In two more days, the college football season will begin. And in the days of preseason polls and rankings, everyone is sharing their opinion on who the best teams will be in the upcoming season. Here I will do the same. And you know what all these preseason rankings mean? Very, very little. But, for what it’s worth, here is my preseason top 25, along with their projected records, both overall and in conference play. I’ve added a few thoughts for the top 10.
1. Florida State (13-0, 8-0 ACC)
Most of the team, including 13 starters, is back after a national title a year ago, including Heisman winner, QB Jameis Winston. Their toughest tests on a pretty easy schedule are against Notre Dame and Clemson, with both at home after the Seminoles beat Clemson by 37 in Death Valley last year. While I won’t guarantee a national title or even an undefeated ACC slate (nothing’s ever guaranteed, and there can always be unforeseen circumstances in a season), they are certainly the favorites to repeat as national champion. Of course, they would have to win one more game this year to do it with the new playoff format.
2. Alabama (12-1, 7-1 SEC)
The Crimson Tide return three starters on defense and six on offense, but with the perennial depth Nick Saban has in his arsenal, even a young Alabama team is picked by most among the top two or three this season. A lot hinges on the play of the starting quarterback, whether it is Jacob Coker or Blake Sims, and this team will be tested with games at LSU and Ole Miss, and the Iron Bowl at home. This team is the class of the SEC, but going undefeated with this young of a roster would be impressive.
3. Oregon (12-1, 8-1 Pac-12)
An offense that ranked fourth in scoring and second in yards per game a year ago returns eight starters, including the entire offensive line, and a potential Heisman contender in QB Marcus Mariota. Additionally, the 13th-best scoring defense from a year ago should be improved. Both “redemption games” after last years losses to Stanford and Arizona are at home, as is an early season showdown with Michigan State. The matchup of the year in the Pac-12 will be October 11 when Oregon travels to UCLA.
4. Oklahoma (12-1, 8-1 Big 12)
Oklahoma would have won the Big 12 a year ago with a win against Baylor, but instead lost by 29. After that, however, they were one of the hottest teams in the country to close out the season, culminating with a Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. A good defense in a normally bad defensive league returns nine starters from last year. If QB Trevor Knight can play an entire year like he played against the Crimson Tide in January, the Big 12 needs to look out.
5. Michigan State (12-1, 7-1 Big Ten)
After an early season loss to Notre Dame, the Spartans won 10 straight to close out the season, winning the Big Ten Championship Game over Ohio State and the Rose Bowl over Stanford. Sparty ranked in the top three nationally in points allowed and rushing and passing defense. While that defense lost six starters, and may not be quite as strong, the offense is led by one of the nation’s underrated quarterbacks, junior Connor Cook. Their toughest matchup won’t be a conference game, but an early season trip to Oregon, which will be a “litmus test” game for their dreams of a potential berth in the College Football Playoff.
6. Auburn (10-2, 6-2 SEC)
Last year’s darlings of college football return 13 starters, including almost everybody up front. While the offense loses RB Tre Mason, QB Nick Marshall returns after an entire offseason under the tutelage of coach Gus Malzahn, marking the first time in nine years as a college coach (offensive coordinator or head coach) that Malzahn has had a returning starter at quarterback. The schedule, however, won’t be as easy as last year, with road games at Kansas State, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Georgia, and Alabama, as well as a home tests with South Carolina and Texas A&M. Don’t expect a return to the national title game, but it should still be a solid year for the Tigers.
7. UCLA (11-2, 7-1 Pac 12)
The Bruins have improved in both of Jim Mora’s first two seasons, and that trend should continue this year, with seven starters returning on both sides of the ball after a 10-3 season last year with all three losses coming to ranked conference opponents. Among the returnees that could make this a special season are QB Brett Hundley, who is the leading passer and rusher among returning players, and Myles Jack, who became the first player in history to win the both the Pac-12 Offensive and Defensive Rookie Freshman of the Year awards after splitting time at both LB and RB. The schedule is favorable, with Oregon and UCLA coming to the Rose Bowl.
8. Georgia (11-1, 7-1 SEC)
Last year, the “injury bug” bit the Bulldogs bad, as RB Todd Gurley and QB Aaron Murray were among the players who were lost multiple games due to injury. As a result, the Bulldogs struggled to an 8-5 record. This year, 10 starters return on defense, and Gurley is back to potentially contend for the Heisman. Hutson Mason will be starting at quarterback, after getting some unexpected experience with Murray’s injury late last year. We’ll know where the Bulldogs stand quickly; their first two games are at home against Clemson and at South Carolina. A “revenge game” against Auburn will be in Athens on November 15, and could have ramifications in both SEC divisions as well as the national title race.
9. South Carolina (11-2, 7-1 SEC)
The Gamecocks have gotten better throughout Steve Spurrier’s tenure, and has become a perennial contender in the SEC East. QB Connor Shaw is gone, as is DE Jadaveon Clowney, but the team returns some good experience, with 13 returning starters in all, including RB Mike Davis. QB Dylan Thompson is finally the starter, after sporadic (and mostly successful) stints filling in when Shaw was hurt during the last two seasons, and is capable of leading his team back to the SEC title game. A big key in finding out if he will will come on September 13, when the Gamecocks and Georgia meet in Columbia, before they travel to Auburn on October 25.
10. Ohio State (10-2, 6-2 Big Ten)
A week ago, the Buckeyes would have been among the top five on this list. Then they lost QB Braxton Miller for the season with a shoulder injury. Freshman J.T. Barrett will start, and is certainly a question mark as he joins a team that lost its final two games a year ago after a 12-0 start. Working for the Buckeyes is a relatively light schedule, but they will face road tests at Maryland, Penn State, Michigan State, and Minnesota, as well as an early home game with Virginia Tech and a late one with “that team up north”, the Michigan Wolverines. Urban Meyer doesn’t have the most experienced team, but has some great athletes, which is sometimes all he needs to work wonders.
11. Baylor (11-1, 8-1 Big 12)
12. LSU (10-2, 6-2 SEC)
13. Stanford (9-3, 6-3 Pac 12)
14. Wisconsin (10-2, 7-1 Big Ten)
15. Ole Miss (10-3, 6-3 SEC)
16. Iowa (12-1, 8-0 Big Ten)
17. Clemson (9-3, 7-1 ACC)
18. Notre Dame (9-3, independent)
19. Arizona State (8-4, 5-4 Pac 12)
20. Texas (9-3, 7-2 Big 12)
21. Duke (9-3, 5-3 ACC)
22. USC (8-4, 6-3 Pac 12)
23. Penn State (9-3, 5-3 Big Ten)
24. Miami (8-5, 5-3 ACC)
25. Mississippi State (8-4, 4-4 SEC)
Here is the projected order of finish in each of the “Power Five” conferences:
Atlantic Division: Florida State (13-0, 8-0), Clemson (9-3, 7-1), Louisville (9-3, 6-2), Boston College (6-6, 3-5), Syracuse (6-6, 3-5), NC State (5-7, 1-7), Wake Forest (4-8, 1-7)
Coastal Division: Miami (8-5, 5-3), Duke (9-3, 5-3), Virginia Tech (8-4, 5-3), North Carolina (8-4, 5-3), Pittsburgh (7-5, 4-4), Georgia Tech (6-6, 3-5), Virginia (2-10, 0-8)
Championship Game: Florida State def. Miami
Oklahoma (11-1, 8-1), Baylor (11-1, 8-1), Texas (9-3, 7-2), TCU (8-4, 5-4), Kansas State (7-5, 5-4), Oklahoma State (7-5, 5-4), Texas Tech (6-6, 3-6), Iowa State (4-8, 2-9), West Virginia (2-10, 1-8), Kansas (3-9, 1-8)
(The Big 12 has no championship game)
West Division: Iowa (12-1, 8-0), Wisconsin (10-2, 7-1), Nebraska (8-4, 4-4), Minnesota (6-6, 3-5), Northwestern (6-6, 3-5), Illinois (4-8, 1-7), Purdue (3-9, 0-8)
East Division: Michigan State (12-1, 8-0), Ohio State (10-2, 6-2), Michigan (8-4, 5-3), Penn State (9-3, 5-3), Maryland (7-5, 4-4), Indiana (4-8, 2-6), Rutgers (2-10, 0-8)
Championship Game: Michigan State def. Iowa
North Division: Oregon (12-1, 8-1), Stanford (9-3, 6-3), Washington (8-4, 5-4), Washington State (6-6, 3-6), Oregon State (6-6, 3-6), California (1-11, 0-9)
South Division: UCLA (11-2, 8-1), USC (8-4, 6-3), Arizona State (8-4, 5-4), Arizona (7-5, 4-5), Colorado (5-7, 2-7), Utah (5-7, 2-7)
Championship Game: Oregon def. UCLA
West Division: Alabama (11-1, 7-1), Auburn (10-2, 6-2), LSU (10-2, 6-2), Ole Miss (9-3, 5-3), Mississippi State (8-4, 4-4), Texas A&M (7-5, 3-5), Arkansas (3-9, 0-8)
East Division: South Carolina (11-2, 7-1), Georgia (11-1, 7-1), Florida (6-6, 3-5), Missouri (7-5, 3-5), Vanderbilt (6-6, 2-6), Tennessee (5-7, 2-6), Kentucky (4-8, 1-7)
Championship Game: Alabama def. South Carolina
**Note: You may notice that all 25 teams are from the so-called “Power Five” (and independent Notre Dame) and that those are the only conferences I projected outcomes for. While there are some fine teams among the rest of the conferences, in my opinion none rank among the top 25. The highest ranking team from the rest of the conferences is guaranteed a spot in one of the “big six” bowls, and I project Marshall to be that team.