The AP and coaches poll each put 5 SEC teams in the top 13 (Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, South Carolina, and LSU). I don’t happen to think teams with 11 starters or fewer (such as Stanford, Michigan St., or Baylor) belong ahead of any of the five, so I’m putting all 5 in the top 10. I’d expect one or two of them not to finish in the top 10, maybe not even the top 25, but it won’t be because of a big difference in talent.
I should probably mention a couple other things. If I expect a team to have a significant drop-off, I ranked them accordingly. I didn’t decide not to rank Wisconsin because I think LSU will beat them easily (I don’t… I didn’t expect LSU to beat Ole Miss easily last year even though Ole Miss wasn’t ranked before the game, for instance). But I didn’t have Wisconsin ranked after last season, and it’s hard to improve when less than half of your team comes back. It’s not hard for a team like LSU to lose to a team that might be 30th or 40th if they have a bad game though. Even Florida St. could very well lose such a game.
I consider Missouri to be in about the same category as Florida last season (which I didn’t drop nearly far enough, although I did get criticized by many for ranking them third in the East) or Cincinnati a few years ago after the Bearcats finished in the top 5. I just don’t see the makings of a ranked team coming back. The other teams that fell out weren’t near the top and don’t seem to have a lot coming back. Fresno St. is an exception, but they have a lot coming back on a porous defensive unit, so I’m not too confident in them doing particularly well. I suppose they may be a candidate in the Mountain West though.
When in doubt, I kept teams in. I find it interesting that teams like Texas, Michigan, and Florida will soar in the rankings if they win a couple of games, but people don’t want to rank them preseason. I will show the previous rankings below. I have some other comments about things that I’ve read and discussed in the last week, but I will post those on Thursday or Friday.
1. Florida St. – I don’t think the Seminoles are likely to repeat, to be honest; but they are the defending champions, and there is no other strong candidate for preseason #1.
2. Auburn—similar logic here. I did mention that the Tigers of the plains have a difficult schedule in my SEC West preview (they will have to play all four of the other highly-ranked SEC teams), but that doesn’t mean they’re not among the best teams.
3. Oregon—The Ducks have one more returning starter than Auburn has, which gives them among the highest numbers of returning starters among teams that finished ranked last season. We’ve gotten used to the Ducks being a top 5 team, so I would expect better than another mid-top-25 season.
4. Alabama—This is another team that we’ve gotten used to competing for the top spot no matter what you say about returning starters, so that’s why even with 12 returning starters, the Tide still have a place in the conversation. We don’t know how the quarterback and defense will come along, but it’s safe to say a Saban defense will be more than adequate in most games.
5. Oklahoma—I hate picking Oklahoma to be in the top 5 because that never seems to be what happens (at least not since 2008), but again, it’s hard to pick someone else here. The Sooners do return 14 starters, most of them on defense.
6. Georgia—The Bulldogs were rather mercurial last season, scoring wins over LSU and South Carolina, then coming so close to beating Auburn. Two mid-season losses in a row in the division were devastating though. By the standards of this season, 15 returning starters is a lot, and although the quarterback is not a returning season starter, he seems ready to go based on his play last year.
7. UCLA—The Bruins have a ton of returning starters, but they haven’t been quite able to turn the corner into being a nationally competitive team. Could this finally be the year? They could even be this year’s Florida St., although I remember Florida St. winning national championships before.
8. South Carolina—It could be interesting outside of the division for the Gamecocks as they will face Auburn and Clemson, but Georgia will have to do the same, so with 14 starters, this is a team with a respectable chance to win the SEC. They may have to do it with a loss or two though.
9. Ohio St.—The Buckeyes should still be hanging around with another strong chance to win the conference. It wasn’t long ago that they won 24 games in a row, so 12 returning starters still seems formidable.
10. LSU—As I said in the SEC West preview, I do think the winner of the LSU/Alabama game is the most likely SEC West champion. I expect Alabama to be favored of course, but like with South Carolina, that still leaves a reasonable chance for the Bayou Bengals.
11. USC—I don’t think the Trojans have lagged all that far behind the major teams in recent years. They’ve just had some difficulty in striving for consistency at times. Maybe a stable head coaching position and 14 returning starters will provide just that.
12. Clemson—The other ACC team and the other South Carolina team is tempting to overlook, but these Tigers did beat every team they played apart from the Gamecocks and Seminoles on their way to an Orange Bowl win, their second appearance in a BCS bowl in three seasons.
13. Michigan St.—Sticking with BCS bowl winners from last season, Michigan St. should compete for a spot in the Big Ten title game again; but it might be just a bit more challenging with 11 returning starters, only four of whom will be on defense, the Spartans’ strong suit. The Spartans will now be in the same division as the Buckeyes, by the way, so I’d say the chances of making the Big Ten title game are reduced.
14. Central Florida—I’ll throw in one more to make it three in a row. It’s difficult to be the best mid-major/“Group of Five” team two years in a row, but the Knights appear to be in good shape coming off the Fiesta Bowl win last season. In fact, they’re the only team from my top 10 last season to return 15 starters or more. The Knights have only lost three games since September 2012, very close ones at that.
15. Stanford—The Cardinal have earned a top-10 spot four seasons in a row, but I think that may come to an end this season. USC and UCLA both seem to be getting stronger, and it will be difficult to get past Oregon in the Pac-12 North. Eleven returning starters may not be enough.
16. Ole Miss—Going back to the SEC, the Rebels may actually play a role in the SEC West this season. They’re most likely to try to be spoilers, but if LSU, Auburn, and Alabama all beat each other (or maybe if Auburn loses to Ole Miss and wins the rest in the division), that may provide an opening. Fifteen starters return from last season, which saw the Rebels in the top 25 before losses to eventual SEC East champion Missouri and rival Mississippi St. (in overtime) to end the regular season.
17. Washington—The Huskies are an improving team with 12 returning starters. They may not win the Pac-12 North, but a strong second would not be a surprising result. The Huskies should be in good hands with former Boise St. head coach Chris Petersen. Like Georgia and a couple of other teams, there is an experienced quarterback, just not last season’s starter, “off-the-field issues” notwithstanding.
18. Arizona St.—Staying in the Pac-12, the Sun Devils won 10 games against a very tough schedule last season but return only 10 starters in what should be a challenging Pac-12 season. The offense should be strong, but the defense will remain a question mark until conference play begins.
19. Texas—The Longhorns return 13 starters, not even including David Ash, who played well in two out of three games last year before injury and very respectably in 2012. I just don’t see Texas staying down and out for long. The Horns may not challenge Oklahoma, but they did beat the Sooners last season. I’ll mention Baylor, but I don’t see another strong competitor in conference.
20. Michigan—I’m surprised the Wolverines haven’t shown up in more top 25s. I see them similar to how I saw their rivals from East Lansing going into last season. They had a high loss total last season, but upon closer inspection, most were very “good” losses. One point to Ohio St., three points to Iowa, four points to Nebraska, and three points (in four overtimes) to Penn St. They didn’t really show up to the bowl game, but the only other loss that wasn’t close was to that Spartan team I mentioned. The increase in experience (15 returning starters) may help turn many close losses into wins.
21. Louisville—The Cardinals’ main problem is being put into the same division as Florida St. and Clemson, but they should still have another solid season. They won all but one game last year (a three-point contest against Central Florida) and will have 13 returning starters.
22. Baylor—You may wonder why they’re so low (at least before I explained above), but with 9 returning starters, I debated taking the Bears out entirely. At least they have a returning starter at quarterback and the other returning starters are evenly distributed on both sides of the ball. Still, the Bears haven’t been big enough players on the national scene of late for one to expect an abundance of talent just waiting to move into key positions.
23. Florida—I thought at least one more SEC team might be appropriate. Florida appeared out of nowhere two seasons ago to compete for a national championship, although they ultimately fell short of even making the SEC championship game. But then the Gators disappeared just as fast last season. It might be another quick turnaround with 14 returning starters though. I’m not picking them for the top 5, but I think top 25 is a good bet.
24. Duke—Another team with 14 returning starters (I guess that’s down to 13 now) that used to be led by a certain be-visored ball coach. Duke had an outstanding year by its standards last year though. I had them in my final top 25, so I’m not seeing a strong reason to keep them out of the preseason top 25.
25. Northern Illinois—Two teams that would fall outside of the original BCS contract in the top 25 (Louisville is in the ACC now) seems like a realistic expectation, and as I said, a lot of the big programs seem a little thin, so I thought, “why not”? Of course the Huskies won the MAC a couple of years ago, followed up by winning the first 12 games of last season; and they return just about everyone but the quarterback on offense and approximately half of their defense.
I will show all the top 25 relative to the previous one below. I put symbols for the teams that were previously unranked. I tried to make them similar sizes to one another.
1 Florida St. 1
2 Auburn 2
3 Oregon 13
4 Alabama 11
5 Oklahoma 8
6 Georgia —
7 UCLA 16
8 S Carolina 7
9 Ohio St. 9
10 LSU 17
11 USC 19
12 Clemson 12
13 Mich. St. 3
14 UCF 5
15 Stanford 6
16 Ole Miss —
17 Washington 24
18 Arizona St. 15
19 Texas —
20 Michigan —
21 Louisville 14
22 Baylor 10
23 Florida —
24 Duke 25
25 N. Illinois 20
Out of rankings: (4) Missouri, (18) Okie St., (21) Fresno St., (22) TX A&M, (23) Notre Dame