rank / team / prior
1 Alabama 3
2 Oklahoma 11
3 LSU 1
4 USC 13
5 Georgia 20
6 S Carolina 7
7 Oregon 8
8 Michigan 6
9 Arkansas 9
10 W. Virginia 22
11 Florida St. —
12 Mich St. 17
13 TCU 12
14 Kansas St. 15
15 Nebraska 23
16 Clemson 21
17 Texas —
18 Okie St. 2
19 Va. Tech 16
20 Stanford 10
21 Ohio St. —
22 Florida —
23 Wisconsin 18
24 Notre Dame —
25 Cincinnati 25
Out of rankings: (4) Boise St., (5) Houston, (14) Baylor, (19) So. Miss., (24) Penn St.
1. Alabama – I don’t put the defending champions #1 as a general rule, but I couldn’t really see any strong arguments against. I’ll get to Oklahoma in a moment, but LSU, who was (rightly I think) #1 in some of the computers based on beating a more impressive list of teams last year, has some more obvious adjustments that need to be made. The Tide will have to travel to Baton Rouge, but this is a series where the road team has traditionally done better, so that’s not really instructive. The fact that a lot of the same players showed up for a championship game the way they did makes a difference.
2. Oklahoma – I don’t think we’re going to see two teams from the same conference playing for the national championship again, and I don’t think Oklahoma has what it takes to pull off winning such a game, but looking at last year’s talent combined with returning starters, and Oklahoma is a natural pick for #2. I considered the Sooners for #1, but I’ve done that a few times since their 2000 national championship team, and we have yet to see a team like that, with the possible exceptions of 2004 and 2008. Notice the 4-year increments? The Sooners return 8 starters on offense, 7 on defense, and both kickers. This was a team that looked like it had a good road to the national-championship game last year at one point, so the experience could make the difference.
3. LSU – I was already inclined not to make LSU #1 before the Honey Badger news came out. That’s going to hurt on a defense that nominally returns 4 starters, although with the depth, that’s misleading. We haven’t even gotten a meaningful preview of new QB Zach Mettenberger. At least we had gotten one of Matt Flynn before the 2007 season, and don’t forget that team lost two games, so I don’ t put this team in the same category as either last year or 2007, both years I ranked LSU in the top 2 to start out. That said, I am cautiously optimistic. It’s hard to rate your own team, but I think you can tell by my description of the other nearby teams why LSU is here.
4. USC – I continue to find it ridiculous how people acted like USC had won a conference championship and bowl game just because it was idle for both “playing weeks”. Since I use a measure that only gives you points if you play, the Trojans finished 13th in my rankings. It also didn’t help that they lost to Arizona St. I punish bad losses more than some other rankings do. Anyway, there was definitely some talent and it did gel more as the season went on, so I’m fine with including this team in the top 4. Even with a much lower starting point, that wouldn’t rule out success. In 2003, LSU was coming off of an (unranked) 8-5 season and won the BCS championship. Neither the (undefeated) 2004 nor the (BCS champion) 2010 Auburn teams were very highly-rated going in either. Auburn finished in the “others receiving votes” category in both prior years. I’m sure there were some others in the recent past who performed similarly.
5. Georgia – Three SEC teams finished in the top 5 last season, so I’m putting three in the top 5 right now. I didn’t say, “Where’s another SEC team,” but I’m skeptical of Oregon, #5 in both major polls, and I think we just got a bit of a preview of this year during the Dawgs’ 10-game winning streak last season. Whoever wins the West can expect the SEC Championship game to be very interesting. I have been a Murray believer for a while, we’ll see if he has the great year that he has the potential for this season.
6. South Carolina – It was hard for me to decide between South Carolina and Georgia. It was a close call as to who the better team was last year, and I didn’t see much new to separate them. Last year, the Gamecocks had a very strong defense, which returns 6 starters. People don’t talk enough about defense in pre-season. On the other side of the ball, QB Connor Shaw should settle down a little more, not that he struggled last year (passing ratings of over 200 against Clemson and in the bowl game against Nebraska), and Marcus Lattimore returns. Top receiver Alshon Jeffery is gone, but the #2 receiver, Ace Sanders, is back. One reason you don’t see the Cocks higher in other places is schedule, but I don’t think that’s a valid consideration. I’m trying to make a list of best teams in order going in, not most likely to finish undefeated.
7. Oregon – Bleacher Report: “You would think losing LaMichael James and Darron Thomas would put Oregon in a rut on offense. Think again.”
I think that’s at best misleading. While I definitely don’t expect a “rut”, I don’t care how talented the new people might be, you can’t just put them on the field and expect them to be just as good. The new QB had impressive stats last year when he played, but there aren’t 10 returning starters on offense, there are 5. You can’t tell me they have blockers just as good as the ones last year, at least not right away. No mention was made of the defense that returns 6 starters, but it wasn’t that great last year. Oregon was 57th in points against last year, so I wouldn’t put a whole lot of stock in success there.
8. Michigan – I had to take a leap of faith with someone in this spot, and based on recent history, it wasn’t going to be Florida St. The Wolverines return 7 starters on both offense and defense, so a similar performance to last year would not be a surprise though. Of course, run/pass threat Denard Robinson returns. Michigan was 6th in points against last year, so the defense should be decent as well. They’ll be tested early, against Alabama in Jerry World on September 1.
9. Arkansas – Arkansas possibly has top-5 talent, but I don’t know how much Petrino’s departure will hurt. The Hogs return 7 starters on offense and 6 on defense. The defense has to improve though. I don’t know if it will beat LSU, Alabama, or South Carolina otherwise. Like Michigan, the Razorbacks face Alabama early but should have some time to make adjustments before the next really big game even if that goes poorly. South Carolina and LSU aren’t until November.
10. West Virginia – This team came on strong late, which I think is a good sign. I don’t know how good the Big XII is, so the change of conference isn’t a big deal. Again, not that I think you should factor in schedule. The ’eers had quite a scoring attack last year and return 8 starters on offense. I wouldn’t expect the greatest defense, but it may not need a great defense. They also return 6 starters there.
11. Florida State – I couldn’t
justify putting the ’Noles in the top 10 after last season, but I couldn’t find any compelling alternatives at #11. QB E.J. Manuel is back on offense. FSU didn’t have a running game last season, so that will be something to watch. If they find one, it should reduce pressure on an already stout defense (4th in points against last season, 7 returning starters).
12. Michigan State – There aren’t any teams that will appear really exciting from this point on, but as mentioned earlier, you don’t have to look that good going in to be a very competitive team at the end of the year. The Spartans will have some big adjustments to make on an offense that returns only 4 starters. The QB is gone, but RB LeVon Bell is back after rushing almost 1000 yards last season. The defense was strong (18th in points against) and returns 8 starters.
13. TCU – I don’t expect the Horned Frogs to go undefeated in conference again this year, as they also move to the Big XII. But I had them 12th last year, and 6 starters back on offense, 7 on defense, so I don’t see a big reason to move them down. On offense, the Frogs return a QB who threw for almost 3000 yards and a RB who rushed for 875 last year. The defense wasn’t as good as some prior incarnations, but the combination of 9th in points for last season and 28th in points against was pretty respectable.
14. Kansas State – This was an under-rated team last year that had a very good opportunity to knock off Oklahoma St. I don’t know how a team finishes 14th and 15th, in the major polls and doesn’t get more respect than I’ve seen elsewhere considering it returns a QB among 9 offensive starters as well as 6 defensive starters. It this team were named Notre Dame or Ohio St. or something like that, it would be in many people’s top 10.
15. Nebraska – Now on to a formerly-Big XII team, this is another team with a strong mix of positives and negatives. The Huskers were disappointing last year, but they seem to have a strong upside. If QB Taylor Martinez can improve, that would make the team dangerous as 6 other starters return on offense. RB Rex Burkhead ran for over 1300 yards last season. Then on defense, there are also 7 starters. If you don’t recall, they weren’t exactly the blackshirts of the Bob Devaney/Tom Osborne years last season, but maybe the experience will be a benefit there as well.
16. Clemson – Another questionable defense with 7 returning starters here. I don’t know how you explain giving up 70 points in a bowl game, but Clemson did win the ACC last season. There are a lot of positives on offense though. QB Tajh Boyd, who threw for almost 4000 yards, returns. The top running back and top receiver also return among the 6 returning starters on offense. Clemson will start the season in Atlanta against the Auburn squad it defeated at home last year.
17. Texas – Going back to the Big XII, Texas wasn’t good last year, but if there is a team on here ready to make a big jump, this is it. The Longhorns return two capable QB’s and 9 other returning starters on offense as well as 7 on defense.
18. Oklahoma St. – Staying in the former Big XII South, I don’t understand the predictions for such a large drop-off here. The Cowboys were more than two players last season. Six starters return from a very good offense, and there should be a strong running game. The defense wasn’t exactly something to write home about, but it was #1 in forcing turnovers and it returns 8 starters. I’m listing OSU sixth in its conference for a reason, but I fully expect them to be a top-20 team at the end of the year.
19. Virginia Tech – This is another program that has been pretty good the last decade or so and has the potential to move up throughout the season. Only three starters return on offense (although this includes last year’s QB Logan Thomas, who threw for over 3000 yards and rushed for over 400 more), so it might not be pretty, but you can always expect stellar special-teams play from the Hokies, and 9 starters return from an already great defense, which was 7th in points against last year.
20. Stanford – There will be a glaring absence, like with Oklahoma St., but I’m not knocking the Cardinal down as far as others seem to. I think knowing how to win comes into play, and there is a high number of returning starters (6 offense, 7 defense). The defense wasn’t great last year, but it was respectable. RB Stephan Taylor is back, so if those 6 offensive starters include some good blockers, and I believe they do, he should do well and take a little of the pressure off.
21. Ohio State – The only reason I don’t have the Buckeyes higher is I think there will be a necessary period of transition for Urban Meyer, but this could be a very good team by the end of the year. It returns 7 starters on offense, 9 on defense, and 2 kickers. QB Braxton Miller returns and should be a good fit for the spread since he had more than half as many rushing yards as he had passing yards last season.
22 Florida – On to Urban Meyer’s former team, the Gators return 7 starters on offense and 10 on defense. The defense should be very good as it was 20th in points against last season despite having played both LSU and Alabama. The offense will still be searching for identity, but it’s hard to miss the QB too much from a team that was only 89th in passing yards last year. Andre DeBose, the Gators’ top receiver from last year, returns, so the learning curve shouldn’t be too steep.
23. Wisconsin – There is less to be excited about with the Badgers, but this is another team that seems to have some know-how in winning big games, so I wouldn’t write it off even though it only returns 4 starters on offense and 6 on defense. Montee Ball is back, but his off-season training was diminished by his being the victim of an attack on campus. I’m also not starting from as positive a feeling about last year’s team, so in my rankings they haven’t even fallen far, but even if they did, that usually happens to at least one BCS-bowl team.
24. Notre Dame – The Irish have some QB issues to start out with, as Tommy Rees will be suspended for three games, but that’s not fatal to being ranked at this spot. The Domers return a tight end with over 800 receiving yards, Tyler Eifert, who is one of 8 retuning starters on offense. Six starters return from a defense that was 24th in points against last season.
25. Cincinnati – Just so happens I’m going immediately to another coach’s former team. The Bearcats nearly represented the Big East in place of West Virginia last season, so they deserved a look, and I couldn’t find a better #25 (which indicentally is where I had them at the end of last season). The Bearcats were respectable (low to mid-20s) in both points for and points against last season. I expect them to be more tilted toward the defense since they will be without the QB or top two rushers (one of whom was the QB) from last year and only return 4 starters on offense. Seven starters return on defense, however, and the Bearcats return both kickers. Cincinnati was also 9th in the country in turnover margin last year.