Preseason College Football Rankings 2014: Predicting the AP's Top 25

Greg Wallace@gc_wallaceFeatured ColumnistAugust 11, 2014

Preseason College Football Rankings 2014: Predicting the AP's Top 25

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    Jimbo Fisher, Jameis Winston and Florida State begin 2014 as a national favorite.
    Jimbo Fisher, Jameis Winston and Florida State begin 2014 as a national favorite.Phil Sears/Associated Press

    We're fewer than three weeks away from the opening of the much-anticipated 2014 college football season, with teams beginning their second week of preseason workouts and two-a-day practices.

    New faces are emerging, position battles are being fought and fans across the country are forming opinions about who they think will emerge as contenders for the inaugural College Football Playoff.

    On Sunday, another piece of that thought process will fall into place when The Associated Press releases its annual preseason Top 25 poll. Voted on by college football media members across the nation, the poll has no influence on the College Football Playoff selection committee's deliberations but is nonetheless an important milepost for the 2014 season and how the national picture is viewed.

    Here is a look at how we think the AP Top 25 will shake out when it is released. This is not a matter of personal opinion but how we believe the poll will look Sunday. It is based on a combination of how the teams performed in 2013 and their projected returnees and newcomers, as well as the difficulty of their 2014 schedules.

Just Missed the Cut

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    Maty Mauk and Missouri are among the teams that will challenge for a top-25 berth early on this season.
    Maty Mauk and Missouri are among the teams that will challenge for a top-25 berth early on this season.Associated Press

    28. Central Florida

    George O’ Leary has built a program to be reckoned with in Orlando. The Golden Knights put a huge scare into South Carolina last fall, won the inaugural AAC title and surprised Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl.

    Can they repeat?

    The AAC will be easier following Louisville’s departure to the ACC, but O’ Leary and Co. must find a replacement for star quarterback Blake Bortles, a first-round pick of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars.

    27. Florida

    Will Muschamp’s seat is white-hot after Florida followed an 11-win 2013 with last fall’s 4-8 disaster that included a home loss to then-FCS Georgia Southern.

    The Gators are much healthier this fall, starting with quarterback Jeff Driskel, who redshirted after suffering a broken leg in September.

    New offensive coordinator Kurt Roper promises a more uptempo, wide-open attack that should better utilize Florida’s offensive personnel. The defense will be tough, but will it be enough to save Muschamp’s job?

    26. Missouri

    The Tigers joined Auburn in a most unlikely SEC Championship Game last fall, making a surprising run from a losing season in 2012 to an SEC East championship in 2013.

    Quarterback Maty Mauk played well in relief of injured starter James Franklin last season and is ready to be "the man" this fall, but who will he throw to?

    The dismissal of Dorial Green-Beckham (and subsequent transfer to Oklahoma) leaves the Tigers without their top three receivers from a year ago. There are also questions on the defensive line.

25. Washington

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    New Washington coach Chris Petersen inherits a talented roster.
    New Washington coach Chris Petersen inherits a talented roster.Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    Steve Sarkisian did not leave the cupboard bare when he decamped down the West Coast to fellow Pac-12 program USC.

    New coach Chris Petersen had been the subject of coaching-carousel rumors for years at Boise State, but the chance to take over an established program was just too strong to resist. He inherits 14 starters from a team that finished 2013 at 9-4 with a bowl game victory over BYU. The Huskies are particularly strong in the trenches: every defensive and offensive line starter returns from last fall.

    At wide receiver, Jaydon Mickens and Kasen Williams will provide capable targets for whoever emerges as the Huskies starting quarterback. Sophomore Cyler Miles won the job in spring but has been suspended for the opener against Hawaii following his role in a fight last winter. Fellow sophomore Jeff Lindquist will start.

    The Huskies also have questions at running back (where speedy sophomore Dwayne Washington must replace workhorse Bishop Sankey, who left early for the NFL) and in the secondary, where junior cornerback Marcus Peters is the only returning starter.

    If the skill positions can show growth, Petersen’s first year in Seattle will be a successful one.

24. North Carolina

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    Larry Fedora has plenty of reason for optimism entering 2014.
    Larry Fedora has plenty of reason for optimism entering 2014.Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    North Carolina finished last season as one of the nation’s hottest teams, winning six of its final seven games to pull out a 7-6 record. There’s good reason for excitement in Chapel Hill as coach Larry Fedora returns 16 starters from that group who’ll have momentum from the excellent finish.

    Wide receivers Quinshad Davis and Kendrick Singleton return, but speedy T.J. Thorpe has been sidelined indefinitely following a foot injury, per Greg Barnes of One of the biggest questions is at quarterback, where junior Marquise Williams, who emerged as the starter last fall, is fending off a challenge from freshman Mitch Trubisky.

    The starter will hand off to a talented backfield pair in sophomore T.J. Logan and freshman Elijah Hood. Seven starters also return from a defense that seemed to buy into defensive coordinator Vic Koenning’s schemes as the season went on, led by senior bandit Norkeithus Otis, who had 7.5 sacks last fall.

    In a wide-open ACC Coastal Division, the Tar Heels will be among the most talented teams. It wouldn’t be a stunner to see them break through and make the ACC Championship Game, just a short distance down I-85 in Charlotte.

23. Texas

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    Charlie Strong is building a no-nonsense reputation as Texas' new head coach.
    Charlie Strong is building a no-nonsense reputation as Texas' new head coach.Uncredited/Associated Press

    When Charlie Strong arrived from Louisville, he brought with him a record of doing more with less. The Cardinals are not a traditional power, but Strong went 23-3 in his final two seasons at Louisville, including a Sugar Bowl rout of Florida.

    He was hired at Texas to improve the Longhorns’ toughness. Talent wasn’t an issue under Mack Brown’s regime. Discipline was, and Strong has done plenty in his first months on the job to enforce that idea.

    Brown left 12 starters from 2013’s 8-5 team for Strong to work with. Seven return to a defense which was middle-of-the-pack in the Big 12. Senior Cedric Reed had 10 sacks a year ago, and junior tackle Malcom Brown is also talented. The secondary is also a talented group, with senior cornerback Quandre Diggs emerging as a leader.

    Senior tailbacks Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray also provide backfield stability, but quarterback David Ash needs a full season of health after missing the final nine games of 2013 with concussion symptoms.

    The Longhorns will be tested early with BYU and a neutral-site game against UCLA in Arlington, Texas, but they also host Baylor and play their annual Red River Showdown game against Oklahoma in Dallas’ Cotton Bowl.

    This might not be a national title contender, but Strong’s first season in Austin should be successful.

22. Nebraska

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    Bo Pelini and Nebraska hope to break past the nine-win barrier this season.
    Bo Pelini and Nebraska hope to break past the nine-win barrier this season.Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    Nebraska has not won a national title since 1997 and hasn't won a league title since 1999, although coach Bo Pelini has won at least nine games in each of his six seasons in Lincoln. Last fall was no different, as the Cornhuskers went 9-4.

    They return only nine starters from that group but should have no problem generating rushing offense. Senior tailback Ameer Abdullah (1,690 rushing yards in 2013) and junior Imani Cross form one of the best one-two backfield duos in the Big Ten and nationally.

    Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. is the favorite to emerge as the starting quarterback, and he has a prolific target in senior wideout Kenny Bell. Only one starting offensive lineman, senior left guard Jake Cotton, returns.

    Defensively, Nebraska brings back five starters. However, the Cornhuskers  have absorbed some serious losses over the past week, with three potential starters being lost for the season due to suspension or injury in sophomore safety LeRoy Alexander, junior cornerback Charles Jackson and sophomore linebacker Michael Rose, per Tom Fornelli of Junior defensive end Randy Gregory led the Big Ten with 10.5 sacks a year ago.

    The Huskers have a favorable schedule and could easily break through for a Big Ten West Division championship.

21. Kansas State

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    Jake Waters and Kansas State finished 2013 on a major high note.
    Jake Waters and Kansas State finished 2013 on a major high note.Matt York/Associated Press

    Kansas State began last season on a serious down note, losing to FCS power North Dakota State at home. But veteran coach Bill Snyder will welcome 12 starters back from an 8-5 team that showed significant improvement over the course of 2013, capped with a Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl win over Michigan.

    Senior quarterback Jake Waters returns as the unquestioned starter, and he’ll have capable targets in senior wideouts Tyler Lockett and Curry Sexton. Senior defensive end Ryan Mueller, who had 11.5 sacks a year ago, will be a solid leader for the Wildcats defensive line.

    The defense will improve as fast as junior college linebacker D’Vonta Derricott and fellow JUCO transfer Terrell Clinkscales pick up the system.

    A capable starter must also be found at tailback, as senior Demarcus Robinson is the only option with any sort of significant experience. However, Snyder has thrived throughout his career in molding teams with new pieces.

    Expect K-State to play a role in the Big 12 title chase.

20. Texas A&M

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    What will life after Johnny Manziel be like for Kevin Sumlin and Texas A&M?
    What will life after Johnny Manziel be like for Kevin Sumlin and Texas A&M?Butch Dill/Associated Press

    What does life after Johnny Manziel look like for Kevin Sumlin and Texas A&M? Not bad, although there are some question marks.

    The Aggies return 12 starters from 2013’s 9-4 team but did endure a tumultuous offseason that saw three projected defensive starters leave, per The Dallas Morning News' Sean Lester. Defensive tackle Isaiah Golden and linebacker Darian Claiborne were dismissed after being arrested for aggravated robbery. Defensive end Gavin Stansbury left for personal reasons.

    However, six experienced defensive linemen return. 

    Talented freshman Kyle Allen and sophomore Kenny Hill are battling to replace Manziel under center, and the victor will be protected by an offensive line that returns four starters, including senior left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi, a potential NFL first-round pick.

    Senior Malcome Kennedy leads a talented wide receiver corps that also includes impact freshmen in Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil. A schedule that includes trips to South Carolina, Alabama and Auburn is cause for concern, but Sumlin has built up some serious goodwill in College Station.

19. Ole Miss

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    Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss have emerged as SEC West contenders.
    Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss have emerged as SEC West contenders.Dave Martin/Associated Press

    Hugh Freeze is building a solid program in Oxford, and there is reason for excitement following an 8-5 season capped with a Music City Bowl win over Georgia Tech.

    Fourteen starters return, and they’re led by senior quarterback Bo Wallace. Wallace is the SEC’s most experienced quarterback, capable of moving the ball through the air or on the ground. The Rebels defense should be a big strength. Nine starters return from a year ago, led by senior All-American safety Cody Prewitt, a hard hitter and sure tackler.

    An improving defensive line is led by sophomore defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, one of the nation’s top freshmen talents a year ago.  One of the biggest concerns is the offensive line, outside of sophomore left tackle Laremy Tunsil, who should be one of the nation’s best at protecting a quarterback’s blind side. Only two offensive linemen return from a year ago.

    The Rebels will open the season in Atlanta against Boise State in a national spotlight game. They also welcome Alabama and Auburn to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, though they must travel to LSU and Texas A&M.

    This is a team that can potentially make noise in a loaded SEC West.

18. Arizona State

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    D.J. Foster should be one of the Pac-12's most explosive tailbacks this fall.
    D.J. Foster should be one of the Pac-12's most explosive tailbacks this fall.Matt York/Associated Press

    Arizona State has some questions as a team that won 10 games but will return only 10 starters.

    Senior quarterback Taylor Kelly is a talented, prolific dual threat who had 4,243 yards of total offense as a junior, and junior tailback D.J. Foster will be a name on the tongues of college football fans across the nation (well, at least those who stay up long enough to watch Pac-12 games). ASU returns three starting offensive linemen, and Auburn transfer Christian Westerman should fit in at left guard.

    The Sun Devils have serious questions on defense, as they return only two starters (sophomore linebacker Salamo Fiso and senior free safety Damarious Randall). Junior college transfers will be leaned upon heavily on the defensive line, and it’s a fair bet that the offense will carry a bigger load as the defense gets up to speed early on.

    The Sun Devils avoid Oregon and host both UCLA and Stanford, as well as Notre Dame. If the newcomers jell quickly, there’s reason for optimism in Tempe.

17. Notre Dame

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    Everett Golson is back at Notre Dame following an academic suspension.
    Everett Golson is back at Notre Dame following an academic suspension.JOE RAYMOND/Associated Press

    Notre Dame regressed in 2013 from a BCS title game appearance to a 9-4 record, but the Fighting Irish were without junior quarterback Everett Golson, who missed the season due to an academic violation. He’s back this fall and joins 11 returning starters.

    He’ll have a deep, talented group of receivers to throw to led by junior DaVaris Daniels. NFL first-round pick Zack Martin is gone, but the Irish return three starting offensive linemen.

    Defense is a question mark under new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder; junior defensive tackle Sheldon Day and sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith are the only returnees in the Fighting Irish’s defensive front seven after NFL defensive line departures in Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt.

    As usual, the schedule is not easy, but the Irish should be a solid contender and a top-25 presence all season long.

16. USC

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    Quarterback Cody Kessler will play a huge role in USC's offense this fall.
    Quarterback Cody Kessler will play a huge role in USC's offense this fall.Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press

    A year ago, USC went through three head coaches but still finished 10-4 with a Las Vegas Bowl win over Fresno State.

    The Trojans have depth issues after losing 30 scholarships over the last three recruiting classes due to NCAA probation, but new coach Steve Sarkisian saw enough positives to leave a solid program in Washington to take over for Lane Kiffin.

    Look for multitalented junior Nelson Agholor to emerge as one of the nation’s most exciting players as a prime target of junior quarterback Cody Kessler.

    Defensively, eight starters come back, led by three returning starters in the secondary and two returning starting linebackers. There are issues with depth on the offensive line, although three starters do come back.

    The Trojans are an exciting team across the board, and if they can stay healthy, they’re a dark horse to compete for the Pac-12 championship.

15. Clemson

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    Senior quarterback Cole Stoudt finally gets the keys to Clemson's offense this fall.
    Senior quarterback Cole Stoudt finally gets the keys to Clemson's offense this fall.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Following a breakthrough 11-2 season and the program’s first BCS bowl win (an Orange Bowl victory over Ohio State), the Tigers are hoping to reload and not rebuild.

    While Clemson has gained a reputation for its offense (the Tigers are one of only four teams nationally to average more than 40 points and 500 yards of total offense per game in the last two seasons), defense could carry the load early on.

    Defensive coordinator Brent Venables has led steady improvement in his two seasons at Clemson. In 2013, the Tigers yielded 22.2 points per game (No. 24 nationally). Returning All-American defensive end Vic Beasley leads a defensive line that returns its entire two-deep rotation from a year ago.

    Coaches hope senior quarterback Cole Stoudt, who served as the backup for prolific starter Tajh Boyd in his first three seasons, can helm an offense that is also looking to replace talented wideouts Sammy Watkins (a top-five overall NFL draft pick), Martavis Bryant and 1,000-yard rusher Rod McDowell.

    Senior wideout Adam Humphries brings experience, but fellow senior Charone Peake (coming off a torn ACL) has been sidelined for the beginning of practice following minor knee surgery.

    That could put more pressure on sophomore Mike Williams and incoming freshmen Kyrin Priester, Demarre Kitt and Artavis Scott to perform. The Tigers face a serious hurdle to the ACC Atlantic title in defending national champs Florida State, but the pieces are there for another double-digit-win season.

14. Wisconsin

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    Wisconsin's Joel Stave is locked in a battle for his starting quarterback job.
    Wisconsin's Joel Stave is locked in a battle for his starting quarterback job.Scott Halleran/Getty Images

    Wisconsin compiled a 9-4 record in coach Gary Andersen’s first season in Madison, but the Badgers have some issues entering 2014 as only 10 starters return from a year ago.

    They open with LSU in a neutral-site game in Houston, and one of the biggest questions is who’ll trot out as the starting quarterback. Junior Joel Stave is 13-6 as a starter but missed much of spring practice with a shoulder injury. He’s being pushed hard by junior Tanner McEvoy, a dual-threat option who played as a wideout and defensive back last year.

    Four offensive line starters return, and they’ll pave the way for a backfield that is highlighted by talented junior tailback Melvin Gordon, who turned down the NFL to return for another season of college football. Wisconsin’s top three wideouts from a year ago are gone, and the Badgers also must replace the entire defensive starting front seven from 2013.

    Still, the schedule is favorable beyond the opening-game challenge against LSU, and there’s reason to believe that if the defensive pieces come together, this group could make a run at the Big Ten title.

13. Georgia

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    Todd Gurley forms one of the nation's top backfields for Georgia.
    Todd Gurley forms one of the nation's top backfields for Georgia.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    2013 was a disappointing season in Athens. Injuries on offense made life tough for Georgia in an 8-5 season, but room for improvement exists.

    New starting quarterback Hutson Mason was a highly prolific quarterback in Georgia’s high school ranks but was stuck behind Aaron Murray, the SEC’s all-time leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns. Now, he gets his chance as a starter with Murray gone.

    Juniors Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall comprise one of the nation’s top backfields. Even with junior Malcolm Mitchell’s knee injury, the wide receiver corps is deep and talented with seniors Chris Conley and Michael Bennett and sophomore Reggie Davis and junior Justin Scott-Wesley battling for snaps.

    Even after losing multiple secondary members to offseason disciplinary issues, Georgia returns nine defensive starters to a unit that will get a fresh approach from new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. Senior linebacker Ramik Wilson is a first-team All-SEC returnee and will lead the Bulldogs defense again this fall.

    If Mason is a capable leader and the offense stays healthy, the Bulldogs could challenge for the SEC East championship this fall.

12. LSU

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    Les Miles and LSU are consistently one of the nation's top programs, despite draft losses.
    Les Miles and LSU are consistently one of the nation's top programs, despite draft losses.Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Ho-hum. Another 10-win season in Baton Rouge, another Jan. 1 bowl win and another season of replacing heavy NFL draft losses. This is the reality at LSU, which reloads instead of rebuilding.

    Coach Les Miles returns 14 starters, keyed by a strong offensive line which brings back four starters, as well as a deep defensive line led by ends Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco.

    The quarterback position will be in the spotlight this month, with early-enrollee freshman Brandon Harris pushing sophomore Anthony Jennings, who was inconsistent following  senior Zach Mettenberger’s torn ACL in the regular-season finale. Whoever wins the job will throw to sophomore Travin Dural, as well as signees Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn.

    Freshman tailback Leonard Fournette is one of the nation’s most hyped recruits and could emerge as an instant star. The SEC West is never easy, but LSU should be a contender again, assuming the newcomers live up to their billing and a capable quarterback emerges between Harris and Jennings.

11. Stanford

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    David Shaw and Stanford have emerged as one of the nation's most consistent programs.
    David Shaw and Stanford have emerged as one of the nation's most consistent programs.Alex Washburn/Associated Press

    Stanford coach David Shaw has built a consistent winner in Palo Alto, and this fall should be no different.

    Shaw returns 13 starters from a team that won 11 games and a Pac-12 championship and doesn’t figure to take much of a step backward this fall. The secondary is a major strength, with three returning starters and senior Kyle Olugbode the favorite to take over the vacancy at strong safety.

    The Cardinal defensive line is young but talented, keyed by senior starters Henry Anderson and David Parry. Senior Ty Montgomery and junior Devon Cajuste lead a talented receiving corps that will catch passes from junior quarterback Kevin Hogan (20 touchdowns, 10 interceptions in 2013).

    Concerns? Start with the offensive line, where junior left tackle Andrus Peat is the only returning starter. At tailback, Remound Wright, Ricky Seale, Kelsey Young and Barry Sanders Jr. (the son of NFL Hall of Fame tailback Barry Sanders) will all be competing for snaps.

    The Cardinal host USC but travel to Notre Dame, Oregon and UCLA, although all three big road games are in October and November, giving a young team time to find its legs.

10. Baylor

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    Bryce Petty is a clear Heisman Trophy candidate while leading Baylor's potent offense.
    Bryce Petty is a clear Heisman Trophy candidate while leading Baylor's potent offense.Matt York/Associated Press

    Art Briles has built a powerhouse in Waco, and his staff’s work paid off in a big way last fall, with Baylor finishing 11-2 with the program’s first outright league title since 1980. However, Briles and Co. face some issues in repeating that feat.

    Just nine starters return from a year ago, including only one on the offensive line (junior left tackle Spencer Drango, who is coming off winter back surgery).

    Still, quarterback Bryce Petty is a Heisman Trophy candidate who’ll have talented targets in wideouts Antwan Goodley and Corey Coleman, and sophomore tailback Shock Linwood is poised to emerge as a star this fall.

    Baylor returns only four starters from 2013’s defense. Junior Terrell Burt is the lone returning starter in the secondary, and senior linebacker Bryce Hager is the only returning starting linebacker. The defensive line is deep, particularly at defensive tackle.

    The Bears must travel to Oklahoma for what will be the Big 12’s game of the year Nov. 8, but if the offensive line can find a way to protect Petty, the Bears should score points in bunches and be a national contender again this fall.

9. South Carolina

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    Steve Spurrier and South Carolina have emerged as an SEC East power.
    Steve Spurrier and South Carolina have emerged as an SEC East power.Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Steve Spurrier has built a juggernaut in Columbia, piling up 33 wins over the last three seasons. One of the biggest losses offensively is do-everything quarterback Connor Shaw, but senior Dylan Thompson has plenty of experience as his backup.

    A talented, bruising offensive line will clear big holes for junior tailback Mike Davis and backup Brandon Wilds. A wide receiver corps that features junior Shaq Roland, senior Damiere Byrd and sophomore Pharoh Cooper will give Thompson plenty of targets.

    The defensive line must be rebuilt without end Jadeveon Clowney, the NFL’s No. 1 overall pick, and defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles, who was actually the team’s sack leader in 2013. Linebacker will be a strength with sophomore Skai Moore and junior Kaiwan Lewis.

    Texas A&M and Auburn rotate onto the schedule, which will make matters more difficult, but the Gamecocks should be a team to be reckoned with again in the SEC.

8. Michigan State

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    Connor Cook helped lead Michigan State to a 13-1 record last fall.
    Connor Cook helped lead Michigan State to a 13-1 record last fall.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Michigan State enjoyed a breakthrough season last fall, going 13-1 with a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl victory. Mark Dantonio’s Spartans return 12 starters from that group.

    They have a deep defensive line that features two returning starters led by junior end Shilique Calhoun, the reigning Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year, and senior end Marcus Rush, a four-year starter.

    Juniors Joel Heath and Damon Knox are solid at defensive tackle, and freshman Malik McDowell will also push for playing time.

    At tailback, senior Jeremy Langford, who rushed for 1,422 yards and 18 scores a year ago, leads a strong backfield with fellow senior Nick Hill as a backup. Junior Connor Cook emerged in 2013 as an unflappable starter, and he should be even better this fall.

    A Week 2 trip to Oregon will test the Spartans, and back-to-back home dates against Michigan and Ohio State won’t be easy. But this team should be a serious Big Ten and College Football Playoff contender.


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    Brett Hundley is one of the nation's top dual-threat quarterbacks.
    Brett Hundley is one of the nation's top dual-threat quarterbacks.Victor Calzada/Associated Press

    Jim Mora Jr. is building an emerging power in Westwood. Last fall, UCLA piled up a 10-3 record with a Sun Bowl win over Virginia Tech, and 14 starters return from that group.

    Junior dual-threat quarterback Brett Hundley returned for one more season of college football and is a Heisman Trophy candidate. He’ll be protected by three returning offensive line starters and will throw to a talented group of receivers led by juniors Devin Fuller, Jordan Payton and Devin Lucien.

    Seven defensive starters return as well. The defense is keyed by a strong secondary led by junior cornerbacks Fabian Moreau and Randall Goforth. The linebackers are led by senior Eric Kendricks and sophomore Myles Jack, who was the Pac-12’s Defensive and Offensive Freshman of the Year last fall.

    The Bruins schedule is favorable, featuring home games with Oregon, Stanford and USC. There is room for Mora’s bunch to take another step forward this season in both the Pac-12 and nationally.

6. Ohio State

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    Urban Meyer and Ohio State enter 2014 with a sour taste in their mouths.
    Urban Meyer and Ohio State enter 2014 with a sour taste in their mouths.Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    Ohio State enters 2014 on a two-game losing streak, but that was preceded by a 24-game winning streak. Before a Big Ten title game loss to Michigan State, the Buckeyes were in line for a BCS National Championship Game appearance.

    Twelve starters return from that group, led by senior do-everything quarterback Braxton Miller, one of the nation’s most dynamic passers. However, OSU must find answers on an offensive line that returns only one starter (junior left tackle Taylor Decker).

    The Buckeyes defensive line is deep and talented, led by sophomore Joey Bosa, junior Noah Spence and senior Michael Bennett. OSU loses NFL first-round pick Ryan Shazier but returns a pair of linebacker starters in upperclassmen Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry and welcomes highly touted freshman Raekwon McMillan.

    Ohio State has a schedule that is navigable, and there’s ample reason to believe Urban Meyer’s bunch will compete for another Big Ten championship and potentially more in 2014.

5. Auburn

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    Auburn and Gus Malzahn were one of college football's biggest surprises last fall.
    Auburn and Gus Malzahn were one of college football's biggest surprises last fall.David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Gus Malzahn’s first season as Auburn’s head coach was one to remember.

    The Tigers rebounded from a 3-9 2012 season to finish 12-2 with a stunning run to the BCS National Championship Game, pushing Florida State to the absolute limit before falling 34-31.

    Twelve starters return, including quarterback Nick Marshall, who will not start the opener against Arkansas following a citation for marijuana possession.

    Three starting offensive linemen return, although their depth will be tested by last week’s news that sophomore guard Alex Kozan will miss the season following a back injury. Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason is gone, but seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant mean the Tigers won’t miss a beat in the backfield.

    Juniors Sammie Coates and Quan Bray lead a deep receiving corps, and a defensive line keyed by seniors Gabe Wright and LaDarius Owens will wreak havoc on opposing offenses. Only two starters return in the secondary, with junior Joshua Holsey and senior Trovon Reed battling to replace departed corner Chris Davis.

    A Sept. 18 trip to Kansas State will be treacherous, but the Tigers do host LSU, South Carolina and Texas A&M. An Iron Bowl visit to Alabama could decide the SEC West and potentially a trip to the inaugural College Football Playoff.

4. Oregon

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    Oregon's Marcus Mariota is one of college football's most dynamic players.
    Oregon's Marcus Mariota is one of college football's most dynamic players.Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Oregon won 11 games in Mark Helfrich’s first season, but Chip Kelly set standards so high that it was practically a disappointment.

    The Ducks return 15 starters, led by Heisman Trophy candidate and junior quarterback Marcus Mariota. He’ll be protected by an offensive line that brings back all five starters from a year ago. Junior tailback Byron Marshall is a 1,000-yard rusher and the Pac-12’s returning leading rusher, and Thomas Tyner and Royce Freeman are also very talented.

    All three starting linebackers are back, and backups like juniors Rahim Cassell and Joe Walker are also experienced. Aside from senior cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, the secondary has three starting spots to fill this fall.

    Oregon will receive a major test early on when Michigan State visits Sept. 6, and the Ducks must travel to UCLA while hosting Stanford. If the questions in the defense are answered, particularly in the secondary, this group will compete for a Pac-12 title and a College Football Playoff berth.

3. Oklahoma

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    Oklahoma's Bob Stoops has the pieces for a national title contender this fall.
    Oklahoma's Bob Stoops has the pieces for a national title contender this fall.Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Last fall, Bob Stoops’ bunch enjoyed a return to true national relevance with an 11-2 record, finished by a Sugar Bowl win over Alabama.

    Fourteen starters return from that team, led by sophomore quarterback Trevor Knight, who ripped the Crimson Tide for 348 yards and four touchdowns. Nine starters return on defense, with linebacker a particular area of strength.

    All three starters are back, led by sophomore Dominique Alexander, the Big 12’s Defensive Freshman of the Year (80 tackles in 2013) and junior Eric Striker. The defensive line is very deep as well; returning starters like sophomore defensive tackle Jordan Wade and senior defensive end Chuka Ndulue are not guaranteed starting roles this fall.

    Even with talented freshman Joe Mixon’s suspension following an assault investigation, sophomores Keith Ford and Alex Ross are ready to step forward in the backfield. 

    The Sooners schedule is favorable, with defending league champ Baylor visiting for what should be the league’s game of the year on Nov. 8. Rival Oklahoma State also visits for the season finale on Dec. 4.

    Assuming some questions are answered at the offensive skill positions, this is a strong College Football Playoff contender.

2. Alabama

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    Nick Saban and Alabama will be motivated following a disappointing end to the 2013 season.
    Nick Saban and Alabama will be motivated following a disappointing end to the 2013 season.Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Alabama enters 2014 riding a highly unusual two-game losing streak.

    The Crimson Tide began 2013 11-0 but suffered a crushing last-second loss to Auburn and a Sugar Bowl defeat at Oklahoma’s hands. However, that only motivates Nick Saban and Co. for a rebound season and a run at a third national title in four seasons.

    The biggest question? Whether Florida State transfer Jacob Coker or senior Blake Sims will replace graduated AJ McCarron at quarterback. Whoever emerges will have a wealth of offensive options.

    Junior Amari Cooper and seniors Christion Jones and DeAndrew White lead a deep and talented wide receiver corps, and junior tailback T.J. Yeldon, sophomore Derrick Henry and junior Kenyan Drake are a dynamic backfield unit.

    Senior end Brandon Ivory is the only returning starter on the defensive line, but there are a multitude of options led by sophomore A’Shawn Robinson and fellow sophomores Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson.

    There are questions in the secondary beyond standout junior safety Landon Collins, but Alabama has recruited well enough to fill the holes left by graduation and NFL departures across the board.

    A November trip to LSU is a potential stumbling block, but the Tide hosts Auburn for the Iron Bowl in what could be a College Football Playoff qualifier of sorts.

1. Florida State

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    Jameis Winston and Florida State are ready for the national spotlight this fall.
    Jameis Winston and Florida State are ready for the national spotlight this fall.Phil Sears/Associated Press

    In 2013, Florida State was supposed to be a year away from national title contention. And look what happened: The Seminoles brought home their first national crown since 2000, and they return 15 starters for Jimbo Fisher to use in a national title defense.

    As the defending BCS national champ, Florida State has plenty of strength across its lineup. The Seminoles return the defending Heisman Trophy winner in sophomore quarterback Jameis Winston, four starting offensive linemen (and projected starter Austin Barron was a part-time starter a year ago) and six starters from a defense that yielded 12.1 points per game last fall, best nationally.

    Three starters return in the secondary, and junior end Mario Edwards should be one of the nation’s top pass-rushers this fall. And even though the top two rushers from 2013 are gone, senior Karlos Williams had 730 yards as the third-string back last fall.

    Florida State returns senior Rashad Greene (the team’s leader in receiving yardage three years running) but must find a replacement for Kelvin Benjamin, who caught the game-winning touchdown in the BCS National Championship Game and was a first-round pick of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers.

    The schedule is favorable, with Clemson, the likely top challenger in the ACC Atlantic Division, visiting on Sept. 20. A visit to Louisville is a potential pitfall, but there’s little reason to believe the Seminoles won’t be part of the first College Football Playoff.