Welcome back everyone! I want to thank you all for your support last year during the initial campaign of my blog. And if you're new to it this year, I would also like to thank you for taking the time to see what this is all about. I want to apologize for the long delay between articles. As there was not much happening in the offseason, I really did not have enough material to be writing on a consistent basis. But with the new season just around the corner, its time to dive into this years edition, starting with the top ten teams heading into Week 1.
1) Florida State Seminoles
2013 Season: 14-0 (defeated Auburn Tigers 34-31 in BCS National Championship Game)
Returning 13 Starters
Florida State was a huge surprise last year, as no one could predict Jameis Winston would have one of the greatest freshman campaigns on his way to winning the last BCS Title and a Heisman Trophy. This year, teams will know what to expect out of the Seminoles, but it is unlikely any team will be able to do anything about it. Jimbo Fisher has done a tremendous job of recruiting and developing talent that Bobby Bowden seemed to be losing towards the end of his tenure. The Noles return six players from a smothering defense from last year along with seven players from one of the most explosive offenses. While Winston will be without Kelvin Benjamin who caught 15 touchdowns last year, he retains Rashad Green who hauled in 78 passes for 1100 yards and running back Karlos Williams who averaged 8.1 yards a carry and ran for 11 touchdowns. Florida State's offensive line also returns four starters, the lone non-starter being Center Austin Barron who has seen a fair amount of play as a backup. The Seminoles open their season up against Oklahoma State in Arlington, but if they can get passed them then there really isn't anyone else in the ACC who will be good enough to keep up with the Noles.
2) Alabama Crimson Tide
2013 Season: 11-2 (lost to Oklahoma Sooners 31-45 in the Sugar Bowl)
Returning 8 Starters
The Crimson Tide looked well on their way to a shot at a third straight crystal trophy, but a last second miracle play by Auburn dashed those hopes. Alabama went on to play a very poor game against the Sooners, sending AJ McCarron off to the pros with an unprecedented two game losing streak. While McCarron was labelled as a game manager, there's no denying he ran Saban's system incredibly well. His production will be difficult to replace, but there is hope for the Tide in Florida State transfer Jacob Coker. Coker was a back up to EJ Manuel and almost won the starting job over Jameis last year, but his talent makes him an early favorite to win the job. He will not lack for targets either. Amari Cooper look to rebound from and injury-plagued sophomore year while Christion Jones returns for his senior year and OJ Howard develops into one of the best tight ends in the country. There is also an incredible stable of running backs at his disposal. Defense could be a bit more of a challenge this year for Alabama. They return only three full time starters from last year, but Saban has done a tremendous job of recruiting talented, versatile players on defense. The Tide have some tough games this year, but Saban is a good enough coach to get this team to the playoffs.
3) Ohio State Buckeyes
2013 Season: 12-2 (lost to Clemson Tigers 35-40 in the Orange Bowl)
Returning 11 Starters
After winning the first 24 games during his tenure at Ohio State, Urban Meyer lost the two most important games of that tenure which is what most people seem to remember more. Despite some key losses, this could be the year that his squad takes the next step towards a national championship. Despite losing power running back Carlos Hyde, Braxton Miller returns for his senior season after accounting for over 3000 yards and 36 touchdowns last year, his best yet. Miller has progressed each season as a passer and remains one of the most dangerous quarterbacks as a runner in the nation. For Ohio State to make the playoffs this year, veteran receivers Evan Spencer and Devin Smith need to become more reliable targets. Look for Urban to use true freshman Curtis Samuel and Johnnie Dixon in Percy Harvin-esque roles this year to get the electric players the ball in space. Defensively, the secondary must improve from last year. That will be a tall order considering they will be starting up to four new players at a time. Fortunately, the defensive line will probably the best in the country. Joey Bosa and Noah Spence are incredibly dangerous players off the edge, combining for 15.5 sacks last year, while Michael Bennett and Aldophus Washington are two defensive tackles who can collapse the pocket in a hurry and get to the quarterback. With a rather friendly schedule, look for the Buckeyes to be in the playoffs next year as well.
4) Auburn Tigers
2013 Season: 12-2 (lost to Florida State Seminoles 31-34 in the BCS National Championship)
Returning 13 Starters
After making an improbable run to the title game last year, Auburn looks ready to make another run this year with a more experienced team. They must replace second overall pick Greg Robinson at left tackle, but the rest of the line remains intact. Nick Marshall leads the offense as a dangerous runner, and should improve drastically as a passer after a year in Gus Malzahn's offense. He developed a good rapport last year with speedster Sammie Coates, who caught 7 of Marshall's 14 touchdown passes. He has the speed to burn any receiver deep and provided a security blanket to Marshall. The Tigers will have the tough task of replacing Tre Mason's production from last year in which he gained over 1800 yards on the ground. Yet Malzahn will have some interesting options to work with, including highly touted running back Roc Thomas. Defense will be the key to this team as they will be playing numerous teams that can keep up with their offensive pace. Despite having to replace Dee Ford's 10.5 sacks from last season, Auburn should be able to get a lot of pressure on the quarterback this year. That will certainly help a secondary that ranked 100th in the nation last year in passing yards allowed. Auburn plays one of the most difficult schedules this year with three of their toughest games coming in November. Any slip up could cost them another chance at the championship trophy.
5) Oregon Ducks
2013 Season: 11-2 (Beat Texas Longhorns 30-7 in the Alamo Bowl)
Returning 13 Starters
Another season, another loss to Stanford to crush national title dreams. In the grand scheme, its hard to call and 11 win season under a first year head coach a failure, but expectations were high last year and will be even higher next year. The Ducks return a leading Heisman candidate in Marcus Mariota and have a ton of talent for him to work with. There might be an early learning curve with some young players at receiver, but Mariota has all the makings of a high first round pick and should be able to make those players better early on. His ability to tuck and run, along with the thunder and lightening combo of Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner, means that the Ducks will be able to continue lighting up the scoreboards. Defensively, the strength is in the front seven which returns four starters who can get after the quarterback. This will be key as Oregon doesn't have much starting experience in the secondary, despite the return of several seniors. The lone starter back is standout Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, a small but tenacious corner with a knack for the ball. He will be called upon to match up against opponents' number one receivers and lock them down to help the rest of the secondary. Oregon doesn't have an overly tough schedule, but they need to survive home games against Michigan State and Stanford as well as a road trip to UCLA. The Ducks can't afford to lose more than one of those games.
6) Michigan State Spartans
2013 Season: 13-1 (beat Stanford Cardinal 24-20 in the Rose Bowl)
Returning 10 Starters
Michigan State took a huge step forward and retains the talent on both sides to make a serious run at the playoffs this year. Last season's defense ranked in the top three in all major statistical categories and figures to be just as good this season. They return two starters from the No-Fly-Zone secondary that allowed only 165 passing yards a game in 2013. Safety Kurtis Drummond is a highly athletic center fielder, while Trae Waynes shows a lot of the same abilities and moxie as Darqueze Dennard. Their job will be made significantly easier by the presence of Shilique Calhoun coming off the edge. Calhoun had 7.5 sacks last year as a sophomore and is already being considered a top five pick in the 2015 draft. The only real weakness of this defense lies at linebacker, where they only bring back middle linebacker Taiwan Jones. But with the turnovers that this team can generate, the Spartans defense can always keep them in the game. Last year's offense showed a lot of improvement over the second half of the season and was just as big a reason for big victories over Ohio State and Stanford to close out the season. Connor Cook took a huge step forward and should be able to improve on a 22 touchdown, 6 interception season. He will be helped by a trio of wide receivers who have had some playing experience. Albeit, the leading receiver from last year only had 44 receptions and 2 touchdowns. Someone is going to have to step up and help Cook out. However, Dantonio will look to stay with the power run game as Jeremy Langford had a fantastic campaign last year. Langford ran for 1400 yards and 18 touchdowns, and was a machine in some of the toughest games that Michigan State had last year. He will be a big reason why the Spartans go far this year.
7) Oklahoma Sooners
2013 Season: 11-2 (beat Alabama Crimson Tide 45-31 in the Sugar Bowl)
Returning 11 Starters
The success of this season will depend on whether or not Trevor Knight can be the consistent quarterback he was in the Sugar Bowl. After shredding the Tide defense for 350 yards and 4 touchdowns in a game no one thought the Sooners had a chance, it seems that Knight has taken the next step forward. If that consistency prevails, the Sooners will be a tough team to beat. Sterling Shepard returns at receiver to be a true security blanket, which he will have to grow into quickly as there isn't much experience at the receiver position. The running back situation is also a bit muddled now that incoming freshman Joe Mixon is suspended for knocking a girl out. He was expected to start at the in early part of the season, but now his career is off to a terrible start. Stoops will likely try to rely on a defense that was one of the better defenses in the country. Eric Striker is one of the top outside linebackers in the country and should be able to be more consistent after a dominating performance in the Sugar Bowl. The other outside linebacker position is locked down by Dominique Alexander, but the middle is now suspect after the season long suspension of Frank Shannon. The Sooners also return three starters from their base-nickel secondary which starts five defensive backs. With a very favorable schedule, Oklahoma can make a deep run this season. For them, however, one slip up could cost them a chance for a playoff appearance.
8) South Carolina Gamecocks
2013 Season: 11-2 (beat Wisconsin Badgers 34-24 in the Capital One Bowl)
Returning 9 Starters
Despite losing talent all over the place, the Gamecocks are loaded with talent and should be able to have a terrific shot at winning the SEC East this season. The most difficult position to replace will be at quarterback where Dylan Thompson must replace the consistently underrated Connor Shaw. Thompson does have some game experience as Shaw suffered several injuries over his career that forced Thompson into service. Receivers will also need to step up this year to help Thomspon out as he transitions to full time starter. There is a lot of promise in young sophomore Pharoh Cooper and junior Shaq Roland, but they will need more time to develop. The offense will again ride with stud running back Mike Davis who had a terrific sophomore season despite pretty much every defense selling out to stop him. He ran for a total of 1183 yards and 11 touchdowns last year and can definitely improve on those numbers. He will again be the focal point of the offense, but that was the case last year when he was dominant for stretches. The biggest gap on this team besides the loss of Connor Shaw will be at defensive end where the Gamecocks lost one of the best defensive lineman in recent history. Jadeveon Clowney only managed three sacks last year, but there is no denying that he commanded double and triple teams that allowed his team mates to make plays. Only four returners are back on defense, so don't be surprised if they take a step back after only allowing 20 points per game and 350 total yards from last season. Still, with the only truly daunting match up being at Auburn, South Carolina looks like the frontrunner to win the SEC East.
9) UCLA Bruins
2013 Season: 10-3 (beat Virginia Tech Hokies 42-12 in the Sun Bowl)
Returning 12 Starters
Head coach Jim Mora Jr. must have been ecstatic when Brett Hundley Jr. decided to come back to school for one more year. Hundley is projected to be a high draft pick this year and could have contended for first overall if he had come out this past draft. Hundley has shown good arm strength, accuracy, and vision, but he hasn't been able to put it all together on the consistent basis needed to bring his team to the next level. Mora knows how to work with quarterbacks and develop them, and it has the Bruins in a place to reach the playoffs. Hundley will have two of his top receivers returning, although neither caught more than 43 passes and 4 touchdowns. Either Jordan Payton or Devin Fuller is going to have to step up to provide a security blanket for Hundley when others are locked down. The line also returns three starters, so Hundley should have plenty of time to throw and room to run. The defense finally took the next step forward last year after so many years of promise and heartbreak. Outside linebacker Myles Jack looks to improve on a freshman season that saw him win both offensive and defensive freshman of the year in the PAC-12. While he might not see as many carries at running back, his athleticism should allow him to drastically improve his pass rushing. Rising sophomore defensive end Eddie Vanderdoes should also be the build off of a strong freshman season and be more disruptive behind the line. With three players back in the secondary, this team is ready to overtake Oregon and Stanford for the PAC-12.
10) Baylor Bears
2013 Season: 11-2 (lost to UCF Knights 52-42 in the Fiesta Bowl)
Returning 7 Starters
While having the number one scoring offense in the country certainly is a plus, it was the rise of Baylor's defense that really put Baylor into a BCS Bowl game last year. What is typically a porous defense that allows as many yards and points at it gains, last years defense allowed only 24 points and 360 total yards a game. They did give up more than 40 points a few times, but the only time it every actually hurt them was when they lost at Oklahoma State 49-17 and of course in the Fiesta Bowl. The defense only returns two full time starters from last year, but there is still some promise in the untested players that coach Art Briles has recruited over the past few years. If this team can continue the success that they had last year, they will be another dark horse contender for the playoffs this year. The offense should continue to operate at a high level this year with the return of several key players. Running back Shock Linwood will be the full time starter this year with Lache Seastrunk now in the NFL. Linwood ran well last year with Seastrunk out injured, and is a smaller, shifty back who operates well in Baylor's spread offense. Bryce Petty is back under center and should be able to come close to replicating last year's ridiculously efficient season of 4200 passing yards and 32 touchdowns against only 3 picks. He will have the luxury of throwing to Antwan Goodley, one of the best receivers in the country. He is big bodied and fast, and is now a seasoned veteran coming back for a senior campaign. Baylor's explosive offense puts them in contention for any game that they play in. Yet like last year, it might be the defense that is able to carry them to new heights this season.