The 2014 college football season has ended. The first (official) day of 2015 speculation is upon us. Tradition and Internet traffic mandate we do a “way too early” Top 25. Here you go…
No. 1 Ohio State Buckeyes
The Buckeyes won the 2014 national title. Projecting to 2015 is scary. Ohio State should improve. Urban Meyer has three QBs who would be among the Heisman front-runners and one running back who will be. The OSU defensive line – led by Joey Bosa – kindles fear. Their offensive line will coalesce over another off-season. The Buckeyes have Urban recruits stashed at every position. Meyer poached another vibrant offensive mind from the nation’s heartland. Oh, and Ohio State won’t play a ranked team until November. Their toughest road trip next year is Ann Arbor.
No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide
Narrative has eight months to run amok. Stick to facts. Alabama recruits the best. Alabama develops and deploys the best. An “off year” for the Tide is coming a fluke play or a third down stop from the national title game. Nick Saban is adjusting for what football has become. The Tide face offensive transition (seven, perhaps eight starters). But, Derrick Henry and the SEC’s best defensive front still make the Tide formidable. Urban didn’t break the SEC cookie mold. He deployed it in Yankee-land.
No. 3 Oregon Ducks
Losing will sting. But, respect this program’s consistency (and sweet Nike cash). Marcus Mariota leaves for the NFL, though Oregon was quite proficient at the offense before him. The Ducks have not finished outside the Top 10 in OFEI since 2010, when they finished 15th. Oregon is stocked at the skill spots. If Armstead and Buckner stay out of the Draft, the Ducks retain an experienced, senior-laden front seven. Better fortune with injuries and off-the-field transgressions could help. Another year out from Chip Kelly, Oregon gets another ladleful of Mark Helfrich.
No. 4 TCU Horned Frogs
The Horned Frogs had a dominant 2014. They bring back just about everyone. Judging from the bowl game demolition, TCU will channel their aggression over missing the playoff. The Horned Frogs have QB Trevone Boykin and all their skill players back. They are flush with seniors along both lines. Concerns – a few replacements in the back seven and a wonky schedule – are minor. Gary Patterson believes the ceiling is just as high where he is. His 2015 team may vindicate that conviction.
No. 5 Baylor Bears
Baylor has the most returning starters in the Big 12. On offense, that includes all running backs, three of the top four receivers and virtually the entire offensive line including tackle Spencer Drango. On defense, man beast and first round lock Shawn Oakman opted to stay for his senior year. The Bears have returning starters in all three phases. The major issue is quarterback. Bryce Petty departs. Though Art Briles’ two quarterbacks before him were just as successful. It’s hard not to predict very good things from his successor.
No. 6 Florida State Seminoles
Jimbo can get back to being a football coach. FSU Twitter can disassemble the barricades. Jameis Winston is leaving the football facility. With him go Karlos Williams, FSU’s top two receivers (Greene, O’Leary) and a number of offensive linemen. The Seminoles return top-draw depth and talent on defense, for what should be an improved 2nd season under Charles Kelly. If Jimbo can fill the chasm at quarterback, the Noles are the clear ACC favorite.
No. 7 Georgia Bulldogs
Georgia should be the clear SEC East conch holder on paper. They should every year. But, the perpetual question is whether Mark Richt will translate that paper advantage to wins. Georgia’s defense gets a second year under Jeremy Pruitt. Nick Chubb is back for more as a sophomore. Despite the quarterback departure, the raw material is there. Fingers crossed as we head into silly arrest season.
No. 8 LSU Tigers
Les Miles’ straight man John Chavis is off to Texas A&M. But, true to tradition, this LSU team has young talent up the wazoo. Whoever coordinates the defense, will work with returning, maturing starters. The offense has exciting underclassmen at running back and receiver. The salient issue, as it always is under Miles, is whether LSU has a quarterback. Anthony Jennings completed 50 percent of his passes. Brandon Harris remains a work in progress. If the Tigers land a seasoned, dual threat graduate transfer (Everett Golson?), bump them into the preseason Top 5.
No. 9 USC Trojans
USC has the first-tier talent to beat anyone. Do the Trojans have the depth and the coaching acumen to do it weekly? Steve Sarkisian’s team was unable to put teams away in 4th quarters all season. Whether it’s depth or adjustments, that needs to stop. USC’s offense will be loaded. Cody Kessler is back for a senior year, with all five offensive linemen and every skill player except Nelson Agholor and Buck Allen (1,489 yards rushing). Their defense loses Leonard Williams, but has veteran talent in all three phases. This could be the year the giant wakes. Emphasis on the could.
No. 10 Texas A&M Aggies
Texas A&M was talented, but young in 2014. In 2015, the Aggies will be talented and more experienced. Kevin Sumlin’s recruiting should start paying dividends. The QB “controversy” is whether five-star Kyle Allen gets beat out by incoming five-star Kyler Murray. The Aggies have one of the nation’s best receiving crews. John Chavis arrives to revamp a defense led by Myles Garrett, who tied for second nationally among DL in sacks/game last season as a freshman. Texas A&M may be a year away still, but we should see the signs.
No. 11 Michigan State Spartans
Michigan State fell off the pace a bit after losing veteran 2013 contributors. This year, the Spartans face yet more transition. QB Connor Cook comes back, but he loses his top two running backs and receivers. Michigan State’s defense – after tumbling from 2nd to 40th in DFEI in 2014 – loses coordinator Pat Narduzzi and three veteran contributors in Jones, Drummond and Rush. Potential 1st round pick Trae Waynes has declared for the draft. Fortuntely, defensive end Shilique Calhoun said he’s staying in school. Time for the next wave of Spartan defensive stars to step forward.
No. 12 Stanford Cardinal
Stanford had a draining schedule in 2014. In 2015, the Cardinal should rebound. David Shaw brings almost everyone back from the offense, if QB Kevin Hogan stays. Last year’s struggles were more about conservative and predictable play-calling than talent. Stanford kept Jim Harbaugh’s Maize and Blue mitts off its defensive and strength staffs. Will the defensive dominance hold up after being gutted up front two straight off-seasons?
No. 13 Ole Miss Rebels
Disregard the bowl debacle. The Rebels enter year four of the Freeze era, with nearly everybody coming back. Ole Miss should have another flinty defense. Quarterback is the one notable uncertainty. Bo Wallace, who had moments both awesome and costly, leaves Oxford. We’ll see how that Chad Kelly situation plays out. A reliable, productive offense could put this team in the national title picture.
No. 14 Auburn Tigers
Will Gus get the Bus restarted? Auburn has a quarterback. Jeremy Johnson has looked, in brief spurts, like a strong heir apparent for Nick Marshall. But, the Tigers’ losses at running back, receiver and on the offensive line are substantial (six starters). The Tigers’ defense should improve with returning starters and the importation of Will Muschamp, but that could still mean just average in year one. Auburn could be hampered by its schedule again.
No. 15 UCLA Bruins
The Bruins have 18 starters coming back. That tally includes virtually their entire offense and four All-Pac 12 starters on defense. The sticky wicket, and it’s a big one, is who replaces Brett Hundley at quarterback. Jerry Neuheisel? Five-star Josh Rosen who enrolled early? Whoever it is, we’re about to find out how replicable Jim Mora’s recent success will be moving forward.
No. 16 Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Notre Dame retains the most starters among major FBS teams in 2015 with 19. Whether it’s Everett Golson or Malik Zaire next year, the Irish will have a serviceable quarterback. Injuries played a key role in Notre Dame’s collapse last season, especially on defense. With turnovers a perpetual problem regardless of the quarterback, when do we blame Brian Kelly’s offense?
No. 17 Arizona State Sun Devils
Todd Graham has been stockpiling octane, and competing while doing so. Senior quarterback Mike Bercovici played competently in extended 2014 action. Last year, the Sun Devils had a very good team, despite a small senior class and very few returning starters. This year, ASU’s roster demographics become more favorable. Star wideout Jaelen Strong will be a huge loss, though.
No. 18 Missouri Tigers
Gary Pinkel’s staff is proven and finds ways to win. Spunky Maty Mauk will start behind a senior-laden offensive line. Missouri has a lot coming back at the back end of the defense. But, defensive line play has been essential to Missouri’s SEC success. The Tigers get cleaned out on at defensive end again, with Shane Ray leaving early for the draft.
No. 19 Oklahoma Sooners
Oklahoma has questions everywhere, but also potential answers. The Sooners will have excellent running back depth and a decent foundation on defense returning. The coaching shakeup may end up being a positive, for a situation that had grown stale. Perhaps Lincoln Riley can develop a quarterback by next year. Folks were too high on the Sooners after the Alabama win. They will be more down on Oklahoma than they should be, after the Clemson debacle.
No. 20 Arizona Wildcats
Rich Rod is coming off a 10-win season. Quarterback Anu Solomon will be back as a sophomore, with all the skill players surrounding him. Scooby Wright will man the middle of Arizona’s defense. The Wildcats had fortune on their side in 2014 one-score games. That could turn.
No. 21 Clemson Tigers
Clemson has its Heisman-candidate quarterback of the future in Deshaun Watson, though he will be coming off knee surgery. Young skill players? Check. But, the Tigers lose offensive guru Chad Morris and a boat load of veterans up front from what was, by many reckonings, the nation’s best defense. Bold prediction: Dabo will be excited.
No. 22 Wisconsin Badgers
Barry Alvarez’ program does not recruit. It re-spawns. Native son Paul Chryst replaces Gary Andersen. The Badgers face turnover on the offensive line and in the front seven, but most importantly record-setting RB Melvin Gordon. But, one suspects the 2015 season will prove very “Wisconsin.” Keeping defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, despite the title game drubbing, should be critical.
No. 23 Kansas State Wildcats
This is a “trust the system because Bill Snyder is a wizard” ranking. Pretty much every player you liked from last season on either side of the ball departs. Most notably, do-it-all WR Tyler Lockett. Time for the next crop of under-the-radar guys to step forward.
No. 24 Boise State Broncos
Boise State won’t be playoff bound. But, they look nailed down to be the token non-power five representative permitted to the important bowls. QB Grant Hedrick and star RB Jay Ajayi must be replaced. But, almost all others come back. Bryan Harsin, 38, may be your next coach touted for every available opening.
No. 25 Oklahoma State Cowboys
The Cowboys underwent substantial turnover in 2014 with a very young team. Injury issues compounded the rebuilding year. But, a strong finish with wins over Washington and Oklahoma, should build momentum for next season. Eight starters return on each side of the ball. Gundy remains one of the country’s strongest dealers with even a reasonably full deck.
Tennessee: Need to see them win some SEC games first.
Arkansas: See: Tennessee
Michigan: Coach situation settled. We’ll wait and see what comes of the quarterback one.
Georgia Tech: Loses pretty much everyone who touched the ball besides the quarterback.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs lose a lot of seniors, even while keeping Dak Prescott on board.