After months of anticipation, college football has finally returned to the national spotlight and the stakes couldn’t be higher in this, the final year of the BCS. Alabama is looking to give the crystal football a permanent home in Tuscaloosa, while teams like Ohio State, Oregon, Stanford and Clemson are all playing for the right to be the first team since 2005 to take the national championship out of the hands of the SEC.
Today is the day when history begins to write itself for schools all across the nation. For some, that history could be defined by a conference championship or the continuation of a storied era of winning. For others, it could mean a winning season and a chance to play in a bowl game for the first time in a longtime or ever. For one school, it could mean accomplishing something that hasn’t been done in nearly 70 years. Each game is another opportunity for team to change the course of their season and their program. Regardless of the outcome, today is where it all begins.
With more than a thousand different writers, bloggers, and sports nerds out there making predictions, it’s time for the fourth year in a row to say…….let’s lace-up those old reliable cleats, line up in the backfield, and make a valiant leap for the over-populated goal line of college football coverage to see what teams made the “Vandal Examiner’s Top 25 Rankings” for the 2013 preseason.
Alabama’s ranking on this list shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. The only school to win back-to-back national championships in the BCS era, the Crimson Tide look to be ready and able to be the first team since Army in the mid-40s to win three straight national titles. Coach Nick Saban has proven himself year after year to be one of the best head coaches in the game at recruiting and managing his roster effectively.
Does it matter that Alabama is only returning 14 starters from last year? No! The amount of depth and talent that this team has is stupid. Every year they lose players and end up having a better team, which I’m pretty sure makes them football’s equivalent of a hydra.
Their schedule is a bit front loaded with Virginia Tech and Texas A&M, but both of those teams seem a bit on the unstable side. LSU might be their only other challenge. As of right now, the Tide may end up rolling back to the national title.
#2: Ohio State
Ever since the 2008 national championship game, my ability to take Ohio State as a serious post-season contender has been nonexistent. 1-4 in their last five bowls that weren’t vacated, the Buckeyes were forced to watch Alabama beat down a highly overrated Notre Dame from the comfort of their homes last season due to sanctions, singlehandedly making their undefeated season seem less interesting.
Free from “Jersey-Gate”, QB Braxton Miller and the rest of the crew are hungry for a run at the national championship. Miller should be one of the early favorites for the Heisman trophy and their offense could end up being one of the best in the nation. Ohio State’s one weak spot is their defense though. Returning only five starters, the Buckeyes could struggle primarily in the run department as they only have one returning player in their front seven.
Does Ohio State have a shot at another undefeated season? Chances are high as they have one of the weakest schedules in the nation. Watch for a potential upset though in early October when they go to visit Northwestern.
Now that Chip Kelly has flown the coup to trade in his duck for an eagle, Oregon should be just fine with first year head coach Mark Helfrich. The Ducks may have 45 different uniforms ready for the season, but the squad will look very familiar. Returning nine starters on offense, Oregon will more than likely continue to put points on the board by buckets as QB Marcus Mariota and RB De’Anthony Thomas could run wild on the PAC-12 this season.
Much like Ohio State, Oregon’s main focus needs to be their defense. Losing LBs Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso and DE Dion Jordan will put some pressure on the returning starters till the new people get comfortable in their roles.
Having a schedule to snooze for, Oregon’s biggest challenge will be newly minted rival Stanford in November. 9-3 against the Cardinal all-time, Oregon was upset at home last season, preventing them from a national title run. Expect swift vengeance to be dealt and Oregon to be one of the top teams all season long with a potential national title berth.
Ranking Georgia this high on the list comes with a few reservations based off their sporadic play in the past few years. On paper, Georgia looks like a team that could possibly contend for the national champion every season, yet they just are unable to get over that hump. Since 2005, the Bulldogs have had five 10+ win seasons, but have dropped two of their last three bowl appearances.
QB Aaron Murray is returning for what feels like his eighth season along with nine other starters on the offensive side. Following the running theme of this list thus far, Georgia will really need to work on its defense to have a successful season. Only four returning starters on that side of the ball could spell trouble as their schedule is heavily front loaded with some of the best teams in the nation.
The Bulldogs will face Clemson, South Carolina and LSU in the first four weeks of their season. Georgia could very well be the first “Top 5” team to fall this season.
After the departure of QB Andrew Luck prior to the start of last season, it feels like a lot of people wrote Stanford off as a threat in the PAC-12 for at least a couple seasons while the team rebuilt. O how we were all wrong. Not only did the team played better than expected, they won the Rose Bowl. David Shaw has two major bowl wins under his belt in his first two years as coach.
With nine returning starters on defense, Stanford should again be one of the favorites to win the conference. Remember, that defense held Oregon to a mere 14 points. On offense, QB Kevin Hogan’s incredible run under center last season should have fans optimistic for this year. Hogan, sadly, will need some help with RB Stepfan Taylor and TEs Levine Toilolo and Zach Ertz gone. If Stanford can find a playmaker early in the season to compliment Hogan, they could be one of the most dangerous teams in the nation.
Hosting Oregon and having only one potentially difficult out of conference game against Notre Dame, Stanford looks to be heading back to the BCS in either the PAC-12’s spot or via a at-large bid.
#6: South Carolina
At a certain point this past off-season, I was absolutely convinced that South Carolina had dropped their well known “Gamecocks” mascot in exchange to be called the “South Carolina Jadeveon Clowneys". Ever since knocking Vincent Smith’s head off in the Outback Bowl last season, Clowney has been the discussion point for everything related to South Carolina football. Considered to be a potential Heisman candidate and future top pick in the NFL Draft, Clowney admittedly could be the best defensive lineman in the nation.
That being said, Clowney is only one of the five returning starters on South Carolina’s defense. QB Conner Shaw returns, optimistically better from the ankle injury he suffered late in 2012 and that kept him out of spring ball, hoping to finally push the Gamecocks into the next level of the SEC.
Outside the early game against Georgia, South Carolina really won’t be tested till November when they take on Florida and Clemson in the final weeks of the season. I expect them to stumble at some point, leaving themselves in the middle of an already competitive conference.
#7: Texas A&M
One of the biggest reasons why this list is coming out as late as it is is mostly because of the situation that’s going on down at College Station. The off-season has not been kind to Heisman winner Johnny Manziel. From a scandal about autographs to getting kicked out of a Texas frat party, Manziel surprisingly came out fairly unscathed.
As of Wednesday, the NCAA hit “Johnny Football” with a half game suspension, keeping him out of the first half of TAMU’s opener against Rice. This means Manziel will play against Alabama in what will be a massive match-up in the third week of their season. The absence of line anchor Luke Joeckel will be an interesting piece to watch for as the rest of the line makes adjustments.
If they can get past the Crimson Tide and LSU, TAMU could find themselves playing for the SEC title and the national title. Until then, I’m still waiting for my autograph Mr. Manziel.
It’s hard to not get excited about this Clemson team. QB Tajh Boyd is hands-down the best QB in the ACC and could go in the top half of next season’s NFL Draft. Boyd will have to play though without leading rusher Andre Ellington and prolific receiver DeAndre Hopkins, but WR Sammy Watkins does return.
Boyd should be enough though to put points on the board, but its keeping them off that is the major concern. The Tigers gave up 30 or more points four times last season. Getting in shoot-outs only works for so long (just ask Oklahoma or Oklahoma State).
Opening with a huge match-up against Georgia, the ACC feels like Clemson’s conference to lose. Florida State should be the only conference game that they should be worried about to a degree, but historically they haven’t had much success against the Seminoles. Clemson is 8-18 all-time against FSU. Watch for Boyd to have another killer season and Clemson to roar into the BCS.
Not only are the Cardinals entertaining on the hardwood, they are pretty dandy to watch on the gridiron. After a stunning win in the Sugar Bowl last season, Louisville looks to be the odds on favorite to win the former Big East (now American Athletic Conference). QB Teddy Bridgewater survived through both wrist and ankle injuries to have an impressive sophomore campaign. To help him, Louisville pulled a free agent signing-esc move and brought former BCS Championship MVP and troubled RB Michael Dyer in to bolster their backfield with the returning Jeremy Wright.
By nature though, Louisville is a defensive team (mostly because of the defensive mind-set of Coach Charlie Strong). The Cardinals return 10 starters on defense, which is the most of any “Top 25” team this season.
With no tough out of conference games, Louisville’s biggest games of the season will be against Rutgers and Cincinnati. If they can get past them, this is a team that could head back to the BCS. Watch for the Cardinals to rise in the rankings and have another 10+ win season.
Coach Les Miles is a mastermind when it comes to coaching (and he isn’t too bad on Twitter either). During his tenor at LSU, he has only had two less than 10 win seasons (2008, 2009). Miles just keeps finding ways to keep his team among the best in the nation on a regular basis.
2013 could prove to be one of the more difficult years to accomplish that in Baton Rouge. LSU got destroyed by early jumps to the NFL this year, leaving them with just four starters on defense. Their big saving grace is the return of QB Zach Mettenberger, RB Jeremy Hill and WRs Kadron Boone and Odell Beckham. Mettenberger was a bit of disappointment last season as his accuracy seemed to be inconsistent. He didn’t have one 300+ yard game last year. If Mettenberger can improve (which we would hope he does), offensively the Bayou Bengals could be strong.
An early test against TCU should help us gauge whether LSU has the depth to fill the vacant spots on defense and if the offense is worth more than a second or third place finish in their division.
Coach Mack Brown might have nine 10+ win seasons under his belt at Texas, but the last three seasons have not treated him so well. Since 2010, the Longhorns are 3-11 against “Top 25” teams and have lost to rival Oklahoma each year (which is the longest losing streak to the Sooners since 95-99). From awful defensive play to a painful battle between two mediocre QBs, Texas just hasn’t been able to get it right for a while now.
2013 could be the year that Texas gets back to their usual dominate self. The Longhorns return 10 players on offense (only other team to have as many is Georgia) and nine starters on defense. QB David Ash is, well David Ash. His inconsistency in big games is a worry point, but if he has improved over the off-season, he could power this team to a good season.
The Longhorns don’t have much to fear schedule wise. Road-trips against TCU and Oklahoma and a home game against Oklahoma State might be the only tough games on their schedule. Look for Texas to potentially make some big noise in the Big 12 this season.
Time to get out the visors because it’s football season in Norman! Coach Bob Stoops is entering his 14th season as the head coach at Oklahoma and it could be a fun one for him. Fun of course is meant in a sarcastic manner as he has a ton of work to do to avoid his first non-10 win season since 2009.
The Sooners are only returning four starters on defense which could be problematic. On the other-side of the coin, they also lost their star quarterback Landry Jones and top receivers Kenny Stills and Justin Brown. A returning RB Damien Williams and WR Jalen Saunders could keep them stable with junior QB Blake Bell under center, but even then, they aren’t going get those shoot-out wins like 2012.
Give them six wins for their home games, but games at Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Texas Tech, Notre Dame and the neutral site game against Texas could be tough. I’m calling 2013 an off-year for the Sooners where a few minor mistakes will lead to a 9-3 regular season record.
#13: Oklahoma State
For the past few seasons, Oklahoma State has been one of the most entertaining teams to watch out west. Their run and gun style offense has made them one of the most dangerous teams in the nation next to Oregon. OKST’s 8-5 season in 2012 was disappointing, but expected as the team lost a considerable amount of its top talent.
2013 should be the resurgence of the dominating offense Cowboy fans have been wanting. It doesn’t matter if they are on their third offensive coordinator in four years, they have the talent to go out and really surprise some teams. QBs Clint Chelf and J.W. Walsh will probably battle for playing time all season long until one of them proves to be the better QB for the consistent starting job. The key thing to watch will be how the team adjusts to the recent loss of offensive lineman Devin Davis, who will sit out the entire season with a knee injury.
With just a tough road game at Texas, Oklahoma State will host their biggest games against Oklahoma, Baylor and TCU in Stillwater. Watch for the Cowboys to improve on last year’s record and possibly make a run for the Big 12 title in 2013.
#14: Florida State
Coming off a dominant performance in last year’s Orange Bowl, Florida State is looking to repeat as the ACC champion and head back to the post-season in an attempt to win their sixth straight bowl game. Before they can do that, they have a bit of work to do on both sides of the ball to make up for the 11 starters they lost in the off-season.
For the defense, the Seminoles will have to replace six of their front seven starters, which could mean an extended learning period for that group. Thankfully, FSU is returning most of their secondary, a secondary that could end up being the best in the nation. On the flip side, the departure of QB E.J. Manuel means that the Seminoles have an open spot that needs a body.
Coach Jimbo Fisher has announced that Jameis Winston will get the Week 1 start, but don’t be surprised if Jacob Coker makes an appearance or two as the redshirt freshman Winston gets use to his new role. While their schedule is fairly mediocre, their two biggest games against Clemson and Florida are on the road. FSU could be a 10 win team again this year, but only time will tell.
When trying to determine how well Florida will be this season, two things have to be looked at. The first is how the Gators will repair their defense after losing seven starters. Florida’s defense was the backbone of their season in 2012 and not having that to save them from losing a few games is going to be problematic.
The second issue they have to deal with is having QB Jeff Driskel under center. Driskel has yet to show that he is a big-time passer or playmaker. How underwhelming was last season for him? Driskel had four under 100 yard games and only threw for 200+ yards twice. His likely replacement, Jacoby Brissett, has jumped ship to North Carolina State, leaving the Gators with only untested QBs to go to.
I like Coach Will Muschamp, but I feel bad about the situation he is in. Florida doesn’t look like a team that will bring a whole lot to the table, at least not on paper. The Gators look to be a mid-level SEC team at best and it wouldn’t be a shocker if they dropped their games against LSU, South Carolina, Miami (FL) and rival Florida State. Watch for the Gators to slowly slip down this list.
There are so many things about the Wolverines to love and hate at the same time that it hurts my head. On offense, QB Devin Gardner returns and is on the preseason Davey O’Brien Award watch-list, which means that Michigan’s offense could be decent with RB Fitzgerald Toussaint and OT Taylor Lewan returning.
At the same time, a good chunk of Michigan’s key defensive players are gone, leaving for a lot of reworking and experience on that front. Hosting rival Ohio State, Nebraska and Notre Dame, Michigan’s season looks to be middle of the road at best even though every analyst in the nation thinks this team is a BCS contender.
If the stars align, they could be stiff competition in the Legends division of the Big Ten, but it seems highly likely they will play second or third fiddle to either Nebraska or Northwestern and limp into a minor bowl in the post-season.
In his first two games of his career, QB Taylor Martinez was all that anyone could talk about. Able to match his passing yards with his rushing yards, he looked to be the next coming of Michael Vick. Plagued by injuries and bad passing mechanics, Martinez is going into his senior season with a lot to prove. RB Ameer Abdullah should help out a lot with that as he will take a lot of pressure off of Martinez in the running game.
The Husker defense will need to step it up as well in a big way, especially in the run department where they were ranked 90th nationally last year. Nebraska’s schedule is a favorable one, with their big games against Northwestern, Michigan State, and UCLA all at home. It is very possible that the Huskers could repeat their 10-4 mark from last year with this line-up.
#18: Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish did something in last year’s national title game that I didn’t think was possible. They made me realize that not all undefeated teams deserve to be in the national title game. That game almost seems like it was the catalyst for the absolutely bizarre months that followed for the team. There was the whole Manti Te'o situation and then a few of their top recruits ended up transferring to other schools and finally QB Everett Golson will sit out the season due to academic misconduct.
That leaves the Fighting Irish with a lot of questions. QB Tommy Rees will again get his chance to prove he is the starting quarterback the team needs. Unlike other teams, Notre Dame does return a good amount of its starters on both offense and defense. Granted, filling those other spots will not be an easy task.
Neither will their schedule again this year they play host to Oklahoma, Michigan State, USC and BYU, while hitting the road to take on Michigan and Stanford. Nobody expected Notre Dame to go undefeated last and in 2013, I don’t expect them to again. Watch for the Fighting Irish to thankfully fall short of the BCS this season.
Coming off only their third 10 win season in school history, Northwestern looks to be a strong contender to Ohio State in the Big Ten. QB Kain Colter could be this year’s Collin Klein with QB Trevor Siemian providing support, giving the Wildcats a two-headed monster of an offense. They did lose Patrick Ward and Brian Mulroe from the line, but it shouldn’t be too much for them to overcome.
For Northwestern to succeed, they have to get it done in conference play. Luckily for them, half the battle has been handed to them from the start. The Wildcats biggest games (Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State) are all home games. Road games at Wisconsin and Nebraska are going to be tough, but don’t be surprised if these cats end up with at least a nine win season.
The Horned Frogs have so many question marks going into this season that ranking them any higher at this point is pushing it. The biggest question is QB Casey Paschall, who’s DUI last season had him on the bench watching TCU go 7-6 in a season of close calls that went both in favor and against them.
If Paschall can return to the player he was during TCU’s killer 2011 season, the Horned Frogs will have some great play on offense to go along with a very hungry and young defense that could catch a lot of teams by surprise. If not, it could be a long season.
Is a Big 12 title in their future? It’s a tough call at this point. While they do host Texas and West Virginia, TCU has to travel to Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. Opening the season against LSU will probably give us a good idea of how those later match-ups will turn out.
Coach Jim Mora Jr. had a pretty good first season at UCLA, leading the Bruins to a 9-5 record and an unfortunate beat-down by Baylor in the Holiday Bowl. Got to look at the positives though, right? QB Brett Hundley is returning! Sadly, his top rusher and a few of his favorite targets at wide-out are gone. Hundley does get his offensive line and WR Shaq “No not THAT Shaq” Evans back for the 2013 season. Mora has also done a good job building his defense into one of the top passing defenses in the nation.
With the PAC-12 South being an oddly weak division, it isn’t too hard to believe that they will win it and return to the PAC-12 title game. Can Mora Jr. repeat the success of last year? Trips to Oregon, Stanford, USC and Nebraska lean toward the unlikely. Expect them to fight USC at season’s end to limp into the PAC-12 championship as the South’s representative.
#22: Oregon State
The Beavers were one of the best stories in college football last year. After two disappointing seasons in a row, Oregon State opened the 2012 season with six straight wins (two against “Top 25” teams). Granted, going 3-4 in their last seven games (including the Alamo Bowl) did ruin a bit of the glow, but 9-4 overall isn’t too bad.
QBs Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz return, as well as RB/next Marvel Studios movie lead Storm Woods and WR Brandin Cooks. Losing wide-out Markus Wheaton, corner Jordan Poyer, and defensive tackle Andrew Seumalo could hurt, but a weak out of conference schedule and lukewarm first half of the season will help them adjust. Getting through Stanford and rival Oregon may prove to be the season breakers. Watch for Oregon State to finish similar to last year (maybe 8-5 if USC turns out to be good).
ALL HAIL THE BEAVERSHARK!
The 2012 Big Ten champion by default, Wisconsin has lost a lot since the end of their season. Coach Bret Bielema jumped ship to Arkansas out of the blue. RB Montee Ball and seven other key players left. With Ohio State now again eligible to play for the conference crown, the Badgers are going to have an uphill fight for the first time in two years.
Out of conference schedule isn’t too difficult, but BYU and Arizona State could be potentially tough games if not handled correctly. Mid-season games with Ohio State and Northwestern will also be a lot for them to handle. All-in-all, Wisconsin may have a shot at the title again, but it’s hard to see this team being any better than last year’s squad.
Let’s not kid ourselves on this one, if RB Silas Redd and WR Marqise Lee weren’t returning, USC probably wouldn’t find themselves ranked. A team that was supposed to end the reign of the SEC as champion, the Trojans fumbled their way to abysmal 7-6 record in 2012.
Coach Lane Kiffin looks to be one lackluster season away from being shown the door already. USC won’t be a title threat this year, but with a little luck, they could win their division. Their season finale with rival UCLA might be the determining game. A decent out of conference schedule (BC, Notre Dame and Hawaii) could help them in the polls, but losing a lot of key players on both sides of the ball could lead the Trojans to another barely above .500 season.
Expect USC brass to be checking their Rolodex for Kiffin’s replacement by mid-season.
#25: Northern Illinois
Although the BCS turned out to be a little more than they could handle, this is still a team that deserves a “Top 25” spot. QB Jordan Lynch, who might be one of the best quarterbacks nobody seems to talk about, is back along with a majority of the offensive squad that made them so good in 2012. The defense did lose a considerable amount (seven starters in total), but should have the depth to replace them fairly easily.
Schedule wise, games against Iowa and Purdue are the only match-ups they have against BCS conferences. Those teams might not be the biggest names, but wins against them could help propel the Huskies into the actual “Top 25”. Playing in the MAC, it’s really hard not to want to say that this team will go undefeated in conference play as the only other team that stands out in their schedule is Kent State. NIU will more than likely repeat as the conference champion and head back to a bowl.
What bowl that will be is hard to tell at this point. The only thing that stands between them and another BCS run is themselves, the people who make the rankings and the Mighty Vandals of Idaho. Ok maybe it’s just the first two things.