USA Today released its annual preseason coaches poll Thursday, with Alabama unsurprisingly grabbing the top spot.
As expected, the poll is SEC-heavy at the top—six SEC teams in the Top 13, with Georgia (5), Texas A&M (6), South Carolina (7) and Florida (10) sandwiched between Bama at the top and LSU at No. 13.
While everyone expects the two teams in the championship game to come from the top third of the poll, in recent years we have seen fast risers surprise analysts to earn a title shot.
In 2012, it was Notre Dame climbing from preseason No. 24 to No. 1 before eventually losing the BCS National Championship Game to Alabama. In 2010, Auburn rose from No. 23 to a No. 1 ranking, taking home the hardware by beating Oregon.
This year, a look at the bottom third shows Wisconsin and USC at No. 23 and No. 24, respectively. The two teams are going through transitions and will likely be fighting to finish atop their division, not for the BCS championship.
However, in the final third, Nebraska at No. 18, TCU at No. 20 and UCLA at No. 21 should inspire confidence if someone is looking for a team to make the climb.
TCU opens up with the Cowboy Classic against No. 13 LSU in a game that should be one of the highlights of the first week. That's a chance for the Big 12 to get a quality win against the SEC; more importantly, it's a shot for TCU to prove to the nation that it is ready to play big-boy football in 2013.
Casey Pachall is back for the Horned Frogs, Brandon Carter will be his primary target and Dick Bumpas, the defensive coordinator, will have the defense ready to play stingy football.
LSU is a tough challenge, but the Tigers are transitioning on offense and replacing pieces on defense.
If TCU gets past that opening-weekend game, it will be on the path to climb the rankings. The Big 12, with Oklahoma State at No. 14, Texas at No. 15 and Oklahoma at No. 16, is a conference with very little separation.
TCU will have to get through the top of the league, something this team—with Pachall at the helm—is quite capable of doing.
Climbing over the SEC and beating the other solid teams in the Big 12 will not be easy, especially with TCU down a starting offensive lineman. As Ralph D. Russo of the Associated Press reported on Thursday, Tayo Fabuluje has left the team for personal reasons, leaving a big hole on the line.
It will be an uphill climb, but head coach Gary Patterson, going into his second year in the Big 12, will have his team better prepared than a year ago. It will have its starting quarterback leading the way.
Tucked right underneath TCU, you'll find UCLA, a team that was a fourth-quarter collapse away from the Rose Bowl in Jim Mora's first season in Westwood. Although running back Johnathan Franklin is gone, the Bruins return some solid offensive linemen to power the run game; more importantly, quarterback Brett Hundley returns as well.
Hundley was a revelation last year for UCLA fans, who have not seen consistent quarterback play in quite some time.
An early date at Nebraska will be the first test, but Pac-12 play will bring the biggest challenges. Back-to-back games at Stanford and Oregon are a mountain to climb, but if the Bruins survive games against two teams in the preseason Top Four, they will be rewarded with a fast ascent.
On defense, they are short on experience but long on talent, as coordinator Lou Spanos blends seniors like Anthony Barr (LB) and Cassius Marsh (DE) with talented freshmen including Jeremy Castro (LB) and newly eligible Eddie Vanderdoes (DT).
UCLA will get a shot to play highly-ranked teams, and the Bruins are talented enough to beat the opponents on their schedule.
Mora's team must stay disciplined, finish plays and remain hungry week to week. If it does those things, it will be the team left standing when the dust settles in the Pac-12—and a team looking to elbow its way to the top of the rankings.
That brings us to Nebraska, a team that just needs a couple spoonfuls of defense to go with an offense that is the most explosive in the Big Ten not named Ohio State.
Nebraska is ranked in the bottom third for one clear reason: the Blackshirts.
On offense, Taylor Martinez is a dark-horse Heisman contender who is a completely different quarterback from his first two seasons in Lincoln. The weapons are there for offensive coordinator Tim Beck, as Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross run the ball and Martinez finds Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa and Jamal Turner on the edge.
This offense is likely going to surpass last year's average of 34.8 points per game and could outpace the 35.6 points per game of the 2001 BCS runner-up squad.
All the Cornhuskers need is a few ounces of defense out of the Blackshirts. Nebraska's defense used to be the stuff of legends, littered with NFL draft picks, collegiate All-Americans and All-Conference talents stuffing the run and shutting down the pass.
Now, it's a unit that has gotten progressively worse since the NCAA-best 2009 team that surrendered just 10.4 points a game, giving up 27.6 points a game last year.
This year, the defense does not have to be suffocating. It just has to be better. Better to not give up 36 to UCLA. Better to not give up 63 to Ohio State. Better to not give up 70 to Wisconsin. Better to not give up 45 in a bowl game.
If Nebraska can just be better on defense, the offense is good enough to push this team toward the top of the rankings.
The interesting thing here will be watching UCLA and Nebraska duke it out early in the season. The loser in that contest likely pushes itself out of position to make that Auburn- or Notre Dame-like trek to the top.
All three of these teams have the talent to compete. It is merely a matter of putting it together every week and getting good things to happen.