- Ryan McGee, ESPN Senior Writer
Back in January we took a look at my man Mark Schlabach's Way-Too-Early Top 25 and did some speculating on which teams within that 25 should make big early moves up or down based on strength of schedule.
But what about the teams that likely will start the 2012 season outside the Top 25? Which of those squads could we see entering the rankings early and often?
We took a look at Schlabach's most recent rankings and came up with seven outside his top 25 that have the potential to rise into the polls early.
First four games: at BYU, Eastern Washington, at UNLV, Colorado
People are hyped about what's happening at Wazzu, and not just the folks in Pullman. There's national buzz, and it won't take much for Associated Press voters to buy in. If the Cougars can launch the Mike Leach era with a win over another set of Cougars in a nationally televised Thursday night season opener at BYU (no easy task, but not impossible, either), that bandwagon will need new shocks to handle all the folks climbing aboard.
After Provo, it's three weeks of opponents that include FCS school Eastern Washington and then UNLV and Colorado, who combined to win five games last season. By the time State hosts Oregon on Sept. 29, it could be 4-0 and in the 20-25 range of the AP poll.
First four games: Western Michigan, at Arizona State, Charleston Southern, La. Tech
One year ago the Fighting Illini hadn't received a single preseason AP Top 25 vote, but after winning their first four they had risen to 24th, and by the time they hit 6-0 they were up to 16th. (As everyone in Champaign recalls, they then dropped six in a row and ended the season 7-6.)
There is potential for a repeat performance this season, but it will again likely hinge on a win over Arizona State. Last year the Sun Devils came to Illinois ranked 22nd and lost.
On the flip side, ASU could make its own early Top 25 push with a win over Illinois. But even if it romps, that momentum isn't likely to last with ensuing trips to Missouri and Cal and a home date with Utah.
First four games: Northern Colorado, at Utah State, BYU, at Arizona State
Speaking of that home date versus Utah, the Utes could very well be inside the Top 25 by the time that Sept. 22 contest happens.
Kyle Whittingham's squad didn't have the kind of Pac-12 start it had dreamed of in 2011, dropping its first four conference games to USC, Washington, Arizona State, and Cal, but the Utes rallied to finish 8-5. This year they return nine starters on offense to complement seven returners on D. They should cruise in their first two games, then hit the Holy War (though we're not supposed to call it that anymore) and then travel to Tempe. If they can get to their end-of-September bye week undefeated, even a Thursday night loss at home to USC likely wouldn't be enough to punch them out of the Top 25.
By the way, it must be noted here that if BYU takes care of both Washington State and Utah in two of its first three games, then it, too, should be considered a Top 25-worthy squad. But who the heck scheduled Boise State for the Thursday night after the Holy War?
First four games: at Northern Illinois, Iowa State, Northern Iowa, Central Michigan
A perennially rock-solid coaching staff has finally had some turnover in Iowa City, and the team has made headlines for all the wrong reasons in the past year.
Both of those add up to the perfect formula for sneaking up on poll voters in the early going of the 2012 season. The biggest challenge will be the annual Cy-Hawk game with Iowa State, but the revenge factor will be high after last year's stunning loss in Ames.
If Kirk Ferentz can get his team through the Cyclones, the Hawkeyes likely will hit their Oct. 6 open date with a 5-0 record (they host Minnesota to end September) and standing on the doorstep of the Top 25.
First four games: NC State (Atlanta), Georgia State, Florida, Akron
Some people want so bad for the Vols to be good again, being a "traditional power" and all that. (The same can be said of the Gators, who made Schlabach's list.) As a result, all it would take to catapult them into the Top 25 is be a key win early in the season, and a Week 1 victory over NC State (the Wolfpack are likely to be in the lower rungs of the preseason AP Top 25) certainly would qualify.
Whoever wins the Sept. 15 game between UT and UF at Neyland Stadium is likely to receive some early-autumn love from voters.
I'm not saying the Volunteers will necessarily actually be good enough to deserve a Top 25 spot. I'm just saying that because of their brand, the road to get there isn't as long for them as most others. Once the meat of their conference schedule starts, however, any shakiness could be exposed in a hurry.
First four games: Texas State, La. Tech, at UCLA, Rice (neutral site)
The Cougars have lost their two high-profile leaders, former head coach Kevin Sumlin and living UH legend Case Keenum. But new head coach Tony Levine isn't actually new. He's been a Houston assistant for four years, including the past two as assistant head coach. The Cougars also return four starting offensive linemen and all-conference tailback Charles Sims. The likely starter at quarterback will be David Piland, whom you might remember as the guy who stepped in for Keenum in 2010 and became a freshman All-American by throwing for 2,641 yards and 24 TDs in eight starts.
A trip to UCLA -- after the Bruins have just hosted Nebraska -- would appear to be the only semimajor roadblock through the season's first segment. AP voters aren't likely to buy in to the team as quickly this year as they did in 2011, when they were burned by Houston's BCS-crushing loss to Southern Miss in the Conference USA title game. But if the Cougars hit mid-October at 6-0 with big offensive numbers, they'll be hard to ignore.
First four games: at Tulane, Howard, at USF, at Arkansas
The Scarlet Knights don't have to win their first four to crack the Top 25. That's a good thing, because they aren't going to win in Fayetteville.
But if a team that is likely to garner a couple of preseason votes manages to win a Thursday night ESPN game at USF and then merely has a decent showing against the Razorbacks, that momentum could carry it into the lower fifth of the Top 25 during October. That month includes home games versus UConn, Syracuse and Kent State and a trip to Temple. (Speaking of Temple, the Owls could also easily have made this list. Keep an eye on their Sept. 22 trip to Penn State.)
When the Scarlet Knights host Louisville in the Nov. 29 season finale, it could be for the Big East title. Which as of today still means a BCS bowl berth.