The college football offseason threw a curveball on Saturday night when news leaked out that rising sophomore Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson is no longer enrolled in school and won't suit up for the Fighting Irish in 2013.
The departure of Golson—who started for the Irish in the BCS National Championship Game in January—makes a return trip to the game's biggest stage more challenging for head coach Brian Kelly. How does the Top 25 shake out now that Notre Dame has lost its starting quarterback?
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
Yes, Alabama has earned the benefit of the doubt. The combination of three titles in four seasons and a steady stream of future NFL players moving through Tuscaloosa is enough to give the Crimson Tide the nod at the top spot despite some holes to fill on the roster—particularly along the offensive line and at cornerback. But C.J. Mosley returns to lead a talented and deep linebacking corps, and quarterback AJ McCarron will lead an offense that's as efficient as any that we've seen in college football in quite some time.
2. Georgia Bulldogs
Don't fall into the trap, Georgia is going to be good in 2013. Very good. Wide receiver Tavarres King is the only significant departure from the offense, and head coach Mark Richt and senior quarterback Aaron Murray will benefit from the return of Michael Bennett from an ACL tear and a full season of Malcolm Mitchell at wide receiver. Sure, there are questions about the defense. But the dirty little secret is that Georgia's defense wasn't that good last season (12th in the SEC against the run) and the Bulldogs were still five yards from taking a trip to Miami. This defense will be significantly improved from last year's star-studded cast and will be led by linebacker Jordan Jenkins and safety Tray Matthews.
3. Ohio State Buckeyes
Ohio State's undefeated season from a year ago has been overlooked, thanks to Alabama's ongoing dynasty, the Johnny Manziel hysteria and Notre Dame's offseason of tumult. Make no mistake, though, Urban Meyer's Buckeyes are loaded and poised to take another run at knocking the SEC off its crystal pedestal. Braxton Miller will return at quarterback and look to take the next step in Year 2 of Meyer's offense. Could he jump in the Heisman race? He certainly has the skills and schedule to do it. If he does, it will likely mean another dream season for the Buckeyes.
4. Texas A&M Aggies
The spotlight is on the Aggies, after quarterback Johnny Manziel became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy in 2012. Can he repeat? He shouldn't have to. The Aggies are loaded with a stable of running backs that go four-deep and will have a talented and tall wide-receiving corps. Sure, there are questions about the offensive line, but Jake Matthews returning is huge for the entire Aggie offense. The biggest question for A&M is its defense. If the front seven can generate pressure, the secondary is well-equipped to capitalize on mistakes.
5. Stanford Cardinal
Don't look now, but head coach David Shaw has things cooking at a high level in Palo Alto. Quarterback Kevin Hogan returns and will benefit from a full offseason as the unquestioned starter. The defense returns eight starters, led by linebacker Shayne Skov. Stanford has been been dancing on the periphery of the BCS National Championship race the last few seasons, and there's nothing to suggest that will change in 2013.
6. Oregon Ducks
New coach, same ol' story in Eugene. Mark Helfrich inherited a loaded roster from former head coach Chip Kelly, led by sophomore quarterback Marcus Mariota and running back/athlete De'Anthony Thomas. The game of the year in the Pac-12 will be Nov. 7 when the Ducks visit Stanford with two weeks to prepare. Something tells me that game won't just be the de facto Pac-12 North title game, but also a national championship elimination game.
7. South Carolina Gamecocks
South Carolina is a legitimate national title contender, despite flying under the radar in the SEC over the last few seasons. Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney will deservedly draw all the headlines, but it's the Gamecocks' offense that will lead head coach Steve Spurrier's crew into the title hunt well into November. Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds are both capable of becoming superstars at running back, leading wide receiver Bruce Ellington will return, and Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson have both proven to be studs at quarterback.
8. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Golson's absence won't result in too heavy a drop in the rankings. While he's a talented quarterback and Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix or Malik Zaire have their work cut out for them, the foundation of this particular Notre Dame team was, is and will be its defense. Defensive tackle Louis Nix III, defensive end Stephon Tuitt and linebacker Prince Shembo will keep the Irish in plenty of games. If George Atkinson III, Greg Bryant and the rest of the talented running back corps can stabilize the running game, Notre Dame will be fine. That was the case when Golson was still planning on taking the snaps, and it remains the case now.
9. Louisville Cardinals
The recurring issue with preseason Top 25 polls is the method of voting. Do you vote based on merit or where a team will end up when the season ends? Louisville is the poster child of that discrepancy this year. Head coach Charlie Strong brings back a talented team led by quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, but that's not the reason Louisville is getting all the pub. The schedule is a cakewalk, and at this point, the Cardinals should finish the season undefeated. That doesn't mean they're an elite team just yet. If Strong can find an answer to a lingering question in the backfield, that could change in a hurry in 2013.
10. Clemson Tigers
Let's see, quarterback Tajh Boyd returns along with the ultra-talented Sammy Watkins at wide receiver, and Chad Morris continues to call the plays. That sound you hear is opposing defensive coordinators in the ACC scrambling for cover. Junior defensive end Vic Beasley finished last season with a team-high eight sacks. If he and the rest of that Tiger front seven can generate pressure, it might be all they need to be opportunistic and put the offense in good field position. If that happens consistently, look out.
11. LSU Tigers
Don't get tricked into thinking that this is a rebuilding year in Baton Rouge, because it's not. Head coach Les Miles has his team poised for a title run if it can solve just a few minor issues on defense. Lamin Barrow can play both middle and outside linebacker, outside linebacker Tahj Jones should return after missing all but one game last season, the secondary is solid with safety Craig Loston and cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Jalen Collins, and the defensive front will be just fine with defensive end Jermauria Rasco and tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger improved as the season went on last year and will benefit from a veteran wide receiving corps, experienced offensive line and talented running backs with Alfred Blue, Kenny Hilliard and—maybe—Jeremy Hill. New offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will this group playing at a high level.
12. TCU Horned Frogs
TCU will face off with LSU in the opener in Cowboys Stadium, so we'll know a lot more about our No. 11 and No. 12 teams by Labor Day. The Horned Frogs were one of the nation's youngest teams last season, and the experience earned last season will be invaluable moving forward. Defensive end Devonte Fields will miss the first two games with a suspension, but he will anchor a talented defensive unit for head coach Gary Patterson. If quarterback Casey Pachall can return to form after losing the job and going to rehab after being arrested for suspicion of driving under the influence, TCU could be the dark horse in the title race.
13. Florida Gators
Florida isn't ranked as high as some of its SEC counterparts because head coach Will Muschamp didn't solve his most pressing issue this spring. Florida's passing offense was atrocious last season, due in part to the inability of anyone to step up as a legit deep threat at wide receiver and in part because Florida didn't really need it last season. If Quinton Dunbar, Demarcus Robinson or anyone can step up to stretch the field, the entire Gator offense will open up. Defensively, the Gators are stacked and will be a force again in the SEC.
14. Michigan Wolverines
No more mixing and matching at quarterback, it's Devin Gardner's show for Michigan. That stability should help as head coach Brady Hoke looks to get the Wolverines back in the BCS National Championship discussion. With Fitz Touissaint returning at running back and Taylor Lewan at tackle, the offense will be fine. Defensively, the Wolverines are in good shape with Frank Clark at defensive end and Thomas Gordon at safety. Ohio State versus Michigan should be quite interesting come November.
15. Florida State Seminoles
Is quarterback Jameis Winston "sizzle" or "steak?" The redshirt freshman signal-caller has big shoes to fill stepping in for EJ Manuel, but he was the recipient of a copious amount of spring hype. But he is a freshman, so let's not just assume he's going to contend for the Heisman Trophy before he takes a meaningful snap. Head coach Jimbo Fisher had to replace a small village in his coaching staff this offseason, and while that may seem like a minor speed bump, it still takes time to develop that chemistry. If Winston and running back James Wilder Jr. can live up to the hype they carried from high school, this team could be dangerous.
16. UCLA Bruins
It took a different coaching staff and a few more years than originally planned to end that USC football monopoly in Los Angeles, but head coach Jim L. Mora was able to do it in his first season in Brentwood. Quarterback Brett Hundley is a star, as is linebacker Anthony Barr. If the Bruins can find an adequate replacement for Johnathan Franklin at running back, UCLA could be your dark-horse BCS bowl contender.
17. Oklahoma Sooners
Oklahoma seemingly always is put in the BCS title discussion preseason, and that hasn't changed this season. The level of that hype, however, has been tempered a bit with the departure of quarterback Landry Jones. Can Blake Bell be an every-down passer? Will Kendal Thompson or Trevor Knight win the job? Until those glaring questions are answered, Oklahoma should be approached with caution. On defense, new coordinator Mike Stoops desperately needs to fix a unit that finished ninth in the 10-team Big 12 in turnover margin a year ago.
18. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Speaking of Oklahoma teams, the Sooners' in-state rival chimes in at the 18th spot thanks to a dynamic offense and a veteran defense. Whether it's Clint Chelf, J.W. Walsh or a combination of the two taking the snaps in Stillwater, they will benefit from a talented wide receiving corps led by Josh Stewart. Don't sleep on head coach Mike Gundy's squad. Last season was the rebuilding year and the Cowboys still managed to go 8-5.
19. Texas Longhorns
It's a big year for Texas head coach Mack Brown. Since losing the 2010 BCS National Championship Game to Alabama following the 2009 season, Texas has been remarkably mediocre. The natives are restless. The Longhorns return quarterback David Ash and a bevy of talent at running back, with a defense that is loaded at the back end. This is the year for Texas to return to prominence. No really, it is. If it's not, then Brown should be looking for work in the offseason.
20. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Taylor Martinez is back for his 13th season at Nebraska (OK, so he's really only a senior) and was solid last season in leading the Cornhuskers to the Big Ten Championship Game. After getting smoked by Wisconsin for the conference title and falling to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl, there will be—and has been—plenty to work on this offseason. The biggest question is the inexperience in that front seven. If head coach Bo Pellini can solve that puzzle, the rest of the pieces can fall into place around it.
21. Michigan State Spartans
There's no such things as "could haves" in college football, but Michigan State could have easily been 11-1 last season after losing five games by a total of 13 points. The Spartans return a solid core of starters on both sides, including quarterback Andrew Maxwell and linebackers Max Bullough and Deniocos Allen. Mark Dantonio is one of the more underrated head coaches in the country and will have his team in the Big Ten title hunt in 2013.
22. Vanderbilt Commodores
Believe it, Vanderbilt is a Top 25 football team. The offense was strong down the stretch and will return an ultra-talented wide receiving combo in Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd. Wesley Tate and Brian Kimbrow headline a talented running back group, and quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels is a legitimate dual threat. Defensively, the strength will be in the secondary, where cornerback Andre Hal and safety Kenny Ladler will both be forces. Is Vanderbilt going to win the SEC? Probably not. But you can bet your bottom, top and middle dollars that the Commodores will be competitive.
23. Boise State Broncos
For the second straight season, Boise State is entering the season under the radar. Quarterback Joe Southwick was solid down the stretch last season, and another offseason of work with a bevy of returning skill players should be beneficial. It seems like the Broncos are being overlooked again, which probably pleases head coach Chris Petersen. Don't sleep on Boise State—but you probably already knew that.
24. North Carolina Tar Heels
Veteran quarterback Bryn Renner will return to build off last season's success under first-year head coach Larry Fedora. The biggest question in Chapel Hill is how to replace running back Gio Bernard, and the 2013 corps will likely take on a more by-committee approach. That can work, but it's the one thing preventing North Carolina from truly being in the conference title discussion prior to the season.
25. Baylor Bears
If you didn't know running back Lache Seastrunk before, get to know him now because he's headed to highlight reels near you early and often in 2013. Quarterback Bryce Petty will have weapons galore in Waco, but the question still remains, "Can the Bears stop anyone?" The defense will have to play more physical—especially in the secondary—if Art Briles' crew wants to contend for the Big 12 title.
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