three more chances to join Griffin in that elite club as a two-time winner.

Who could challenge him? USC’s Lee was fourth in the balloting this past year, while Ohio State QB Braxton Miller was fifth and South Carolina’s Clowney was sixth.

Others who could join that race include Clemson QB Tajh Boyd, Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater, Oregon QB Marcus Mariota, Alabama QB A.J. McCarron and Georgia QB Aaron Murray.

Early Top 25 For 2013

Here is our early top 25 for 2013 (players leaving early for the NFL are denoted by an asterisk):

1. Alabama (13-1)

* Returning Starters – Offense, 6; defense, 8; specialists, 1.

* Key Returnees – QB A.J. McCarron, RB T.J. Yeldon, WR Amari Cooper, WLB C.J. Mosley, MLB Trey DePriest, WR Kevin Norwood, DB HaHa Clinton-Dix

* Key Losses – OT D.J. Fluker*, RB Eddie Lacy*, CB Dee Milliner*, OG Chance Warmack, C Barrett Jones

* The Skinny – McCarron (2,933 yards passing, 30 TDs) returns for his senior year and a chance to lead the Crimson Tide to a third straight national championship after Alabama’s impressive BCS title game win over Notre Dame (42-14). Yeldon (1,108 yards rushing) will become the lead back after fellow 1,000-yard rusher Lacy’s departure. Most of the key pieces return from the nation’s top defense, including Mosley (AP first-team All-American).

Nick Saban has proved he can win a national championship and then get his next team back up to try and win another one – a feat few coaches have been able to accomplish.

Alabama’s schedule is front-loaded with a game against Virginia Tech in Atlanta and a Sept. 14 date at Texas A&M, which upset the Tide this past year in Tuscaloosa (29-24). Get past that one and it could be smooth sailing to the SEC title game.

* More Coverage – Click here for more coverage of Alabama.

2. Ohio State (12-0)

* Returning Starters – Offense, 9; defense, 5; specialists, 1.

* Key Returnees – QB Braxton Miller, RB Carlos Hyde, RB Philly Brown, OT Jack Mewhort, LB Ryan Shazier, CB Bradley Roby

* Key Losses – DE John Simon, DL Johnathan Hankins*, LB Zach Boren, LB Etienne Sabino, WR Jake Stoneburner

* The Skinny – Ohio State served its one year bowl ban in connection with violations by former coach Jim Tressel, former QB Terrelle Pryor and others. That was unfortunate as first-year head coach Urban Meyer led the Buckeyes to a 12-0 season. Had there not been a ban, Ohio State may have played Notre Dame for the national title.

But Meyer, a winner of two such championships at Florida, will chase one for real this year. Miller (2,039 yards passing, 1,271 yards rushing) finished fifth in Heisman balloting and flourished in Meyer’s spread offense. Hyde (970 yards rushing) flirted with leaving, but will be back. Brown (60 catches, 2 punt return TDs) is another key cog in the offense. The key will be retooling with underclassmen on defense, particularly in the front seven where Shazier is the only returning starter. Roby was an AP second-team All-American at corner.

The schedule is one of the easiest of any of the top 10 contenders for the national title and could work against the Buckeyes if more than two teams end up unbeaten.

* More Coverage – Click here for more coverage of Ohio State.

3. Texas A&M (11-2)

* Returning Starters – Offense, 6; defense, 6; specialists, 1.

* Key Returnees – QB Johnny Manziel, RB Ben Malena, WR Mike Evans, OL Jake Matthews

* Key Losses – DE Damontre Moore*, OT Luke Joeckel*, WR Ryan Swope, DB Steven Terrell

* The Skinny – What a year it was in College Station! The Aggies won six games in their first season in the SEC, Kevin Sumlin was an immediate hit in his first year as the coach, their redshirt freshman quarterback Manziel (3,706 yards passing, 1,410 yards rushing) won the Heisman Trophy and A&M blistered old Big 12 rival Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl (41-13).

You get the sense with Manziel that anything is possible. The Aggies averaged over 44 points a game in 2012 and could easily eclipse that mark in 2013. Manziel put on a clinic in the Cotton Bowl with an amazing 516 yards total offense and four TDs against Oklahoma.

* More Coverage – Click here for more coverage of Texas A&M.

4. Oregon (12-1)

* Returning Starters – Offense, 9; defense, 7; specialists, 0.

* Key Returnees – QB Marcus Mariota, C Hroniss Grasu, OL Jake Fisher, TE Colt Lyerla, DB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, DB Terrance Mitchell, RB De’Anthony Thomas

* Key Losses – RB Kenjon Barner, DE Dion Jordan, LB Michael Clay, LB Kiko Alonso

* The Skinny – After initially turning down NFL overtures, Chip Kelly decided to leave Oregon and make the jump to the Philadelphia Eagles. Oregon has elevated offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich to the top spot. He will inherit a talented squad that could push for a Pac-12 title and maybe more.

Mariota (2,677 yards passing, 752 yards rushing) became the first freshman quarterback in 23 years to be first-team All-Pac 12. You’d assume the new coach will keep Kelly’s spread offense intact and play to his strengths. Thomas (701 yards rushing, 11 TDs) will step in for the 1,700-yard rusher Barner at running back. He is also a pass catching threat. The Ducks averaged 49.6 ppg – second best nationally – in 2012.

The defense must retool without All-Pac 12 performers Jordan, Clay and Alonso in the front seven. But Ekpre-Olomu was an AP second-team All-American at corner. Oregon’s string of four straight BCS bowl appearances should continue.

* More Coverage – Click here for more coverage of Oregon.

5. Georgia (12-2)

* Returning Starters – Offense, 10; defense, 4; specialists, 2.

* Key Returnees – QB Aaron Murray, RB Todd Gurley, RB Keith Marshall, WR Malcolm Mitchell, CB Damian Swann

* Key Losses – LB Alec Ogletree*, LB Jarvis Jones*, NT Kwame Geathers*, DL John Jenkins, WR Tavarres King, WR Marlon Brown, FS Bacarri Rambo, CB Sanders Commings, SS Shawn Williams

* The Skinny – The Bulldogs came up just a few yards shy of knocking off Alabama in the SEC title game and advancing to the BCS title game. But they regrouped and took a nice Capital One Bowl win over Nebraska (45-31) behind the passing exploits of Murray (427 yards, five TDs).

Afterwards, Murray (3,893 yards, 36 TDs on the season) decided to return for his senior year. Gurley and Marshall combined to account for 2,144 yards and 25 touchdowns on the ground.

Mark Richt will be back for his 13th season in Athens and is waiting for that breakthrough year and a shot at a national title. With some new playmakers on defense and some luck, the Bulldogs could take that next step. The first two games (at Clemson, home with South Carolina) are brutal, however.

* More Coverage – Click here for more coverage of Georgia.

6. Clemson (11-2)

* Returning Starters – Offense, 6; defense, 7; specialists, 1.

* Key Returnees – QB Tajh Boyd, WR Sammy Watkins, OT Brandon Thomas, DT Grady Jarrett

* Key Losses – WR DeAndre Hopkins*, RB Andre Ellington, TE Brandon Ford, DE Malliciah Goodman, SS Jonathan Meeks, FS Rashard Hall

* The Skinny – Clemson opened and closed the year with wins over SEC foes in Atlanta, beating Auburn 26-19 in the opener and edging LSU 25-24 in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. In between, there were some ups and downs, including losses to top rivals Florida State and South Carolina.

Everything hinges on the dynamic Boyd (3,896 yards passing, 36 TDs). He loses the 1,000-yard rusher Ellington and a prolific receiver in Hopkins, but has Watkins (52 catches) returning.

Scoring points hasn’t been the issue. Coach Dabo Swinney must shore up a defense that gave up 30 or more points four times in 2012. Pass defense (71st nationally at 240.3 ypg) was a real sore spot at times. The season-opening match-up with Georgia and the critical ACC Atlantic Division game with Florida State – both at home – should tell the tale.

* More Coverage – Click here for more coverage of Clemson.

7. Stanford (12-2)

* Returning Starters – Offense, 7; defense, 9; specialists, 1.

* Key Returnees – QB Kevin Hogan, OL David Yankey, DE Henry Anderson, DB Ed Reynolds

* Key Losses – TE Levine Toilolo*, TE Zach Ertz*, CB Terrence Brown*, RB Stepfan Taylor, WR Drew Terrell, OL Sam Schwartzstein, LB Chase Thomas

* The Skinny – What will Hogan do for an encore? He stepped in for early season starter Josh Nunes, beat then-No. 2 Oregon, won the Pac-12 title and helped Stanford stop Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl (20-14).

With the 1,500-yard rusher Taylor departing as well as Toilolo and Ertz at tight end, the Cardinal must identify new playmakers on offense. But coach David Shaw’s defense should again be tough. Stanford gets Oregon at home as well and that could only help the cause.

In two years, Shaw has led Stanford to the Fiesta Bowl and the Rose Bowl. Stanford has been to three straight BCS bowls with wins in the Orange and the Rose.

8. Notre Dame (12-1)

* Returning Starters – Offense, 7; defense, 8; specialists, 1.

* Key Returnees – QB Everett Golson, WR T.J. Jones, DE Stephon Tuitt, RB George Atkinson III, WR DaVaris Daniels, CB Bennett Jackson, LB Dan Fox, LB Prince Shembo

* Key Losses – TE Tyler Eifert*, RB Cierre Wood*, RB Theo Riddick, C Braxton Cave, OG Mike Golic, DE Kapron Lewis-Moore, LB Manti Te’o, DB Zeke Motta, DB Jamoris Slaughter

* The Skinny – The Fighting Irish were back in contention for a national title for the first time in nearly two full decades, even if the title game devolved into an Alabama rout. Coach Brian Kelly listened to some NFL overtures, but sounds like he will be in South Bend for the long haul.

Golson (2,405 yards passing, 12 TDs) really grew up over the course of his redshirt freshman season. But the Irish relied heavily on Eifert at tight end and the rushing tandem of Riddick and Wood. Atkinson (361 yards rushing), Jones (50 catches) and Daniels (31 catches) must all step up.

Te’o was the Heisman runner-up at linebacker and will be missed. But Tuitt, an AP second-team All-American, will be back to lead the defense. As always, the Notre Dame schedule will be tough as nails, highlighted by home games with Michigan State, Oklahoma and USC and road games at Michigan and Stanford.

* More Coverage – Click here for more coverage of Notre Dame.

9. South Carolina (11-2)

* Returning Starters – Offense, 6; defense, 5; specialists, 1.

* Key Returnees – DE Jadeveon Clowney, QB Connor Shaw, WR Bruce Ellington, DE Chaz Sutton, CB Jimmy Legree, SS Brison Williams

* Key Losses – RB Marcus Lattimore*, C T.J. Johnson, DB D.J. Swearinger, LB Reginald Bowens

* The Skinny – South Carolina rallied for a 33-28 win over Michigan in the Outback Bowl – yes, the one highlighted by Clowney blowing up Michigan RB Vincent Smith in the backfield. Clowney, a first-team All-American, could emerge as a Heisman candidate in 2013. USC’s secondary should be tough as well.

The big question for Steve Spurrier is whether the Gamecocks can break through and win the school’s first SEC title. South Carolina did win the Eastern Division in 2010, but was spanked by Auburn in the title game. The school’s only previous conference championship came as ACC champions in 1969. South Carolina will visit Georgia early on, but will host Florida and instate rival Clemson in November.

Shaw (1,956 yards passing, 17 TDs) left the bowl game with a foot injury that figures to keep him out of spring ball. Dylan Thompson relieved him and threw the game-winning touchdown pass to Ellington with 11 seconds left against Michigan. He also returns. The Gamecocks need a running threat to replace Lattimore, who left early for the NFL after suffering a knee injury late in the year.

* More Coverage – Click here for more coverage of South Carolina.

10. Louisville (11-2)

* Returning Starters – Offense, 7; defense, 10; specialists, 2.

* Key Returnees – QB Teddy Bridgewater, WR DeVante Parker, RB Jeremy Wright, RB Senorice Perry, LB Preston Brown, FS Calvin Pryor, WR Damian Copeland

* Key Losses – C Mario Benavides, OT Alex Kupper, CB Adrian Bushell

* The Skinny – Louisville was a two-touchdown underdog to Florida but stunned the Gators 33-23 in the Sugar Bowl. That win was special for UL coach Charlie Strong, a former Florida assistant. The biggest coup of this off-season was keeping Strong, a hot coaching commodity, at Louisville.

The Cardinals shared the Big East title with Cincinnati, Rutgers and Syracuse, but UL would have to be viewed as the early favorite in the league in 2014.

Bridgewater (3,718 yards passing, 27 TDs) came into his own as a sophomore and figures to be among the game’s top signalcallers again in 2013. He survived the year through wrist and ankle injuries. The Cardinals need to shore some things up on each line, but have the skill athletes on both sides of the ball to enjoy another big year.

Strong was a subject of coaching rumors at season’s end. But the breakthrough season helped Strong get a raise to $3.7 million, putting him among the top 10 paid coaches nationally. According to ESPN, only Alabama’s Nick Saban, Texas’ Mack Brown, Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, LSU’s Les Miles and Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz are due to make more in 2013.

* More Coverage – Click here for more coverage of Louisville.

11. Florida (11-2)

* Returning Starters – Offense, 6; defense, 4; specialists, 1.

* Key Returnees – QB Jeff Driskel, WR Quinton Dunbar, WR Trey Burton, DE Dominique Easley, CB Loucheiz Purifoy, CB Jaylen Watkins

* Key Losses – TE Jordan Reed*, LB Jelani Jenkins*, DT Sharrif Floyd*, DB Matt Elam*, RB Mike Gillislee, OT Xavier Nixon, LB Jon Bostic, QB Jacoby Brissett (transfer)

* The Skinny – After a 7-6 showing in Will Muschamp’s first season in 2011, the Gators became an SEC and national contender in 2012. The bowl loss and early defections to the NFL leave a sting heading into the off-season in Gainesville, though.

Driskel (1,646 yards passing, 12 TDs) continued his development as a sophomore. He has some key targets back in Dunbar (36 catches) and Burton (18 catches). But Reed’s early departure at tight end could hurt the cause.

The Gators lost three of their stalwarts on defense with Jenkins, Floyd and Elam leaving school a year early. Elam was a first-team All-American, while Floyd was a third-team pick. The secondary should be in good shape, but six new starters must emerge in the front seven. Florida must visit Miami (Fla.), LSU and South Carolina.

* More Coverage – Click here for more coverage of Florida.

12. Texas (9-4)

* Returning Starters – Offense, 10; defense, 9; specialists, 1.

* Key Returnees – QB David Ash, WR Mike Davis, OG Trey Hopkins, LB Steve Edmond, DE Jackson Jeffcoat, RB Johnathan Gray, RB Joe Bergeron, WR Jaxon Shipley

* Key Losses – DT Brandon Moore*, WR Marquise Goodwin, TE D.J. Grant, DE Alex Okafor, FS Kenny Vaccaro

* The Skinny – The Alamo Bowl win over Oregon State (31-27) sent the Longhorns into the off-season on a high note. That win capped a roller coaster season that included lopsided losses to Oklahoma (63-21) and Kansas State (42-24). Among the contenders, coach Mack Brown will have as many returning starters (20 of 24) as anybody.

Ash (2,699 yards passing, 19 TDs) made some major progress as a sophomore. The tandem of Gray and Bergeron worked well at running back, totaling 1,268 yards and 19 touchdowns. Davis (57 catches) and Shipley (59 catches) also give UT a pair of top-flight receivers.

The Texas defense must make some strides, though, as the Longhorns were a distant 73rd nationally in points allowed (29.2 ppg). Texas was also a dismal 88th nationally against the run. It will be a veteran group with a ton of juniors and seniors returning. Getting Jeffcoat back from injury will be huge as well.

* More Coverage – Click here for more coverage of Texas.

13. Florida State (12-2)

* Returning Starters – Offense, 7; defense, 4; specialists, 1.

* Key Returnees – S Lamarcus Joyner, DT Timmy Jernigan, LB Christian Jones, G Tre Jackson, C Bryan Stock, WR Rashad Greene, S Terrence Brooks

* Key Losses – DE Bjoern Werner*, OT Menelik Watson*, CB Xavier Rhodes*, QB E.J. Manuel, RB Chris Thompson, DE Cornellius Carradine, DT Everett Dawkins

* The Skinny – FSU capped a nice year with its first ACC championship since 2005 as well as an Orange Bowl rout over Northern Illinois (31-10). That was just the third ACC win in a BCS bowl game in 15 years.

There will be a nice battle at quarterback with rising junior Clint Trickett, sophomore Jacob Coker and redshirt freshman Jameis Winston, one of the nation’s top prospects in 2012. Greene (57 catches) became a dependable receiving threat as a sophomore.

Werner’s early departure to the NFL leaves Jones as the lone returning starter in the defensive front seven, so that becomes a major concern. But the secondary could be one of the nation’s best, led by Joyner and Brooks at the safety spots.

The Seminoles will probably not have to wait another seven years to win an ACC title. But with the questions at quarterback and on defense (plus a road game at Florida, too), it’s hard to see FSU as a serious national title contender in 2013.

* More Coverage – Click here for more coverage of Florida State.

14. Oklahoma (10-3)

* Returning Starters – Offense, 7; defense, 4; specialists, 1.

* Key Returnees – RB Damien Williams, FB-TE Trey Millard, OL Gabe Ikard, DB Aaron Colvin, WR Jalen Saunders

* Key Losses – DB Tony Jefferson*, LB Tom Wort*, WR Kenny Stills*, QB Landry Jones, WR Justin Brown

* The Skinny – The Sooners tied for the Big 12 regular season championship, going 8-1 in one of the nation’s most competitive conferences. But the lopsided Cotton Bowl loss to Texas A&M left quite a mark.

That bowl game was Jones’ last game as OU’s starting quarterback after a decorated four-year run. Junior Blake Bell, who has been the change-up quarterback in the “Belldozer” package, could get the first shot at replacing Jones. Williams (946 yards rushing, 11 TDs) is back at running back, while Saunders (62 catches) will be the top returning receiver. The offensive line should be a strength as well.

The biggest key for the Sooners will be finding new playmakers in the front seven. OU was soft against the run (89th nationally) this past year. Road games at Notre Dame, Kansas State and Oklahoma State could be tough.

* More Coverage – Click here for more coverage of Oklahoma.

15. TCU (7-6)

* Returning Starters – Offense, 6; defense, 9; specialists, 2.

* Key Returnees – QB Casey Paschall, QB Trevone Boykin, CB Jason Verrett, RB B.J. Catalon, WR Brandon Carter, WR LaDarius Brown, DE Devonte Fields, SS Sam Carter

* Key Losses – DE Stansly Maponga*, WR Josh Boyce*, LB Kenny Cain, TB Matthew Tucker, WR Skye Dawson, TE Corey Fuller

* The Skinny – Paschall was suspended at midseason after a drunken driving arrest. He has undergone counseling and coach Gary Patterson has reinstated him. Boykin filled in admirably in the latter portion of the season. If Paschall fully returns to the starting role, Boykin could revert to his running back/wide receiver role and the offense could be powerful. If 2011 leading rusher Waymon James can make it back from a knee injury, the Horned Frogs could be tough.

The defense is a young and impressive group, led by the All-American Verrett at corner. This is a team that could definitely contend for the Big 12 championship in 2013.

The 2012 season was disjointed with nice wins over Texas and West Virginia, but also tough home losses to Iowa State, Texas Tech and Oklahoma and a come-from-ahead loss at the hands of Michigan State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl (17-16).

16. UCLA (9-5)

* Returning Starters – Offense, 8; defense, 6; specialists, 1.

* Key Returnees – QB Brett Hundley, WR Shaq Evans, WR Jordan Payton, OG Xavier Su’a-Filo, OLB Anthony Barr

* Key Losses – RB Johnathan Franklin, WR Joseph Fauria, WR Jerry Johnson, DE Datone Jones, OLB Damien Holmes, ILB Dalton Hilliard, CB Sheldon Price

* The Skinny – Even with a lopsided loss to Baylor in the Holiday Bowl (49-26), it was a great first season in Westwood for coach Jim Mora Jr. The Bruins won the Pac-12 South title outright and knocked off ranked opponents Nebraska, USC and Arizona along the way.

Hundley (3,740 yards passing, 29 TDs) took over the reins as a redshirt freshman and quickly became one of the best dual threat quarterbacks in the country. The offense will miss the 1,700-yard rusher Franklin as well as wideout Fauria, who caught 12 touchdown passes. But top receiver Evans (60 catches) is due back.

UCLA must shore up a passing defense ranked 85th nationally. But Barr, a converted running back, has emerged as an outstanding linebacker. The Bruins must visit Oregon, Stanford and USC, so the schedule does them no favors in 2013.

* More Coverage – Click here for more coverage of UCLA.

17. Nebraska (10-4)

* Returning Starters – Offense, 7; defense, 5; specialists, 0.

* Key Returnees – QB Taylor Martinez, RB Ameer Abdullah, WR Kenny Bell, WR Quincy Enunwa, CB Ciante Evans, DE Jason Ankrah, OG Spencer Long, OT Jeremiah Sirles

* Key Losses – RB Rex Burkhead, TE Ben Cotton, TE Kyler Reed, DT Baker Steinkuhler, DE Cameron Meredith, MLB Will Compton, SS Daimon Stafford, P-K Brett Maher

* The Skinny – Nebraska won the Big Ten Legends Division title, but was decimated by Wisconsin in the conference title game (70-31). In fact, in Nebraska’s four losses to UCLA, Ohio State, Wisconsin and the Capital One Bowl to Georgia the Huskers gave up an average of 595 yards offense and 53.5 points per game.

Obviously, coach Bo Pelini’s biggest focus in the off-season will be retooling the storied Blackshirt defense. Evans, at corner, emerged this past season. Every other job should be open going into the spring. Nebraska was 90th nationally in rushing defense in 2012.

The offense will be in good hands with Martinez (2,871 yards passing, 1,019 yards rushing, 22 total TDs). Abdullah (1,137 yards rushing, 8 TDs) stepped in for the injured Burkhead and did a nice job. Bell (50 catches) and Enunwa (42 catches) are among the best receiving tandems in the Big Ten.

* More Coverage – Click here for more coverage of Nebraska.

18. LSU (10-3)

* Returning Starters – Offense, 8; defense, 4; specialists, 2.

* Key Returnees – QB Zach Mettenberger, TB Jeremy Hill, WR Kadron Boone, WR Odell Beckham, SLB Lamar Louis, WLB Lamin Barrow, CB Jalen Mills, SS Craig Loston, WR Jarvis Landry

* Key Losses – OT Chris Faulk*, RB Michael Ford*, LB Barkevius Mingo*, DE Sam Montgomery*, CB Tharold Simon*, RB Spencer Ware*, DB Eric Reid*, LB Kevin Minter*, DE Lavar Edwards,

* The Skinny – With so many guys leaving early for the NFL, you’d think that LSU coach Les Miles might just drop back and punt. But he can’t even do that because even punter Brad Wing left early for the pros.

It’s hard to imagine how a team could withstand so many underclassmen leaving early. Minter and Reid were second-team All-Americans and Montgomery was a third-team pick. But while the Tigers may be young on defense, you know they have the talent coming to fill most if not all of those holes.

And offensively, LSU should be strong with the veteran Mettenberger (2,609 passing yards, 12 TDs) returning at quarterback along with top rusher Hill (755 yards) and top receivers Beckham (43 catches), Landry (56 catches) and Boone (26 catches).

The schedule will be rough with games against five of our top 15 (TCU, Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Texas A&M).

* More Coverage – Click here for more coverage of LSU.

19. Oregon State (9-4)

* Returning Starters – Offense, 8; defense, 7; specialists, 2.

* Key Returnees – QB Sean Mannion, QB Cody Vaz, DL Scott Crichton, OG Grant Enger, CB Rashaad Reynolds, WR Brandin Cooks, RB Storm Woods

* Key Losses – WR Markus Wheaton, CB Jordan Poyer, DT Andrew Seumalo

* The Skinny – It was a nice turnaround as the Beavers went from 3-9 in 2011 to 9-4 in 2012. An Alamo Bowl loss to Texas cost Oregon State a 10-win finish. As it was, the six-win turnaround was tied with Middle Tennessee State and Ohio State for the nation’s best.

Mannion and Vaz will compete for the quarterback spot after splitting time in 2012. Woods (940 yards rushing) just missed reaching the 1,000-yard plateau as a freshman. Cooks (67 catches) is also due back.

It’s rough being in the same division with teams like Stanford and Oregon. But Oregon State could again push toward a 10-win season if the defense comes together.

20. Wisconsin (8-6)

* Returning Starters – Offense, 8; defense, 7; specialists, 2.

* Key Returnees – QB Joel Stave, QB Curt Phillips, WR Jared Abbrederis, TE Jacob Pedersen, DE David Gilbert, MLB Chris Borland, DE Pat Muldoon, FS Dezmen Southward, RB James White, DE Brendan Kelly

* Key Losses – C Travis Frederick*, RB Montee Ball, OT Rick Wagner, LB Mike Taylor, CB Marcus Cromartie, CB Devin Smith, SS Shelton Johnson

* The Skinny – It was quite a year for Wisconsin football. The Badgers lost six games (by a combined 25 points with three of the losses in overtime), but because Ohio State and Penn State were ineligible they advanced to the Big Ten title game. There, Wisconsin decimated Nebraska to win a second consecutive Big Ten title.

Just a few days later, coach Bret Bielema stunned AD Barry Alvarez by jumping to Arkansas. Alvarez scored nicely, though, by hiring Utah State’s Gary Andersen as the new head coach. Alvarez came out of retirement to serve as interim coach for the Rose Bowl, where UW ran into Stanford.

The record setting Ball has moved on. White (806 yards, 12 TDs) will move into that spot easily. Phillips was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, so he and Stave will battle for the quarterback spot. Abbrederis (49 catches) and Pedersen (27 catches) will be back as key pass catchers. Borland returns to lead an underrated defense that was 17th nationally in points allowed.

* More Coverage – Click here for more coverage of Wisconsin.

21. Michigan (8-5)

* Returning Starters – Offense, 6; defense, 6; specialists, 2.

* Key Returnees – QB Devin Gardner, RB Fitzgerald Toussaint, WR Jeremy Gallon, TE Devin Funchess, OT Taylor Lewan, SLB Jake Ryan, WLB Desmond Morgan, CB Raymon Taylor, FS Thomas Gordon

* Key Losses – QB Denard Robinson, WR Roy Roundtree, DE Craig Roh, DT Will Campbell, LB Kenny Demens, CB J.T. Floyd, SS Jordan Kovacs, OG Patrick Omameh

* The Skinny – A last-second touchdown by South Carolina denied Michigan an Outback Bowl win and a nine-win season. But Michigan got good news when Lewan decided to return for his senior season. Robinson’s three-plus year run as the quarterback has ended, but Gardner (1,219 yards passing, 11 TDs) got plenty of experience filling in for him when he was injured in the last half of the year.

Toussaint (514 yards rushing) had a down year after rushing for 1,000 yards in 2011. He was lost to a knee injury late in the year, but could be back in 2013. Gallon (49 catches) returns at wideout.

The defense has made tremendous strides the last two years, but will have to retool without Roh, Campbell and Kovacs. Ryan is a key piece at linebacker. Michigan has a great home schedule in 2013 as the Wolverines will host Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State. If the defense comes through, Michigan could push Nebraska for the Big Ten Legends Division title.

* More Coverage – Click here for more coverage of Michigan.

22. Boise State (11-2)

* Returning Starters – Offense, 7; defense, 5; specialists, 1.

* Key Returnees – QB Joe Southwick, WR Matt Miller, WR Kirby Moore, OT Charles Leno, C Matt Paradis, DE Damarcus Lawrence, DT Ricky Tjong-A-Tjoe, FS Jeremy Ioane, DE Sam Ukwuachu, RB Jay Ajayi

* Key Losses – RB D.J. Harper, WR Chris Potter, TE Chandler Koch, LB Tommy Smith, LB J.C. Perry, CB Jerrell Gavins, CB Jamar Taylor

* The Skinny – Boise State has been a bouncing ball in conference realignment, going from the WAC to the Mountain West. Boise was supposed to move on to the Big East in 2013. But with Big East downrated to also-ran status in the new playoff format starting next year, the Broncos decided to stay put in the Mountain West.

This past year, Boise tied with Fresno State and San Diego State for the Mountain West title before defeating Washington in the Poinsettia Bowl (28-26). Boise figures to be the MWC favorite in 2013 and, with a top-15 finish, could also snag a BCS bowl bid.

Southwick (2,730 yards passing, 19 TDs) returns for his senior year at quarterback. Miller (66 catches) and Moore (36 catches) will energize the passing game. Defensively, the Broncos must rework much of the back seven.

23. Miami (Fla.) (7-5)

* Returning Starters – Offense, 11; defense, 9; specialists, 0.

* Key Returnees – QB Stephen Morris, RB Duke Johnson, WR Phillip Dorsett, WR Allen Hurns, OT Seantrel Henderson, DE Shayon Green, MLB Denzel Perryman, OLB Gionni Paul, OLB Eddie Johnson, S A.J. Highsmith, DE Anthony Chickillo, WR Rashawn Scott

* Key Losses – RB Mike James, WR Davon Johnson, DT Darius Smith, LB Ramon Buchanan, CB Brandon McGee

* The Skinny – News broke on Wednesday that the NCAA will prolong its investigation into allegations against Miami football due to wrongdoing by NCAA investigators. What that means going forward for this program – which has self-imposed two postseason bans already – is anybody’s guess.

On the field, Miami tied with North Carolina and Georgia Tech for the ACC Coastal Division title. Miami’s personnel losses are minimal. Morris (3,345 yards passing, 21 TDs) returns at quarterback, while Johnson (947 yards rushing, 10 TDs) became a star as a freshman. Dorsett (58 catches) and Scott (35 catches) return as well.

Defensively, Miami played a ton of underclassmen. The Canes must grow up and produce after finishing 116th out of 120 FBS schools in total defense. Coach Al Golden has been the good soldier through the last two years. He has to hope he can contend for a championship in 2013.

* More Coverage – Click here for more coverage of Miami.

24. Northwestern (10-3)

* Returning Starters – Offense, 8; defense, 7; specialists, 2.

* Key Returnees – QB Kain Colter, RB Venric Mark, WR Tony Jones, QB Trevor Siemian, WR Christian Jones, WR Rashad Lawrence, DE Tyler Scott, MLB Damien Proby, OLB Chi Chi Ariguzo, FS Ibraheim Campbell

* Key Losses – WR Demetrius Fields, OT Patrick Ward, OG Brian Mulroe, LB David Nwabuisi

* The Skinny – It was a great year at Northwestern, which reached the 10-win plateau for just the third time in school history. Coach Pat Fitzgerald capped the year with a Gator Bowl win over Mississippi State (34-20) – the school’s first bowl win since 1949.

The offense will be in great shape with the multitalented Colter (872 yards passing, 894 yards rushing, 20 total TDs) and Siemian (1,312 yards passing, 6 TDs) returning to split the quarterback role. Mark (1,366 yards rushing, 12 TDs) gave NU the rushing threat it has been missing. Most of the receiving corps is back as well.

With so many talented and experienced players back on both sides of the ball, it could be a special year in Evanston. After all, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State all must visit Ryan Field.

25. USC (7-6)

* Returning Starters – Offense, 8; defense, 7; specialists, 1.

* Key Returnees – RB Silas Redd, WR Marqise Lee, WR D.J. Morgan,

* Key Losses – CB Nickell Robey*, WR Robert Woods*, QB Matt Barkley, TB Curtis McNeal, DE Wes Horton, SS Jawanza Starling, FS T.J. McDonald

* The Skinny – USC was the preseason No. 1 in the AP poll, but the Trojans never came close to living up to that lofty ranking. They did open the year 6-1, but lost five of their last six games including an embarrassing Sun Bowl loss to Georgia Tech (21-7).

Barkley’s four-year run as the USC quarterback came to an unfulfilling end. Max Wittek will have the first shot at replacing him. Redd (905 yards rushing, 9 TDs) transferred from Penn State and still has a year left. Lee (118 catches, 1,721 yards, 14 TDs) had one of the most prolific seasons for a receiver anywhere. USC fans should enjoy him now because he should be gone for the NFL after the 2013 season.

The defense must improve after giving up big numbers in several of the losses (most notably 62 points to Oregon). Coach Lane Kiffin always finds a way to get into the headlines. The hope has to be it’s because of USC’s winning ways in 2013. If it all works out, the Pac-12 South should come down to USC and UCLA.

* More Coverage – Click here for more coverage of USC.

Conference Breakdown

Here is the breakdown of conferences in our top 25:

* SEC (6 teams) – Alabama (1), Texas A&M (3), Georgia (5), South Carolina (9), Florida (11), LSU (18)

* Big Ten (5 teams) – Ohio State (2), Nebraska (17), Wisconsin (20), Michigan (21), Northwestern (24)

* Pac-12 (5 teams) – Oregon (4), Stanford (7), UCLA (16), Oregon Stat

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