Daily Blog • April 14, 2014

In the past five off-seasons, I have come up with a projected preseason AP poll on my website several months in advance and have had great results including hitting all 25 teams in each of the last two years.

I do this by taking several different aspects into account including the fact most AP voters look at the number of starters the team has coming back, particularly at the offensive skill positions. They also weigh heavily the performance of the team in its bowl game. If you need a complete breakdown of all my considered factors, you can check out my original preseason AP Top 10 projection from February.

Before I get to the rankings, it is important to make the point that this is not my preseason top 25 for 2014, but rather what I am projecting the AP top 25 will look like to start the season. If you’re familiar with my college football preview magazine, you will know that every year I tend to go out on a limb for a couple of teams in my top 25, and this year will be no different.

Now let’s take a look at this year’s projected preseason AP top 25, ranked in order.

1. Florida State Seminoles

The Seminoles were my No. 1 surprise team a year ago and they would go on to end the SEC’s reign of seven straight national championships by winning their first title since 1999. They are clearly poised to stay at the top in 2014 and it starts with the return of 13 starters led by the Heisman Trophy winner in quarterback Jameis Winston. Despite some early departures to the NFL Draft, the Noles have a plethora of talent on both sides of the ball and they added another top-five recruiting class, signing 13 players from the ESPN 300.

The schedule will be more difficult than last year starting with the opener against Oklahoma State in Arlington, Texas. However, Clemson, Notre Dame and Florida all have to travel to Doak Campbell and they have a bye prior to their road trip to Louisville. They have also beaten rival Miami (FL) four consecutive times on the road. Add it all up and the Seminoles are clearly the favorites heading into the first year of the college football playoff and could be a touchdown or more favorite in all 12 of their games.   

2. Alabama Crimson Tide

The Crimson Tide ended the 2013 season on a sour note losing back-to-back games for the first time since 2008. However, they are well-positioned to return to the top in 2014 and it starts with head coach Nick Saban bringing in his third straight No. 1 recruiting class that many analysts believe might be his best one yet.

The biggest questions will naturally be finding a replacement for three-year starting quarterback A.J. McCarron and what type of adjustments there will be with new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. Whoever wins the quarterback job will have some of the best skill position talent in the country surrounding him led by running backs T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry along with wide receivers Amari Cooper and Christion Jones. The schedule features tough road trips to Ole Miss and LSU but they get the all-important revenge game against Auburn at home in the finale. Also noteworthy is the fact the Tide have not been an underdog in any game since the 2009 SEC Championship game, a span of 54 games!         

3. Oregon Ducks

While the Ducks under new head coach Mark Helfrich failed to make a BCS bowl for a fifth straight year in 2013, they still managed their sixth straight double-digit win season. This year they return fifteen starters led by quarterback Marcus Mariota who is clearly one of the Heisman favorites heading into 2014. The biggest question might be how they adjust to long-time defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti’s retirement.  However, they do return their leading tackler in linebacker Derrick Malone and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu could be the best cornerback in the country.

The schedule features a huge non-conference match-up against Michigan State, but that comes in the friendly confines of Autzen Stadium where they are 33-2 the last five years. They do travel to UCLA, but get Stanford at home and avoid both Arizona State and USC from the Pac-12 South.

4. Auburn Tigers

The Tigers will want to prove that last year’s remarkable run to the BCS Championship game was not a fluke and they are well positioned to stay near the top. They return 14 starters including eight on offense led by quarterback Nick Marshall who becomes the first two-year starting quarterback that Gus Malzahn has had at the college level (coordinator or head coach). They do have to replace running back Tre Mason, but return four of their top five rushers and their top four receivers.

The biggest question might be trying to navigate a tough schedule as they travel to Kansas State in non-conference action. They pull both Georgia and South Carolina from the SEC East and while they get LSU and Texas A&M at home, they do have to visit Tuscaloosa to take on the revenge-seeking Crimson Tide in the Iron Bowl.    

5. Oklahoma Sooners

After back-to-back upset wins over Oklahoma State and Alabama to close the 2013 season, expectations for the Sooners have skyrocketed. The offense, which averaged 42 points per game in the last four games sees the return of quarterback Trevor Knight, who closed the season with a sensational Sugar Bowl performance throwing for 348 yards and four touchdowns. The defense made significant strides last year and with the return of nine starters, the Sooners could be in store for their best season statistically on defense since 2009.

The schedule is very manageable as a home game against Tennessee highlights their non-conference slate. In Big 12 play, they get Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma State all at home while the game against Texas, of course, comes at a neutral site. Look for the Sooners to be favored in all 12 of their games in 2014.  

6. Ohio State Buckeyes

After 24 consecutive wins to start the Urban Meyer era, the Buckeyes lost back-to-back games to close the 2013 season. However, in 2014, they look poised to bounce back as quarterback Braxton Miller returns for his fourth year as the starting quarterback and Meyer has added plenty of speed at the skill positions in his last two recruiting classes.

The defense loses headliners in linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby but the defensive line returns all four starters and should be among the best in the country led by Noah Spence and Joey Bosa. The schedule again is manageable as Virginia Tech and Cincinnati both visit the Horseshoe in non-conference play. The Buckeyes also avoid both Wisconsin and Nebraska from the West, get Michigan at home and their toughest test will be a road trip to East Lansing on November 8th against defending Big Ten Champ Michigan State.         

7. UCLA Bruins

After managing 10 wins last year, the Bruins could take another step in joining the nation’s elite as they return 16 starters led by quarterback Brett Hundley, who passed up a chance at being a first round draft pick. They also return their top four rushers and five of their top six receivers. On defense, they lose All-American linebacker Anthony Barr, but still return All-American Myles Jack, who notably played both ways last year.     

Their schedule is tough as they face Texas in Arlington on September 13 and they travel to Arizona State on Thursday, September 25. They do get key Pac-12 games against Oregon, USC and Stanford all at home and they figure to be the preseason favorite to win the Pac-12 South.  

8. Michigan State Spartans

Coming off one of their best seasons in school history, the Spartans are clearly one of the favorites in the expanded Big 10 in 2014. They return quarterback Connor Cook, who improved considerably over the course of the season, highlighted by his back-to-back 300-yard passing performances against Ohio State and Stanford. Running back Jeremy Langford, who had eight straight 100-yard games prior to the Rose Bowl also returns.

The defense must replace three All-Americans but do return defensive end Shilique Calhoun and most importantly defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who passed up the Connecticut job. The schedule sees Notre Dame (only team to beat MSU last year) replaced by a tough road trip to Oregon in non-conference action. However, in Big Ten play they get the all-important games against Michigan, Ohio State and Nebraska all at home and could be favored in as many as 11 games this year.    

9. Baylor Bears

The defending Big 12 Champs only return nine starters but one of them is quarterback Bryce Petty, who threw for 4,200 yards and accounted for a total of 46 touchdowns passing and running. He has some dynamic skill players surrounding him led by leading receiver Antwan Goodley and they also added two of the top playmakers in the 2014 recruiting class as K.D. Cannon was ranked as the No. 4 WR according to ESPN Recruiting Nation and Davion Hall was the No. 4 ATH.

In the last year of Floyd Casey Stadium, the Bears outscored their opponents by an incredible 61-16 average and now this year will get the advantage and excitement of playing in the brand new McLane Stadium. While they do play Texas on the road, the Bears have bested the Longhorns in three of the last four years and overall they should be favored in as many as 11 of their games. Despite the inexperience, the Big 12 title will likely be on the line November 8 when they travel to Oklahoma.

10. South Carolina Gamecocks

The Gamecocks are just one of three teams with Alabama and Oregon being the others to finish in the top 10 in each of the last three years. In 2014, they look poised for a fourth straight top 10 finish as they welcome back 14 starters. While they will certainly miss quarterback Connor Shaw, his replacement Dylan Thompson has plenty of experience filling in the past couple of years and they also return one of the more underrated running backs in the country in Mike Davis. The defense does lose possible top five NFL draft pick Jadeveon Clowney, but they have much more experience in their back seven on defense than a year ago.

The Gamecocks open up the season with a marquee home game against Texas A&M on Thursday, August 28 and also host SEC East rivals Georgia and Missouri in September. They do pull Auburn from the SEC West and have to travel to Jordan-Hare while also having road trips to Florida and Clemson in November. However, they have won three of the last four against the Gators and have won five straight over their in-state rivals.

11. Georgia Bulldogs

Last year’s injury plagued season gave several Bulldog players a jump-start to 2014. That includes quarterback Huston Mason, who played much of the last three games with all-time SEC leader Aaron Murray out for the year. He will be surrounded by some of the best skill position talent in the country led by running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, who both figure to be much healthier than a year ago. After returning just three starters on defense last year, the Bulldogs have nine back on that side of the ball this year and will be much improved with new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who did a great job at Florida State last year. The schedule has them hosting an inexperienced Clemson team in the opener and then they have two weeks to prep for the all-important game against South Carolina.

12. Stanford Cardinal

The Cardinal have not missed a beat under head coach David Shaw as they have made four straight BCS bowls and last year narrowly missed out finishing in the top 10 for a fourth consecutive year as their Rose Bowl loss to Michigan State dropped them to No. 11. This year they welcome back just 11 returning starters but it includes quarterback Kevin Hogan and wide receiver Ty Montgomery. They do lose several key players on the defensive side including Trent Murphy. The biggest question for the Cardinal in 2014, however, is how they will navigate one of the toughest schedules in the country playing Washington, Notre Dame, Arizona State, Oregon and UCLA all on the road.

13. LSU Tigers

Last year LSU became the first team in SEC history to feature a 3,000-yard passer, two 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,000-yard rusher. Unfortunately for them, all four of those skill position players depart, but Les Miles is no stranger to replacing elite talent. This year he brought in the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class highlighted by the best running back in Leonard Fournette and the best wide receiver in Malachi Dupre. They also have seven returning starters on what figures to be an improved defense as they returned just four starters a year ago. The schedule features a neutral site game against Wisconsin in the opener, but they then have four straight home games. The SEC road slate is difficult with trips to Auburn, Florida and Texas A&M, but they do get Alabama at home and will be looking for their fifth straight double-digit win season. 

14. USC Trojans

New head coach Steve Sarkisian inherits a good situation as despite the dismissal of Lane Kiffin mid-season last year, the Trojans still managed 10 wins and a No. 19 finish. This year they return 14 starters including quarterback Cody Kessler, their top two running backs in Javorius Allen and Tre Madden and All-American candidate Nelson Agholor at wide receiver. The defense returns their top three tacklers including one of the best defensive lineman in the country in Leonard Williams. The schedule has them traveling to Stanford and UCLA in Pac-12 play, but they do avoid Oregon and Washington from the North and get key games against Oregon State, Arizona State and Notre Dame all at home. 

15. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

After their best season in two decades, the Fighting Irish fell back to 9-4 and a No. 20 finish in 2013. This year they return just 11 starters (fewest since 2007), but do see the return of quarterback Everett Golson, who led them to the BCS Championship game as a redshirt freshman before being suspended last year. His mobility gives the Irish offense an added dimension that they did not have last year while sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith leads a defense that dealt with major injuries on the front seven a year ago. ­The schedule as always is difficult with 10 bowl teams from last year and while they only play three true road games, they are against Florida State, Arizona State and USC.

16. Clemson Tigers

The Tigers are coming off back-to-back 11-win seasons highlighted by their No. 8 finish last year after their Orange Bowl win over Ohio State. They do suffer massive losses at the skill positions losing quarterback Tajh Boyd and wide receiver Sammy Watkins but they are not short on young talent. The defense could carry the offense early as it returns seven starters including All-American defensive end Vic Beasley who headlines one of the best defensive lines in the country. The schedule sees them traveling to Georgia and Florida State in September, but they should be favored in the rest of their games prior to the season finale against in-state rival South Carolina, who has beaten them five straight times.

17. Wisconsin Badgers

The Badgers had a disappointing finish to last year losing their final two games. This year they welcome back seven starters on offense including quarterback Joel Stave and running back Melvin Gordon, who ran for 1,609 yards. The defense did suffer massive losses highlighted by All-American linebacker Chris Borland as they return just three starters on that side of the ball. While they open the season in Houston against LSU, their conference slate is manageable. They pull Big Ten newcomers Maryland and Rutgers in cross-division play meaning they avoid Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State from the Big Ten Eastern division.

18. Missouri Tigers

Last year the Tigers exceeded everyone’s expectations by capturing the SEC East crown and each of their 12 wins came by double digits as they finished No. 5. They do only return nine starters but quarterback Maty Mauk got some added experience with James Franklin missing a couple of games last year. While the loss of wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham hurts the schedule sets up nicely as they do not have to play Alabama, Auburn or LSU from the SEC West and their eight SEC foes went just a combined 24-40 in SEC play last year, making it the easiest slate for any SEC team.

19. Texas A&M Aggies

The Aggies salvaged a disappointing finish to 2013 with an exciting bowl win over Duke to finish No. 18. However, they face many questions in 2014 starting with who replaces Johnny Manziel at quarterback and Mike Evans at wide receiver. On the plus side, the Aggies do welcome back 15 starters, signed one of the best classes in school history and the defense will be much improved from last year with six of their top eight tacklers returning. The schedule is difficult as they pull both Missouri and South Carolina from the SEC East and play both Alabama and Auburn on the road.

20. Ole Miss Rebels

The Rebels played a brutal schedule in 2013, but still finished with eight wins as head coach Hugh Freeze continues to build the program into a SEC West contender. This year they welcome back 15 starters including quarterback Bo Wallace and their top two rushers. Wide receiver Laquon Treadwell had a nice freshman season and on defense, eight of the top nine tacklers are back. The schedule is manageable as they avoid Florida, Georgia, Missouri and South Carolina from the SEC East and host both Alabama and Auburn.

21. Texas Longhorns

While Mack Brown did a lot of great things at Texas, no program has underachieved more in the last four years than the Longhorns. New head coach Charlie Strong does inherit a good situation as Texas returns their top three rushers, seven of their top eight receivers and should get quarterback David Ash back provided he is medically cleared from his concussion symptoms. Despite losing All-American defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, the defense also welcomes back six of their top eight tacklers. The schedule is challenging as they play UCLA in Arlington in non-conference action while pulling Big 12 favorites Baylor and Oklahoma in back-to-back weeks.

22. Washington Huskies

The Huskies finally broke through last year with a nine-win season and their first top 25 finish since 2001. Steve Sarkisian is off to USC but many feel they may have gotten an upgrade with the hire of Chris Petersen from Boise State, who welcomes back 12 starters. While they do lose quarterback Keith Price and running back Bishop Sankey, their replacements are solid. The schedule is favorable as most of the other Pac-12 contenders in Stanford, Arizona State, UCLA and Oregon State all have to travel to Seattle and the Huskies could be favored in as many as ten games this year.

23. North Carolina Tar Heels

After a 1-5 start, the Tar Heels won six of their last seven games a year ago highlighted by their blowout win over Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl. In 2014, they welcome back 15 returning starters including quarterback Marquise Williams whose mobility makes him a better fit for Larry Fedora’s offense. Joining him is their top running back TJ Logan and eight of their top 11 tacklers on defense.­­ The schedule sees them traveling to Notre Dame in non-conference play and while they also travel to Clemson, Miami (FL) and Duke in ACC play, they avoid Florida State and Louisville. The Tar Heels are clearly a trendy pick to win the ACC Coastal division.

24. UCF Knights

The Knights are coming off their best season in school history as they finished 12-1 and No. 10 after their impressive 52-42 win over Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl. Even with the loss of quarterback Blake Bortles and running back Storm Johnson, the Knights enter 2014 as the clear favorites in the American Athletic Conference. They return 15 starters including nine from a defense that held the high-powered Bears in check for much of the bowl game. The schedule does see them playing Penn State and Missouri in non-conference action but they did beat the Nittany Lions last year on the road and the Knights also nearly beat a fellow SEC member South Carolina as well last year. In conference play they avoid Cincinnati and of course Louisville is off to the ACC.

25. Louisville Cardinals

Back in January,  I wrote that the Cardinals would be a team that could be in store for a sizeable fall in 2014, however that was prior to the hire of Bobby Petrino, which changes the dynamics considerably.  Despite the loss of star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, Petrino inherits a team that returns their top running back, wide receiver DeVante Parker and a veteran offensive line. The defense also has eight returning starters from a unit that was No. 1 in the NCAA in yards per game allowed (251). While they make the step up to the ACC, they avoid Georgia Tech, North Carolina, and Virginia Tech from the Coastal division and they could be favored in as many as nine games this year with the exception of Clemson, Florida State and possibly Notre Dame.