Gatorsports.com’s Preseason Top 25 poll: Nos. 1-5
Published: Friday, August 22, 2014 at 2:18 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 22, 2014 at 2:18 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 has revealed five teams per day in the countdown this week:
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 at 9
8 - SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS
7 - UCLA BRUINS
6 - AUBURN TIGERS
5 - OHIO STATE BUCKEYES
4 - OREGON DUCKS
3 - OKLAHOMA SOONERS
2 - ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE
1 - FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLES
NO. 5 OHIO STATE BUCKEYES
Last year’s record: 12-2 overall, 8-1 in the Big Ten (lost to Clemson 40-35 in the Orange Bowl)
Overview: Urban Meyer could do no wrong in the eyes of the Buckeyes throughout most of his first two seasons in Columbus, but finds himself and his program entering the 2014 campaign on a two-game losing streak after being slapped around in the league title game and Orange Bowl following a second straight perfect regular season. Over the last few seasons, Ohio State has dipped into the southern states for top prospects a little more than usual and, in turn, developed more speed to blend into a program that is annually projected to be the one to beat in the Big Ten. That hasn’t meant much, as Ohio State has but one national title since 1968. But with the new national semifinals in place, a selection committee put together with eyes toward diversity over power rankings will be hard-pressed to look past any Big Ten champion with a pulse when formulating the championship bracket.
Best-case scenario: Ohio State adequately replaces star quarterback Braxton Miller, who will miss this season with a recurring shoulder injury, with either J.T. Barrett or Cardale Jones. Perhaps some combination of both get the Buckeyes into the right frame of mind as they get ready to tackle the Big Ten schedule and attempt to defend their lofty preseason ranking as they enter the season without their most important player. Despite the sour taste left in their mouths by the two-game hiccup to end last season, the Buckeyes are confident and are coming off a season in which they averaged 512 yards per game and set a school record with 637 points in 14 games (45.5 ppg). An initial injection of new skill-position speed could come from freshmen Johnnie Dixon and Curtis Samuel and Ezekiel Elliott, though recovering from a broken wrist, is the next man up for the spot vacated by decorated RB Carlos Hyde. Post-graduate Alabama transfer Chad Lindsay is a nice addition to the Buckeyes O-line and figures to be in the mix for the starting job at center.
Worst-case scenario: The rebuilt offensive line and unproven backs could slow the Buckeyes considerably if opposing defenses are allowed to blitz through weaknesses in rapid succession. With Miller sidelined only recently, Ohio State may be sloppy in the early going while it finds an offensive identity, but should have no trouble navigating a schedule that includes only one of the AP Preseason Top 25 teams — No. 8 Michigan State in November — and includes both Big Ten newcomers — Maryland and Rutgers — to open league play following a soft non-conference slate. SEC fans will remember the recruiting wars for D-linemen Adolphus Washington and Joey Bosa, but the Buckeyes have two more even better in all-conference returnees Noah Spence and Michael Bennett, leaving Ohio State stacked at the line of scrimmage. The Buckeyes will need all of them and more, though to be the disruptive force they hope to be in January should they complete a third straight undefeated regular season and advance out of the Big Ten title game.
NO. 4 OREGON DUCKS
Last year’s record: 11-2 overall, 7-2 in the Pac-12 (beat Texas 30-7 in the Alamo Bowl)
Overview: For the first two months of last season, it was business as usual for the high-flying Ducks, winning by lopsided margins, loving life and calling out the SEC or any team from any league that was standing in their way of a potential trip to the BCS Championship game. But the wheels began falling off once November arrived and Stanford and Arizona provided a couple of spankings for Oregon that knocked them out of title contention — conference as well as national — and Mark Helfrich’s first season replacing Chip Kelly was barely salvaged with a 1-point win over archrival Oregon State and then an Alamo Bowl walkover against a Texas team that had been mailing it in for weeks. As it stands, Oregon is to college football what the Netherlands is to the World Cup, a constant, elite challenger from a moist northwestern corner, but as of yet uncrowned. The Netherlands, however, isn’t half as mouthy about things as the Oregon faithful.
Best-case scenario: The Heisman Trophy campaign that will begin for Marcus Mariota will begin in “ 3 ... 2 ... 1 ...” and, honestly, there isn’t a better guy to watch closely in the early season. If the seasoned junior star can get the job done against a Michigan State team that is expected to once again challenge for the Big Ten title in their Sept. 6 showdown, the versatile QB will have the inside track to national attention for the first half of the season. And if the Ducks can take down the Spartans, a very special season might be evolving. Oregon returns 10 starters from its point-a-minute offense and has the luxury of hosting Arizona and Stanford as well as Michigan State. Byron Marshall quietly enters the 2014 season as the Pac-12’s most-accomplished returning RB after rushing for 1,038 yards last season.
Worst-case scenario: At some point during the season, Oregon always goes flat. Sometimes it’s expected, at the hands of a stellar defense like Stanford’s, and on other occasions it can be due to the mental lapses associated with a talent collection that at times can make things look too easy against inferior competition. Should Oregon’s defense be pushed around as much as during the second half of last season — when Washington State scored 38, Arizona 42 and Oregon State 35 — it will be difficult to believe the Ducks can survive a Pac-12 title game as well as two playoff games against teams that might be more likely to dictate tempo on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
NO. 3 OKLAHOMA SOONERS
Last year’s record: 11-2 overall, 7-2 in the Big 12 (beat Alabama 45-31 in the Sugar Bowl)
Overview: For the 12th time in his 15 seasons on the job, Bob Stoops guided the Sooners to double-digit wins last year. The good news for Oklahoma was it beat two-time defending national champion Alabama on a grand postseason stage. The bad news was it was on the BCS Championship undercard and the Sooners had been leveled by Texas and Baylor during the regular season. So here Oklahoma sits again, struggling and dreaming of another national title that has been eluding it since 2000. “Big Game” Bob will attempt to have complete Sooner focus from training camp to postseason this time around. And with no conference title game to worry about, and the recent Big 12 defections of Nebraska and Texas A&M, among others, he just might have the proper ingredients to punch his guys’ tickets into the first College Football Playoff.
Best-case scenario: Oklahoma goes from juggling quarterbacks to handing over the job to sophomore Trevor Knight, who was nearly flawless during the Sooners’ victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Knight can hurt defenses with his mobility as well as his accuracy and returns quality, experienced tackles Daryl Williams and Tyrus Thompson. Missouri WR transfer Dorial Green-Beckham’s immediate eligibility is in the hands of the NCAA and will upgrade the Sooners offense considerably if he gets the go-ahead. While it’s easy to believe Big 12 contenders must simply outscore opponents on a weekly basis, the Sooners appear to have plenty of bite on the defensive side heading into 2014. Junior DE Charles Tapper and veteran OLB Eric Striker highlight an incredibly disruptive front seven that returns almost all of its two-deep chart from a year ago. MLB Frank Shannon has been suspended for the season due to legal troubles, but the Sooners are no-less loaded.
Worst-case scenario: A false sense of supremacy shrouds the Sooners in the early going after suspected easy wins over Louisiana Tech, Tennessee, Tulsa and West Virginia before the team travels to Texas for back-to-back games against TCU and Texas to open October. A week after the Texas two-stop, Oklahoma will host Kansas State in what could prove to be another dangerous game should the Sooners be banged up at that point. The margin for error (meaning a loss) will be razor-thin for any team out of a Big 12 that is lacking a high-profile conference championship game where the playoff committee is concerned. However, the three bye weeks scattered throughout the Sooners’ schedule should ensure the team remains fresh and impressive.
2. ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE
Last year’s record: 11-2 overall, 7-1 in the SEC (lost to Oklahoma 45-31 in the Sugar Bowl)
Overview: Nick Saban’s squad has won three of the last five national championships and was cruising toward a chance to defend another last season before Alabama fell victim to a Chris Davis 109-yard missed field goal return for a final-play touchdown at Auburn last season. And the Crimson Tide limped into the offseason following the Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma and waved goodbye to eight more NFL draft picks, which has become a Saban-era habit. Two of those were offensive and defensive ringleaders QB A.J. McCarron and ILB C.J. Mosley, who entered the AFC North together. The Tide had two other QBs transfer out, but maintain five bodies at the position, including FSU transfer Jake Coker, a three-year graduate with two seasons of eligibility remaining.
Best-case scenario: The annual haul of top-ranked recruiting classes shows an upgrade in a few key positions and depth and many others, leaving Saban with more than enough weapons to pull the strings to his liking. Saban pointed offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier in the direction of Michigan, then filled his position with former USC and Tennessee head coach Lane Kiffin in an effort to better utilize a superior stable of backs including T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake along with WR Amari Cooper and emerging TE O.J. Howard. A more unpredictable offense — with the speedy Drake in Kiffin’s “Reggie Bush role” — can only help when there is apparent quality across the board.
Worst-case scenario: The losses of Mosley and NFL-bound safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri prove to be too much when the en vogue hurry-up/no-huddle offenses are storming down the field and sideline communication and quick defensive calls are at a premium. A vocal defensive leader must emerge for Alabama’s defense to compete at the level expected of Saban and defensive boss Kirby Smart. The schedule lines up favorably with Florida, Texas A&M and Auburn visiting Tuscaloosa, but the West will likely be decided with Tide trips to Baton Rouge to face LSU and an Oxford date with an improving Ole Miss team that is creating danger to go along with dazzle.
1. FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLES
Last year’s record: 14-0 overall, 9-0 in the ACC (beat Auburn 34-31 in the BCS Championship game)
Overview: Jimbo Fisher became one of the very rare success stories in terms of directly replacing a legend when, on the heels of Bobby Bowden’s 3 1/2-decade run in Tallahassee, he delivered the Seminoles a national championship in only his fourth season at the helm. Fisher is now averaging more than 11 wins per season and has FSU loaded once again as they take aim on a challenging schedule that begins with a neutral-site showdown with Oklahoma State. Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston is back to operate behind an offensive line that returns four starters. A defense that returns seven starters, including NFL-coveted linemen Eddie Goldman and Mario Edwards, is athletic and accomplished.
Best-case scenario: Winston is among the best at playing through off-field attention and will likely have to do that again this season. But he is the undisputed face of the program at the moment and has plenty of weapons to turn to in All-America candidates TE Nick O’Leary and WR Rashad Greene and a capable backfield led by senior Karlos Williams. The Seminoles put more than 40 points on every opponent in 2013 except for Florida and Auburn (scoring 51.6 points per game) and have the feel of a team that can do more of the same this season. FSU gets an up-close view of the new-look ACC, entertaining part-time member Notre Dame and traveling to Louisville in the Cardinals first year of replacing Big Ten-bound Maryland.
Worst-case scenario: The Seminoles are built tough on all three levels of their defense, but appear a tad vulnerable at linebacker should an unfortunate injury bug rear its ugly head in this era of 12-game schedules with the potential for three postseason games for the country’s elite programs. Open dates placed before a home game with Clemson and the trip to Louisville were well-thought-out, but playing Louisville, Virginia, Miami, Boston College and Florida in a 31-day span before a potential ACC title game leaves FSU with no margin for wobble in the finishing stages of the regular season.