The Top Fan's Top 25 - Preseason
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It is so close now you can nearly taste it. The college football season, which has been gone away from us since mid-January, is now just weeks away. The offseason has been long, and cold, and hot, and if you live in the South, wet. But no longer does any of this matter. Not weather. Not work. Not family. Not friends. No, nothing matters between now and the final BCS Championship Game (yes!) but college football. Fans, it feels so good to type it out loud - college football is back!
Here is my preseason top 25...
1. Alabama - This is an obvious pick if ever there was one. The Tide return senior quarterback AJ McCarron, who will have a strong receiving corps to throw to. Both the offensive and defensive lines took losses following last year's title, but in Tuscaloosa the lines simply reload with players waiting their turn to do damage. Head Coach Nick Saban is probably the best coach in the nation, and he has recruited talent that is probably the most elite in the nation. That combination is bad news for any team with hopes of raising a crystal football this season. In the trenches, Bama has some inexperience, but they should learn fast. The strength for the Tide is at linebacker, where all starters are back...Alabama might lose a game somewhere along the way on their SEC slate. But when the dust settles, I would be surprised if Bama doesn't play and beat either Ohio State or a Pac-12 team in the final BCS Championship Game.
2. Ohio State - Lots of folks out there downgrade the Buckeyes and do not give them the credit of being an elite team. Well, that is silly in my opinion as OSU boasts one of the top coaches in the game (Urban Meyer) and a legitimate Heisman contending quarterback in junior Braxton Miller. While the defensive line is a bit inexperienced, the offensive line retruns nearly everyone. The Buckeyes always recruit well, and so the talent is there to make a serious run. The schedule is favorable, as well, with a road trip to Michigan in the final week being the only game that jumps out at me...Ohio State may not be the second best team in the nation, but they are a true top 10 program with a schedule that could easily see them go unbeaten. Urban Meyer isn't liked by all, but he should be respected as a coach. This could be the third progam he takes undefeated (OSU was on probation in 2012), and the second he takes to the promised land.
3. Stanford - Over the last few seasons - starting with Jim Harbaugh as coach in 2007 - the Cardinal have become a force-to-be-reckoned with on the left coast. They are a big, physical program that runs the ball first, but also mixes in a good balance of pro-style, play-action pass. Stanford also plays a little defense (something Pac-12 teams are not known for) and return eight of eleven starters back for 2013. Running back stud Stepfan Taylor is gone, but Anthony Wilkerson and Tyler Gaffney, both seniors, are there to step in. As far as the schdule goes, November will tell the tale. Stanford faces Oregon at home, USC on the road, and then Cal and Notre Dame back at home to close out. The goal before that month is to simply take care of business...At this point, before a snap has been played, I see Stanford in the mix with Oregon and Ohio State as the top contenders to face Alabama. This team plays hard-nosed football and if they end up playing for a national title I really would not be surprised.
4. Louisville - How dare I put Louisville in the top 5, right? Is this an ACC homer move to rank highly a future member? Nope. The Cardinals are for real. They are led by Charlie Strong, a guy who grew up an SEC man, with stints at South Carolina and Florida. He now has the Cardinals thinking big as stadium upgrades and ever-improving recruiting sees UL getting it done on the field. Fresh off of a nice Sugar Bowl win over Florida, Louisville returns three of five guys on the offensive line and All-American candidate quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. On defense, eight starters are back...In my opinion, Louisville will not lose a game in the regular season. The schedule is far too easy and thankfully next season the Cardinals will play three to five tough games a year in the ACC. This season is a cake walk and UL will be unbeaten and in the title talks (maybe), if they simply get off the bus and put their pads on.
5. Oregon - There are two big questions in Eugene this fall, one much bigger than the other. The question royale is if the Ducks will continue to light-up scoreboards with a new head coach (Mark Helfrich). The other question is linebacker. Only one of four linebacker spots sees a guy with experence coming back, but the front of the D and the rear of the D are sound. Oregon's noseguard, Wayne Kilipicki, and defensive end, Taylor Hart, return to keep things in check in the trenches. In the secondary, the Ducks see nearly everyone back from a year ago. As for offense, and back to the question of lighting-up scoreboards, Oregon has a new OC, Scott Frost, and a new head coach. Hmmm. Is it possible to keep the high scoring rolling? Quarterback Marcus Mariota and running back De'Anthony Thomas return, so that helps. A lot. But the Chip Kelly era saw Oregon go nuts with points, and one must wonder if the new guys can keep it going...I think the Ducks will have another big year, but Stanford is the Pac-12 favorite I believe. Early in the season, if the Ducks don't score like they have been, Duck fans could quickly grow impatient. Chip Kelly has spoiled them in the point department.
6. South Carolina - The Gamecocks lost running back Marcus Lattimore and playmaker Ace Sanders to the NFL on offense, and defensive lineman Devin Taylor and linebacker DJ Swearinger to the NFL on defense, and I still have them in the top ten. That shows what Steve Spurrier - like him or hate him - has done for the Gamecocks' perception in nine years in Columbia. They return all-world player Jadaveon Clowney to anchor the d-line, and all of the South Carolina starting secondary is back. Linebacker is a question. On offense, senior Connor Shaw turned into a solid quarterback in 2012, and will start ahead of, but split time with, junior Dylan Thompson...The schedule is tough, but USC is used to that by now. They open and close at home with ACC foes UNC and Clemson, respectively, and play the normal SEC slate in-between. Of importance to note is that big names from the SEC West Alabama, LSU and Auburn are not on the Gamecock schedule in 2013. That alone will seriously help the win count.
7. Georgia - As UGA enters season number 13 under Mark Richt, the fence in Athens is so heavy with fans it is about to fall down. On one side of the fence you have years of success under Richt, including two SEC crowns and six SEC East crowns. On the other side of the fence you have twelve years without a national championship or even a national championship game appearance. So while at many schools a record of 118-40 would see the stadium named after you, at Georgia it is expected. In 2013, Richt will once again make a run at conference hardware, and hope some national hardware might finally come with it. The Dawgs have QB Aaron Murray back, as well as the entire (yes, entire, including TE) offensive line back. At running back they will feature all-SEC sophomore Todd Gurley. The offense should be just fine. On defense, just three starters return, but the talent level is deep...Georgia has a very good team, well coached with lots of talent. But the schedule is just plain brutal and UGA will lose a game or two. Coach Richt is one of the game's best, but once again in 2013 I feel he will be eluded the ultimate trophy.
8. Texas A&M - On the field, quarterback Johnny "Football" Manziel is a star. Off the field, the rising sophomore Heisman Trophy winner is a nightmare. Manziel has been in the news time and time again since the Aggies finished the 2012 campaign with a mark of 11-2, regularly shedding bad light on the very program he is bringing into the spotlight. The Aggie football program is coming to be in a big way, with a $450 million dollar upgrade to Kyle Field in the works (capacity to be 102,000...and fancy!) and recruiting that is becoming second-to-none. Manziel and company are looking for major hardware in 2013 for Head Coach Kevin Sumlin as they enter year number two in the SEC. The Aggies have five starters returning on both offense and defense, and that is my reservation about this team. I know they are talented and well coached, but the experience level is very average. On top of that, I feel Manziel is a marked man in 2013 with his cocky attitude. His antics will catch up to him...A&M is good, but they will not win a national championship. I think somewhere along the way they lose, most-likely at home to Alabama or on the road at LSU.
9. Clemson - Plain and simple, this is the best Clemson team to take the field in a very long time. Does that guarantee an ACC championship or a trip to the BCS title game? Of course not. But Tiger fans should enjoy an extremely exciting season that will see them able to compete with all of the tough teams on their slate. Georgia and Florida State visit Death Valley, while the Tigers must try to win on the road at NC State, Syracuse and South Carolina. The Gamecocks have become Clemson's main nemesis in recent years. Senior quarterback Tajh Boyd is the clear leader of this team, and will look to a deep receiving corps to spread folks out. Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant are two dangerous threats for Boyd. The running back situation is optimistic after losing Andre Ellington to the NFL, as Rod McDowell, Tyshon Dye and Zach Brooks will all battle for carries. Defensively, the Tigers should be much improved. The secondary is deeper and the linebackers are older and healthier than in 2012...I think Clemson wins the ACC as FSU is at home, but the big question in the national scene is how Clemson will do with their opener and closer, Georgia and South Carolina, respectively. Win those and who knows.
10. LSU - As long as Les Miles is coach and the Tigers wear purple and gold, I will have LSU pretty far up my rankings. The recruiting of talent goes without saying as LSU consistently brings in one of the top classes in America year after year. For 2013, the Tigers will again face a tough schedule that includes TCU (in Dallas) and the horrid SEC West. From the East they get Georgia (away) and Florida (home). It's tough. But LSU has the weaponry to take this on. The Tigers are stockpiled with good players who have yet to see the field much. New offensive coordinator Cam Cameron should make senior Zach Mettenburg more productive at QB. The NFL hit LSU hard as usual, but count on names still to be discovered to step in at many positions and do work...LSU will win nine or ten games, but the elite-type season of eleven or twelve wins may be in question with a defensive front that needs to learn - and learn fast.
11. Michigan - The Coaches Poll has UM way down at number 17. But I think better of the Wolverines. Michigan played toe-to-toe with a very good South Carolina team in the Outback Bowl, losing on a last-second touchdown pass. The Wolverines had many chances to win that game, despite Jadaveon Clowney's hit on running back Vincent Smith that has now officially been shown one trillion times on ESPN. Under third-year Head Coach Brady Hoke, Michigan is relevant again in the Big Ten. Hoke has gone 19-7 in his first two seasons, winning the Sugar Bowl (VT) and losing the Outback Bowl. His third team will rely on a group of nine returning starters - five on offense and four on defense. A blessing in disguise to me is the abscence of Denard Robinson. The former QB was electrifying, but focused on too much. I think a new offensive gameplan will be a breath of fresh air...The Wolverines schedule is managable for a big season as Notre Dame visits early, but not another huge game until November, when Michigan State (away), Nebraska (home), Iowa (away) and Ohio State (home) make for an exciting finish.
12. Florida State - Louisville enters the ACC Atlantic Division for 2014, and NC State is on the verge of good things, but for now, the division is a battle between the 'Noles and Clemson. To take on the ACC, and their division rival Tigers, FSU will send ten returning starters out onto the field. One guy that is not a returning starter is QB Jamie Winston, a five-star recruit two yeas ago, who appears to have won the starting job for FSU. The redshirt freshman may have competition in fall practice, but all indications are that it is his job to lose. The 'Nole defense has virtually no experience returning on the defensive line, but the secondary and linebackers should be good...Florida State's schedule isn't bad. However, the most important game on the slate - Clemson - is an eight-hour drive away. The home team has won the last six meetings in the series, and I expect that to happen again. FSU could make the BCS as an at-large selection in 2013 should the loss in Death Valley materialize as predicted. The only other major task for FSU is a game in the Swamp. Miami is at home.
13. Florida - The Gators must bounce back from the chomping they took in their Sugar Bowl loss to Lousiville (33-23, trailed 24-3 in first half). UF did not look focused in the early part of that game, and that is an issue this coaching staff must address for 2013. Talent galore doesn't matter if your helmet isn't strapped on tight when toe meets leather. But bright things could be in store once again in Gainesville if the ball bounces their way. Head Coach Will Muschamp enters year three with a record of 18-8 (10-6 SEC) at Florida. His third team will feature QB Jeff Driskel who is as much of a runner as he is a passer. He protects the ball (just five turnovers a year ago), but he also needs to make more plays. His passing yardage was just 132 yards per game a year ago. He has a lot of experience back on the right side of his offensive line, including center Jonathon Harrison, but the left side may go through growing pains. The Gator defense will feature new faces all over the place....I see this as a very unpredictable year for Florida. The talent is there thanks to top-notch recruiting, but the experience level is low and Driskel doesn't exactly set the world on fire at quarterback. The schedule is tough as always, I see five games right away that will be very tough to win.
14. Oklahoma State - The Cowboys have a three-man quarterback controversy and a new offensive coordinator - 2013 could be quite an exciting season! Mike Yurcich comes in as the new OC and he has three QBs that are ready to be his man. Senior and 2012 third stringer Clint Chelf appears to be in front after leading the Cowboys in five games to close last season (including a bowl win over Purdue). He has JW Walsh and Wes Lunt right there with him to create a good - and bad at the same time - situation. On defense, OSU brings back a lot of guys to give them good experience. They are spread out across that side of the ball, too, as two starting defensive linemen return, two linebackers, and two safeties...OSU has some questions on offense, but they should still score in bunches as Mike Gundy's teams always have. All of this said, the schedule is tricky and until I see this new OC light up scoreboards the way Cowboy teams of the recent past have, I have a little bit of doubt. I say they go 9-3.
15. Nebraska - Head Coach Bo Pelini enters his sixth year in Lincoln, and from an outsiders point of view I would say this is his do-or-die year. He has a record of 49-20 in five seasons as boss, which is actually pretty strong. But the Cornhuskers haven't really flirted with the big time football they desire. Under Pelini, the Huskers are good, but NU fans want to be great. I am not sure Pelini is that. But before I write him off, I will say he has a decent team lined up to give 2013 a shot at glory. While Nebraska proudly talks about the "Blackshirts" of its starting defense, the offense holds the key to this year's Husker team. Led by senior quarterback Taylor Martinez, the offense will have to score A LOT as just three starters are back on the Nebraska D. Growing pains are on the way....The schedule is a good one for Nebraska ticket holders. UCLA comes in for an intriguing home game in week three, and Michigan State and Iowa are also good home games. The Huskers hit the road for tough trips to Michigan and Penn State in November.
16. UCLA - "Take back LA" seems to be the big rallying cry for the Bruins in their quest to make the City of Angels their's from the grasp long held by USC. After a 38-28 win at home over USC last November, they will try to do it again in the Coliseum this November. UCLA has eleven starters returning, six of which are on offense. Included in that group is sophomore QB Brett Hundley. This guy took the Pac-12 by storm as a freshman, throwing for 3,740 yards and 29 TDs. He will have to live up to the hype now that people know he has the skills. The defense sees five guys back that started in 2012. The defensive line and linebackers are the heart and soul, the secondary - in a pass-happy Pac-12 - is the problem. The guys up front will have to cause serious problems...I like what Jim Mora is doing with this program. I think the Mora-Hundley combination is a good one, and that UCLA will be a strong challenger for the Pac-12 crown in 2013. A ten-win season is very possible.
17. Texas - On paper, this is the year Head Coach Mack Brown brings the Longhorns back into the national spotlight. Eight guys return on offense: QB David Ash, the entire offensive line, and two of Ash's top targets in WRs Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley. Former Longhorn quarterback Major Applewhite is the new OC, and he will return the team to the spread offense. The defense also has a lot of experience heading into the 2013 season. The secondary is stacked and the defensive line is huge. The linebackers are the question, but it is experience - not talent - that is the problem there.....Texas hasn't done much in a while, but I think that will change this season. Along with OKlahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and TCU, the Big 12 will be a shootout and extremely fun to watch. I think UT wins ten games and plays in a BCS bowl game, either as conference champion or at-large. They must visit TCU, but Oklahoma State and Kansas State are at home. Oklahoma will be faced in Dallas as always.
18. Oklahoma - It feels odd for Oklahoma not to be up there in the top five preseason. The Sooners are almost always preseason title hunters, with the AP and Coaches starting them off in the top group nearly every season. But for 2013, a little realism has the Sooners all the way down at lowly #16 in the Coaches Poll. Sheesh. This program is always strong - some years just stronger than others. The Sooners are never the doormat, though, going back as long as I can remember. For this coming season they have a nasty O-line coming back with four of five starters returning. Just like their in-state rival OSU, OU has three guys fighting for the QB job. Jay Bell, a bruising runner but not much of a passer, is the current leader, though Trevor Knight and Kendal Thompson are right there in the mix. It should be interesting. The defense is also a question mark, as inexperience looms all over the place...I feel OU will struggle a bit this year. The battle at QB, along with the inexpereince on defense, adds up to four or more losses in my thinking. I originally was going to rank OU #15, but after reading up on them a bit more I think #18 is a little more appropriate.
19. TCU - Know this: TCU will play good defense in 2013. A unit that gave up just 22 points per game last year, and was fourth nationally in interceptions with 21, returns nearly everyone. Yes, nine starters are back to shut the door on folks. Call it the Purple Curtain. And it is a good thing they have that purple curtain because two things are not looking quite as bright for the Horned Frogs: the offense and the schedule. The offense is loaded with question marks, including again (every school this year??), who will be the starting QB. Senior Casey Paschall and sophomore Trevor Boykin will battle it out in the fall, Gary Patterson will make his choice, and TCU will take their chances against LSU in the wonder that is AT&T Stadium, home of the Cowboys...Patterson's teams are always solid, not going to beat themselves too much. But they need a dose of spectacular from time-to-time and I am not sure that will be there. The schedule is tough right away, as mentioned, with LSU on a neutral field in week one. October is the big month on the schedule with road trips to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, and a home game with Texas.
20. Kansas State - We all know that quarterback Collin Klein has gone on to the NFL. He was a great player for KSU, but as long as Bill Synder is the head man, I feel a good product will be sent out onto the field. Snyder has a serious QB battle going on as we enter into the depths of fall practice. If any KSU fans out there know better, please fill me in, but it appears that sophomore Daniel Sams and junior Jake Waters are in a heated contest, and Snyder isn't in a rush to name a starter. Whoever gets the nod better put up lots of points because the defense has questions. With that said, the Wildcats play nobody until week four so the D will have time to get their feet underneath them....That week four game is a road trip to Texas and it will start a brutal slate. KSU hits the road to play Oklahoma State the very next week, followed by home dates with Baylor and West Virginia. TCU and Oklahoma visit Manhattan in November. All in all, I think Snyder's team has another good year, leading them to nine wins or more.
21. Northwestern - Like Vanderbilt is doing now, twenty years ago Northwestern was an elite academic school trying to burst onto the college football scene. They have steadily become solid consistently to the point where now it is not a surprise to see them ranked. So, lalala, here they are checking in at #21. Fifteen starters are back, the QB is back, the long-time coach is back. Let's face it, all of the ingredients are there for a very good season in Evanston. Yes, quarterback Kain Colter is back to guide HC Pat Fitzgerald's eighth team towards a Big Ten crown. There is experience all over the place returning from a team that went 10-3 last year, winning the Gator Bowl with ease over Mississippi State...Northwestern's schedule is hard, but not impossible. Road trips include Cal, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois, while key home games are Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State. Keep an eye on this team, there is a lot of good going on here.
22. Oregon State - When I look at the Beavers two-deep in the magazines, I see the bold letters of a returning starter dominating that segment of the page. There are in total 14 returning starters for Oregon State in 2013 ready to take a shot at the Pac-12 crown. One place where there is more than just a starter returning is at QB, where returning starter junior Sean Mannion has serious competition from senior Cody Vaz. HC Mike Riley is not going to name a starter any time soon. Four of five guys on the offensive line are back, as well as sophomore running back Storm Woods and junior wide receiver Brandin Cooks. The defense should be good with seven guys back and spread out across the field at that...The schedule for OSU is definitely set up well for them to take a shot at winning the conference. The Beavers should be favored to win their first seven games (three roaders, all winnable), but the final five are tough (Stanford, USC, at Arizona State, Washington, at Oregon). I think OSU will have a 9-3 or 10-2 type of season and make a nice bowl.
23. Vanderbilt - Who would have ever thought that Vanderbilt would be a preseason top 25 team? Well, doubt no more, the Commodores are here. James Franklin enters his third year as head coach coming off of a 9-4 campaign (5-3 SEC) and a convincing bowl win over NC State. A solid group returns for Franklin - 13 starters are back. The offense sees seven guys returning, but will feature a new quarterback in Austyn Carta-Amuels who has two years under his belt as the starter at Wyoming. He threw for nearly 4,000 yards out there and should be a solid leader of the offense. On defense the secondary and linebackers should be strong, while the defensive line has some big bodies but lacks experience...On the schedule I count 4-6 games that are going to be tough. The 'Dores open at home against Ole Miss and then play South Carolina away two Saturdays later. October games at home against Georgia and Missouri will be tough, as will two road games - Florida and Tennessee - in November. I see Vandy going 8-4, which is darned good for that size school in that type of conference.
24. Arizona State - From what I read, folks out in Tempe are excited to have junior Taylor Kelly as their QB. His arm isn't going to make John Elway jealous, but he is able to make plays and he is a leader. And while his arm, again, isn't a rocket, his stats are pretty dadgum good from last season: 3,039 yards, 29 TDs and just nine INTs. He has his tight end back, senior Chris Coyle, and one of his WR targets in senior Kevin Ozier. He will be operating behind an offensive line that has experience at both tackles and center. On defense, ASU features eight players that started a year ago. Look for them to be as good as any Pac-12 defense if guys stay healthy...As for the schedule, it's tough and it's tough fast. Right out of the gate, the Sun Devils get Wisconsin (home), Stanford (away) and USC (home). That, my friends, is a tough September. In October, they play Notre Dame in the Jerry Dome in Dallas (er, Arlington). And in November they go to Utah and UCLA while hosting Oregon State and their in-state rival Arizona Wildcats. ASU has a good team, but man, that schedule is tough!
25. Virginia Tech - The Hokies slip into this poll due to the thrashing I saw Notre Dame take to Alabama. The Irish's spot - the final spot - in my top 25 now goes to Blacksburg - for the time being. Will VT do any better against the Tide than the leprachauns did? They open the season against Bama in the Georgia Dome, so we'll find out in a very short period of time...Frank Beamer, who is in his 27th year as head coach, has lost some of the magic he had going years ago with "Beamer Ball," but Tech still has lots of good players and a good defensive gameplan. If the Hokies could catch a break - something that never happened a year ago - they could make some noise. The defense should keep VT in most games. Nine guys come back for long-time DC Bud Foster including the entire defensive front and the entire secondary. They should be good. On offense, senior QB Logan Thomas is back for what seems like his twelfth season. He should be much improved if for no other reason than the target is somewhat off his back after a disappointing 2012....The schedule is managable after the dreaded date with Alabama in Atlanta. Road trips to GT and Miami will be tough, and a home game with North Carolina will also be a challenge.
Teams to watch closely this season:
Notre Dame - Many have the Irish in the top 15 - or even the top 10. Not me. I think there are 25 better teams out there than ND after watching the BCS Title Game. They're good, but they don't have to be ranked.
Auburn - It will be extremely interesting to see what Gus Malzahn can do now that he has the full program - not just the offense. Good times ahead on the Plains.
USC - Based on exciting talent and good tradition alone I like to keep USC in or near my top 25. But Lane Kiffin just isn't top-notch coaching material in my eyes.
Tennessee -The Vols enter year one of the Butch Jones era. Can Jones do in the SEC what he did at Cincinnati?
North Carolina - Like NCSU who is next, UNC is a program that has all of the tools to be big-time, but for whatever reason hasn't taken the next step. Larry Fedora was 8-4 in year one. Will he improve on that mark?
NC State - This program has been waiting for years to burst onto the major scene. They have a new coach in Dave Doeren. Can he finally put the 'Pack in the big-time?
Penn State - The Nittany Lions have 106,572 reasons to feel confident for every home game. The school and the football program are fighting to gain back respectability, and they are all in.
Michigan State - Year in and year out, the Spartans field a damned good team. They didn't crack my preseason top 25, but they will make noise in the Big Ten like they do every year.
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