Which programs are looking forward to a parade in 2013?
The 2012 season opened like any other: The internet world chock full of preseason hype, expectations and predictions.
However, the actual games, as we all know now, did not always go according to plan. The nation's preseason No. 1 team, the USC Trojans, finished their year with an embarrassing loss to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl. Notre Dame, unranked in the preseason, made it all the way to the BCS National Championship game. An unknown from the heart of Texas became the first freshman ever to win the Heisman Trophy in Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel.
However, following the declarations of a record number of underclassmen for the NFL Draft, we at least have a far better idea as to how teams are shaping up for 2013.
Or do we? If the 2012 campaign taught us anything it is that the only thing the 2013 season can guarantee us all as fans is that it cannot guarantee a thing.
That said, never fear, Gamedayr Nation: The fact that a potential preseason top 25 may eventually make us all here look like idiots has not stopped us from going ahead and putting together a rankings anyways.
There are a number of teams chomping at the bit to prove they can take down the champions. But, as the old saying goes, "You have to beat the best before you can be the best" and until the games are actually played, no one is going to beat who we've got at No. 1.
25. Northern Illinois Huskies
Yes, the Huskies were overmatched by the cream of the ACC crop, Florida State, in the 2013 Orange Bowl. However, the loss should not take away everything from the fantastic season that was for quarterback Jordan Lynch and the rest of his underdog crew.
A season bookended by defeats included a 12-game win streak in between and a second consecutive MAC championship -- and the Mid-American Conference is nothing to sneeze at anymore.
Lynch proved to be a one-man wrecking crew in 2012, setting the all-time single-season rushing record for a quarterback with 1,815 on the year.
Discount Dekalb's finest at your peril, but any team with Lynch under center is going to be dangerous.
24. Baylor Bears
After losing the greatest player in school history, RGIII, to the NFL Draft, coach Art Briles' program was expected to fall flat on its face.
However, with one of the nation's leader in passing and total yardage, Nick Florence, under center, the Bears played some of the nation's best football with the entire country tuned in. Florence and his teammates shredded then-No. 1 Kansas State, 52-24, and rode the momentum to season-ending victories over Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, and UCLA in the Holiday Bowl.
However, just like prior to last season, Briles and his staff must go back to the drawing board after losing another star quarterback as Florence graduates to the NFL.
Luckily, whomever lines up under center in Waco will be able to hand the ball off to Lache Seastruck, an Oregon transfer chomping at the bit to dominate the pass-happy Big 12. Seastruck has already guaranteed a Heisman for Baylor in 2013.
23. Vanderbilt Commodores
Coach James Franklin's Commodores have proven they can hang with the big boys of the SEC, earning back-to-back postseason berths for the first time in school history.
However, with several of the team's top defenders all returning and arguably the best wide receiving tandem in the conference also coming back, the fate of the team rests on the right arm of Wyoming transfer Austyn Carta-Samuels.
Carta-Samuels spent the year watching and learning behind Jordan Rodgers, the little brother of Green Bay Packers' star Aaron, but 2013 will be his year to shine.
Vandy's defense finished fifth in the rough-and-tumble SEC in 2012. Franklin recruited the nation's No. 1 JUCO tight end in Brandon Vandenburg to join wideouts Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd.
Again, success rests on whether or not Carta-Samuels can tie all the disparate parts together to make some beautiful music in Nashville.
22. Boise State Broncos
In what felt like a down year for coach Chris Petersen and his Broncos, Boise State once again finished atop the Mountain West standings with an 11-2 overall record.
Perhaps that is because the departed Kellen Moore won more games than any other quarterback in college football history. It is never easy providing the follow-up act to a legend, but quarterback Joe Southwick performed admirably as Moore's replacement.
Southwick will be a senior next season. If he can carry over the momentum from his 264-yard, two touchdown, zero interception performance against Washington in the Las Vegas Bowl, the Broncos will find themselves in their familiar role of chasing a perfect record.
Unfortunately, he and Petersen will be going for it without DJ Harper and his 1,137 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2012, as the star tailback graduated.
At this point, however, one might be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to bet against Boise and Petersen's 84-8 career record.
21. Nebraska Cornhuskers
The Huskers' offensively dominated the 2012 regular season. In finishing 10-2, quarterback Taylor Martinez, running backs Rex Burkhead and Ameer Abdullah, and the rest of the offense led the Big Ten in just about every major statistical category.
However, it will not matter how Martinez and Co. fare in 2013 if Nebraska's vaunted Blackshirt D performs like it did in the team's final two games of the season. You cannot expect to give up 70 and 45 points in consecutive games and expect to win either of them. Unfortunately, both of those embarrassing defensive performances were on national television.
That being said, this entire program should be motivated to try to finally get over the hump for Martinez. The 2013 season will be the dual-threat star's swan song in Lincoln, and nothing short of a Big Ten title should make this team happy.
20. UCLA Bruins
Two fresh faces led a renaissance in UCLA football in 2012. Jim Mora Jr., looking for a new beginning, took on the coaching duties following the failed regime of Rick Neuheisel and led the Bruins to nine wins -- after winning an ugly six in 2011.
Mora groomed redshirt freshman Brett Hundley into a star in his own right, as the 6-foot-3, 223-pound Arizona native threw for 3,740 yards and 29 touchdowns.
The program loses Doak Walker Award finalist and all-time leading rusher Johnathan Franklin to graduation, and his 1,734 yards will surely be missed. That said, Mora and Hundley have this program headed in the right direction.
19. Northwestern Wildcats
The Northwestern Wildcats have really only enjoyed success on the gridiron at two different times in the program's history: When Pat Fitzgerald was playing and now that Pat Fitzgerald is coaching.
Fitzgerald won the Bronco Nagurski, Chuck Bednarick and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year awards all two times, but what he has done as a coach in Evanston is nothing short of a miracle.
In 2012, the Wildcats finished with a 10-3 record and carried the Big Ten mantle in the postseason, taking down Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl to earn the program's first bowl win since 1949.
With the team's two quarterbacks, pocket passer Trevor Siemian and dual-threat stud Kain Colter, both returning, the team's fans should not have to wait another 60 years for another postseason victory.
Not to mention another double-digit win season.
18. Kansas State Wildcats
K-State won the second Big 12 title in its history and a berth in the Fiesta Bowl in 2013 on the raw desire and leadership abilities of Heisman Trophy finalist Collin Klein.
However, Klein graduated and 73-year old coach Bill Snyder recruits to a system, not talent. Thus, most do not expect the Wildcats to repeat as league champions.
However, just as the squad's chances were dictated by its quarterback in 2012, the performance of Jake Waters will go a long way towards the team's Big 12 title chances in 2013.
Waters was named the JUCO National Player of the Year in 2012, completing 73.3 percent of his passes for 3,501 yards and 39 touchdowns en route to a 12-0 record for Iowa Western Community College. Waters runs a 4.65-second 40-yard dash despite his 6-foot-2, nearly 220-pound frame. Thus, he may be able to recreate a bit of the hard-nosed running Klein became known for in his time in the Little Apple.
17. TCU Horned Frogs
Coach Gary Patterson's squad easily won its first four games on the strength of Casey Pachall's right arm. However, after piling up 10 touchdown passes to merely one interception, Pachall dropped out of school and enrolled in a alcohol rehab facility.
Trevone Boykin, just a freshman, played well in his stead, but the entire offense looked lost at times.
Pachall recently returned to campus, re-enrolled in classes, and hit the weight room. The team loses top linebacker Kenny Cain but returns nine defensive starters next season.
This team is not going to give up a lot of points. It merely remains to be seen whether or not Pachall and Boykin can score enough to help this team improve upon its 7-6 2012 record.
16. LSU Tigers
No team was hit harder by attrition than coach Les Miles' LSU Tigers. Yes, Miles will always be able to recruit, and will always have unbelievably talented players -- especially on defense -- coming through the ranks.
However, even Miles is going to have a tough time replacing his entire defensive line as well as his best linebackers and defensive backs. In all, less than half of Miles' defensive starters from a team that gave up big points to Clemson in a Chick-fil-A Bowl loss to Clemson are back.
Further, no LSU team is considered a success unless it has won double-digit games. If that is going to happen in 2013, the 1-2 punch of quarterback Zach Mettenberger and running back Jeremy Hill must be as potent as the talent of each of these players promises.
If not, the Tigers may find themselves in the middle of an always crowded SEC, and that is not a spot this program and its fans are very used to.
15. Florida State Seminoles
Like LSU, FSU has been hit extremely hard by attrition. However, instead of players leaving in a mass exodus, it has been coaches. Defensive coordinator Mark Stoops is now the head coach at Kentucky and offensive coordinator James Coley took over the same role at Miami.
That being said, fifth-year senior quarterback EJ Manuel finally got what he wanted in 2012. His coach, Jimbo Fisher, also finally got exactly what he had been working for.
However, after earning the program's first ACC title since 2005, the Noles were not able to prove anything on a national level after drawing Northern Illinois in their bowl game. Not to take anything away from the stellar season NIU enjoyed, but a 31-10 drubbing did not impress or surprise anybody, unfortunately for both teams.
So now it is back to the drawing board at the quarterback position. Clint Trickett will be a junior next season and Jacob Coker will be a sophomore. There is not much experience between the two, so expect a battle for the position come spring practices.
14. Texas Longhorns
If you were to ask Longhorns fans, Coach Mack Brown has been in Austin for about two to even three years too long.
While his teams have generally underperformed -- based on the talent the program recruits -- Brown and his squad still managed to squeeze out nine wins in a down year. That includes a fantastic win over Oregon State in the Alamo Bowl that should provide some solid momentum for a program that returns an NCAA leading 19 starters from a season ago.
Young gun-slingin' quarterback David Ash is only going to get better, and more importantly, so will the defense. The team loses senior sack-master Alex Okafor, but Jackson Jeffcoat will be returning with a vengeance. Jeffcoat suffered a pectoral injury that sidelined him for most of the season, but he recorded four sacks in the six games he did see time in.
13. Oklahoma Sooners
All eyes will be on Blake Bell this offseason and in 2013. The departure of one of the most decorated passers in school history, Landry Jones, makes the bruising dual-threat signal caller the incumbent starter in Norman.
As always, heavy expectations will weigh on this program.
In 2012, coach Bob Stoops' crew failed to live up to them, losing to both Kansas State and Notre Dame at home. The talent is there -- it always will be -- but the winning must come with it.
12. Michigan Wolverines
Coach Brady Hoke's squad regressed in 2012, going from a Sugar Bowl win over Virginia Tech in 2011 to a last-second Outback Bowl loss to South Carolina this year. However, the potential is there to finish far higher next season.
Yes, the Wolverines lose record-setting dual-threat star Denard Robinson, but at this point it has become widely understood that the program has a far better chance at reaching the level of the elite with Devin Gardner under center.
Gardner can make plays with his feet like Robinson, although without the Olympic-level speed. What is most important is that he can hit open receivers. Leading wideout Jeremy Gallon finished with nine receptions for 145 yards and two scores against a highly celebrated SEC defense. A full offseason of pitch-and-catch should do wonders for both players.
All of this being said, the fact that Gardner is going to have all day to throw the football behind one of the nation's top tackles, Taylor Lewan, cannot be understated. His decision to forgo a likely top 10 draft selection immediately bumps this team's conference and national credibility.
11. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Once all of the hoopla surrounding Manti Te'o's dead/fake boy/girlfriend finally dies down, the spotlight will focus squarely on the golden helmet of quarterback Everett Golson in 2013.
As a sophomore starter, Golson was only expected to manage football games, finishing the year with 2,405 passing yards, 12 touchdowns and six interceptions.
With three of the team's top four tacklers, including Heisman runner-up Te'o, and both of the team's leading rushers all departing as seniors, Golson will have to continue the upward trend he showed towards the end of the regular season if Notre Dame is to have a fighting chance of another BCS title game. Golson threw for at least 200 yards in each of the final five games of the year.
All of this being said, this Irish squad was embarrassed by the Tide in Miami. Golson has the talent to be a star, but someone is going to have to step up in the locker, film and weight room to continue the program's upward trend -- and that player should probably introduce his teammates to his real girlfriend, just sayin'.
10. Clemson Tigers
Talk about capping the season off with a bang. Tigers quarterback Tajh Boyd has the chance to continue to prove his mettle as the face of the ACC -- not to mention a Heisman favorite -- with a huge senior season for Clemson.
The Tigers finished with an 11-2 record in 2012 and a huge upset of LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. However, a repeat of Boyd's 3,896 pass yards and 46 total touchdowns will be rendered moot if the squad's defense does not show improvement upon the team's recently completed campaign.
The team finished 47th-nationally in giving up 24.8 points per game. The unit was by no means an embarrassment, but in order to earn a BCS bowl invite, a program's defense must be above average-to-dominant.
9. Florida Gators
Coach Will Muschamp's Gators ended their season on a sour note in getting lambasted by Louisville in the Sugar Bowl. Make no mistake (and Muschamp himself would be the first to admit this) the 33-23 final score is far closer than the game itself actually was.
That being said, no one can take away the type of two-season improvement a 7-6 2011 finish and an 11-2 mark in 2012 actually is. It is enormous, and it was undertaken despite the growing pains suffered by true sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel.
The extremely mobile passer with a rocket arm will have yet another full offseason to hone his skills with his underachieving wide receivers. Matt Jones is an uber-talented runner and will be a sophomore when he is expected to take over for the graduating Mike Gillislee in the backfield.
Oh yeah, and the defense that finished No. 3-overall in 2012 is going to be loaded once again, despite losing star safety Matt Elam and defensive lineman Sharrif Floyd early to the Draft.
8. South Carolina Gamecocks
The Ol' Ball Coach's squad boasts the single scariest man in all of college football in athletic freak of nature Jadeveon Clowney.
Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o finished second in the Heisman balloting in 2012, but if any defensive player has a shot at the nation's most coveted award, it is Clowney. As a mere sophomore, the 6-foot-6, 256-pound monster finished with 13.0 sacks and a silly 23.5 tackles for a loss.
Offensively, the team losses senior running back Kenny Miles, who filled in admirably for the injured Marcus Lattimore. Lattimore still led the team in rushing yards despite the gruesome, season-ending knee injury sustained against Tennessee.
Freshman Mike Davis finished with 275 yards on 52 attempts for an average of 5.3 yards per carry. If he can handle a full load in his second year, the pressure on quarterbacks Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson to make plays with both their arm and legs will be alleviated. Shaw is heading into offseason surgery on his foot.
7. Louisville Cardinals
Superstar quarterback Teddy Bridgewater might have the adorable, brace-faced smile of a teddy bear, but he is a fierce competitor that will play injured and make accurate throws in all situations.
He will enter the 2013 season as a favorite to make a run at Johnny Manziel's Heisman Trophy, but the Cardinals still have some holes to fill before earning national respect as an elite program.
Charlie Strong had his team prepared to a 'T' and Louisville managed to knock off SEC mainstay Florida in the Sugar Bowl. However, in order to make The Leap, there needs to be a running game that at least keeps defensive fronts honest.
Teddy B cannot take the type of beating he took in his sophomore year. Jeremy Wright (824 yards and 10 touchdowns) and Senorise Perry (705 and 11) will both be seniors next season. If they want to leave a lasting mark on the history of their football program, they must improve their team's 105th-overall rushing ranking.
6. Georgia Bulldogs
Georgia's record-setting quarterback, Aaron Murray, has officially announced his return to the Red and Black for one more go-around. The two-headed freshman monster he handed the ball off to, Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley, will also be back and better than ever.
However, despite the return of the core of the offense, this team may be losing too many defensive pieces to make a championship puzzle in 2013.
Legitimate superstar linebackers Alec Ogletree and Jarvis Jones are both headed to the NFL, as is 350-pound defensive tackle John Jenkins. Even with those three and the defensive backs the team is losing (senior safety Shawn Williams finished second on the team with 98 tackles and fellow senior Bacarro Rambo finished fourth with 73) the Bulldogs gave up 44 points to Tennessee, 35 to South Carolina 24 to Kentucky, and 31 to Nebraska.
The Dawgs will be the hungriest team in the country in 2013 and it will be interesting to watch the season unfold for Murray and Co. -- but can a series of defensive newcomers keep opposing offenses at bay?
5. Oregon Ducks
The Quack Attack slips a bit after former head coach Chip Kelly broke the hearts of Duck Nation by hopping across the country to take over the vacant coaching position with the Philadelphia Eagles. However, bumping Mark Helfrich up from offensive coordinator to Kelly's old office was the only logical move to make, and it was a great one.
Kelly is the architect of one of the most consistently prolific offenses in the history of football, at any level, but Helfrich understands the ins and outs of Kelly's system better than anyone else. Equally as important, Helfrich understands the type of weapons that will be at his disposal. His current quarterback, Marcus Mariota, finished his redshirt freshman campaign with 2,677 pass yards, another 752 on the ground and 37 total touchdowns.
Oregon loses Doak Walker Award finalist Kenjon Barner, but in his place slides the even faster De'Anthony Thomas. Known as the 'Black Mamba', Thomas turned heads as a freshman in 2011 and continued to show off the type of speed that simply makes jaws drop in 2012. He will be a junior in 2013, and the running back duties will be his and his alone.
Kind of makes you feel bad for opposing Pac-12 defenses.
On the subject of defense, we would talk about Oregon's, but Kelly never did so neither will we.
4. Stanford Cardinal
Coach David Shaw took over for program savior Jim Harbaugh and actually did his predecessor one better. With a redshirt freshman quarterback at the helm, it was Kevin Hogan, not No. 1-overall draft pick Andrew Luck, who led the Cardinal to their first Rose Bowl win in 40 years.
The squad loses star running back Stepfan Taylor, as well as leading tacklers Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas.
However, after winning 12 games for just the second time in school history, especially when everyone and their mother expected a swift fall from grace following the departures of Harbaugh and Luck, anything seems possible.
3. Ohio State Buckeyes
The arrival of two-time BCS National Champion Urban Meyer from the Swamp of Florida to the Buckeye State may have resulted in a third personal title had it not been for Ohio State's self-imposed bowl ban in reaction to a memorabilia-for-tattoos scandal. The subsequent cover-up resulted in the firing of another national champion in Jim Tressel.
Led by dual-threat star quarterback Braxton Miller, OSU finished out Meyer's first season at the helm a perfect 12-0, and in no way had the team reached its full potential.
Carlos Hyde finished second, behind Miller, with 970 rush yards and 16 touchdowns. He did so despite missing two games with a knee injury; Hyde is expected to make big moves as a senior. The team's leading receivers, Corey Brown and Devin Smith, are also both returning.
Further, each of the team's top five leading tacklers are coming back to Columbus as well. That includes monstrous sophomore linebacker Ryan Shazier, who finished 2012 with 114 total tackles.
2. Texas A&M Aggies
In 2012, the nation was introduced to Johnny Manziel -- or shall we say Johnny Football -- the sensational playmaker who captured the imagination of college football fans near and far. Manziel became the first freshman to ever win the Heisman Trophy after besting the marks set by Tim Tebow and Cam Newton en route to an SEC-record 5,116 total yards.
Repeating both his and his team's surprising success will not be easy. Offensive lineman Luke Joeckel is projected to be the No. 1-overall selection in the upcoming NFL Draft and junior Damontre Moore is going to be a top five selection himself. It will not be easy for coach Kevin Sumlin to replace Joeckel (although Jake Matthews is fantastic in his own right) or Moore's 12.5 sacks from 2012.
That being said, Sumlin and Manziel are going to have so many offensive weapons at their disposal it's not even going to be funny. Well, at least not to opposing defenses. The 12th Man, on the other hand, is going to be having a ball.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
Were you expecting anyone else?
Winners of three of the last four BCS National Championships, the Tide simply keeps on rollin'.
The nation's leader in passing efficiency, AJ McCarron, is returning for his senior season. So is defensive captain CJ Mosley. They are not going to be seniors, but so are leading receiver Amari Cooper and 1,000-yard rusher TJ Yeldon.
Need we say more? No, no we don't.