Preseason College Football Rankings: Spring Practice Top 25

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistMarch 24, 2014

Preseason College Football Rankings: Spring Practice Top 25

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    College football is no longer a five-month sport. It's become a year-round endeavor, with the "offseason" overflowing with tentpole events that include national signing day and (currently) spring practice.

    And just like the game itself, ranking college football teams isn't just an in-season exercise.

    The dust had barely settled on the 2013 season when a bevy of far-too-early-for-2014 rankings popped up to provide an early opportunity to compare and debate. Early NFL departures and recruiting class evaluations also offered timely chances to re-rank teams heading into the fall, while assorted pieces of off-the-field news may have impacted the collective opinion of what to expect from the best of the best in FBS.

    Spring football brings us another ranking window, as the development of backups or the early impressions made by early enrollees may have moved the needle one way or another on a team's 2014 outlook.

    Check out Bleacher Report's 2014 preseason college football (spring practice edition) top 25, which is based on a combination of last year's finish, offseason personnel losses and gains, schedule analysis and just a hint of what we're seeing and hearing from spring ball.

    Agree or disagree? Let us know in the comments section.

25. Clemson Tigers

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    With the majority of the offensive production gone but a solid corps of defenders coming back, Clemson might be facing a bit of a program crossroads when the 2014 season starts. The Tigers won't come in with the usual loaded set of playmakers and might have to rely more on shutting teams down then running past them.

    It doesn't help that Clemson has a rough opening slate, with trips to Georgia and Florida State in the first three games. The Georgia game will be particularly challenging, as the Tigers suspended four players for that contest because of team rules violations.

    By the end, Clemson should be fine, but it won't be smooth sailing at the outset.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 at Georgia

24. Mississippi Rebels

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    The continued improvement of quarterback Bo Wallace is the key to Ole Miss moving up the charts in 2014, as the senior-to-be will have a lot of expectations put on his shoulders.

    An offseason suspension of linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche has messed with offseason preparations on defense, but look for the Rebels to still be better in that facet than they were last year.

    2014 opener: Aug. 28 vs. Boise State (at Atlanta)

23. Texas Tech Red Raiders

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    Texas Tech went into the offseason on the highest wave possible, blowing out Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl and discovering its quarterback of the future in Davis Webb. Some major offensive weapons have left for the pros, but the Red Raiders remain loaded at receiver and should have no trouble putting up points.

    Tech's main offseason work has been devoted to shoring up its defense, which needs to be able to slow opponents down more.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 vs. Central Arkansas

22. Kansas State Wildcats

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    One of the hotter teams toward the end of last season, the Wildcats should carry that momentum into 2014 behind a team full of returning starters. Both the offense and defense have key contributors coming back and brimming with confidence.

    The combo of quarterback Jake Waters and receiver Tyler Lockett could put up huge numbers this year, and an early spotlight game at home against Auburn might end up being a launching point for another run like in 2012.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 vs. Stephen F. Austin

21. Nebraska Cornhuskers

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    A lot will ride on who comes out on top in the quarterback battle, but Nebraska will also head into 2014 with the nation's top returning rusher (in terms of yards gained in 2013) in Ameer Abdullah.

    The Cornhuskers were up and down last year, but they went into the offseason with some confidence after their Gator Bowl win over Georgia. Look for that momentum to be built on through a soft early schedule before getting into some challenging matchups midway through.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 vs. Florida Atlantic

20. Texas A&M Aggies

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    The biggest question mark on the national college football stage lies in College Station, where just who will replace Johnny Manziel is something everyone is eager to have answered.

    Whether Kevin Sumlin goes with Kyle Allen, Kenny Hill or Matt Joeckel at quarterback could be the make-or-break decision for both the head coach and his program, writes Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee.

    There's also that little issue of developing playmakers on defense who can provide at least some semblance of resistance, a big problem for the Aggies last season.

    2014 opener: Aug. 28 at South Carolina

19. Georgia Bulldogs

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    Georgia's turmoil-plagued 2013 season was supposed to be in the rearview mirror, with all the focus put on getting injured players back and setting the stage for a bounce-back year this fall.

    But the Bulldogs' offseason has been marred with similar issues from the past, including the arrest of four players accused of fraud regarding stipend checks, according to the Macon Telegraph's Seth Emerson, as well as a leg injury to receiver Malcolm Mitchell that was suffered during spring practice. 

    If Georgia can keep those incidents from being distractions, it is still in a good position to have a solid year thanks to a group of offensive starsincluding running back Todd Gurleythat should all be healthy for the fall.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 vs. Clemson

18. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    A lot of what will happen with Notre Dame this fall depends on how Everett Golson looks on the field after missing the 2013 season. His absence was felt on offense last year, so his return is certainly a key.

    The Fighting Irish have suffered a few injuries this spring, including to lineman Christian Lombard and receiver Will Mahone, but their losses won't be as impactful as what happens with the overhaul of a defense that lost many top players.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 vs. Rice

17. Missouri Tigers

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    Missouri will be hard-pressed to match what it did in 2013, partly because it won't be able to sneak up on anyone and because a great number of standouts from that team are gone.

    Changes at quarterback, running back, receiver and across the defense will make this a very different Tigers unit, but still a good one and one that can compete for an SEC division crown again. The key will be how Maty Mauk progresses from an emergency fill-in to the go-to quarterback.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 vs. South Dakota State

16. North Carolina Tar Heels

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    The Tar Heels team that rolled through most of the second half of its schedule last year is the one that was expected all season long, but it's also the one that should be on hand for the start of 2014.

    North Carolina became explosive on offense, and even with the loss of coordinator Blake Anderson (now the head coach at Arkansas State), the return of quarterback Marquise Williams and running back T.J. Logan is enough to expect solid production.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 vs. Liberty

15. Arizona State Sun Devils

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    Its last two games aside, Arizona State is coming off a strong 2013 that should carry over into the following season, assuming the holes left on the defensive line are addressed properly. The continued growth of quarterback Taylor Kelly has turned the Sun Devils into an offensive power, and that should continue this fall.

    ASU hasn't had back-to-back 10-win teams since the early 1970s, but this group could be the one to match or surpass last year's 10-4 record.

    2014 opener: Aug. 28 vs. Weber State

14. USC Trojans

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    The Steve Sarkisian-led USC Trojans could look very different from the Lane Kiffin/Ed Orgeron version of 2013, at least in terms of style and approach. But the overabundance of talent is still there. That's been a staple of USC teams forever, it seems, it's just a matter of how the players are used.

    USC has no shortage of impact players, but it will likely all come down to how the quarterback position pans out.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 vs. Fresno State

13. LSU Tigers

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    As is starting to become the norm with the Tigers, the 2014 version will feature plenty of new faces in the lineup to fill the holes left by graduation and mass early entry to the NFL. No bother, though, for LSU's depth is among the best in the nation.

    How the quarterback situation develops between now and the start of the season will go a long way toward determining just how good this upcoming year will be, but it's pretty safe to say LSU will still find itself near the top of the rankings as usual.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 vs. Wisconsin (in Houston)

12. South Carolina Gamecocks

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    South Carolina is replacing its quarterback, its best receiver and some standout defensive linemen—ever hear of a guy named Jadeveon Clowney?—from its third straight 11-win team. But even with all those changes, another 11 (or more) victories are very possible.

    Mike Davis could be the nation's best running back if he can stay healthy, while Dylan Thompson might be the most polished backup quarterback around and should do just fine slipping into the starting role again.

    2014 opener: Aug. 28 vs. Texas A&M

11. Wisconsin Badgers

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    The second year of Gary Andersen's tenure could be far better than what was produced in 2013, but a lot will depend on whether the defensive replacements perform as well as their predecessors. That group will get a major test in its opener, but after that it's smooth sailing for a while.

    Given the production of running back Melvin Gordon, who will be the main back this year instead of part of a tandem attack, the Badgers could easily be 9-0 if they can get past LSU in Houston. The back end of the schedule is where the remaining challenges lie.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 vs. LSU (in Houston)

10. Baylor Bears

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    Baylor's system of offense has gotten stronger and stronger each year, and with Bryce Petty back at the helm for another season, there's no reason to think the Bears won't once again put up video game-like numbers.

    Throw in a fancy new stadium, a seemingly endless array of skill options and a defense that remains underrated, and you've got the makings of a solid contender for back-to-back Big 12 titles.

    2014 opener: Aug. 31 vs. SMU

9. Ohio State Buckeyes

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    The Buckeyes faltered down the stretch last season in their quest to get into the final BCS title game, but those memories need to be pushed aside so that the 2014 campaign can be the main focus. That means replacing some standouts on defense and hoping that Braxton Miller can stay upright.

    He's had minor shoulder surgery this offseason, which kept him out of spring ball, so the Buckeyes will go into the fall with some question marks. But Urban Meyer is a capable coach, and he should have OSU where he wants it come late August.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 vs. Navy (at Baltimore)

8. UCLA Bruins

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    It should be a big year for UCLA, especially on offense, where the return of Brett Hundley at quarterback should make the Bruins one of the toughest teams to stop.

    The biggest question marks will come on defense, where there were some significant losses. But solid backups are in place to fill those spots.

    With rival USC also on the upswing, we should see some of the best football out of Los Angeles in several years.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 at Virginia

7. Stanford Cardinal

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    Stanford lost some major players from its latest Rose Bowl team, but that seems to be the case every year, and yet the Cardinal keep on winning. Expect more of the same this fall.

    Kevin Hogan has the qualities needed to lead Stanford to another conference championship, but it will really come down to finding a good replacement for running back Tyler Gaffney and making sure the defensive holes get filled adequately.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 vs. UC Davis

6. Oregon Ducks

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    Consider the late-season slump from last year that featured Oregon lose twice in three games a mirage. The Ducks should be flying again behind Marcus Mariota and his band of talented skill players, of which the team has many.

    Oregon is one of the more stacked returning teams and should once again be in the discussion for both conference and national titles.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 vs. South Dakota

5. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    If there's any team that could get by without having a superb quarterback, it's Alabama. There's so much talent and ability nearly everywhere else on the field that the Crimson Tide would probably be able to overcome the lack of a strong presence under center.

    But the reality is that Alabama will need someone to replace at least some of what AJ McCarron brought to the team; otherwise it will have trouble staying in the race for another title.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 vs. West Virginia (in Atlanta)

4. Oklahoma Sooners

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    The Oklahoma Sooners were almost an afterthought for much of the 2013 season...until the final quarter of Bedlam, which propelled them into a BCS bowl, and from there it's been nothing but up.

    The convincing win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl might have been the single most significant postseason result in terms of building momentum for the next year, and Oklahoma looks prepared to ride that upswell right back into the national title picture.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 vs. Louisiana Tech

3. Michigan State Spartans

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    By the time last season ended, it was fair to say that Michigan State was the third-best team in the nation behind the two squads in the championship game, so why shouldn't the Spartans start this coming season at the same spot? 

    MSU brings back its best pieces on offense in quarterback Connor Cook and rusher Jeremy Langford, while the defense is mostly intact. Not having Darqueze Dennard patrolling the secondary will have an impact, but not so much that the Spartans can't overcome it and legitimately challenge for a national title.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 vs. Jacksonville State

2. Auburn Tigers

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    A skeptic could argue that Auburn was as successful as it was last season because it sneaked up on teams that didn't expect much from the Tigers and that it got extremely lucky at the end of the Iron Bowl. But while that's a fair assessment, it can't possibly explain the entire body of work put forth by the Tigers in Gus Malzahn's first season.

    This second year, though, will be the true barometer of whether the Auburn program has returned—and all signs point to that being very likely. The combination of talent and system should make for another outstanding season, one full of litmus tests in the form of road games at Kansas State, Georgia and Alabama.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 vs. Arkansas

1. Florida State Seminoles

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    Since we last saw the Seminoles pass around the crystal football and stick roses between their teeth, the defending national champions have lost many key contributors and seen their star quarterback turn his focus toward college baseball.

    Yet FSU should (and will) start the 2014 season atop the rankings, because unless Jameis Winston suffers some sort of injury from his pitching sojourn, there's no reason to suspect the Seminoles can't match what they did last season. The departed starters all either had key reserves waiting behind them for a shot or will be replaced by star incoming recruits. Jimbo Fisher also doesn't come off as the kind of coach who's willing to rest his laurels on one title.

    And the upgraded schedule—thanks to games against Louisville, Notre Dame and Oklahoma State—should help silence some of the critics who don't believe FSU gets challenged in the ACC.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 vs. Oklahoma State (in Arlington, Tex.)


    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP