Nov 3, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; The mascot of the Oregon Ducks mascot during the game against the Southern California Trojans at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Oregon defeated USC 62-51. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 01: Cocky, mascot of the South Carolina Gamecocks performs just before the start of the Outback Bowl Game against the Michigan Wolverines at Raymond James Stadium on January 1, 2013 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images) Nov 10, 2012; Syracuse, NY, USA; The Louisville Cardinals mascot on the sideline during a game against the Syracuse Orange at the Carrier Dome. Syracuse won the game 45-26. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports
Early Top 25 for 2013
With the 2012 season over, here's a look at college football’s top 25 teams for 2013. Nick Saban (pictured) and Alabama will be losing a few key players, but there’s plenty of talent returning to Tuscaloosa for the Crimson Tide to claim their third consecutive national title. While Alabama is a heavy favorite to repeat, determining the No. 2 team is a much tougher task. Ohio State and Oregon will be top-five teams, but Stanford, Clemson, Louisville and Notre Dame will be the top challengers to end the SEC’s run of seven consecutive national championships. — ATHLON SPORTS Athlon Sports: Top 25 for 2013 season | FS South: Who can beat Alabama?
No. 25: Northwestern
After ending a 63-year bowl victory drought and winning 10 games for the first time since 1995, the Wildcats enter 2013 with momentum on their side. Quarterback Kain Colter is one of the Big Ten’s top all-around playmakers, and the rushing attack is in good hands with the speedy and elusive Venric Mark. One area of concern on offense for coach Pat Fitzgerald is a line that loses three starters, including left tackle Patrick Ward. The defense must replace four starters and has to improve the pass defense after allowing an average of 250.5 yards per game in 2012. Athlon Sports: Top 25 for 2013 season | FS South: Who can beat Alabama?
No. 24: Arizona State
A two-point loss to UCLA in late October was all that separated Arizona State from a berth in the Pac-12 Championship Game this season. And with most of the core returning for 2013, Todd Graham’s team should make a run at UCLA for the No. 1 spot in the South Division. The Sun Devils need to find new weapons at receiver for quarterback Taylor Kelly, but sophomore running back DJ Foster is ready for a breakout campaign. The defense received good news when tackle (and likely All-American) Will Sutton (pictured) returned to Tempe for his senior year. Arizona State catches a huge break in scheduling, as it misses Oregon in crossover play and hosts USC, Washington, Oregon State and Arizona – all crucial swing games for Pac-12 positioning. Athlon Sports: Top 25 for 2013 season | FS South: Who can beat Alabama?
No. 23: Michigan
Even with significant personnel losses, don’t count out the Wolverines from the Big Ten title picture. Denard Robinson will be missed, but the offense shouldn’t suffer much with Devin Gardner (pictured) stepping in at quarterback. Finding a running back that can shoulder 20-25 carries a game (will it be incoming five-star Derrick Green?), along with rebuilding the offensive line, will be the top priorities for coach Brady Hoke and coordinator Al Borges this spring. The defense needs to replace Will Campbell and Craig Roh on the line, but this unit will get a boost from the return of cornerback Blake Countess from a torn ACL suffered in the season opener against Alabama, along with the emergence of Jake Ryan and Joe Bolden in the linebacking corps. Athlon Sports: Top 25 for 2013 season | FS South: Who can beat Alabama?
No. 22: Nebraska
There’s a razor-thin margin separating the Cornhuskers and Michigan or Northwestern for the No. 1 spot in the Legends Division. With quarterback Taylor Martinez, running back Ameer Abdullah and receiver Kenny Bell returning, scoring points shouldn’t be a problem. However, the defense is virtually starting over from scratch. Nebraska loses major contributors at each level of the defense and must replace All-Big Ten safety Daimion Stafford and end Eric Martin. The Cornhuskers host Northwestern and Michigan State in Big Ten play but travel to Michigan on Nov. 9 and play UCLA in the non-conference slate. Coach Bo Pelini has never won fewer than nine games in a season during his Nebraska tenure, but there’s plenty of angst from the fan base as it has not played in a BCS bowl since 2002. Athlon Sports: Top 25 for 2013 season | FS South: Who can beat Alabama?
No. 21: Oregon State
The Beavers were one of college football’s biggest surprises this year, going from 3-9 in 2011 to 9-4 in 2012. Oregon State did lose three out of their last five games but two of those defeats came by four points, while the other was to in-state rival Oregon. If the Beavers want to improve its win total in 2013, settling the quarterback position will be a priority. Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz each received a significant share of snaps this year but neither managed to play well enough to secure the job going into spring practice. The offense also needs to find a replacement for receiver Markus Wheaton. The defense ranked second in the conference in points allowed and most of the core is back for 2013. However, the Beavers must replace both starting defensive tackles and All-Pac-12 cornerback Jordan Poyer. Athlon Sports: Top 25 for 2013 season | FS South: Who can beat Alabama?
No. 20: Wisconsin
Getting back to the Rose Bowl for the fourth consecutive season is no easy task for Wisconsin. New coach Gary Andersen was one of college football’s top hires for 2013 but there figures to be some transition period as the team adjusts to the new staff. Montee Ball must be replaced at running back, but the cupboard is far from bare with Melvin Gordon and James White returning. Curt Phillips finished the year as the starting quarterback, but if Joel Stave can stay healthy, he is the better passer and will give Wisconsin’s offense a much-needed boost through the air. The defense has a few positions to plug in the secondary, but the front seven should be salty. The Badgers’ hopes at winning the Leaders Division title could come down to a Sept. 28 matchup at Ohio State, but the schedule also features a challenging road trip to Arizona State and home games against Northwestern and Penn State. Athlon Sports: Top 25 for 2013 season | FS South: Who can beat Alabama?
No. 19: Texas
Are the Longhorns ready to challenge for the Big 12 title? The talent is certainly in place, but there are enough concerns for this team to not match 2012’s nine-win mark. The backfield of Malcolm Brown, Johnathan Gray and Joe Bergeron is one of the best in the nation, but the offense will only go as far as quarterback David Ash (pictured) takes it. Helping Ash’s development as a passer will be the return of receivers Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley, along with an offensive line that brings back all five starters. The defense was one of the most disappointing units in the nation in 2012 but loses only two starters. The return of Jackson Jeffcoat should ease Alex Okafor’s departure at end. Athlon Sports: Top 25 for 2013 season | FS South: Who can beat Alabama?
No. 18: UCLA
The defending Pac-12 South champs should be in good shape to make their third consecutive appearance in the conference title game. Quarterback Brett Hundley (17) is back after a standout freshman season, and the offseason should allow the Bruins to find a few answers for an offensive line that allowed 3.7 sacks a game in 2012. The biggest question mark for UCLA will be finding a replacement for running back Johnathan Franklin. The defense should have one of the Pac-12’s top linebacking corps, as Anthony Barr turned down the NFL for one more season with the Bruins. The conference slate is challenging, as UCLA hits the road to play Arizona, Oregon, Stanford and USC, but hosts its biggest challenger in the South (Arizona State). Athlon Sports: Top 25 for 2013 season | FS South: Who can beat Alabama?
No. 17: Florida State
After winning 12 games for the first time since 1999, the Seminoles are due to take a step back in 2013. Both sides of the ball have concerns to address but none bigger than the question mark under center. Clint Trickett and Jameis Winston enter spring practice as the favorites to replace E.J. Manuel, with Trickett owning two starts under his belt, while Winston ranked as the top quarterback in the 2012 recruiting class. The defense will be the under the direction of a new coordinator (former Alabama assistant Jeremy Pruitt) and needs to find a replacement for defensive stalwarts Bjoern Werner (end) and Xavier Rhodes (cornerback). Coaching turnover was a huge problem in Tallahassee this offseason, as six assistants left Jimbo Fisher’s staff. Florida State’s schedule isn’t overwhelmingly daunting, but the Seminoles have to travel to Clemson and Florida, while hosting a much-improved Miami team. Athlon Sports: Top 25 for 2013 season | FS South: Who can beat Alabama?
No. 16: Oklahoma
The Sooners have claimed at least a share of the Big 12 title in five out of the last seven years and there’s not much separating Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and TCU in the early Big 12 predictions. The Sooners have plenty of question marks to answer in the spring, starting at quarterback. Blake Bell (pictured) has shown flashes of promise as a runner in a limited role, but he will face competition from Trevor Knight and Kendal Thompson. While the passing game could be a work in progress early in the year, running back Damien Williams should be in the mix for all-conference honors, and the offensive line is one of the best in the Big 12 with four returning starters. The defense allowed 192.2 rushing yards per game in 2012, and the line and secondary need to be revamped in 2013. Oklahoma has some landmines on the schedule next season as well, as they make trips to Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and host TCU in its Big 12 opener. Athlon Sports: Top 25 for 2013 season | FS South: Who can beat Alabama?
No. 15: TCU
As expected, the Horned Frogs had some growing pains adjusting to life in the Big 12. But with a year of experience in a BCS conference under its belt, TCU is poised to challenge for the Big 12 title in 2013. Gary Patterson’s team returns nearly all of its key contributors on both sides of the ball, while the offense will regain the services of quarterback Casey Pachall, who was forced to leave the team in early October due to off-the-field issues. Pachall will compete with Trevone Boykin (2) for the No. 1 spot in the spring. The ground game is an area of focus for Patterson in the spring, and the team should get some help from the return of Waymon James from a knee injury, along with the arrival of Nebraska transfer Aaron Green. The Horned Frogs led the Big 12 in total defense this season and return 10 starters for 2013. End Devonte Fields and cornerback Jason Verrett should challenge for All-America honors next season. Athlon Sports: Top 25 for 2013 season | FS South: Who can beat Alabama?
No. 14: Oklahoma State
Despite losing quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon to the NFL, the Cowboys averaged 45.7 points a game in 2012 and won at least eight games for the fifth consecutive year. Oklahoma State’s offensive numbers are even more impressive when you consider three quarterbacks received starts this past season, and the receiving corps lost Tracy Moore early to an injury. The Cowboys need to settle on a starting quarterback next year, but the offense returns one of the Big 12’s top lines and even though running back Joseph Randle is leaving for the NFL, the backfield is in good shape with Jeremy Smith and Desmond Roland. The defense must replace linebacker Alex Elkins, cornerback Brodrick Brown and end Nigel Nicholas but most of the core will return intact. The Big 12 is wide open in 2013, but a schedule that features home games against TCU, Oklahoma and Kansas State could be enough to give Mike Gundy’s team its second Big 12 title in three seasons. Athlon Sports: Top 25 for 2013 season | FS South: Who can beat Alabama?
No. 13: Boise State
After a brief courtship with the Big East, the Broncos decided to return to the Mountain West and will be a heavy favorite to win the conference title in 2013. Boise State doesn’t have an easy path, however, as Fresno State could be a Top-25 team with the return of quarterback Derek Carr. As expected last preseason, the Broncos took a step back on offense in 2012. The promising news is that quarterback Joe Southwick got better as the year progressed, and Jay Ajayi proved he could be a capable replacement for D.J. Harper at running back in 2013. The offensive line is a concern with only two starters returning, while the receiving corps is stocked with Matt Miller, Kirby Moore and Geraldo Boldewijn back in the mix. Despite having only one returning starter on defense, Boise State allowed just 15.8 points a game in 2012. This unit needs to replace cornerbacks Jamar Taylor and Jerrell Gavins, but expect the Broncos to rank among the nation’s best defenses once again in 2013. Athlon Sports: Top 25 for 2013 season | FS South: Who can beat Alabama?
No. 12: LSU
The Tigers were college football’s biggest loser following the NFL Draft’s early entry deadline, as 11 players, including safety Eric Reid, cornerback Tharold Simon, defensive linemen Barkevious Mingo, Bennie Logan, Sam Montgomery and linebacker Kevin Minter, declared their intent to go pro. LSU is never short on talent, but it’s a lot to ask this team to remain a national title contender with all of the new faces stepping into the starting lineup. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger showed some improvement late in the year but finished with 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Even with Spencer Ware and Michal Ford also leaving for the NFL, the Tigers will have no trouble moving the ball on the ground, as Jeremy Hill (33), Kenny Hilliard and Alfred Blue form a capable trio. While the personnel losses on defense will be hard to overcome early in the year, by midseason, coordinator John Chavis should be able to find the right pieces to keep this unit among the best in the SEC. Athlon Sports: Top 25 for 2013 season | FS South: Who can beat Alabama?
No. 11: Florida
The Gators were on the doorstep of playing for the national title in 2012, but the season ended with a blowout loss to Louisville in the Sugar Bowl. Despite the disappointing bowl result, Florida had a strong regular-season resume, defeating Texas A&M, LSU, South Carolina and Florida State. Matching 11 wins in 2013 could be difficult unless the offense makes significant strides in the offseason. Quarterback Jeff Driskel is back, but the Gators have no proven running back or any weapons in the receiving corps. Florida also needs more consistency from its offensive line that allowed three sacks a game. The defense finished fifth nationally in yards allowed, but lost tackle Sharrif Floyd, linebacker Jelani Jenkins and safety Matt Elam to the NFL Draft. Athlon Sports: Top 25 for 2013 season | FS South: Who can beat Alabama?
No. 10: Louisville
The Cardinals scored one of the postseason’s most impressive victories, dominating Florida in a 33-23 Sugar Bowl win. Expect Louisville to build off of its 11-win season in 2013, as both sides of the ball return almost intact. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater should be in the Heisman discussion, and he has no shortage of weapons to throw to with the return of Eli Rogers, DeVante Parker and Damian Copeland. Although Bridgewater can carry this team to another Big East title, the Cardinals need to jumpstart their rushing attack and find replacements for center Mario Benavides and tackle Alex Kupper on the line. The defense loses only two seniors from the Sugar Bowl depth chart but needs to get better against the run and generate more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Cardinals have the schedule to go unbeaten, however, a weak Big East could prevent Charlie Strong’s team from getting into the national title mix. Athlon Sports: Top 25 for 2013 season | FS South: Who can beat Alabama?
No. 9: Clemson
With quarterback Tajh Boyd's decision to return for another season, Clemson is a heavy favorite to win the ACC in 2013. Boyd leads an offense that averaged 40 points a game last season, and even with top receiver DeAndre Hopkins leaving for the NFL, the Tigers won’t miss a beat. Returning receiver Sammy Watkins to his freshman form is the top priority for coordinator Chad Morris, along with finding a running back to replace Andre Ellington. While the offense will be dynamic, if the Tigers want to make a run at the national championship, the defense has to get better in coordinator Brent Venables’ second year. That task for Venables won’t be easy, as Clemson loses end Malliciah Goodman and must replace three starters in the secondary. Athlon Sports: Top 25 for 2013 season | FS South: Who can beat Alabama?
No. 8: South Carolina
Georgia is the early favorite to win the SEC East, but South Carolina isn’t far behind. The Gamecocks have two proven quarterbacks in Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson, and both should have plenty of time to throw behind an offensive line that returns four starters. Talented, but largely unproven running backs Brandon Wilds and Mike Davis will be charged with jumpstarting the rushing attack in 2013. The defense loses a handful of players – namely end Devin Taylor, safety DeVonte Holloman, linebacker Shaq Wilson – but end Jadeveon Clowney (pictured) is a good place to begin the rebuilding effort. Athlon Sports: Top 25 for 2013 season | FS South: Who can beat Alabama?
No. 7: Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish were soundly defeated by Alabama in the national championship game, but Brian Kelly clearly has this program on the right track. Linebacker Manti Te’o, tight end Tyler Eifert and running backs Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood are huge losses, but Notre Dame has a solid core of returning talent on defense, while the offense should be better after quarterback Everett Golson (pictured) has another offseason to work with Kelly. The schedule is very manageable, but the Fighting Irish will have a hard time finishing the regular season unbeaten and making a return trip to the BCS title game. Athlon Sports: Top 25 for 2013 season | FS South: Who can beat Alabama?
No. 6: Stanford
With Oregon and Stanford expected to be Top-10 teams in 2013, the balance of power in the Pac-12 is clearly in the North Division next season. The Cardinal has won at least 11 games in each of its last four years and claimed 12 victories in 2012 despite the departure of quarterback Andrew Luck and two first-team all-conference linemen. Coach David Shaw has some holes to fill, but Stanford will be in the mix to play for the national title. Running back Stepfan Taylor, center Sam Schwartzstein and linebacker Chase Thomas will be missed. However, the Cardinal can lean more on sophomore quarterback Kevin Hogan, along with a defense that should be one of the best in the Pac-12. Although Taylor is a huge loss for the rushing attack, redshirt freshman Barry Sanders could be one of college football’s breakout stars next year. Athlon Sports: Top 25 for 2013 season | FS South: Who can beat Alabama?
No. 5: Georgia
With Aaron Murray’s decision to return to Athens for his senior year, the Bulldogs narrowly edge Florida and South Carolina for the top spot in the SEC East. And for Georgia, it’s a good thing Murray is back, as the defense lost nearly everyone from its starting lineup. Linebackers Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree declared for the draft, while nose tackle John Jenkins, cornerback Sanders Commings and safeties Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams expired their eligibility. Along with Murray’s return, the one-two punch of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall will be one of the nation’s best running back combinations. Georgia also returns all five starters on the offensive line, and Michael Bennett’s return from a torn ACL adds depth to a talented receiving corps. Georgia will be tested early in 2013, as the Bulldogs play Clemson in the opener and host South Carolina in Week 2. Athlon Sports: Top 25 for 2013 season | FS South: Who can beat Alabama?
No. 4: Texas A&M
With LSU losing 11 players early to the NFL Draft, the Aggies are positioned to be the biggest challenger to Alabama in the SEC West. Although offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury left College Station to be the head coach at Texas Tech, Texas A&M’s offense is in good shape, especially with reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel back under center. The offensive line lost Luke Joeckel to the NFL, but Jake Matthews decided to return and will slide from right to left tackle in 2013. The defense has question marks of its own, as end Damontre Moore declared for the draft, and linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart expired their eligibility. Texas A&M is bringing in one of the nation’s top recruiting classes, so plenty of help is on the way for Kevin Sumlin’s team in 2013. Athlon Sports: Top 25 for 2013 season | FS South: Who can beat Alabama?
No. 3 Oregon
Chip Kelly left for the NFL, but the Ducks are confident they won’t miss a beat with Mark Helfrich at the helm. Helfrich served as the team’s offensive coordinator under Kelly, but this will be his first opportunity to be a head coach. Even though Kelly is gone and there’s always a transition period to a new head coach, the Ducks have the pieces in place to compete for a national title. Quarterback Marcus Mariota had an outstanding debut season in 2012 and should be even more comfortable with the offense after another spring practice's worth of work as the starter. Oregon needs to find a new go-to running back to replace Kenjon Barner, while De’Anthony Thomas returns to his role as one of the nation’s top all-around threats. The defense has holes to fill, especially with a front seven that loses Dion Jordan, Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso. The Ducks' 2013 schedule isn’t too demanding, but they do have road trips to Stanford and Washington next season. Athlon Sports: Top 25 for 2013 season | FS South: Who can beat Alabama?
No. 2: Ohio State
While Alabama is a clear No. 1 going into next season, the second spot in the early top 25 for 2013 is up for grabs. A slight edge goes to the Buckeyes over Oregon, but the gap between the two programs is minimal. Despite a postseason ban, Ohio State had no problem finding motivation in 2012, completing a 12-0 season in Urban Meyer’s first year in Columbus. And here’s a scary thought for the Big Ten: With another offseason to work with Meyer and his coaching staff, the Buckeyes could be even better in 2013. Quarterback Braxton Miller is poised to make a run at the Heisman Trophy, and he should have more help carrying the offense next season, as running backs Carlos Hyde and Jordan Hall return, along with four starters on the offensive line. The defense will be the biggest concern, especially since all four starting linemen – including standouts John Simon and Johnathan Hankins – depart. Ohio State’s schedule isn’t daunting and it should have no trouble starting the year 4-0 with Buffalo, San Diego State, California and Florida A&M on its non-conference slate. Athlon Sports: Top 25 for 2013 season | FS South: Who can beat Alabama?
No. 1: Alabama
Despite a few personnel losses, the stage is set for the Crimson Tide to win their third consecutive national championship. Quarterback AJ McCarron (pictured) is one of the top quarterbacks in the nation and is surrounded by plenty of All-SEC talent, led by running back T.J. Yeldon and receiver Amari Cooper. The offensive line has to at replace center Barrett Jones, guard Chance Warmack and right tackle D.J. Fluker to the NFL. As usual, the defense will be strong once again in Tuscaloosa. Nose guard Jesse Williams departs, and cornerback Dee Milliner is expected to leave for the NFL Draft. However, the Crimson Tide return one of the nation’s top linebacking corps, and experience on the line and secondary should make up for the departures. Athlon Sports: Top 25 for 2013 season | FS South: Who can beat Alabama?
The next 15
Arizona, Baylor, Fresno State, Georgia Tech, Kansas State, Miami, Michigan State, Mississippi State, North Carolina, Northern Illinois, Ole Miss, USC (coach Lane Kiffin, pictured), Vanderbilt, Virginia Tech and Washington. Athlon Sports: Top 25 for 2013 season | FS South: Who can beat Alabama?