1. LSU: Key defensive players depart, but the Tigers will reload, not rebuild. Their defensive line may be even better. The running backs are back. New QB Zach Mettenberger should not be a downgrade. They play Alabama at home, and the non-conference schedule – N. Texas, Idaho, Washington, Towson – should be less of a bear.
2. USC: Heisman favorite Matt Barkley is back, as are his two favorite targets, Robert Woods and Marqise Lee. Four out of five offensive line starters are back, though the fifth was Matt Kalil. The defensive line must be rebuilt, though they have a deep, talented secondary. They edge Oregon, only because they will play them at the Coliseum.
3. Oregon: LaMichael James is leaving, but Oregon returns Darron and DeAnthony Thomas, Huff, Barner and seven starters on defense. Facing a rebuilding Pac 12 with a soft (Ark State, Fresno State, Tennessee Tech) non-conference schedule, they should be a win at USC away from the BCS title game.
4. Alabama: They are the defending champs. They are coached by Nick Saban. That said, their historic defense will be gutted, losing Upshaw, Hightower, Barron, Kirkpatrick and others. McCarron returns on offense, but they lose focal point Trent Richardson and coordinator Jim McElwain. They play Arkansas and LSU on the road and an experienced Michigan team early. The Tide should be in the discussion, but might not have quite enough in the tank to repeat.
5. Florida State: Yes, we’ll get sucked in. Last year’s returning Seminoles that got everyone hot and bothered are returning again. They bring back virtually the entire two-deep from a defense that ranked third in yards allowed per play behind LSU and Bama. If they can stabilize the offensive line, FSU should be BCS bowling, at least.
6. Georgia: The scheduling gods again showed favor to Mark Richt. The Dawgs should return nine starters from the No. 7 ranked defense. They potentially have the most talented backfield in the SEC with Murray and Crowell. If the offensive line, with three new starters, can hold up, they should show up in Atlanta and put up a better fight.
8. South Carolina: The OBC returns 20 starters next year, 10 of them on offense. We like the cut of Connor Shaw’s jib. Lattimore should be back healthy. The Cocks likely lose some vigor defensively (DE Ingram, CB Gilmore), but retain a seasoned Jadeveon Clowney.
10. Arkansas: The Razorbacks play Alabama and LSU at home, but have to beat them. Tyler Wilson comes back for a strong senior season, though he loses star WRs Adams and Jarius Wright. They have running back depth, led by the return of Knile Davis. More consistent play from the defense and the offensive line could lead to a special season.
11. Michigan State: Sparty loses Jerel Worthy but brings back Pat Narduzzi and five All-Big Ten defenders from a top-five defense. Four starters back should help the offensive line. They have
Baker and Bell*, but they lose Cousins at quarterback and every starter at wide receiver and tight end. They better hope DeAnthony Arnett gets that waiver.
12. Michigan: Last year was a transition year on both sides of the ball. Denard, Fitzgerald Toussaint and most of the offensive line are back on offense. They return their entire back seven for a second-year under Greg Mattison (and won’t be starting three freshmen). The major concern is the defensive line, decimated by the losses of seniors Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen. Their schedule is also brutal, playing Alabama at a neutral site, at Notre Dame, at Nebraska and at Ohio State.
13. Virginia Tech: They bring back nearly every starter from Bud Foster’s defense. Strong-armed Logan Thomas should look far less overwhelmed. They play another pansy non-conference schedule (Pitt, Bowling Green, Cincinnati, Austin Peay) and get Florida State at home. That said, losing every starting guard and tackle can’t be a positive thing.
14. Florida: Will Muschamp brings back 10 starters from a defense that was No. 8 overall last season. The offense won’t work miracles, but having four starters return on the offensive line should stabilize things a bit for the next offensive coordinator, whoever that may be.
15. Notre Dame: Michael Floyd is leaving, but All-Americans Manti Te’o and Tyler Eifert decided to come back. The Irish are building a fearsome front-seven on defense. On offense they have three linemen and most of the skill players back. They could be formidable if Kelly invests in Hendrix at Tommy Turnover’s expense. Their schedule (at Michigan State, at Oklahoma and at USC) will hinder them.
17. Clemson: The Tigers return QB Tajh Boyd and WR Sammy Watkins for a second year under Chad Morris. Their back seven on defense is also back. The issue will be on the lines. They lose three starters on the offensive front. They don’t return a defensive lineman who had a sack last season. There’s also the Dabo factor and the stink of a historic bowl defeat.
18. Texas: The Longhorns have too much talent to be out of the mix this long. The offense improves with 10 starters back, a more experienced quarterback and better luck with running back injuries. Their four losses on defense are a blow, but they should still be the best unit in the Big 12.
19. Wisconsin: The Badgers return just 11 starters from last year’s B1G champion. Montee Ball will be among them, but QB Russell Wilson, OL Peter Konz and WR Nick Toon will not. They also replace five starters on a defense that was not that impressive. They should be reputable and their next unheralded, All-American offensive lineman is probably ripe on the tree, though it will be hard for Wisky to maintain their 2010-11 level of success.
20. Nebraska: Martinez and Burkhead return on offense. They lose Crick, Dennard and David on defense, though the unit underachieved massively last season. They should improve. They are not making their maiden run through the B1G and play Wisconsin and Michigan at home. A customary 9-10 win year under Bo Pelini would place the Cornhuskers right here.
[Photos via Getty]