1) Alabama (13-1; Beat Notre Dame 42-14 in the BCS National Championship Game)
Anyone who doesn’t have the Crimson Tide ranked first is either delusional, in denial, or both. Nick Saban is easily the best coach in college football and recruits like no other. With another great recruiting class to add to what he has brought in over the past 2 years, Saban can reload along the offensive line and linebackers. Throw in an experienced quarterback (AJ McCarron), two sophomore phenoms (WR Amari Cooper; RB TJ Yeldon), and another impregnable defense and the Tide stand a great chance of making it four titles in five years. Alabama doesn’t really have a murderous schedule this year either. They open up with against Virginia Tech in Atlanta and then travel to College Station to try and avenge their one loss last year against Texas A&M. The winner of that game will be in the driver’s seat for the SEC West and even a nation title game berth.
2) Ohio State (12-0; no postseason due to NCAA sanctions)
Let’s see what the Buckeyes can do with a bit of pressure placed on them. Urban Meyer’s debut in Columbus was certainly memorable, leading the Bucks to an undefeated season behind the leadership of quarterback Braxton Miller. Despite losing some key defensive linemen, Urban is confident that sophomores Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence will quickly fill the void while the back seven remains mostly intact. Miller should flourish with another year in Meyer’s system as well as retention of key offensive playmakers
3) Stanford (12-2; Beat Wisconsin 20-14 in the Rose Bowl)
The Cardinal are in a prime position to be in Pasadena on January 6th. Stanford is bringing back a stifling defense that surrendered only 17 PPG and 330 YPG. Sophomore quarterback Kevin Hogan took over last year for Josh Nunes after a loss at Notre Dame and guided Stanford to eight straight wins, including a Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin. His numbers were pretty good for a freshman, but head coach David Shaw won’t have him throw more than he needs to this year. Stanford has an offensive line that mauls opponents. They’ll have two seniors running the ball initially, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Shaw unleash sophomore running back Barry Sanders Jr. They have an incredibly favorable schedule (home against UCLA, Oregon, and Notre Dame) and if they can avoid another stupid loss (last year @ Washington) they should be ranked in the top three by the end of the year.
4) Clemson (11-2; Beat LSU 25-24 in the Chik-Fil-A Bowl)
I’ll be the first to admit that this is a huge gamble, but there is some merit in ranking Clemson in the top five. Despite losing DeAndre Hopkins and Andre Ellington to the NFL, Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins will be back as well as a defense that is expected to start up to ten upperclassmen on defense. Both Boyd and Watkins are in my preseason Heisman list and are likely each first round selections in 2014. Clemson will have a chance to prove they deserve to be talked about amongst the elite when Georgia visits in the first game of the year. If they can capitalize on Florida State having to travel to Death Valley and avoid any trap games (@ NCSU; @ Syracuse), they should be sitting pretty for their November 30th showdown with South Carolina in Columbia. I have no doubt that Clemson can win the Coastal division and then beat Miami for the ACC championship. Any loss after Georgia in Week 1 puts them out of title hopes, but at the very least they will make it to the Orange Bowl this year.
5) Texas A&M (11-2; Beat Oklahoma 42-13 in the Cotton Bowl)
That didn’t take long. While fellow Big 12 abdicator Missouri was trampled by the SEC, Kevin Sumlin guided A&M to an improbable 11-2 record and a 6-2 conference record (both home losses against Florida and LSU). Johnny Manziel stepped into the spot light and stole the show last year with impressive outings against almost every type of defense he saw. He did the unthinkable and beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa and then made a fool out of Bob Stoops in the Cotton Bowl. He shattered SEC records on his way to a Heisman, as, oh yeah, a redshirt freshman. A good recruiting class should allow Sumlin to imbue some young talent on the defensive side of the ball and at wide receiver (let’s see if any can fill the voids of DE Damontre Moore and WR Ryan Swope). If the Aggies can survive the wrath Nick Saban will bring to College Station on September 14th, they may well run the table until their November 23rd date in Baton Rouge. One loss for them could be the difference between a date in Pasadena or another trip to the Cotton Bowl.
6) Oregon (12-1; Beat Kansas State 35-17 in the Fiesta Bowl)
The departure of Chip Kelly to the Eagles is the biggest question mark for Oregon this year. Mark Helfrich takes over in his first year as a head coach but was an understudy to Kelly for the past four years. His transition to head coach should be smooth, especially considering the talent the Ducks have. Marcus Mariota was fantastic in his first season at quarterback and there is no denying the speed Oregon possesses at every skill position. Although Kenyon Barner left, Oregon native and freshman running back Thomas Tyner should make an immediate impact when paired speedster De’Anthony Thomas. I expect Helfrich to continue to use an up tempo attack and find ways to get favorable matchups with all the speed at his disposal. If Oregon can survive a trip to Palo Alto, they should be ready to represent the PAC-12 North and reach a BCS Bowl.
7) Georgia (12-2; Beat Nebraska 45-31 in the Capital One Bowl)
Four yards is all it took to halt Georgia from their march towards the National Championship game and relegated them to a mid tier bowl. Aaron Murray has led the Bulldogs for the last 3 years, but has never been able to elevate Georgia to a BCS Bowl berth. He should be motivated to turn that streak around for his senior campaign and will be helped by two equally capable runners in Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall (over 2000 combined rushing yards). Questions remain on defense after the departure of key players like Alec Ogletree, Jarvis Jones, and Bacarri Rambo. Yet Mark Richt has always recruited well, so players will emerge to fill those holes. Georgia faces a gauntlet of a schedule this year (@ Clemson and Florida; Home against South Carolina and LSU), but if they can survive that with even one loss, they could be representing the SEC East for the second straight year.
8) South Carolina (11-2; Beat Michigan 33-28 in the Outback Bowl)
It is going to be interesting to see how the SEC East plays out this year the top three teams all capable of making a strong push towards the Crystal Trophy. The fate of who gets to represent the East could be decided within the first few weeks. The Gamecocks visit Georgia the second week of the season which will put one of them in the driver’s seat. With South Carolina getting a visit from Florida and Clemson in last quarter of the season, it’s all about defending their home field. The defense will be brutal once again led by the inhuman Jadeveon Clowney. If Connor Shaw can stay healthy and a worthy replacement to Marcus Lattimore is found, expect South Carolina to represent the East for the second time in four years.
9) Louisville (11-2; Beat Florida 33-23 in the Sugar Bowl)
A perfect season lies within reach for the Cardinals. In their last season in what remains of the Big East, Louisville is poised to at least return to a BCS Bowl game. Teddy Bridgewater should be able to improve on his impressive season last year in what will be his third year as the starter. He will have talented receivers to throw to, but it might be up to the running game to grow and the defense to tighten up so that Bridgewater doesn’t feel the need to win games every week. If Louisville can avoid a road loss against an inferior team like Cincinnati or UConn, they could be making their way to the Orange Bowl or possibly another Sugar Bowl.
10) Michigan (8-5; Lost to South Carolina 28-33 in the Outback Bowl)
Although Michigan had a bit of a sophomore slump in Brady Hoke’s second season, they are in a prime position for a great season in 2013. Hoke has a quarterback more suitable for his system with Devin Gardner than Denard Robinson was. They are going to rely on a strong running game led by senior Fitzgerald Toussaint and consensus five star freshman Derrick Green to compliment Gardner throwing to a pair of senior receivers. The defense was solid, giving up only 20 PPG, but had some lapses that led to loses. However, the defense will be mostly experienced upperclassmen which should give them an advantage this year. If Michigan wants to be taken seriously this year, they need to win against ranked teams when given the challenge (1-3 last year, 1-4 if you count that OSU was ranked in USA Today Poll). The road games could be risky (@ Penn State, @Northwestern, @ Michigan State) but getting Ohio State and Nebraska at home will be huge in securing them for a conference championship berth.