Notable games: vs. Oklahoma State (8/30), Clemson (9/20), Notre Dame (10/18), at Miami (11/15), Florida (11/29)
The best team in the country from a season ago returns much of its core to try to prove it can defend its national title. After beating Auburn in the BCS championship game, the Seminoles brought back four starters on the offensive line, leading receiver Rashad Greene, tight end Nick O’Leary and more talent on defense than perhaps any other team in the country. Oh, and Heisman-winning quarterback Jameis Winston. Until someone proves otherwise, the Noles are America’s top team.
Notable games: at Ole Miss (10/4), Texas A&M (10/18), at LSU (11/8), Auburn (11/29)
Last season ended on a bitter note for the Crimson Tide, losing the Iron Bowl on the ‘Kick Six’ and then getting handled by Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. In 2014, Alabama will reload as new names become stars. Florida State transfer Jacob Coker figures to replace AJ McCarron at quarterback, and safety Landon Collins steps into the leadership spotlight on defense. Nick Saban spoke this summer about redefining the identity of Alabama football, and he has more than enough talent to win a national title in 2014 and begin the next phase of Bama dominance.
Notable games: Michigan State (9/6), at UCLA (10/11), Stanford (11/1), at Oregon State (11/29)
The time is right for Oregon to make its final leap as a program by getting to the national championship game and winning it. Quarterback Marcus Mariota turned down a likely first-round selection in the 2014 NFL Draft to return, and to thank him, coach Mark Helfrich has once again surrounded him with speed. Running backs Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner should represent one of the Pac-12’s best duos, and speedster freshman receiver Devon Allen will inevitably find his way onto your highlight reels. Losing left tackle Tyler Johnstone for the season with a knee injury is a major blow, but the Ducks are built to last.
Notable games: vs. Texas (9/13), at ASU (9/25), Oregon (10/11), USC (11/22), Stanford (11/28)
In Jim Mora’s third season at UCLA, are the Bruins ready to become national title contenders? They have Heisman candidate and likely first-round pick Brett Hundley back at quarterback, but he would be greatly helped by the establishment of a running game. Jordan James figures to be the staple back, with all-around star linebacker Myles Jack getting situational carries. The defense should be stingy with Jack, defensive end Eddie Vanderdoes and cornerback Fabian Moreau leading the way. The Pac-12 is a slog, but UCLA has as good a shot as any team of making it out alive.
Notable games: Texas (10/11), Baylor (11/8), at Texas Tech (11/15), Oklahoma State (12/6)
The Sooners’ season doesn’t ride entirely on one man, but it’ll be defined by quarterback Trevor Knight. The redshirt sophomore torched Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, and he’ll be a Heisman finalist in 2014 if that’s the QB Bob Stoops is getting for a full season. The schedule also sets up well for Oklahoma to make a playoff run, with its toughest road game at Texas Tech. Will Stoops get another shot to stifle another SEC foe in the four-team postseason showdown?
Notable games: at Kansas State (9/18), LSU (10/4), South Carolina (10/25), at Georgia (11/15), at Alabama (11/29)
An incredible story in 2013, Auburn will no longer be any kind of secret. The Tigers lose Heisman finalist running back Tre Mason but return two talented backs in Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant, along with stars at QB (Nick Marshall) and receiver (Sammie Coates). Auburn’s question is whether it can improve a defense that lost Dee Ford to the NFL Draft and Carl Lawson to injury. If that unit tightens up, Gus Malzahn’s team will be a strong playoff candidate.
Notable games: at Oregon (9/6), Nebraska (10/4), Michigan (10/25), Ohio State (11/8), at Penn State (11/29)
Every season, Michigan State gets a little overlooked, and every season the Spartans turn out a relentless defense that keeps them in Big Ten title contention. Now they bring more of an offensive assault with quarterback Connor Cook developing as a passer and receiver Tony Lippett and tight end Josiah Price back, along with running back Jeremy Langford. It’d be no surprise to see Mark Dantonio with another trip to the Rose Bowl in 2014.
Notable games: at Texas (10/4), at Oklahoma (11/8), Oklahoma State (11/22), Kansas State (12/6)
The Bears are coming off their first Big 12 title, so it’s certainly a new time in Waco, Texas. Fortunately, they have QB Bryce Petty, RB Shock Linwood and WR Antwan Goodley back to help defend the crown. If the defense is even moderately good this fall – and it should be more than that – the Bears will score enough points to win most, if not all, of their games.
Notable games: Clemson (8/30), at South Carolina (9/13), at Mizzou (10/11), vs. Florida (11/1), Auburn (11/15)
The SEC East is wide open in 2014, and it feels like Georgia’s chance to capitalize. The Bulldogs lose QB Aaron Murray but replace him with capable senior Hutson Mason, who will turn around and hand the ball off to RB Todd Gurley, perhaps the best at what he does in the country. But, of course, offense is never the issue in Athens. It’s the other side of the ball. With new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt coming over from Florida State, there’s hope that this is the beginning of a new Georgia – one that will break through and possibly get Mark Richt an SEC title.
Notable games: Texas A&M (8/28), Georgia (9/13), at Auburn (10/25), at Florida (11/15), at Clemson (11/29)
If Georgia doesn’t win the SEC East, it will most likely be because the Gamecocks did something to mess it all up. South Carolina has never won the league, but it has a chance to do it this season behind exceptional running back Mike Davis. Many will focus on the loss of defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and how DC Lorenzo Ward copes with that loss by shifting more of the defensive burden on his linebackers, but perhaps more important is how senior Dylan Thompson handles the starting quarterback job. Connor Shaw has departed Columbia, and we might see now how valuable he really was.
Notable games: USC (9/6), at Notre Dame (10/4), at Oregon (11/1), at UCLA (11/28)
You know what you’re going to get with Stanford: bone-crushing defense, a physical running attack, mostly smart QB play. While signal-caller Kevin Hogan should rise in 2014, that will depend on how the Cardinal fit together four new starters on the offensive line. Hogan does have WR Ty Montgomery still to throw to, which is a plus.
Notable games: vs. Wisconsin (8/30), at Auburn (10/4), at Florida (10/11), Alabama (11/8), at Texas A&M (11/27)
Les Miles is turning over crucial parts of his roster to young, unproven players this fall. The good news? They’re all crazy talented. At some point this season, freshman Brandon Harris will likely take over the QB job, if he doesn’t start there in Week 1. RB Leonard Fournette is already being pegged as a Heisman candidate as a true freshman – which might just be a little too much to ask, huh? – and WR Malachi Dupre will likely be a Freshman All-America selection at the end of the year. If everything comes together for the Tigers, they’re talented enough, like usual, to win the SEC West.
Notable games: at Georgia (8/30), at Florida State (9/20), North Carolina (9/27), South Carolina (11/29)
Clemson got waxed at home against Florida State last season, but the Tigers couldn’t have finished the season any better than by beating Ohio State in the Orange Bowl. How they replace Tajh Boyd at QB and Sammy Watkins at WR is the pressing question this fall, but coach Dabo Swinney doesn’t seem to be concerned with the turnover. He has two of the best coordinators in the country – Chad Morris on offense, Brent Venables on defense – and a fresh crop of talent. We’ll know more about Clemson after Week 3, when it has visited Georgia and FSU.
No. 15: USC Trojans (99)
2013 record: 10-4 (6-3 Pac-12 South)
Notable games: at Stanford (9/6), ASU (10/4), at UCLA (11/22), Notre Dame (11/29)
No team had a wilder 2013 season than the Trojans, with the ugly firing of Lane Kiffin and the temporary resurrection of the program under interim coach Ed Orgeron. Now in comes new head coach Steve Sarkisian and the trek back to becoming a perennial national title contender begins for the Trojans. They have an outside shot at the playoff this season, but depth is still an issue for USC as it rebuilds after NCAA sanctions. At the very least, you’ll enjoy watching DT Leonard Williams and Su’a Cravens fly around on defense while Sark takes a year to establish a foundation for future Top 10 teams to come.
Notable games: vs. LSU (8/30), at Northwestern (10/4), Nebraska (11/15), at Iowa (11/22)
Wisconsin has two incredible blessings on its side this season: RB Melvin Gordon and an incredibly weak schedule. Gordon should be a Heisman finalist, and if the Badgers get just solid QB play from Joel Stave or Tanner McEvoy, they should win the Big Ten West and play for the league title. No Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State or Michigan in 2014 for the Badgers.
No. 17: Notre Dame Fighting Irish (90)
2013 record: 9-4 (Independent)
Notable games: Michigan (9/6), Stanford (10/4), at Florida State (10/18), at ASU (11/8), at USC (11/29)
The good news: QB Everett Golson is back after sitting out 2013 due to an academic suspension. The bad news: Did you look at that schedule? The Irish will most likely have a terrible time cracking the Top 10 and approaching playoff contention, not because they aren’t good, but because it’s nearly impossible to envision anything less than two losses, if not three.
Notable games: Alabama (10/4), at Texas A&M (10/11), at LSU (10/25), Auburn (11/1), Mississippi State (11/29)
It’s a transition year in the SEC West, with traditional powers Alabama and LSU both undergoing significant reloads, so there’s opportunity for the Rebels to make some noise. Senior Bo Wallace should be among the league’s top QBs, and sophomore receiver Laquon Treadwell might make the leap from “superb” to “unguardable” in 2014. Behind a quick attack, Ole Miss has sleeper potential in the West.
Notable games: UCLA (9/25), at USC (10/4), Stanford (10/18), at Washington (10/25), Notre Dame (11/8)
If you can forget the beating Texas Tech put on Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl to end last season, it’s pretty easy to get excited about the Sun Devils entering a new season. Their offense should be exceptional behind QB Taylor Kelly, WR Jaelen Strong and RB D.J. Foster. With only two starters returning on defense, how Todd Graham assembles that side of the ball likely will determine whether ASU is a one-side, nine-win team or a legitimate threat to win the Pac-12 South.
Notable games: Stanford (9/27), at Oregon (10/18), UCLA (11/8)
Gone is Sarkisian and in is former Boise State coach Chris Petersen. QB Cyler Miles is suspended for the season-opener against Hawaii, but when he returns he should give Petersen the engine needed to fire things up in Seattle. Nobody expects the Huskies to contend for the Pac-12 North crown in Year 1 under Petersen, but if they can win one of the three games listed above, it’d be a huge boost for the new regime and a table-setter for 2015.
Notable games: Miami (9/20), at Michigan State (10/4), at Wisconsin (11/15), at Iowa (11/28)
The Offseason of Bo is finally coming to an end, and as sad as we are to see the viral videos and cats go, it’s time for Pelini to do what will ultimately secure his future in Lincoln – win football games. The Huskers will rely on a large dose of RB Ameer Abdullah, and QB Tommy Armstrong should find WR Kenny Bell down field a time or two. If they can patch together a defense around star defensive end Randy Gregory, the Huskers will be a tough out in the Big Ten West.
Notable games: at Oklahoma (10/18), Texas (10/25), Oklahoma State (11/1), at Baylor (12/6)
The Wildcats get overlooked in the Big 12, because there are traditional powers (Texas, Oklahoma) and high-powered upstarts (Baylor, Texas Tech) that demand a lot of attention, but all Bill Snyder has done lately is assemble quality teams. This one is no different, with senior QB Jake Waters and senior WR Tyler Lockett back to lead an experienced offense, and senior DE Ryan Mueller had 11.5 sacks last season. The Wildcats play OU and Baylor on the road, but don’t think they aren’t capable of stealing one.
Notable games: vs. UCLA (9/13), Baylor (10/4), vs. Oklahoma (10/11), at Kansas State (10/25), at Oklahoma State (11/15)
How good will Texas be in Charlie Strong’s first season in Austin? It’s tough to tell, primarily because the quarterback position is unsettled and nobody knows how an entirely new staff is going to come together in a new league. Strong has spent the better part of the offseason purging people who don’t want to be Longhorns, and it feels like the goal for Year 1 is, “Establish new culture.” Finding a way to beat one of the UCLA-Baylor-OU trio would do wonders for Strong’s supporters at UT, but that might be too much to ask in 2014.
No. 24: Florida Gators (24)
2013 record: 4-8 (3-5 SEC East)
Notable games: at Alabama (9/20), LSU (10/11), vs. Georgia (11/1), South Carolina (11/15), at Florida State (11/29)
The Gators debut at No. 24 because of how awful last season went for them, but nobody would be surprised if they rocket up the rankings with better health and an entirely new offensive attack under new OC Kurt Roper. Quarterback Jeff Driskel is back from a broken leg and, according to everything out of Florida’s camp, has taken quickly to Roper’s aggressive, up-tempo system. We know Will Muschamp’s defense will be salty. If Florida can put those two together and hope for better luck, it’s a sleeper team in the SEC East.
Notable games: at South Carolina (9/27), Georgia (10/11), at Florida (10/18), at Texas A&M (11/15)
Speaking of the SEC East, the division’s defending champs round out our Top 25 on the heels of a monumental season for the program in 2013. Gary Pinkel’s Tigers capped off the year by beating Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl, and now they turn their offense over to Maty Mauk and a unit with a lot of new faces. While it’s a transition/reload year for Mizzou, the place isn’t bare. RB Russell Hansbrough and WR Levi Copelin will play large roles in the offense, and DE Shane Ray and SS Braylon Webb anchor the defense.