Aug 16

2014 Preseason Top 25

Posted By:Brett Haynes - Greenville, SC  Tags: Top 25, college football, CFP

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Coming up with a preseason Top 25 poll is a hard thing to do. I mean, are you looking at how the teams rate now? Or are you ranking them based on how you think they will finish? Are you basing things based on the rankings of other teams (which are also an unknown at this point)? Or are you basing things based off of who returns back and what they did last year? It's tough. It's tricky. It's controversial. But everyone has one, so here is mine. Here are the 25 teams that I find to be the strongest in the country as we start the 2014 season and head into the playoff era!

 

1. Florida State (14-0 last year, 14 starters back, Head Coach Jimbo Fisher) - For the first time in 15 years, the Seminoles were able to bring home a national championship after a BCS title win over Auburn. With a loaded team returning - including Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Jameis Winston - it is obvious that FSU is the favorite to win their division, their conference, and the national championship once again. Off the field issues have been annoying, but not fatal, for Florida State. Everyone knows about Winston's seafood incident at Publix, and two other players were arrested for a car jacking. Other than that, it has been pretty quiet in Tallahassee since January.....On the field itself, there isn't a whole lot to complain about. Both sides of the ball are loaded with future NFL players, and if Jimbo can coach them up, the schedule plays out well for another huge season. The 'Noles face Oklahoma State in Dallas to open the season in what is a very tricky game, in my opinion. Clemson, Notre Dame and Florida are at home.  NC State, Louisville and Miami offer three interesting road tests. Another undefeated season seems very possible, but it won't be a cake walk.

 

 
2. Auburn (12-2 last year, 15 starters back, Head Coach Gus Malzahn) - Auburn fell just a couple of minutes short of a second national title in four seasons when the Tigers lost to Florida State in the BCS Championship game seven months ago. But despite losing the final game of the season, Auburn fans should rejoice in the fact that perhaps the best coach in college football paces their sideline. Gus Malzahn and his slow, Southern talk are nearly impossible to stop when the offense gets rolling. Last year, Auburn averaged well over 300 rushing yards per game riding the Gus Bus. In 2014, they should score fast again with QB Nick Marshall returning - a guy that can run Gus' system very well. A few key names are gone, such as RB Tre Mason and OL Greg Robinson. But Auburn recruits with the best of 'em and I expect a reload and not a rebuild. The defense should be OK as the talent is there. The kicking game will be inexperienced......As for the schedule, AU gets LSU, South Carolina and Texas A&M at home, and hits the road to Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama. I see Auburn losing a conference game along the way. But the final game of the season, again, will most probably determine if Auburn wins the SEC West and stays alive for the CFP.
 
 
 
3. Oklahoma (11-2 last year, 16 starters back, Head Coach Bob Stoops) - It has been 14 seasons since Big Game Bob took the Sooners to a 13-0 record and a national title. Don't look now, but he might be just about ready to do it again. OU looked lights out in a Sugar Bowl win over Alabama, and many of that same group are back, including Trevor Knight - who split time in 2013 with Blake Bell (now a tight end). In the Sugar Bowl, Knight seemed to have the game needed to take OU back to the promised land, but he has been known to lay eggs, also. The offensive and defensive lines return a ton of depth and experience, so muscle and poundage are not a problem. If Oklahoma's offense can keep going with Knight in the same manner they played in New Orleans eight months ago, this team will be in national contention talks all season. The schedule sees them play an interesting inter-regional game against Tennessee at home, as well as home dates with Baylor and Oklahoma State. But the schedule is loaded with tricky away games such as West Virginia, TCU, Texas and Texas Tech. The Sooners will slip, but will still be a prime candidate to make the final four teams at the end. 
 
 
 
4. Alabama (11-2 last year, 13 starters back, Head Coach Nick Saban) - Over the last six seasons, no team in college football has been as feared or respected as Nick Saban's Crimson Tide. But as we enter the 2014 season, Alabama finds itself on a 2-game losing streak. Eight months ago, when a third national championship in four years seemed very much within grasp, Alabama fizzled in the final seconds at Auburn and then got beaten decidedly in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma. So despite being the biggest name in the game, Alabama must find a way to regain control of things. And how do you do that? With mean talent. The Crimson Tide have recruited in elite fashion under Saban and that talent will be what gets them back to the top. We all know that AJ McCarron is gone, and that many school records went with him on his way out. So who will be the QB in 2014? Following Bama's first fall scrimmage, we still do not know if it will be Blake Sims or Jacob Coker. Regardless of who wins the job, a ridiculously good group of running backs (TJ Yeldon, Derrick Henry, Kenyan Drake) will run behind a nasty o-line....My prediction is that Auburn and Alabama will meet in Tuscaloosa on November 29th with the SEC West - and likely a playoff berth - on the line.
 
 
 
5. Oregon (11-2 last year, 14 starters back, Head coach Mark Helfrich) - The Ducks have become a national name over the last decade, often mentioned in the same sentence with prestigious things such as the Heisman Trophy, the BCS and now the College Football Playoff. In Eugene, the major question is which year will finally be "The Year." In 2010, the Ducks made it to the national championship game - their only such trip in school history - only to lose a thriller to Auburn. Now that 4 teams are eligible to compete for the national title, chances are we will see Oregon challenge again soon for a "natty." Once again in 2014, Oregon will field a talented team led by a Heisman contender (QB Marcus Mariota). But we all know the Ducks will score. The question is once again on the defense to show they can stop people. The schedule is challenging but managable. Michigan State is a tough home game early, as is Stanford later in the year. Tough road games include UCLA, Utah and Oregon State. Basically, win the home games and beat the Bruins on the road and Oregon has a map to the CFP. 
 
 
 
6. UCLA (10-3 last year, 16 starters back, Head Coach Jim Mora) - While Oregon, Stanford and USC are usually the names getting the most attention out West, UCLA wants it to be clear that they are just as much of a football school as they are a basketball school. Coach Mora has changed the attitude and culture of this program, and the Bruins now not only think they can play with anyone in the nation, but they actually can. The headline name, for good reason, is third-year QB Brett Hundley (6,590 passing yards and 69 total TDs in two seasons) who enters 2014 on most everyone's Heisman short list. Hundley is very well respected both on and off the field, and that kind of leadership is immeasurable at the college level. He will operate with a veteran offensive line and pretty good skill, so I see UCLA scoring plenty. The question is defense. If the Bruins get nasty on D, there is no telling what could happen. The schedule isn't awful as the biggest games (Stanford, Oregon and USC) are all at home. Texas is an interesting "neutral" site game in Arlington. The PAC-12 will be wide open this year, and UCLA will be in the mix throughout.
 
 
 
7. Michigan State (13-1 last year, 13 starters back, Head Coach Mark D'Antonio) - The Spartans were in the national spotlight to close out the 2013 season as they defeated Stanford in a classic Rose Bowl Game, 24-20. They won the Big Ten and have become a program that is thought of as a powerhouse in the college game. Make no mistake about it, MSU is a strong, solid, well-coached program. In 2014, they will have to depend on the offense and junior Connor Cook (22 TDs, 6 INT in 2013) just a tad more as the defense may go through some growing pains. Seven guys are gone from last year's legendary defensive unit, but the new guys are surely ready to make their mark. Coach D'Antonio has built a reputation for himself with the Spartans, and I expect another good team from him in 2014. It won't be super easy, though. The Spartans travel to Oregon in week one and have home dates later on with Nebraska, Michigan and Ohio State. If they can somehow beat the Ducks, they might win 'em all.
 
 
 
8. Ohio State (12-2 last year, 12 starters back, Head Coach Urban Meyer) - The obvious headline in Columbus is that QB Braxton Miller is back for his senior season after many believed that he would be gone to the NFL. 2014 may be an excellent opportunity for him to improve his draft status even more. In QB rating, total TDs, and yardage, Miller, who has played 36 games in three seasons, has improved each season and will leave OSU with records galore if he stays healthy. To help him reach those goals, OSU features a defense with seven returning starters - including the entire defensive line. That line will be much more experienced than the offensive line that returns just two of five starters....Ohio State has plenty of talent and Meyer is one helluva coach. There is no way this team doesn't have a big year, challenge for the Big 10 championship, and fight for a spot in the CFP. After a very early home game with Virginia Tech that is interesting but a should-be win, the tough games are at year's end in Michigan State (away) and Michigan (home). A big year is on the way.
 
 
 
9. Baylor (11-2 last year, 10 starters back, Head Coach Art Briles) - OK, with just ten starters back I'm going out on a limb here by picking the Bears this high, but I think Coach Briles is pretty darned good at what he does, so let's see what happens. Since taking over in 2008, Briles' teams have steadily improved, averaging 9.66 wins a year over the last three seasons. Another reason I am taking a risk on Baylor is senior QB Bryce Petty (32 TDs, 3 INT, 4,200 yards in 2013). We all know he can play, and if he can keep the offense putting up solid numbers, I will take my chances that the defense comes together with some new bodies in there for a fresh outlook on things. The schedule for Baylor sees them cruise easily through September at 4-0 before tough road dates with Texas in October and Oklahoma in November. TCU and Oklahoma State are at home while Texas Tech is a neutral site game in Arlington. 
 
 
 
10. South Carolina (11-2 last year, 14 starters back, Head Coach Steve Spurrier) - The Gamecocks lose two of the best players in the history of their program, and I have them in my preseason Top 10. That goes to show you the respect I have for Coach Steve Spurrier, even if I don't particularly care for the guy. He can coach with the very best of them. Jadeveon Clowney and Connor Shaw led USC to its most successful run ever on the gridiron (33-6 over 3 years together) but are now gone to the NFL. The Gamecock defense is stacked with top talent and will not fall off far even with Clowney's departure. On offense, senior Dylan Thompson now takes over at quarterback for the Gamecocks. He isn't as speedy as Shaw, but has a solid and accurate arm. Thompson will rely on RB Mike Davis and WR Shaq Roland to put up points....I see the Gamecocks as the top team in the SEC East, and with Georgia at home, and Florida and Tennessee still not very strong, this could be a banner season in Columbia.
 
 
 
11. Georgia (8-5 last year, 15 starters back, Head Coach Mark Richt) - Mark Richt has talent galore, and it's a good thing for that talent, as the pressure is on for him to challenge for national glory. QB Aaron Murray has departed after not only setting many UGA passing records, but also being the team leader over the last four seasons. In steps senior Hutson Mason, who many do not know because of the shadow he was in, but who actually has a good bit of experience. He has an SEC win (come from behind over Kentucky), a win over an arch-rival (beat Georgia Tech on the road), and a bowl start (lost a thriller to Nebraska) . Many in Athens believe UGA will be just fine with Mason at the QB spot. He will be tested often as the Dawgs face Clemson (home) and South Carolina (away) right out of the gate. Georgia also plays tough home games with Tennessee, Auburn and Georgia Tech, as well as a trip to Mizzou. Georgia may slip up and lose a game with that tough slate of games. But if they can avoid that second loss, they will stay in the CFP discussion all season long.
 
 
 
12. LSU (10-3 last year, 13 starters back, Head Coach Les Miles) - With all of the SEC West focus squarely on the Auburn-Alabama rivalry, can LSU - a perennial power - swoop out of nowhere and regain the division and play for a national title? Les Miles is no stranger to championship caliber teams, and I expect him to come into this 2014 season with his hair on fire. But regardless of hair or hat, Miles has a challenge ahead of him. There are question marks all over the offensive skill positions (including quarterback), and the defense has five starters to replace, as well. The NFL hits hard in Baton Rouge! The schedule is also a challenge for the Tigers. Auburn and Texas A&M are two tough road games (if Florida gets good again, they are away, too), while Ole Miss and Alabama are tough at home. I think LSU has a bigger year than many are expecting, but are not quite at the level of Auburn and Alabama right now. I could easily be proven wrong as the talent at LSU is top-notch. 
 
 
 
13. Stanford (11-3 last year, 12 starters back, Head Coach David Shaw) - Coach Shaw has kept the momentum going in Palo Alto since Jim Harbaugh's Cardinal turn-around a few years back. Shaw hasn't skipped a beat as his teams have gone 34-7 (23-4 Pac-12) and averaged a national final ranking of #8. For 2014, he will have to rebuild his offensive line if he wants to keep Stanford among the elite names in the country. Yes, four of the five spots on the O-line will be filled by big and beastly, yet inexperienced players. These new guys will try to push people around so that the tall tandem of senior wide receiver Ty Montgomery (6'2" 220 pounds) and junior quarterback Kevin Hogan (6'4" 230 pounds) can connect for some yardage and points. The schedule for the Cardinal in 2014 is tough but not ridiculous. USC is at home, but Oregon and UCLA are both away. It will be tough to win both of those road trips.
 
 
 
14. Wisconsin (9-4 last year, 9 starters back, Head Coach Gary Andersen) - Junior quarterbacks Joel Stave (3,594 career yards, 28 TDs, 16 INTs) and Tanner McEvoy (1,943 yards, 25 TDs, 6 INts in JUCO) are battling for the starting QB spot as they look to up the offensive passing production in Madison, even with the loss of top receiver Jared Abbrederis. Running backs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement return this fall giving the Badgers two very solid options carrying the rock. We all know what Wisconsin has done running the football in recent years and I do not expect that to change. If the passing game steps up, this offense could erupt.  From what I read in all of the publications around the country, the Badger defensive front is the big reload. Six solid players have to be replaced up front, and the secondary had some issues in 2013, as well. Still, I would imagine that Andersen and DC Dave Aranda will put together a scheme that will be tough as usual. The schedule features three games that will be challenges as the rest should be wins: LSU in the opener in Houston, Nebraska at home in November, and the Big Ten Title Game in December. Win those three games and UW makes the CFP. 
 
 
 
15. Arizona State (10-4 last year, 12 starters back, Head Coach Todd Graham) - The key for ASU is that quarterback Taylor Kelly, running back DJ Foster, and wide receiver Jaelen Strong all return and will operate with an offensive line that keeps three of five line spots, as well as the TE, from a year ago. Coach Graham (18-9, 13-5) has done a good job at Arizona State since arriving in 2012 and I expect that trend to continue this season. His defense may need some help as just five starters return. But in the wide open PAC-12, anything can happen on any given night, and I think the Sun Devils are primed for some excitement this year - with a possible CFP run not out of the question. Key dates on the schedule are too many to list. UCLA, Stanford and Notre Dame are at home. USC, Washington and Arizona make for three tough road tests. I think the Sun Devils improve once again under Graham, reaching ten wins for the second year in a row, and possibly better. But it will be tough to sneak into the CFP as the PAC has several big names and I see the Devils losing a game or two somewhere in the six games listed above.
 
 
 
16. USC (10-4 last year, 16 starters back, Head Coach Steve Sarkisian) - The Trojans are tied with Oklahoma as far as most returning starters for 2014 with eight players back on each side of the ball, including junior QB Cody Kessler (red-shirted in 2011, backed up Matt Barkley in 2012, won starting job in 2013). For those of us outside of the program, the question needing answered is how the team chemistry will be. We all know that interim HC Ed Orgeron had the team rolling to finish out 2013 (6-2 after being named IHC). But Orgeron did not get the "interim" tag taken off of his title. Instead, he lost the "HC" part all together as Steve Sarkisian was named the head man on December 2nd. Sarkisian is a good coach, having taken Washington to a record of 8-4 in year-five after a first year record of 5-7. Though a run towards the playoff isn't out of the question, Sarkisian will have his hands full trying to get USC into the inaugural CFP as they face a solid schedule. Stanford and UCLA are away. Notre Dame is the circled home game November 29th. 
 
 
 
17. Texas A&M (9-4 last year, 14 starters back, Head Coach Kevin Sumlin) - The obvious story line is that for the first time since 2011 the Aggies will not have Mr. Excitement "Johnny Football" running the offense. Will the national media still love on the Aggies with Manziel's departure to the NFL? Will A&M be able to replace All-American WR Mike Evans? There are certainly offensive question marks heading into this year, but Coach Sumlin is aware of these losses (and four other starters to replace on O) and looks to counter this by sending out a stout D that has eight returning starters back. However, a year ago, this unit ranked 76th in this ranking (http://www.footballoutsiders.com/stats/ncaadef). This is an odd formula, but the bottom line is that eight starters back or not, the unit must improve to give the new QB time to adjust, whether that is sophomore Kenny Hill or freshman Kyle Allen. As of the typing of this, Coach Sumlin said the two were dead even for the job. Texas A&M opens the year on the road at South Carolina - a probable loss. Following that, I see six winnable games before a closing stretch that features Alabama and Auburn away and LSU and Missouri at home. 
 
 
 
18. Clemson (11-2 last year, 11 starters back, Head Coach Dabo Swinney) - Under Dabo Swinney, Clemson has raised its level of talent and the on-the-field results have been notable. But despite the big wins Swinney has notched, the Tigers have not reached the national level of respect they desire. Many publications have Clemson unranked this preseason, and many more have them 20th or lower. CU will again face a strong schedule in 2014 as road trips to Georgia and Florida State, combined with two solid home games against Louisville and the Gamecocks, give Clemson plenty to worry about. To combat these problems, the Tigers will lean on a strong defense (especially the defensive line), and a QB that is somewhat of an unknown, but holds a ton of promise (senior Cole Stoudt). I see Clemson losing a game early on (maybe two) before putting together a nice winning streak. Can the Tigers finally again close-out with a win over South Carolina? We'll see. Overall, I see Clemson going 10-2, splitting 2-2 in the four games mentioned above. If one of those wins is FSU, who knows what can happen.
 
 
 
19. Washington (9-4 last year, 14 starters back, Head Coach Chris Petersen) - The Huskies look to return to national fame with the hiring of Coach Petersen from Boise State. For years, people wondered if Petersen (92-12 with 2 BCS wins) was that good of a coach, or if Boise State's schedule made him look really good. Now, we will finally find out. Petersen comes into the job with a fiasco at quarterback. Cyler Miles was supposed to be the man for the job, but he has had a shaky offseason and is now in the battle with three other players - sophomore Jeff Lindquist, freshman Troy Williams and freshman KJ Carta-Samuels (who they hope to RS). Both the offensive and defensive lines are seeing high ratings in the national publications, always a good sign heading into the season. The big question the nation wants to know is how Petersen will do now that a tough slate of games is in front of him. Sure, he rocked it out at BSU, but let's see what his teams will do against Stanford, Oregon, Arizona State and UCLA, who are all just weeks ahead. I think Washington goes 8-4 this season, losing three of the four games just mentioned, and winning seven of the other eight, slipping once in a winnable game.
 
 
 
20. Louisville (12-1 last year, 12 starters back, Head Coach Bobby Petrino) - Excitement is at an all-time high in Louisville, Kentucky as the Cardinals join a major conference for college football. The ACC welcomes in a program that has been on the rise in recent years, including bowl wins over Florida and Miami. Louisville brings a lot of confidence into a league that could certainly use it. But can the coaching of Bobby Petrino back up a fan base that has let the ACC know it plans on taking them by storm? We will soon see. Petrino has an offensive mind, whereas previous coach Charlie Strong based his team around defense. There will definitely be some guys playing positions they were not exactly recruited to play, but that will make it fun to watch, right? The Cards have an intriguing schedule their first year in the ACC. They get FSU and Miami at home - but neither are on a Saturday. The 'Canes open the year with Louisville on Monday Night, while the Seminoles come in for a Thursday showdown. Arch-rival Kentucky is also at home. Those games plus Clemson and Notre Dame on the road make for an action-packed slate! Louisville will go 9-3.
 
 
 
21. Texas (8-5 last year, 13 starters back, Head Coach Charlie Strong) - 2014 will be a year to remember in Austin - you can mark that down now! No matter the record of UT, everyone will be comparing new HC Charlie Strong to longtime former coach Mack Brown. The fan base isn't totally sure what to think of Strong yet, with about half of the Longhorn faithful still loyal to Brown. But the other half is excited for change, and change they will get. Strong brings in a defensive mindset, which could be the exception in the point scoring Big-12. Strong has a lot to work with, too. Up front there are several big mean dudes including "Tank" Jackson. The linebackers are anchored by Jordan Hicks, but Hicks must stay healthy. The secondary is loaded. If QB David Ash can get the offense rolling, Texas could have a helluva first year under Strong. The third game of the season will tell us a ton as the 'Horns hook up with UCLA in Jerry's World in Arlington. Baylor and Oklahoma back-to-back a few weeks later will also present a tough test. I think Texas has a solid first year under Stong, but a run at the CFP is asking a bit much.
 
 
 
22. Kansas State (8-5 last year, 14 starters back, Head Coach Bill Snyder) - This ranking has a lot to do with my respect for Synder as a HC. His teams are most always fundamentally sound and play smart football. In 2014, Synder has an offense with guys returning at nearly every position, including his quarterback Jake Waters who took over the position full-time mid-season a year ago. One position that is inexperienced will be running back. Senior DeMarcus Robinson is the leading candidate to replace John Hubert, fighting for the starting job with sophomores Charles Jones and Jarvis Leverett. The Wildcats host Auburn in what should be a sold-out, jam-packed Bill Synder Family Football Stadium in week three. The regular slate of Big-12 rivals goes down after that, with Oklahoma and Baylor on the road, and Texas and Oklahoma State at home. I see KSU surprising some folks in 2014, especially if the defense can come around (just five starters return). 9-3 would be a solid campaign. 
 
 
 
23. Michigan (7-6 last year, 17 starters back, Head Coach Brady Hoke) - Wolverine fans, as prideful as they may be, must be ready to beat their heads against the wall as hated rival MSU broke through for the Big-10 Title and a Rose Bowl Game win last year. On top of that, UM lost to rival Ohio State at home in the Big House. Brady Hoke is a likable personality and had a strong first season in 2011, but I am very close to having him on my "hot seat" list entering 2014 as folks in Ann Arbor cannot be super pleased with a 4-5 combined record against ND, MSU and OSU, as well as a 1-2 bowl record and a neutral site thrashing by Alabama to open 2012. He is 15-13 over the last two seasons...This season, things will be tough again. Hoke has his quarterback returning for his senior season in Devin Gardner (28 total TDs im 2013), but loses RB Fitzgerald Touissant and WR Jeremy Gallon to the NFL. They will be tough to replace. On defense, eight guys return, so if they learned anything from a year ago this unit will be strong. The schedule sees Michigan open with Appalachian State before a trip to Notre Dame. Rivals Michigan State and Ohio State are both away. I see UM going 10-2 and making a solid, high-profile bowl game.
 
 
 
24. Notre Dame (9-4 last year, 11 starters back, Head Coach Brian Kelly) - Entering year five of the Brian Kelly era, the Irish seem to be stuck in neutral. After an appearance in the BCS Title Game two seasons ago, ND followed up with a so-so 9-4 record a year ago. This past week, Everett Golson was named the starter at QB. After leading his team to the aforementioned BCS Title Game, Golson had to sit out all of 2013 for academic reasons. Now he is back under center, and ND fans have to like their chances when he is running the offense. The defense for Notre Dame features just five returning starters - and one of those five guys is a punter. There will certainly be work to do on that side of the ball if the Irish hope to reach the CFP. In year one of having ACC games on the schedule, ND gets Syracuse, North Carolina and Louisville at home, while traveling to Florida State. Other opponents include Stanford at home and Arizona State and USC away. Notre Dame will go 9-3 in 2014.
 
 
 
25. Penn State (7-5 last year, 15 starters back, Head Coach James Franklin) - It is the dawn of a new day in State College as James Franklin takes the head coaching job and looks to take PSU back to the nation's elite level (though they are still ineligible for the postseason this year). A proud program, Penn State has won two national titles. But after the off-the-field troubles we all know about, the Nittany Lions have struggled to find themselves back in the national picture - or even the B1G 10 picture. Therefore, this ranking may be a bit of a shock to some, but I see Franklin really getting things going at PSU. He will win a couple of games he shouldn't this season (perhaps Michigan away or Ohio State at home), and I think the Lion revolution starts now. QB Christian Hackenburg is back for his junior season, as are seven starters on offense, and seven on defense. Kicker Sam Ficken is back and is a weapon. He made 15-straight kicks over the 2012-2013 season. I see PSU going 9-3 and then recruiting like crazy for the future. 
 
 
 
 
Just missed:  North Carolina, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Boise State


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