Florida State has been crowned. The 2013 season is over. Thus, it is now, officially, time for the media to make wild speculations about 2014. In that vein, we have provided our version of the “Way Too Early” Top 25 for next season.
N.B. Factoring in 2014 schedules before they are played is silly. We did not factor them into this. Teams were broadly ranked using a weighted SRS formula. Spot adjustments were made based on factors that tend to correlate with success: returning quarterbacks, returning starters, being coached by Gus Malzahn etc. Here are the rankings.
1. Florida State Seminoles: The Shield will take its perennial toll, but, whatever the casualty list, the defending champion Seminoles should come back loaded. Jameis Winston has one more year of indentured servitude. The Noles return almost every offensive and defensive lineman. They are flush at the skill positions. The next round of emerging five-stars should be ready to slot in on defense. They play in a conference ill prepared to compete with them. Achilles Heel: Knife etiquette.
2. Alabama Crimson Tide: Program-building puts a team in position to be disappointed. Coming a fluke play away is an off-year for Alabama. The Tide should have a top-notch defense, despite a couple high-profile departures. They return a horde of running backs and receivers. Most of the offensive line comes back. Alabama’s foremost concern is replacing A.J. McCarron. That could be fifth-year senior Blake Sims, or one from a group of talented first and second-year players. Achilles Heel: Hammer of Stoops
3. Oregon Ducks: Helfrich scored two big coups, keeping the Ducks’ best player on offense (Marcus Mariota) and defense (Ifo Ekpre-Olomu) out of the NFL Draft. Oregon’s offense should be fine, with most of the skill talent and the entire offensive line coming back. Their defense faces more of a transition. The Ducks lose depth up front (from an underwhelming 2013 group) and will have a new defensive coordinator. The season should come down to one or two games, again. Achilles Heel: Uniform fatigue.
4. Stanford Cardinal: The Cardinal development program is proven. Five-stars are waiting off stage. Stanford should return another authoritative offensive line. Their major issues will be at tailback (25 returning carries combined) and replacing much of the front seven on defense (Troy Murphy and Shane Skov are out). We can presume, given recent history, a high floor for this team. The ceiling depends on how much Kevin Hogan will improve during his third year. He played well down the stretch, when asked to do less. Achilles Heel: Fruitless wildcat calls on pivotal downs.
5. LSU Tigers: This should resemble a more familiar Les Miles crew. John Chavis’ defense should return to fine fettle with almost every starter back except Anthony Johnson. Unfortunately, the offense may regress back to its traditional output as well. The entire line coming back helps. But sophomore Anthony Jennings replaces Zach Mettenberger (top five in passer rating and yards/attempt) at quarterback and the Tigers may lose their three best skill players to the NFL Draft. Achilles Heel: the Les Miles handbrake
6. Oklahoma Sooners: Oklahoma will hope their rousing Sugar Bowl win was a 2014 preview. The entire front seven comes back on defense. So does most of their offensive line. Trevor Knight, if post bowl practice form is any indicator, looks like one to watch. The worry for them is at the skill positions. Oklahoma loses three of its top four receivers and four of its top five running backs from 2013. It’s not a direct line from “young talent” to “consistent production and play-making.” Achilles Heel: Big night games on the road.
7. Ohio State Buckeyes: A 12-0 regular season and…yeah. The Buckeyes should improve on defense in 2014. They have a deep, talented and experienced front seven returning, possibly one of the nation’s best defensive lines. That should alleviate pressure from their secondary, which was a disaster against competent quarterback play. The offense, however, could take a step back. Braxton Miller is an experienced senior. But losing four senior starters on the offensive line could be critical, not to mention the departure raging wildebeest Carlos Hyde. Achilles Heel: National chain pizza.
8. Auburn Tigers: Auburn could return all 11 starters on offense in 2014. Worst-case is probably nine. That will mean a second year in Gus Malzahn’s offense and a second year at quarterback for Nick Marshall. Their defense, ranked outside the Top 90 in yards/play allowed, loses its one productive pass rusher Dee Ford. It’s worth reiterating that Auburn was exceedingly lucky, while going 6-0 in one-score games during the regular season. We project based on the mean, not the four-leaf clover. Achilles Heel: Gus Malzahn’s fashion sense.
9. Wisconsin Badgers: Consistency, in college football, is a wonderful thing. Wisconsin has it. The Badgers ranked 2nd in yards/carry in 2013. They return Melvin Gordon and four starters on the offensive line. Joel “Central Casting Wisconsin Quarterback” Stave returns for his third season starting. The Badgers’ Top 10 yards/play defense should take a hit though, losing the bulk of a veteran front seven, including linebacker Chris Borland. Expect them in and around the B1G title discussion. Achilles Heel: Jumping around.
10. Oklahoma State Cowboys: Mike Gundy is a man, and he has built the Cowboys into a year-in, year-out Big 12 contender. Oklahoma State’s offensive line should improve, after being racked by key injuries and inexperience in 2013. That should lead to more typical Cowboy production on the ground. Clint Chelf departs, but J.W. Walsh comes back with ample experience and a full off-season of starter’s reps. Improvement on that side may be tempered by regression on defense. Oklahoma State loses six senior defenders who made All-Big 12 teams. Top 10 in yards/play allowed seems improbable. Achilles Heel: Taking the foot off the gas in conference road games.
11. USC Trojans: Sanctions-induced depth remains a concern, but the Trojans wash away some of the Kiffin stink this offseason. USC returns just about everyone from a Top 20 yards/play defense. Quarterback Cody Kessler will get a full year of starter’s reps and, presumably, some better tutelage under Sark. He will be joined by Nelson Agholor, one of the nation’s deepest running back corps and four offensive line starters. With this team’s talent level, a little luck with injuries could go a long way. Achilles Heel: The vastness of the Sark plateau.
12. Georgia Bulldogs: Everything can’t go wrong twice, at least that’s what Dawg fans hope. Georgia’s raw but talented defense in 2013 becomes an experienced and talented defense in 2014. Their talent at running back and receiver should be available this time around. The troubles should be a rebuilt offensive line will being a work in progress and replacing four-year starter Aaron Murray. His savvy, unheralded play kept the train running on time, when it could easily have been derailed last season. They may miss him dearly. Achilles Heel: An incredibly overrated coaching staff.
13. Clemson Tigers: Clemson sheds some strength but resolves some perennial flaws. The Tigers lose quarterback Tajh Boyd, star receiver Sammy Watkins and leading rusher Roderick McDowell. But Chad Morris, most of their offensive line and a talented receiving corps return. The Tigers jumped from 69th to 23rd in yards/play defense in 2013. Just about everyone is back for Brent Venables in 2014. If Vic Beasley opts to stay, Clemson could be starting nine seniors on that side of the ball. If Clemson has a quarterback, things could get interesting. Achilles Heel: playing South Carolina and Florida State
14. South Carolina Gamecocks: Erratic, at times underwhelming and coming off three-straight 11-win seasons. The Gamecocks return almost their entire 2012 offense, except quarterback Connor Shaw, who was awesome. Dylan Thompson has played in and won big games. He has also never completed 60 percent of his passes with more than 11 attempts. South Carolina, unlike last year, has linebackers coming back. The trouble is they counter that by losing Clowney and Quarles up front on the defensive line. Achilles Heel: Spurrier losing the plot
15. Baylor Bears: The good? Art Briles did not leave for the Texas job. The Bears return quarterback Bryce Petty and six of their top seven receivers from 2013. The bad? Baylor loses Seastrunk and Martin in the backfield, as well as the four starters not named Spencer Drango (coming off a season-ending injury) on the offensive line. The Bears’ defense, which jumped from 94th to 9th in yards/play allowed, could take a major tumble as well. Baylor only returns four starters and must replace four out of five in their secondary. That said, Briles has made a living winning with players you did not see coming. Achilles Heel: Too much rhythm
16. UCLA Bruins: Brett Hundley decided to stay. So did Jim Mora. Both are vital. Potential sore spots come on both lines. The Bruins offensive line brings back four starters. But the fifth was an All-American and this was a line that finished 109th in sacks allowed (tied with Michigan). UCLA also loses a lot up front on defense. Projected NFL stud Anthony Barr is the big departure, but not the only one. The Bruins lose their top three sack compilers and four of their top five tacklers for loss. Achilles Heel: Noel Mazzone swing pass loop.
17. Missouri Tigers: Amazing what Gary Pinkel can do when he doesn’t have a devastating injury run. James Franklin departs, though his understudy Maty Mauk may have proved a better option in 2013. The Tigers bring back their top three rushers from 2013, all of whom averaged more than six yards/carry, and Dorial Green-Beckham, though line turnover may hamper production. There’s an extensive departure list on defense, though, including standout Michael Sam and both starting corners. Achilles Heel: Gary Pinkel’s dancing.
18. Texas A&M Aggies: Texas A&M likely loses its three best players: Johnny Manziel, Mike Evans and Jake Matthews to the NFL. But that’s pretty much it. Kevin Sumlin committed long-term. Their next QB gets four starters back on the O-line and a lot of young talent at running back and receiver. A very young (and very bad) defense should take a step forward with a year’s experience. This should be a good team. Unfortunately, Texas A&M plays in a division where “good” can equal a losing conference record and 7-5. Achilles Heel: Latent dorkiness that could reemerge with Manziel’s departure
19. Kansas State Wildcats: Last year, the Wildcats lost a Heisman-candidate quarterback and their entire defense. After an FCS hiccup, the Wildcats won eight games and delivered one of bowl season’s most impressive performances. Both quarterbacks return next year. So do standouts Tyler Lockett at wide receiver and Ryan Mueller at defensive end. We’re not sure how the entire puzzle fits together yet, but in Bill Synder we trust. Achilles Heel: Bill Snyder losing steam.
20. Notre Dame Fighting Irish: Everett Golson is back in good standing. However many cobwebs and character issues he must sort out, he’s an upgrade over Tommy Rees. Skill guys and most of the offensive line are back. The worry will be on defense, where the Irish must replace the bulk of the front seven, including Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt and Prince Shembo. Achilles Heel: Irrational expectations and demands
21. Michigan State Spartans: The Spartans face a sweeping reconstruction project after their dream season. Their 2013 defense gets cleaned out everywhere except defense end. Both starting tackles, Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough and Denicos Allen are gone. Michigan State also must rebuild their offensive line. The only areas of real stability are quarterback and the skill positions. Those weren’t strong points for team that ranked 82nd in yards/play offense. This should still be a tough Dantonio team. But expecting them to reload and return to the Top 10 immediately may be pushing it. Achilles Heel: Entrenched fan inferiority complex.
22. Arizona State Sun Devils: Todd Graham and his sleek head set remain at Arizona State for a third year. The Sun Devils bring back a lot on offense. Taylor Kelly is a third-year starter, with almost all of his receivers back. They have three starters back on the line. Their issue will be defense. ASU loses five productive seniors in the front seven. That attrition could get worse if junior Carl Bradford, who led the team in sacks and tackles for loss, opts to enter the NFL Draft. Achilles Heel: Fuel efficiency
23. Texas Longhorns: The coaching question has been settled. Texas can now focus on football. Charlie Strong receives a lot of veterans in the front seven on defense, though senior Jackson Jeffcoat (13 sacks, 19 TFL) won’t be easy to replace. Texas has ample skill talent. The offensive line, replacing three senior starters (from a very average unit), will be an issue. So will quarterback. It’s not clear whether David Ash will play again. If he can’t go, it’s either raw Tyrone Swoopes or a true freshman captaining the ship. None of the three is Teddy Bridgewater Achilles Heel: Texas still being Texas.
24. Florida Gators: Muschamp knows defense. After turnover last year, the Gators bring just about everyone. The only apparent underclassman starter, corner Vernon Hargreaves, was an All-American in 2013. Healthy, they could be a Top 10 unit. Muschamp’s continued employment, though, depends on the offense. The outlook, with a fourth offensive coordinator in five years, seems bleak. The Gators are unproven at quarterback, they have a black hole at wide receiver and have to replace two starters from last year’s line. Achilles Heel: Photoshop game.
25. Michigan Wolverines: Michigan undershot its talent in 2013. With that young team a year older and, presumably, wiser, there is much room for improvement. Devin Gardner had an erratic year, but he is tough, has talent and is a fifth-year senior. The Wolverine offensive line, an absolute fiasco, can’t get any worse but may not get much better with Taylor Lewan leaving. Michigan’s defense should advance after a slight regression in 2013. They return just about everyone and have both veteran starters and depth. The ceiling will depend on how the second and third-year Hoke recruits develop along the defensive line. Achilles Heel: Empty rhetoric.