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Newsday's college football Top 25

Alabama coach Nick Saban watches his players during

Alabama coach Nick Saban watches his players during practice in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (Aug. 6, 2012) Credit: The Tuscaloosa News/Robert Sutton

1. USC

Conference: Pac-12, South Division

Coach: Lane Kiffin, third year (18-7)

Last year: 10-2, 7-2 in Pac-12

Bowl: Ineligible

Final 2011 poll: 6th-AP, Ineligible-Coaches

Starters back: 9 offense, 8 defense

Outlook: QB Matt Barkley passed for 3,528 yards and a Pac-12 record 39 touchdowns then bypassed NFL draft for shot at BCS title and Heisman Trophy. Trojans have best WR combo in Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, veteran OL, defense featuring DBs T.J. McDonald and Nickell Robey and get Oregon at home Nov. 3.


Conference: SEC, East Division

Coach: Mark Richt, 12th year (106-40)

Last year: 10-4, 7-1 in SEC

Outback Bowl: Lost to Michigan St., 33-30 (3OT)

Final 2011 poll: 19th-AP, 20th-Coaches

Starters back: 6 offense, 9 defense

Outlook: Bulldogs have the best SEC defense with NT John Jenkins, LB Jarvis Jones and FS Bacarri Rambo, but four defensive starters, including Rambo, face early suspensions. RB Ken Malcome and freshmen Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall replace departed Isaiah Crowell. Elite QB Aaron Murray can carry to SEC, BCS title games.


Conference: SEC, West Division

Coach: Nick Saban, sixth year (55-12)

Last year: 12-1, 7-1 in SEC

BCS Championship: Def. LSU, 21-0

Final 2011 poll: 1st-AP, 1st-Coaches

Starters back: 6 offense, 4 defense

Outlook: Top-ranked defense might drop off with only 4 returning starters, but senior FS Robert Lester and NG Jesse Williams are anchors. QB AJ McCarron excelled in title win over LSU, and Saban is high on frosh RB T.J. Yeldon. Schedule includes neutral-site Michigan opener Saturday and road tests at Arkansas, Missouri and LSU.


Conference: Big 12

Coach: Bob Stoops, 13th year (139-34)

Last year: 10-3, 6-3 in Big 12

Insight Bowl: Def. Iowa, 31-14

Final 2011 poll: 16th-AP, 15th-Coaches

Starters back: 8 offense, 7 defense

Outlook: Like USC's Barkley, QB Landry Jones also passed on projected first-round NFL draft pick to lead veteran offense that adds freshman WR Trey Metoyer and returns injured RB Dominique Whaley. Ex-Arizona coach Mike Stoops is back as defensive coordinator. Tough finish at West Virginia, vs. Oklahoma State and at TCU.


Conference: ACC, Atlantic Division

Coach: Jimbo Fisher, third year (19-8)

Last year: 9-4, 5-3 in ACC

Champs Sports Bowl: Def. Notre Dame, 18-14

Final 2011 poll: 23rd-AP, 23rd-Coaches

Starters back: 7 offense, 7 defense

Outlook: Seminoles' defense ranked fourth in nation and second against rush and returns bookend DEs Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner and top CBs Xavier Rhodes and Greg Reid. Senior QB EJ Manuel is mobile and freshman WR Kelvin Benjamin (6-6, 242) joins Rashad Greene. Noles' key game is Sept. 22 vs. Clemson.


Conference: Pac-12, North Division

Coach: Chip Kelly, fourth year (34-6)

Last year: 12-2, 8-1 in Pac-12

Rose Bowl: Def. Wisconsin, 45-38

Final 2011 poll: 4th-AP, 4th-Coaches

Starters back: 4 offense, 7 defense

Outlook: Redshirt freshman QB Marcus Mariota starts but may rotate early with soph Bryan Bennett while RB Kenjon Barner and all-purpose RB/WR/PR De’Anthony Thomas provide fireworks. Vet defense adds freshman DL Arik Armstead (6-8, 300). Ducks might get two shots at USC on Nov. 3 in LA and in Pac-12 title game.


Conference: Big Ten, Leaders Division

Coach: Bret Bielema, seventh season (60-19)

Last year: 11-3, 6-2 in Big Ten

Rose Bowl: Lost to Oregon, 45-38

Final 2011 poll: 10th-AP, 11th-Coaches

Starters back: 5 offense, 6 defense

Outlook: Ex-Maryland QB Danny O'Brien replaces ex-N.C. State QB Russell Wilson as transfer-in-residence, but he has two years of eligibility. Heisman finalist Montee Ball, who tied NCAA record with 39 TDs, returns. Badgers must improve run defense but have cakewalk to Big Ten title game since division-rivals Ohio State and Penn State are ineligible.

8. LSU

Conference: SEC, West Division

Coach: Les Miles, eighth year (75-18)

Last year: 13-1, 8-0 in SEC

BCS Championship: Lost to Alabama, 21-0

Final 2011 poll: 2nd-AP, 2nd-Coaches

Starters back: 6 offense, 5 defense

Outlook: When Heisman finalist Tyrann Mathieu was kicked off and reportedly entered drug rehab, Tigers lost big-play dimension at CB/PR. But defense is elite with DEs Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo, and QB Zach Mettenberger is upgrade from departed Jordan Jefferson. Tigers get South Carolina, Alabama at home, finish at Arkansas.


Conference: Big Ten, Legends Division

Coach: Brady Hoke, second year (11-2)

Last year: 11-2, 6-2 in Big Ten

Sugar Bowl: Def. Virginia Tech, 23-20 (OT)

Final 2011 poll: 12th-AP, 9th-Coaches

Starters back: 6 offense, 7 defense

Outlook: Brady Hoke executed shocking turnaround in first season thanks to makeover of defense ranked 17th in country led by DBs Jordan Kovacs and J.T. Floyd. QB Denard Robinson, a run-pass Heisman candidate, must cut down 15 interceptions. Of five toughest games, only Michigan State on Oct. 20 is at Big House.


Conference: ACC, Atlantic Division

Coach: Dabo Swinney, fifth season (29-19)

Last year: 10-4, 6-2 in ACC

Orange Bowl: Lost to West Virginia, 70-33

Final 2011 poll: 22nd-AP, 22nd-Coaches

Starters back: 7 offense, 7 defense

Outlook: Tigers are loaded on offense with QB Tajh Boyd, RB Andre Ellington and WRs Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins. New defensive coordinator Brent Venables must slow opponent scoring from 29.3 per game but has experienced athletes at LB and DB. Upset on Sept. 22 at Florida State paves way to ACC title game.


Conference: Big 12

Coach: Dana Holgorsen, second year (10-3)

Last year: 10-3, 5-2 in Big East

Orange Bowl: def. Clemson, 70-33

Final 2011 poll: 17th-AP, 18th-Coaches

Starters back: 7 offense, 6 defense

Outlook: Mountaineers hope momentum of Orange Bowl blowout and Heisman candidacy of QB Geno Smith leads to fast Big 12 start. Spread offense with WRs Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin fits new league, but new def.-coordinator Joe DeForest from Oklahoma State faces major rebuild changing to 3-4 scheme.


Conference: SEC, East Division

Coach: Steve Spurrier, eighth year (55-35)

Last year: 11-2, 6-2 in SEC

Capital One Bowl: def. Nebraska, 30-13

Final 2011 poll: 9th-AP, 8th-Coaches

Starters back: 7 offense, 6 defense

Outlook: If RB Marcus Lattimore returns to form after October ACL tear, Gamecocks can challenge Georgia in SEC East. Connor Shaw has stabilized QB spot, and defense that ranked third nationally benefits from maturation of soph DE Jadeveon Clowney. Georgia visits on Oct. 6 before trips to LSU, Florida.

13. TCU

Conference: Big 12

Coach: Gary Patterson, 12th year (109-30)

Last year: 11-2, 7-0 in Mountain West

Poinsettia Bowl: def. La. Tech, 31-24.

Final 2011 poll: 14th-AP, 13th-Coaches

Starters back: 7 offense, 5 defense

Outlook: QB Casey Pachall and talented WRs Josh Boyce, Brandon Carter and Skye Dawson figure to keep offense humming near last year's 40.9 points pace. Tough defense features DE Stansly Maponga, LB Kenny Cain, but secondary lacks experience. Frogs might be 7-0 before finishing stretch (at OSU, at WVa, vs. K-State, at Texas, vs. OU).


Conference: SEC, West Division

Coach: John L. Smith, first year

Last year: 11-2, 6-2 in SEC

Cotton Bowl: def. Kansas State, 29-16

Final 2011 poll: 5th-AP, 5th-Coaches

Starters back: 8 offense, 7 defense

Outlook: Former Razorbacks assistant John L. Smith, who has 18 years head-coaching experience, is capable replacement for Bobby Petrino, but his scandalous exit disrupts program. All-SEC QB Tyler Wilson and RB Knile Davis lead top-flight offense. Defense must improve in big games, but gets Alabama, Rutgers and LSU at home.


Conference: Pac-12, North Division

Coach: David Shaw, second year (11-2)

Last year: 11-2, 8-1 in Pac-12

Fiesta Bowl: lost to Okla. State, 41-38 (OT)

Final 2011 poll: 7th-AP, 7th-Coaches

Starters back: 5 offense, 7 defense

Outlook: Junior Josh Nunes succeeds No. 1 NFL draft pick Andrew Luck at QB having completed 1 of 2 passes for 7 yards. But Cardinal relies on its OL factory, RB Stepfan Taylor and possibly freshman Barry Sanders Jr., son of the Hall of Famer. Nation's No. 3 rush defense returns great linebacking crew.

16. Boise State

Conference: Mountain West

Coach: Chris Peterson, seventh year (73-6)

Last year: 12-1, 6-1 in Mountain West

Las Vegas Bowl: def. Arizona State, 56-24

Final 2011 poll: 8th-AP, 6th-Coaches

Starters back: 7 offense, 2 defense

Outlook: Broncos replace NCAA's winningest QB, Kellen Moore, with junior Joe Southwick. He leans on vet O-line and WRs Matt Miller and Mitch Burroughs. Defense with only two returning starters gets major tests in opener at Michigan State and Sept. 22 vs. BYU, but Broncs will dominate MW before Big East move.


Conference: Big East

Coach: Kyle Flood, first year

Last year: 9-4, 4-3 in Big East

Pinstripe Bowl: def. Iowa State, 27-13

Final 2011 poll: 31st-AP, 30th-Coaches

Starters back: 6 offense, 8 defense

Outlook: Strong defense, soft schedule make Knights surprise BCS bowl contender. Big East defensive POY Khaseem Greene and DT Scott Vallone of Central Islip lead No. 14 defense, which adds freshman DE Darius Hamilton. New coach Kyle Flood chose Gary Nova over Chas Dodd at QB. BE title might be prize vs. Louisville Nov. 29.


Conference: ACC, Coastal Division

Coach: Frank Beamer, 26th year (209-98-2)

Last year: 11-3, 7-1 in ACC

Sugar Bowl: lost to Michigan, 23-20 (OT)

Final 2011 poll: 21st-AP, 17th-Coaches

Starters back: 2 offense, 8 defense

Outlook: Versatile QB Logan Thomas, who passed for 3,013 yards and ran for 11 TDs, carries rebuilding offense with freshman RB Michael Holmes. But 10th-ranked defense returns 8 starters, including DE James Gayle and LBs Bruce Taylor and Tariq Edwards. Hokies have clear path to ACC title game in Coastal Division.


Conference: Big Ten, Leaders Division

Coach: Urban Meyer, first year

Last year: 6-7, 3-5 Big Ten

Gator Bowl: lost to Florida, 24-17

Final 2011 poll: NR-AP, NR-Coaches

Starters back: 7 offense, 7 defense

Outlook: Hiring of Ohio native Meyer, a two-time national champ at Florida, erases Jim Tressel ouster despite bowl ban. QB Braxton Miller's run-pass ability fits Meyer's offense, and 19th-ranked defense has DLs John Simon and Johnathan Hankins and influx of freshman talent. Finish at Wisconsin and vs. Michigan are Buckeyes' bowls.

20. UTAH

Conference: Pac-12, South Division

Coach: Kyle Whittingham, eighth year (66-25)

Last year: 8-5, 4-5 in Pac-12

Sun Bowl: def. Georgia Tech, 30-27 (OT)

Final 2011 poll: NR-AP, NR-Coaches

Starters back: 5 offense, 7 defense

Outlook: Rocky Pac-12 debut, but QB Jordan Wynn returns after missing nine games for shoulder surgery. RB John White IV averaged 116.8 yards, and Utes won five of last six. DT Star Lotulelei and safeties Brian Blechen and Eric Rowe lead solid defense. Toughest games are at home vs. BYU and USC.


Conference: Big East

Coach: Charlie Strong, third year (14-12)

Last year: 7-6, 5-2 in Big East

Belk Bowl: lost to North Carolina State, 31-24

Final 2011 poll: NR-AP, NR-Coaches

Starters back: 6 offense, 6 defense

Outlook: Sophomore QB Teddy Bridgewater and team with only nine returning seniors matured late last season. Offense adds redshirt freshman RB Corvin Lamb, and starting secondary returns from defense ranked 17th vs. scoring, 10th vs. rushing. If Cards handle strong non-conference schedule, they should roll to Big East finale at Rutgers.


Conference: Big Ten, Legends Division

Coach: Mark Dantonio, seventh year (44-22)

Last year: 11-3, 7-2 in Big Ten

Outback Bowl: def. Georgia, 33-30 (3OT)

Final 2011 poll: 11th-AP, 10th-Coaches

Starters back: 5 offense, 8 defense

Outlook: Nation's 6th-ranked defense is largely intact, including potential first-rounders in DE William Gholston and CB Johnny Adams. Junior QB Andrew Maxwell replaces departed Kirk Cousins, but RB Le'Veon Bell keys attack. Spartans get Boise State, Notre Dame, Ohio State at home before back-to-back tests at Michigan and Wisconsin. Tough.


Conference: Big 12

Coach: Bill Snyder, 21st year (159-83-1)

Last year: 10-3, 7-2 in Big 12

Cotton Bowl: lost to Arkansas,29-16

Final 2011 poll: 15th-AP, 16th-Coaches

Starters back: 8 offense, 6 defense

Outlook: Collin Klein set FBS record for QBs with 27 rushing touchdowns to lead offense that averaged 31.8 points. Starting backfield and receivers all return, and Wildcats add junior college WR Marquez Clark (98 catches-1,639 yards). K-State won eight games by a TD or less and must improve defense that allowed 27.9 points.


Conference: ACC, Coastal Division

Coach: Larry Fedora, first year

Last year: 7-6, 3-5 in ACC

Independence Bowl: lost to Missouri, 41-24

Final 2011 poll: NR-AP, NR-Coaches

Starters back: 7 offense, 4 defense

Outlook: Former Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora should right a ship rocked by scandal that led to postseason ban. ACC pass efficiency leader Bryn Renner and 1,000-yard RB Giovani Bernard lead talented offense. New defense features five DBs. Tar Heels get division foes Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech at home. No Florida State or Clemson.


Conference: C-USA, East Division

Coach: George O'Leary, ninth year (50-51)

Last year: 5-7, 3-5 in C-USA

Bowl: None

Final 2011 poll: NR-AP, NR-Coaches

Starters back: 3 offense, 6 defense

Outlook: Knights should rebound after losing six games by TD or less. Defense ranked ninth nationally led by DE Victor Gray and FS Kemal Ishmael. QB Blake Bortles was 68 percent passer in expanded backup role, and transfer Miami RB Storm Johnson joins deep backfield ahead of move to Big East in 2013.

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