I knew the top 5 I wanted fairly quickly, but when I looked for more information to distinguish closer-together teams, I found more that was worth sharing, so some of the descriptions go on a bit longer as you scroll down. Most preseason lists do the opposite, but so be it. I will release 11-25 before the first game on Thursday.
1. Alabama – Two-time defending champion with a lot of people coming back: this was easy.
2. Ohio St. – When you play in a major conference and don’t lose, I think you need to be near the top until you do.
3. Georgia – One play away from taking Alabama’s spot in the BCS Championship, and I don’t see the gap getting a lot wider.
4. Stanford – Got the edge over Oregon because it won’t have the question marks that come with a first-year head coach and there is more demonstrated ability with the key players coming back.
5. Oregon – Explained by higher and lower teams.
6. LSU – I summarized my general feelings last week. The Tigers return 8 starters on offense, and I think that’s key. I’d rather have a lower number (4) of returning starters on defense because of the way the defense has been run in recent years and the stockpile of talent that is at least somewhat experienced and always seems to be waiting for its turn. A more experienced quarterback, combined with more experienced people around him (a real OC doesn’t hurt either), is what is needed to turn things around on that side of the ball. I am ranking LSU below Stanford and Oregon, because they both have a few more returning starters. I think LSU will have to have more pieces that aren’t there yet come together more quickly. LSU does play my #1 and #3 (possibly could play the latter twice before the bowls), so even if they are the sixth-best team, they might not get the ranking at the end of the year. On the other hand, I don’t see how this isn’t a team with an more legitimate chance to win than it had in 2003 and something similar (hopefully without the 2 losses) to what happened in 2007. I am simply not seeing Florida, Texas A&M, or South Carolina being as legitimate contenders for the SEC title as LSU seems to be.
7. Clemson – Another tough team named the Tigers who will play two of the expected top three teams of the SEC East (Georgia and South Carolina, in this case). They have one more returning starter than the purple and gold species of Tigers; but despite winning that game in Atlanta, I don’t think the orange Tigers were quite as good to start with. Florida St. also may not be an easy win, even if Clemson is as good as I expect.
8. Louisville – I was reluctant to jump on the bandwagon here, but none of the #4-6 SEC teams stand out ahead of the Cardinals, who return 16 starters. The offensive line will have to recover from a couple of losses, but if that’s the one weak area (they also have to replace one of their best players at RB), this team could be dangerous. Other than a bafflingly poor performance at Syracuse, Louisville was a triple-OT loss to Connecticut away from going undefeated last season. Beating Florida (which neither LSU nor Texas A&M was able to accomplish last year) was a nice touch too.
9. South Carolina – This team has always been an enigma under Darth Visor. I thought the Gamecocks were finally the elite team of the East after 2011, and they solidified that opinion with the 35-7 dismantling of Georgia early on. Then, after a close loss at LSU, they were destroyed by Florida, 44-11. But those turned out to be the only two losses, and of course South Carolina also got past Clemson. The Gamecocks return 11 starters, but they have a seasoned quarterback (and some backups that can see action at a moment’s notice of course). I’m thinking the defense (only 5 RS) may work itself out in a similar manner to LSU’s.
10. Texas A&M – Manziel and about half of the rest of the team return to a squad that finished strong after early losses to LSU and Florida. The offense should be good again, but without 4 of the top 6 receivers from last year, I wonder if there will be enough room to run. There will be blockers and runners though, so I would still expect a very good offense, although points were elusive at times (often in the second half) last season. On the other side of the ball, it’s unclear if there will be sufficient pressure on the opposing quarterback. The defensive backfield wasn’t great last year and probably won’t be this year. There is some talent in the middle, but there has been a string of injuries, so I’m not sure if we can expect a high-quality defense from the Aggies at all.