Gatorsports.com's Preseason Top 25 poll: Nos. 6-10
Published: Thursday, August 21, 2014 at 2:30 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, August 21, 2014 at 2:30 p.m.
The feel of the college football season is in the air, whether it's the smell of freshly cut grass, the echo of distant whistles governing the grunts and groans of young combatants, or the sweet melodies of band practice. And the season will soon be upon us. Staff members voted for the Gatorsports.com College Football Top 25 using the formula of 25 points for a first-place vote, 24 for a second-place vote, down to 1 for a 25th-place vote. Gatorsports.com will reveal five teams per day in the countdown this week:
Top 25 so far
25 - KANSAS STATE WILDCATS
24 - MISSOURI TIGERS
Tied at 22
21 - TEXAS A&M AGGIES
20 - FLORIDA GATORS
19 - NOTRE DAME FIGHTING IRISH
18 - OLE MISS REBELS
17 - SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA TROJANS
16 - CLEMSON TIGERS
15 - ARIZONA STATE SUN DEVILS
14 - WISCONSIN BADGERS
13 - MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS
12 - BAYLOR BEARS
11 - LSU TIGERS
TIED-9. GEORGIA BULLDOGS
Last year's record: 8-5 overall, 5-3 in the SEC (lost to Nebraska 24-19 in the Gator Bowl)
Overview: In a familiar refrain that was almost an echo from Gainesville, injuries to key players ruined a promising season was derailed for Georgia at midseason with back-to-back losses to SEC East upstarts Missouri and Vanderbilt. Speedy receiver Malcolm Mitchell seemingly set the tone for 2013 Bulldogs when he tore an ACL celebrating Georgia's first TD of the season. Soon, fellow receivers Michael Bennett and Chris Conley, RB Keith Marshall, TE Jay Rome and finally star QB Aaron Murray would follow suit, leaving the Bulldogs devastated and unable to adequately keep up with Nebraska in the Gator Bowl. Mitchell remains a question mark, but the Bulldogs return plenty of skill with first-round-projected Todd Gurley returning for his junior season and Conley, Bennett and Marshall on the mend. Hutson Mason replaces new Kansas City chief Murray at QB and the offensive line is stout and experienced.
Best-case scenario: Georgia opens with Palmetto State rivals Clemson and South Carolina out of the chute and will enjoy an early-season boost with a win over one or both. However, two losses to powerful teams will not only knock the Bulldogs out of the national championship picture, but will put Mark Richt's team in a severe game of catch-up for three months. If Georgia can keep its key playmakers relatively healthy, Mason, a senior and former Georgia prep player of the year, appears to know what he's doing under center. If this team can come close to the 37 points per game it averaged last season (including 41 vs. South Carolina and 44 vs. LSU), the Junkyard Dawg defense will be there to close the deal with authority. Three down lineman have starting experience and Georgia returns all four starting linebackers, including All-America candidate Ramik Wilson in the middle. PK Marshall Morgan and P Collin Barber comprise perhaps the SEC's best kicking tandem.
Worst-case scenario: Injuries and suspensions, along with Clemson, ambush the Bulldogs early, leaving Georgia 0-1 and facing a trip to SEC East favorite South Carolina in Game 2. The Bulldogs are due some good luck, but could fall apart at the seams again if a poor start turns to awful memories of 2013 and a “not-again” mentality. Once one of the conference's most effective bowl teams, Georgia has opened and closed with losses two of the past three seasons and is 1-3 in bowl games since 2009. It would be interesting to see what the Bulldogs could accomplish with a season that featured an improved focus from start to finish.
TIED-9. STANFORD CARDINAL
Last year's record: 11-3 overall, 8-2 in the Pac-12 (lost to Michigan State 24-20 in the Rose Bowl)
Overview: Every season, particularly since Jim Harbaugh left the helm for the San Francisco 49ers, people seem to expect the Stanford he built into a top 10 program will take a major step backwards. And every year, Stanford scratches and claws, pushes and pulls, and winds up with another “surprising” finish. Last season, the Cardinal took it all the way to a conference championship — for the second straight season — and within one play of a second consecutive Rose Bowl victory. David Shaw has become one of the new “it” coaches across the country and deservedly so, guiding Stanford to a 34-7 record during his three seasons while keeping the Cardinal among the best defenses in the country, year after year. Quarterback Kevin Hogan is 16-3 as a starter, including 10-1 vs. ranked teams, and provides a great anchor for the Stanford offense, which lacks a go-to running back, but has a capable committee approach that includes Remound Wright and Barry Sanders Jr.
Best-case scenario: The Cardinal miss few beats with veteran assistant Lance Anderson's promotion to defensive coordinator to replace Derek Mason, who is now head coach at Vanderbilt and take advantage of a secondary that returns three starters. Offensively, the Cardinal figure to get it done with Hogan and dynamic receiver Ty Montgomery, who finished last season with 61 catches and totaled 958 yards with 10 touchdowns, along with a talented offensive line that features All-America tackle Andrus Peat. Both offense and defense will be thrilled with the return of two of the Pac-12's finest kicking specialists in PK Jordan Williamson (18 of 22 on field goals last season) and P Ben Rhyne (42.9 yards per punt).
Worst-case scenario: Mason's departure, as well as the departure of front-seven stalwarts Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy, leave Stanford with too many obstacles to regain a defensive swagger that has been virtually written into the program's DNA this entire decade. An imperfect scheduling storm has Stanford traveling to Washington and Notre Dame on consecutive weekends as well as second-half trips to Arizona State, Oregon and UCLA. If the Cardinal can't pass a stiff test against USC on Sept. 6, an uphill grind toward the Pac-12 North division title might prove to be too daunting a task for a quality team, but one that is rebuilding on so many fronts.
8. SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS
Last year's record: 11-2 overall, 6-2 in the SEC (beat Wisconsin 34-24 in the Capital One Bowl)
Overview: The Gamecocks lost a golden opportunity last season to get back into the SEC Championship game for the second time, but inexplicably fumbled their hopes away in Knoxville during the middle of a three-game October road swing. A week after winning 52-7 at Arkansas, and a week before winning at eventual division champ Missouri, South Carolina coach and noted Tennessee aggressor Steve Spurrier suffered a devastating defeat by a Volunteer squad that was in the midst of its fourth straight losing season. Having come so close, and despite losing No. 1 NFL pick Jadeveon Clowney (and NFL-bound bookend Kelcy Quarles) and longtime QB Connor Shaw, South Carolina will enter the 2014 season with talented depth across the board as well as a lingering distaste that should help fuel another spirited run toward the top of the SEC East standings.
Best-case scenario: Oddly, the 2010 Gamecocks won the SEC East and finished only 9-5 for the season, but the three Spurrier versions since have each gone a school-best 11-2 but haven't achieved a return trip to the Georgia Dome. Shaw's departure at QB is a setback, but not a critical blow for a program that fought for many years for a seat at the SEC's head table and returns experienced QB Dylan Thompson to replace the oft-injured Shaw. Otherwise — and Spurrier has to be smiling about this — the Gamecocks return nine offensive starters, including powerful RB Mike Davis, who had seven 100-yard games despite a variety of late-season injuries that slowed him considerably. If South Carolina can live up to its offensive potential, and Whammy Ward's defense can recover quickly from the loss of six starters, an SEC East title appears to be there for the taking. Over the last three years, South Carolina is 16-1 from Halloween week on, including 3-0 vs. archrival Clemson and 3-0 in bowl games. This team knows how to get it done down the stretch.
Worst-case scenario: A rebuilt defensive line, oddly with two starters named Gerald Dixon (66 pounds separating the two), will be tested with a tough early-season schedule that includes an opener at home vs. Texas A&M and September home games with Georgia and Missouri sandwiching a Vanderbilt trip. A pair of new cornerbacks — Sidney Rhodes and Rico McWilliams — must produce early and often, a request made much more difficult by the breaking in of new pass rushers to replace Clowney and Quarles. Inevitably, a QB not running for his life will be more comfortable with decision making and stepping into throws and new cornerbacks will have their mettle tested immediately.
7. UCLA BRUINS
Last year's record: 10-3 overall, 6-3 in the Pac-12 (beat Virginia Tech 42-12 in the Sun Bowl)
Overview: Make a quick time-lapse journey through your mind with the subject “UCLA Football.” Went from mediocre to contender pretty darn quick, didn't it? Having been remarkably irrelevant for the dozen years after Edgerrin James derailed a potential national championship run in that epic 49-45 game in Miami to finish the 1998 regular season, UCLA recalibrated its football machine and put Jim Mora Jr. in charge. Suddenly, a team that had limped around without much purpose, going 34-41 the previous six seasons combined, was 9-5 and in the Pac-12 Championship game in Mora's debut season. A year later, the Bruins were 10-3 and finishing a season by pounding USC and Virginia Tech. The powder blue and gold crowd can hardly wait to see what Mora has up his sleeve for Year 3 of this impressive transition. Fifteen starters return and the recent power shift in Pac-12 L.A. has UCLA as the current face of Los Angeles football.
Best-case scenario: The Bruins remain confident and injury-free early during a weird opening to the season that includes a road trip to Virginia, a home game with Memphis and a “neutral site” game against Texas within the friendly confines of JerryWorld, outside Dallas. UCLA is playing with basically an NFL player at QB with Brett Hundley returning for his junior season to continue his assault on enemy secondaries as he climbs the ladder toward Cade McNown's school-record 10,708 passing yards. For good measure, Hundley led the team in rushing last season and an offense that returns nine starters also has the services of LB Myles Jack, who isn't even listed among starters but was named both Pac-12 Offensive and Defensive Freshman of the Year after rushing for seven TDs to go along with 71 tackles. If the stars align properly, having home games against Oregon, Arizona, USC and Stanford might make all the difference and send the Bruins into the first College Football Playoff semifinals.
Worst-case scenario: The Bruins' offensive line doesn't show a measured improvement from the one of a year ago, when they allowed 29 sacks, paved the way for only a 3.9-yard rushing average, and had Hundley running for his life on occasions. If Hundley goes down to injury, all bets are off and UCLA likely dips from title contender to another Sun Bowl participant. A team riding high from recent success can feel a little too much love from national media and adoring fans and doesn't always properly prepare for a week-in, week-out schedule that is both manageable and fraught with potential problems. Ultimate growth toward championship heights relies on hard work as well as a stable mental approach ... a difficult request sometimes for a 19-year-old frontrunner in Los Angeles.
6. AUBURN TIGERS
Last year's record: 12-2 overall, 8-1 in the SEC (lost to Florida State 34-31 in the BCS Championship game)
Overview: You hear about it in professional sports, where free agency and trades can pave the way for worst-to-first stories like the 1991 Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves playing in the World Series, or the 2008 Boston Celtics celebrating an NBA title a year after going 24-58 without KG and Ray. But in college football? Not so much. But that was the case last season when Auburn came out of nowhere to win the SEC Championship game and then took FSU to the final few seconds before breaking the SEC's string of national titles at seven. Gus Malzahn provided something worth buying in his first season taking over for Gene Chizik, who was let go following a 3-9 season in 2012 that featured an 0-8 SEC record. The Tigers were treated to two plays to endure on the Alabama plains forever with last-moment Jordan-Hare Stadium wins over rivals Georgia and Alabama and then ran all over Missouri to capture the league crown.
Best-case scenario: Nick Marshall returns from his season-opening suspension to provide more magic in Malzahn's deceptive offense that was so effective a season ago. Single-season school rushing record holder Tre Mason is gone, but seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant return and are no strangers to moving the sideline chains for Auburn, and the Tigers return quality targets for Marshall in Sammie Coates, Quan Bray, Ricardo Louis as well as TE C.J. Uzomah. Additionally, an offensive line anchored by Rimington Award candidate Reese Dismukes returns four starters. Defensively, the Tigers should be better and more athletic at the linebacker positions, but must mature along the defensive front quickly to help mask a secondary that was a problem area a year ago and has shown few hints of a massive improvement.
Worst-case scenario: Auburn's departed stars of 2013 really were too many to lose. The Tigers are without Heisman Trophy finalist Mason, arguably the best offensive lineman in the nation in Greg Robinson, and a chaotic pass-rushing demon in Dee Ford. All three were drafted highly by the NFL in May, and all three were incredibly important during the Tigers' magical run last season. Should Auburn be unable to adequately replace this trio, as well as punishing fullback Jay Prosch and rising star Carl Lawson, Ford's would-be replacement who is injured and out for the season, a sputter or two is almost expected in the very tough SEC West, and perhaps as early as a challenging road test at Kansas State on Sept. 18.
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