College Football season is nearly here. As tradition dictates, we provide you with a ranking of the Top 25 teams. Teams are ranked based on ability, not how they will be expected to fare based on the perceived level of schedule difficulty. As always, distinguishing teams 16-25 preseason is a matter of personal preference and throwing poop at the wall.
(1) Florida State Seminoles
Keep Raging. Florida State is fresh off a national title season, in which they ranked 1st in yards/play offense and 2nd in yards/play defense. Heisman-winner Jameis Winston returns for his…sophomore season. They already had a lot coming back. Rashad Greene, Cameron Erving and Tre’ Jackson decided to stay for the encore to fill in the holes. The Seminoles’ only weakness: social media strategy.
(2) Alabama Crimson Tide
Nick Saban has optimized everything. Each season, the Crimson Tide are a few plays either way from a national title. Alabama’s worst season-ending SRS finish since 2008 is 6th nationally. Their defense is stacked in every phase. Tremendous offensive talent. Alabama’s one real question is who replaces A.J. McCarron at quarterback. If Jacob Coker meets the rosier end of projections for him, he may prove an upgrade. This fellow may be pleased.
(3) Oregon Ducks
Marcus Mariota is back. So is much of the offensive supporting cast, except for Josh Huff and DAT. That offense, when Mariota has been healthy, has been lethal. Defense is a concern, with personnel turnover and coordinator Nick Aliotti retiring. The Ducks lose a lot up front and in the secondary. The jury is out on Mark Helfrich long-term. But, Oregon has been the most stable, dominant program not coached by Nick Saban the past few years. We’ll credit the decline when we see it.
(4) Stanford Cardinal
Stanford’s offense should be better. Kevin Hogan is in his third year. They have depth at receiver and running back. Their offensive line has six four-star or higher upperclassmen, including Andrus Peat, Joshua Garnett and Kyle Murphy from their stupendous 2012 recruiting class. Their major issue will be replacing productive linebackers Shane Skov and Trent Murphy. The Cardinal play an unrelenting schedule. But, they did that last year and came nine points away from the BCS title game.
(5) Oklahoma Sooners
Bumptious Bob Stoops is the best Bob Stoops. The Sooners closed the season by throttling Alabama in a bowl game, which, of course, whitewashed beat downs suffered against Texas and Baylor. Oklahoma brings back a veteran offensive line and a strong front seven on defense. Inexperienced skill and secondary players should have time to bed in against a soft schedule. If QB Trevor Knight is the player he was in the Alabama game, the Sooners can go toe to toe with just about anyone.
(6) LSU Tigers
Last year, with Mettenberger, Beckham and Landry, things got pass happy. This year, with LSU loaded on the line and the ability to cycle top-caliber running backs, expect some serious manball. John Chavis still coaches their defence which, for once, did not offload every key component to the NFL. There’s experience and depth there. We’d expect stars will rise. Not sure the Tigers have quite enough to derail Bama, but Les Miles will keep things wild and notable, with a dash of inscrutability.
(7) Auburn Tigers
Auburn surpassed expectations in 2013. That said, reaching the title game was more than a bit fortunate. Almost the entire offense, Greg Robinson and Tre Mason excepted, returns for year two with Gus Malzahn. Much of Auburn’s defense does as well. The Tigers’ major issue may be the pass rush. Dee Ford, who provided much of last year’s disruptive production, departs. His heir apparent Carl Lawson is shelved for the season with a torn ACL. They are a team that could be reduced by their schedule. That trip to Manhattan on a Thursday night may be their eighth toughest game.
(8) Ohio State Buckeyes
Braxton Miller is out for the season. That may be a blow to the 13-0, playoff place and BCS title talk. But, there are still reasons to be high on the Buckeyes. They should have one of the nation’s best defensive lines. They have youth, but also depth and elite athleticism thanks to Urban Meyer’s recruiting. If things don’t go all “Michigan” running the ball with the offensive line turnover and J.T. Barrett can run the offense, Ohio State should be set for a good season. The team will have time to gel, since the toughest game they play before November is…Virginia Tech at home.
(9) Georgia Bulldogs
Mark Richt is losing control…or something. Georgia has ample skill talent at running back and receiver. Avoiding the cholera epidemic-like injury crisis endured in 2013 would certainly belp. Though, Georgia loses Aaron Murray and three multiple-year starters on the offensive line. The Dawgs should be very strong in the front seven on defense, but the secondary could have used Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons. Georgia should have enough there to triumph in the SEC East. Though, one could say that almost every year.
(10) South Carolina Gamecocks
South Carolina has been sniffing the pinnacle of late. Will this be the year they push forward and win the SEC? The Gamecocks’ offense should be formidable. Mike Davis and a huge, veteran offensive line will take you a long way. They have talent at receiver. Though it will be hard for Dylan Thompson to replicate Connor Shaw’s consistency, inveterate swag and propensity for timely big plays. SC’s defense has players who have played linebacker before this year, an upgrade over last year. But losing their two major pass rushers, Clowney and Quarles, as well as their two starting corners may hurt them against the pass.
(11) UCLA Bruins
Brett Hundley should be one of the top NFL draft prospects and QBs in the country. They have depth elsewhere on offense, though perhaps not top end talent. They may be a bit thin up front on defense, losing their top three pass rushers from 2013. The Bruins have turned around radically under Mora. They should be among the favorites in the Pac 12. But, it’s not clear yet they have quite enough to catch up with Stanford and Oregon, much less distance themselves from a slate of strong teams behind them.
(12) Baylor Bears
Art Briles has the offense rolling. Baylor is beginning to pull in top-caliber recruits. Bryce Petty comes back with a now customary Briles arsenal at the skill positions. The Bears have a decent, experienced front seven on defense. NFL Draft guys love them some Shawn Oakman. The sore spots for them should be in the secondary (losing all of their corners) and on the offensive line (substantial turnover, including the loss of Cyril Richardson). Those were units that pushed them from exciting offensive team to juggernaut for much of last season.
(13) Michigan State Spartans
The Spartans win with defense. They were first nationally in yards allowed/play last year and have finished top five the past three years. They should be very good. The issue is whether they can be elite replacing top-end starters at DT, MLB and corner. Michigan State’s offense progressed from “cover your children’s eyes” to “you know what, not so bad” by last season’s end. Connor Cook and almost every skill player come back, though three offensive linemen must be replaced. Oregon on the road will provide a true measure of the Spartans. Their B1G schedule? Not so much. The three toughish games – Nebraska, Michigan and Ohio State – are in East Lansing.
(14) USC Trojans
The Trojans have not been that far away. They have some awesome individual talents. They have spent a full calendar year washing away the Lane Kiffin. On offense, Cody Kessler looks legit, they have depth at running back and receiver and should be adept if they can replace three line starters. If anyone steps forward to help Leonard Williams up front, USC will have a well-rounded, formidable defense. The Trojans can beat anyone on their schedule. But do they have enough to go full-bore for 60 minutes every game? Sark did a masterful job resurrecting Washington off the field, but is he the guy to bring USC back on it?
(15) Wisconsin Badgers
Melvin Gordon stayed in school. We know Barry Alvarez is happy. The Badgers also bring back four Wisconsin offensive line starters. There will be authoritative running of the football. Passing will be a bigger question. Joel Stave leaned heavily on Abbrederis, Pedersen and White last year. All three are gone. Wisconsin’s defense has a year’s experience in Chris Andersen’s 3-4, but needs to overhaul up front and at linebacker. LSU out of the gate may be too much to ask of the Badgers. But, if they can beat Nebraska at home and Iowa on the road, that’s all that will keep them from the B1G title game.
(16) Washington Huskies
Sark assembled talent. Chris Petersen finds, mobilizes and develops talent. Bargain bin guys became 1st round draft picks at Boise State. Washington has five offensive line starters with more than 20 career starts. They have talent and options at quarterback, running back and wide receiver. They return almost the entire front seven on defense. The only real area for concern is losses in the secondary. Can Chris Petersen get this team to double-digit wins in the Pac 12 North? He has done more with less.
(17) Kansas State Wildcats
Bill Snyder is a wizard, fueled by Taco Bell. That should be enough justification at this stage. The Wildcats have a solid QB Jake Waters returning for his senior season. He’s joined by WR Tyler Lockett and two All-Big 12 linemen. Pass rusher Ryan Muller (11.5 sacks and 18.5 TFL) is back for a senior season on the other side. Kansas State will have to fill in the gaps with efficiency and players no one else saw coming. We can expect that. The cool kids will be tipping them to drop Auburn at home on a Thursday night.
(18) Notre Dame Fighting Irish
The academic scandal won’t help matters much, knocking out starters at WR, CB and DE. But, this remains a very solid team. Everett Golson is back at quarterback. They have talent at running back and a good offensive line. They have recruits who should be ready to step up in all three phases of the defense. Notre Dame fans are expecting great, possibly unrealistic things from Jaylon Smith in his second year. The Irish have no real weaknesses, fashion sense excepted. The question, against a tough schedule, will be where are the strengths?
(19) Clemson Tigers
Clemson’s offense goes from Tajh Boyd to a senior stop gap at QB, loses a 1,000-yard rusher, Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant and three offensive line starters. No biggie. However, they return a ton from a great defense, including four defensive linemen with 10-plus tackles for loss last season. Expect the Tigers to get rattled early against Georgia and Florida State, then slowly round into form. A tough schedule keeps them from double digits.
(20) Missouri Tigers
The 2012 season was more of an outlier than 2013’s run to the SEC title game. Gary Pinkel has a clear perception of what he’s doing. But, the Tigers don’t bring in talent on par with Georgia, Florida, South Carolina or even Tennessee. They don’t have much margin for error with injuries, turnovers and five-star wide receivers running themselves out of the program. We like the cut of Maty Mauk’s jib. Ditto for the offensive line. There’s enough coming back on defense to withstand the losses of Sam and Ealy. But do they have enough to go win road games against decent SEC opponents?
(21) Oklahoma State Cowboys
Mike Gundy is a man. He’s built Oklahoma State’s program to the point where it deserves some benefit of the doubt. Half-full, This team has ranked in the SRS Top 15 five of the past six seasons. Half-empty, the Cowboys have turnover just about everywhere, with just nine starters returning. They probably won’t be ready for Florida State (who would be?). But expect the Cowboys to round into form by the business part of their Big 12 schedule in November.
(22) Ole Miss Rebels
The Rebels have an SEC defense, with talent, depth and returning starters at almost every position. Year two of Robert Nkemdiche, anyone? What they have not displayed yet is an SEC offense. Their quarterback, for all the fanfare, is average. Their running game is average. They could not get Laquon Treadwell the ball in position to make plays last season. The two top receivers around him are gone. They lose a lot of starters on the offensive line, which may not be such a bad thing. They should be good, though most of their division will be too.
(23) Michigan Wolverines
The Wolverines, on paper, have more depth and talent at any point since the Carr Era. The offensive line should at least be more stable. That eases things for Devin Gardner and the emerging skill talent around him. Offensive consistency puts Michigan’s defense in a better position. Assuming normal progression, that unit is some more defensive line push away from being quite formidable. Last season was a disaster, but the course correction went too far.
(24) Iowa Hawkeyes
Iowa has a returning starter at quarterback, depth at running back and a good offensive line. Expect a stable power running game. They return their entire defensive line. The back seven will be overhauled. Though, Iowa’s track record suggests that should be attainable. In 2013, they were competitive. If they can replicate that in 2014, it will work out well for Iowa. They play two real games against Wisconsin and Nebraska, at home in late November. The best opponent before that is…Pitt?
(25) Texas Longhorns
The fog has lifted. Can Charlie Strong and his staff convert paper strength to real strength? Texas has a lot of potential, with former four and five star recruits to slot in all over the field. They are strong at running back and return most of a defense that ended being okay. Strong hired Oklahoma State’s Joe Wickline, one of the nation’s best line coaches, who has rebuilding work to do. David Ash must stay on the field. The Longhorns have the athletes. A bit of identity and toughness could go a long way.
[USA Today Sports]