Preseason Top 25
Having scoured the Internet and college football publications for the past couple of months, it's hard not to notice that Alabama is a near unanimous choice to win its third straight national championship. (I actually ran across two web sites that tabbed Texas A&M as the preseason No. 1).
For entertainment purposes, I considered going out on a limb and picking someone else such as Stanford or Louisville. But, at some point, it occurred to me that I'm not bold enough to have to explain such a prediction to Terri Devall (Alabama linebacker Denzel Devall's mom), so I'm playing it safe and riding with the Tide.
Here's my annual preseason Top 25:
1. Alabama (13-1) — Is it really necessary to explain why the Crimson Tide is the prohibitive favorite to hoist the crystal ball for the fourth time in five years? For the sake of filling up space, I'll elaborate anyway.
Entering his third season as a starter, quarterback A.J. McCarron appears poised to have his best season yet. That's a scary thought considering that he is 25-2 as a starter and led the nation in passing efficiency last season. Another discouraging thought for the remaining 125 team in the FBS: Alabama's receiving corps is regarded by many as the best in school history and running back T.J. Yeldon returns after setting the school's freshman record with 1,108 yards.
Alabama's only potential area of concern is an offensive line which lost three of its five starters to the NFL. Right guard Anthony Steen and left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio are the two holdovers.
Seven defensive starters, including all four linebackers, are back from a unit which ranked No. 1 nationally in total defense, points allowed and rushing defense and seventh in pass defense. All-American linebacker C.J. Mosley is the ring leader.
2. Louisville (11-2) — Eighteen returning starters, a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback and a favorable schedule are the perfect recipe for the Cardinals to run the table and play in the national championship game.
QB Teddy Bridgewater and primary receiver Damian Copeland return from an offense which averaged 31.2 points per game.
Defensively, linebacker Preston Brown, the team's leading tackler last season, is among 10 holdover starters.
Barring a major upset, the Cardinals should fly into the Dec. 5 regular season finale at Cincinnati undefeated. And, if the cards fall just right (pun intended), Louisville will play in the national championship game.
3. Stanford (12-2) — With the return of 14 starters (6 offense, 8 defense) and arguably the best offensive line in the country, a fourth straight year of at least 11 victories is well within the Cardinal's reach.
David Yankey, who slides over to left tackle after earning first-team All-America honors at left guard last season, and right guard Kevin Danser are among nine letterman back on the O-line.
QB Kevin Hogan was 5-0 after being inserted into the starting lineup in Week 10.
Linebacker Trent Murphy and defensive end Henry Anderson headline a defense which ranked No. 1 in the Pac-12 in total defense and led the nation in sacks.
4. Ohio State (12-0) — In his second year at Florida, coach Urban Meyer guided the Gators to a 41-14 victory over Ohio State in the BCS national championship game. Coming off of a 12-0 season and NCAA probation, the Buckeyes could very well play for the national championship in Meyer's sophomore campaign in Columbus.
QB Braxton Miller is among nine regulars back on offense, though the defense is suspect with only four returning starters.
5. Georgia (12-2) — QB Aaron Murray is back at the controls after directing an offense which racked up a school record 529 points.
Georgia must replace nine starters on defense from a team that played Alabama to the wire in an eventual 32-28 loss in the SEC championship game.
If the Bulldogs can survive a brutal early-season schedule — Clemson, South Carolina and LSU in the first four weeks — another trip to Atlanta is within reach.
6. Oregon (12-1) — Coach Chip Kelly departed for the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles, but don't expect the Ducks to change their up-tempo approach. Mark Helfrich was promoted from offensive coordinator to succeed Kelly after Oregon put up a staggering 49.6 points per game in 2012.
Helfrich may allow quarterback Marcus Mariota to throw a bit more this season, though running back De'Anthony Thomas will still get plenty of touches.
While Oregon's image as an offensive-minded program holds credence, the Ducks can defend, too. Led by cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (four interceptions, six forced fumbles), the entire secondary returns after helping Oregon lead the nation with 26 pickoffs.
7. Florida State (12-2) — Provided redshirt freshman Jameis Winston is the answer at quarterback, look for the Seminoles to repeat as ACC champs. Four returning starters on the offensive line should help speed up Winston's development.
Florida State will have a new look on defense after coordinator Mark Stoops accepted the head coaching job at Kentucky. Cornerback Lamarcus Joyner is a mainstay in the secondary after helping the 'Noles rank third nationally in pass defense.
8. Texas A&M (11-2) — Assuming reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel remains eligible (which may or may not be a safe assumption), the Aggies could be in line for another top 10 finish. A much-improved running game will help take some of the load off Manziel.
Defensively, the Aggies are seeking to shore up a unit which ranked 12th in the SEC in pass defense.
9. Michigan (8-5) — Converted wide receiver Devin Gardner gave the offense a boost after moving to quarterback for the final five games. With a full offseason to hone his skills, Gardner could help the Wolverines challenge Ohio State for the Big 10 title.
Free safety Thomas Gordon heads a contingent of six returning defensive starters.
10. Florida (11-2) — It's a given that the Gators can defend. But Florida will need improved play from QB Jeff Driskell after ranking 12th in the SEC in passing yardage last season.
Cornerback Marcus Roberson is the backbone of one of the best secondaries in the nation and punter Kyle Christy is among the best in college football.
11. Clemson (11-2) — Bypassing the NFL draft, 2012 ACC Player of the Year Tajh Boyd returns to direct an offense which averaged 41 points per game.
Under coach Dabo Swinney, the Tigers have amassed consecutive double digit win totals for the first time since 1989-90. Before taking the next step, the Tigers must improve defensively.
12. Texas (9-4) — Somebody has to win the wide-open Big 12. With 19 returning starters, the Longhorns would appear to have the inside track. Then again, with the exception of the 2005 national championship season, Texas somehow tends to find a way to underachieve.
To shed its label of doing less with more, the Bevos must receive more consistent play from QB David Ash and become more physical on the defensive front.
13. LSU (10-3) — Despite ranking 80th in the nation in total offense last season, the Tigers were in every game thanks to the nation's No. 8 overall defense. With only three defensive starters returning, the offense will need to take up the slack.
First-year offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's first order of business is to upgrade a passing game which finished 92nd in the national rankings.
Defensive coordinator John Chavis is almost certain to put a quality product on the field, though the young unit may require time to mature.
14. South Carolina (11-2) — Coming off of consecutive 11-win seasons, is this the year the Gamecocks break through for their first conference title since winning the ACC in 1969? Conventional wisdom says probably not, but if the Gamecocks can get by a Week 2 road test at Georgia, look out.
Spearheaded by consensus All-American defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the Gamecocks boast one of the most imposing defensive fronts in the land.
To get over the hump, South Carolina needs to upgrade its rushing attack after finishing 13th in the SEC last year.
15. Boise State (11-2) — QB Joe Southwick experienced some growing pains as a first-year starter in 2012, but finished strong with nine touchdowns and zero interceptions over the final four games. With a more polished Southwick and seven of its nine top receivers returning, Boise has the weapons to win a bowl game for the fifth consecutive year.
Defensive end Demarcus Lawrence, who recorded 9.5 sacks last season, leads an overhauled defense with seven first-year starters
16. Oklahoma State (8-5) — The Cowboys' quarterback battle will linger into the season. Coach Mike Gundy said last week that both would play in Saturday's opener against Mississippi State.
Whoever happens to be playing QB will have the luxury of throwing to Josh Stewart, the latest in a long line of stalwart Cowboys' wide receivers.
Gundy welcomes back 15 returning starters (8 offense, 7 defense), but the Cowboys have new coordinators on both sides of the ball.
17. TCU (7-6) — After a 4-0 start, the Horned Frogs' 2012 season went south following quarterback Casey Pachall's suspension due to a DWI arrest. With Pachall reinstated and running back Waymon James returning from a torn ACL, the Frogs expect to improve upon last year's 4-5 conference mark.
In contrast to the majority of its Big 12 counterparts, TCU actually plays defense. End Devonte Fields and strong safety Sam Carter are among 10 incumbent defensive regulars.
18. Oklahoma (10-3) — Like Oklahoma State, the Sooners are unsettled at quarterback.
Seven of the top nine receivers are back, along with the top two rushers.
The Sooners are looking to make major strides after finishing No. 80 nationally in total defense.
19. Southern Cal (7-6) — Featuring wide receiver Marquise Lee, the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner and unanimous All-American, and linebacker Morgan Breslin, the Trojans still look like a top 10 — or better — team on paper. Another subpar season and someone other than Lane Kiffin will be coaching the talented Trojans in the spring.
20. Arizona State (8-5) — Second-year head coach Todd Graham has the Sun Devils climbing the Pac 12 ladder.
Quarterback Taylor Kelly, the team's most pleasant surprise last season, and defensive tackle Will Sutton head up a group of 15 returning starters (7 offense, 8 defense).
21. Baylor (8-5) — If the Bears could play a little defense, the Big 12 race wouldn't be nearly as murky. Actually, Baylor would be the clear-cut favorite.
Baylor ranked No. 2 nationally in total offense last year, while finishing No. 119 in total defense.
Nobody has gotten more out of its quarterback play over the past two seasons than Baylor. Following in the footsteps of 2011 Heisman winner Robert Griffin III and Nick Florence, junior Bryce Pette has been handed the keys to the offense. Running back Lache Seastrunk is an established offensive weapon after averaging 7.7 yards per carry while accounting for 1,201 yards and 7 TDs a year ago.
Eight starters are back on defense, which isn't necessarily a good thing.
22. UCLA (9-5) — The Bruins have a rising star in quarterback Brett Hundley. Starting all 14 games as a redshirt freshman, Hundley threw for 3,740 yards with 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions en route to shattering multiple single-season school records. Also a threat with his feet, Hundley was the team's second-leading rusher (355 yards, 9 TDs).
UCLA's most pressing issue during the offseason was fortifying an offensive line which allowed an alarming 52 sacks last year.
Former wide receiver Anthony Barr is now regarded as the best linebacker in the Pac 12.
23. Northwestern (10-3) — Venrick Mark, an electrifying running back/punt return specialist, is the marquee player on a team that gets maximum results from marginal talent.
24. Kansas State (11-2) — This is supposed to be a rebuilding year for the defending Big 12 champs, who were picked sixth in the league's preseason media poll. But Bill Snyder's teams seem to overachieve year and year out. For instance, the Wildcats were picked sixth in last year's preseason poll.
25. Arkansas (4-8) — My new boss, Kristin Stewart, is a Razorbacks' fan. It's been my experience that it's always good to keep the boss happy. So, Wooooo Pig. Sooie!