With the 2014 College Football season set to kick off with a huge Thursday night, the anticipation is high for yet another exciting season. This year, however, is different, because finally, a new Playoff system will determine the National Champion.
Gone is the BCS, and back is a thrilling New Year’s Day with some of the biggest games of the season. That puts more emphasis on the polls, which will play a part in the selection process along with the 13 member selection committee. Everyone has an opinion on the polls, whether they're useful, overrated, or even should be eliminated all together. But that’s not until January.
Now, it’s all about the preseason polls, most notably the Coaches and AP Polls. There are always agreements and disagreements on who is overrated and who is underrated. This is how – and why – the Top 25 should look to begin the year.
1. Florida State: Last year's BCS National Champions return the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston and 13 starters from a team that had the number 6 offense and number 6 defensive unit in the nation. One possible issue is the lack of experienced depth at offensive line, so an injury could force the Seminoles into a position they don't want to be. However, the schedule sets up nicely, as Clemson, Notre Dame and Florida all come to Tallahassee. Expect another strong run for Florida State.
2. Alabama: Even with the loss of a lot of talent, it's still Alabama. AJ McCarron, CJ Mosley and Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix will be missed on and off the field, but Nick Saban is an excellent coach who knows how to use his resources. Florida State transfer Jake Coker and Blake Sims will be battling for the all important starting QB position and have some very tough shoes to fill after McCarron lead the Tide to two National Championships. They have to play at LSU, but do get Auburn at home. Watch out for the October 25th game against Tennessee as a possible trap game.
3. UCLA: The Bruins return excellent talent this season with 17 starters back on the field from last year’s 10-3 team. Of course, that talent starts with Heisman contender Brett Hundley. Also back is RB/LB standout Myles Jack, who could also be a Heisman candidate by year’s end. UCLA does have to travel to Arizona State and Washington, but get Oregon, USC and Stanford at home. The week three matchup against Texas in Arlington will be telling.
4. Auburn: A lot of polls have Auburn lower, but with 14 starters returning from a 12-2 team that went to the National Championship game, there’s not much to not like. The defense could be an issue, as the SEC is still a defensive league even after last year’s offensive explosion, The number 86 total defense in the nation will have to improve, and the Tigers will not sneak up on anyone this season. Auburn had a lot go right for them last year, including the Prayer at Jordan-Hare and the Kick-Six, but with Nick Marshall back, the offense is for real.
5. Oregon: Oregon is consistent – 10 or more wins each year since 2008 - but has yet to win the big one. This year, with Heisman contender Marcus Mariota back, Oregon looks primed for a run at the College Football Playoff. Oregon hosts Michigan State in week two, which will likely decide the fate of both teams. Oregon is built on offense, and with 8 starters back, including the entire offensive line, Oregon looks like a solid contender.
6. Oklahoma: A lot of people look to the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama as a sign of things to come, but looking at the bigger picture, there’s still a lot of questions in Norman, the biggest of which could be consistency. Trevor Knight wasn’t the starter for the majority of the season last year, but in a team game Oklahoma still didn’t look great in a close win over West Virginia, a loss to Texas and a beat down by Baylor. Still, the emergence of Knight will be a key factor in how far the Sooners can go.
7. Michigan State: 2013’s number two defense in the country returns just five starters, but Mark Dantonio knows how to coach a defense. The offense will have to provide time for the defense to catch up, but there isn’t much time to spare as the previously mentioned week two matchup with Oregon will be a test that determines the rest of the season. A loss and MSU could be on the outside looking in, but a win and the November 8th game vs. Ohio State becomes a mammoth game. November 29th at Penn State could be a trap game.
8. Ohio State: The loss of Braxton Miller may be too much to handle, but there’s still a lot to like about a team coached by Urban Meyer. The defensive line has potential to dominate almost anyone this season, but trips to Penn State and Michigan State make the road look tough. Ohio State does get Michigan at home after winning a thriller in Ann Arbor last season.
9. Georgia: One of, if not the, best running backs in the country is Todd Gurley, who is poised for a huge season. Gurley will be huge and assist In giving time to allow Huston Mason to develop. The test for Georgia will be replacing Aaron Murray, who is Georgia’s all time passing leader. They do get a bye before traveling to South Carolina for a game that will likely decide the SEC East.
10. Baylor: An explosive offense lead by Bryce Petty is the heart of this Bears team. Antwan Goodley and Levi Norwood are back at receiver with Shock Linwood ready to take over at running back. The issue will be on defense, as Baylor returns just 4 starters from a defense looked shaky at times, giving up 35 or more points 4 times. Trips to Texas and Oklahoma will be deciding factors for a team loaded with speed and talent.
11. South Carolina: An 11 win team that returns 14 starters is always a good thing, but replacing QB Connor Shaw will be a tough test. Dylan Thompson appears up to the task as last season he threw for 783 yards in limited playing time. South Carolina does have to play at Auburn in a possible SEC Championship preview, but with Georgia at home this year, and no Alabama or LSU on the schedule, South Carolina is a prime contender in the SEC East.
12. Stanford: The Cardinal return 11 starters including QB Kevin Hogan, who should have improved numbers this season. Hogan and the rest of the offense have to improve as they were 69th in the country in offense last season. Still, in a mostly offensive league, Stanford had a top 20 defense last year and looks to build off that. The road schedule is brutal, as trips to Washington, Notre Dame, Arizona State, Oregon and UCLA will all be fights. Still, Stanford looks like a 9 win team.
13. LSU: Another SEC heavyweight that always appears to be in contention, LSU returns 7 defensive starters from the 15th ranked defense in the country. RB Leonard Fournette could be the key to this whole season: if he lives up to expectations as a true freshman, the experienced offensive line should open up some big holes for him. If the rest of the recruits live up to the hype, LSU can be a legit National Title contender.
14. Wisconsin: The team that LSU opens up with, Wisconsin is a ground and pound team lead by darkhorse Heisman contender Melvin Gordon. Wisconsin had the number 8 rushing attack in the country last season, and with almost the entire offensive line back, figures to be even better. In Big 10 games, a trip to Iowa on November 22nd could be for the Big 10 West Championship.
15. Ole Miss: with nine defensive starters back, the Rebels could be a 10 win team in almost any conference, but in the brutal SEC West, they’re forced to play Auburn, Alabama and LSU, including LSU and Auburn in back to back weeks. A neutral site game against pesky Boise State could give some insight into if Ole Miss is ready to hang with the big boys.
16. Clemson: The Tigers lost a lot of talent, including the 4th overall pick in the NFL Draft, Sammy Watkins. Tajh Boyd is also gone, and replacing the record setting duo will be anything but easy. Vic Beasley leads a defense that will likely have to make time for adjustments on offense. A season opening trip to Georgia will not be easy, nor will a September 20th trip to Florida State.
17. Notre Dame: Just when Notre Dame thought it was back on the right track with QB Everett Golson back on the team, four players, indluding standout WR DaVaris Daniels and CB KeiVarae Russell’s seasons are in jeopardy after news if an academic scandal broke. Still, LB Jaylon Smith joins Golson in leading a Fighting Irish team that looks to prove doubters wrong. The schedule is brutal, with 6 possible top 25 teams. ND will have to answer a lot of questions in their week one matchup vs. Rice.
18. Arizona State: A team with only two defensive starters back, ASU opens up with three games – Weber State, at New Mexico and at Colorado - that should allow some time for development. After a bye, its on to the big time as back to backs with UCLA and a trip to USC could make or break the season.
19. USC: The Trojans are another team looking for a turnaround after a season where they had three head coaches. Steve Sarkisian is returning to USC to bring the program back to where he and the fans think it belongs. If USC can navigate through a tough Pac 12 schedule, they could be right in the hunt for the Playoff.
20. Nebraska: The Huskers have been consistent, both good and bad. On one hand, they’ve won nine or ten games each year since 2008. On the other, they’ve also lost exactly 4 games each year since 2008. This year could be different, as Nebraska could be an underdog in all four Big 10 road games (Michigan State, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Iowa.) They also have a road game against Fresno State before a home game with Miami. This Husker team could win anywhere from 6 to 10 games depending on how the defense plays.
21. Kansas State: October 18th through November 8th will be the key for this K-State team, regardless of the result of the September 18th game against Auburn. In that stretch, the Wildcats will play at Oklahoma, home to Texas, Oklahoma, and at TCU all in a four week stretch. A December 8th trip to Baylor could be for just pride depending on how Kansas State plays during those four games.
22. Washington: Washington is an interesting team because new head coach Chris Petersen. Petersen left Boise State under the belief that the right place for him is Washington, and the timing is perfect. Anyone can beat anyone in the Pac 12 this season, and the leadership of the coaching staff and the 14 returning starters will be key.
23. Missouri: Much like Auburn, Missouri won’t sneak up on anyone this season, Maty Mauk takes over for James Franklin, and Mauk showed some great promise last season with an 11/2 TD/INT ratio. A three game stretch against South Carolina, Florida and Georgia will go a long way in determining if Mizzou can once again reach a double digit season.
24. Virginia Tech: While this might be a bold pick for a team that was hammered 42-12 last year by UCLA, Virginia Tech is loaded with experience on offense and has 5 starters returning on the nation’s number 4 defense last year. Even with only five starters back on D, coach Frank Beamer always has his defense as the anchor of the team.
25. North Carolina: UNC won 5 of their last six last season and look to continue that momentum. The Tar Heels can be sneaky good this season, returning 15 starters. A manageable non-conference schedule make an 8 or 9 win season look very achievable. It helps a lot that the ACC Coastal Division is so unpredictable and up for grabs.