Daily Blog •February 14, 2014

In each of the past five years, during the offseason, I have come up with a projected top 10 of the preseason AP poll on my website. I do this by taking several different factors into account:

• Most AP voters usually look at a couple of criteria when they evaluate a team for the upcoming season. First, they look at the number of returning starters the team has coming back, particularly at the offensive skill positions. A team that returns its starting quarterback and a combination of its running backs and wide receivers, for example, is often more highly regarded than a team that loses its starting quarterback but returns its entire offensive line.

Similarly, a team that returns most of its starters on offense but loses a lot of its defensive playmakers is usually more highly regarded than a team that returns a majority of its defensive starters but loses its skill-position players on offense.

• Another factor that is weighed heavily is the performance of the team in its bowl game, which is undoubtedly the lasting image voters carry with them of that team during the offseason. A team coming off a huge bowl win is usually more highly regarded than a team that is coming off a bowl loss, regardless of what its schedule looks like for the upcoming season.

Using these factors -- and a few others, such as strength of schedule -- I project the preseason AP top 10 every year at the conclusion of the previous season -- which in most cases is six months in advance of the poll’s release. Now, as you all know, a lot can happen between January and August, including injuries, suspensions and transfers, but over the past five years, I have been very successful using this method, correctly projecting 46 of 50 teams, including nine of 10 teams last year, which would have been a perfect 10 for 10 if Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson did not get suspended in late May.

Before I go into the rankings, it is important to make the point that this is not my preseason top 10 for next season, but rather what I am projecting the AP top 10 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 10, and this year will be no different.

Now let’s take a look at this year's projected preseason AP top 10 teams, 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 poised to stay at the top in 2014 and it starts with the return of the Heisman Trophy winner in quarterback Jameis Winston who directed an offense that set the NCAA-record for most points scored in a season (723).  Despite the early departures of running backs Devonta Freeman, James Wilder Jr and wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, the Noles return their leading receiver in Rashad Greene and perhaps their most talented running back in Karlos Williams. The offensive line also will be one of the best in the country as they return four starters and 109 career starts.

On the defensive side, they do lose five of their top six tackles and arguably their best player at every level in defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, linebacker Telvin Smith and cornerback/safety Lamarcus Joyner. However, they still return several talented players led by defensive end Mario Edwards Jr and the advantage of outscoring your opponents by nearly 40 points per game in 2013 is that it allows several inexperienced players extended playing time.

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 the 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.   

2. Alabama Crimson Tide

One second is possibly all that separated the Crimson Tide from another appearance in the National Championship game last year, but the 109-yard return by Auburn’s Chris Davis and a 45-31 shocking upset at the hands of Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl saw the Tide lose back-to-back games for the first time since 2008. However, the Crimson Tide are well-positioned to return to the top in 2014 and it starts with head coach Nick Saban’s unrivaled recruiting classes in the last seven years as he brought in another top class.

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. The leading replacements are Cooper Bateman, incoming freshman  David Cornwell and Florida State transfer Jacob Coker. Whoever wins the job will have some of the best skill position talent in the country surrounding them led by running backs T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry along with wide receivers Amari Cooper and Christion Jones.

The defense will have to replace linebacker C.J. Mosley and saw the early departures of four others but still features plenty of talent led safety Landon Collins and linebacker Trey DePriest. 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.        

3. Oregon Ducks

While the Ducks under new head coach Mark Helfrich failed to make a BCS bowl for the fifth straight year in 2013, they still managed their sixth straight double-digit win season. This year they return nine starters on offense led by quarterback Marcus Mariota who accounted for 40 touchdowns last year. They also welcome back running backs Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner who combined for 1,749 rush yards.

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

In head coach Gus Malzahn’s first year, the Tigers had one of the more memorable runs in college football history going from a 3-9 record to one possession away from winning the national championship. This year the Tigers will want to prove that last year was not a fluke and they are well positioned to stay at 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 while the defense welcomes back five of their top eight tacklers.

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 and 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 as Bob Stoops “Big Game” moniker has returned. They offense which averaged 42 points per game in the last four games sees the return of quarterback Trevor Knight 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.  

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 looked poised to bounce back as quarterback Braxton Miller returns for his fourth year as the starting quarterback. They do lose running back Carlos Hyde and leading receiver Philly Brown but Meyer has upgraded the speed at the skill positions in the last couple of 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 Ohio Stadium 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 10 Champ Michigan State.         

7. UCLA Bruins

Jim Mora has done an outstanding job getting the Bruins to their most wins in back-to-back seasons since 1997-98. In 2014, they could take another step to join 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 leading tackler Eric Kendricks. Freshman All-American Myles Jack who notably played both ways last year is back while their entire secondary returns intact.     

Their schedule is tough as they face Texas in Arlington on September 13 and they travel to Arizona State on Thursday, September 25th. They do get Oregon, USC and Stanford all at home as the last two come in back-to-back weeks to close the regular season.  

8. Michigan State Spartans

The Spartans capped off one of their best seasons in school history with a Rose Bowl win over Stanford and clearly are 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 as do three of their top four receivers.

The defense only returns four starters and must replace three All-Americans in linebackers Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and cornerback Darqueze Dennard. They do return defensive end Shilique Calhoun and most importantly defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi who passed up on 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 they get Michigan, Ohio State and Nebraska all at home.    

9. Baylor Bears

After one of the best seasons in school history that included a Big 12 title, Art Briles program looks to continue its climb toward consistent top 10-15 finishes. In 2014, the Bears 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 who averaged nearly 19 yards per catch.

The defense does suffer heavy losses including linebacker Eddie Lackey and safety Ahmad Dixon. However, those losses might not be that significant when you consider the Bears have averaged nine wins per year the last four years despite their defense allowing an average of 32 points per game. They do have to play Oklahoma but get both Oklahoma State and Kansas State at home and their non-conference slate is very manageable. 

10. South Carolina Gamecocks

Future Hall of Famer Steve Spurrier has done a masterful job in Columbia leading the Gamecocks to three straight 11-win seasons and top 10 finishes.  In 2014, they are poised to remain near the top of the SEC as they welcome back 14 starters including eight on offense. While they will certainly miss quarterback Connor Shaw, his replacement Dylan Thompson has thrown for nearly 2,000 yards and 14 touchdowns filling in the past couple of years. The Gamecocks also return 1,000 yard rusher Mike Davis. The defense does lose two All-Americans on the defensive line in Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles, 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.

There you have it -- my projections for the AP preseason top 10. If you are wondering which teams just missed the cut, make sure you check out my daily blog on PhilSteele.com later this week, where I break down the past four years of all my projections, as well as give you my No. 11, No. 12, No. 13 and No. 14 projected AP poll teams for this season, all of which could potentially sneak into the 2014 preseason top 10.