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NCAA Football Top 25 Predictions

Tim StoeckleContributor IIIJanuary 4, 2017

NCAA Football Top 25 Predictions

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    Last season, Alabama shut out LSU 21-0 to win the BCS National Championship Game. Now, all 124 FBS teams have a clean slate and aspire to win conference titles, reach bowl games and win a national title.

    Four new teams join the FBS: Texas State, Texas-San Antonio, South Alabama and UMass (spoiler alert: none of them are in the top 25). Twenty-eight schools have new head coaches, including Ohio State, Texas A&M, Arizona, Arkansas, UCLA and Penn State. TCU and West Virginia are now in the ten-team Big 12 Conference, replacing Missouri and Texas A&M who are now in the SEC. Temple moved from the MAC to the Big East, and Nevada, Fresno State and Hawaii moved to the Mountain West from the WAC.

    The top three vote-getters for last year's Heisman Trophy, Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Trent Richardson are in the NFL, but fellow vote-getters Montee Ball, Tyrann Mathieu and Matt Barkley, are back in school. There are new names to learn and new teams ready to make a statement, so without further ado, here are my predictions for the top 25.     

    Note: Projected records include conference championship games, but not bowl games.

Just Missed the Cut

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    26. Boise State- Predicted Record: 10-2 (7-1), 1st in Mountain West

    It's scary that a rebuilding year at Boise State still means 10 wins.

    27. TCU- Predicted Record: 8-4 (5-4), 6th in Big 12

    TCU joins the big boys in the Big 12 and hopes to continue their success.

    28. NC State Wolfpack- Predicted Record: 8-4 (5-3), 3rd in ACC Atlantic

    Quarterback Mike Glennon leads the Wolfpack in their hunt for an ACC championship.

    29. Washington Huskies- Predicted Record: 8-4 (6-3), 3rd in Pac 12 North

    Talented dual threat quarterback Keith Price hopes to build on his fantastic performance in last year's Alamo Bowl.

    30. Auburn Tigers- Predicted Record: 8-4 (4-4), 4th in SEC West

    If Auburn can find a consistent quarterback, they could find themselves in the top 25.

25. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

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    2011 Record: 8-5 (5-3)

    2012 Record (predicted): 8-4 (5-3), 2nd in ACC Coastal

    Bowl Prediction: Music City Bowl

    Last season, Georgia Tech had the 2nd best rushing attack in the country (316.5 yards per game) running their option offense, and this season they return their top three rushers: quarterback Tevin Washington along with his backfield mates David Sims and Orwin Smith. Washington lead the team in rushing with 987 yards and 14 TDs, while Sims had 698 yards and 7 TDs and Smith rushed for 615 yards and 11 TDs.

    In front of the rushing attack is an offensive line that returns four starters including All-ACC guard Omoregie Uzzi. If Georgia Tech wants their option attack to work, they need to have at least the threat of a pass, which will be a challenge considering no returning receiver has a single career reception.

    Defensively, Georgia Tech returns six starters from the 44th ranked total defense a year ago, including cornerbacks Louis Young and Rod Sweeting along with safety Isaiah Johnson who helped lead Tech to the 28th ranked passing defense.

24. Stanford Cardinal

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    2011 Record: 11-2 (8-1)

    2012 Record (predicted): 8-4 (6-3), 2nd in Pac 12 North

    Bowl Prediction: Alamo Bowl

    Most people would probably think that after losing quarterback Andrew Luck, Stanford would return to the mediocre team they had before his arrival. But the Cardinal have built a competitive team that can survive without Luck.

    The offense starts with running back Stepfan Taylor who ran for 1,330 yards and 10 TDs a year ago, and he will carry more of the load with the uncertainty at quarterback and wide receiver. The offensive line loses two All-Americans, but is still a solid unit overall with the other three starters returning.

    Defense is Stanford's strong point this year. Seven starters return from the 26th ranked total defense. The Cardinal have one of the best linebacker units in the country with Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov, AJ Tarpley and Chase Thomas returning. Thomas recorded 8.5 sacks last year and is the team's leading returner in that category.

23. Oklahoma State Cowboys

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    2011 Record: 12-1 (8-1)

    2012 Record (predicted): 8-4 (5-4), 5th in Big 12

    Bowl Prediction: Holiday Bowl

    If not for an overtime loss to Iowa State, Oklahoma State could have been playing for a National Championship last year.

    This year's Cowboys won't be as good, but they're still a Top 25 team even without Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon. True freshman Wes Lunt takes over for Weeden at quarterback in an offense that could allow anyone to succeed. However, these Cowboys may rely more on the run with Joseph Randle back. Randle rushed for 1,216 yards and 24 TDs last year on a pass-first team. Expect more carries from him and perhaps an invitation to New York for the Heisman ceremony this year with an inexperienced quarterback.

    Oklahoma State had the 107th ranked total defense last year, something that will need to dramatically improve for this team to succeed. But, they also ranked 1st in the nation in turnover margin, and this year cornerbacks Brodrick Brown and Justin Gilbert are back as well as free safety Daytawion Lowe. The Cowboys also have a very solid linebacker unit featuring returning starters Alex Elkins, Caleb Lavey and Shaun Lewis. This is a much improved defense so expect them to keep OK-State in games this year.

22. Louisville Cardinals

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    2011 Record: 7-6 (5-2)

    2012 Record (predicted): 10-2 (5-2), 1st in Big East

    Bowl Prediction: Orange Bowl

    The best team in the worst BCS conference is the Louisville Cardinals. Lead by sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, the Cardinals expect their 103rd ranked total offense to show dramatic improvement. Bridgewater started as a true freshman and now that he has a year of experience under his belt, expect to see him put up upwards of 2,500 yards and 20 TDs. All five of Louisville's offensive linemen are back to protect their young quarterback and pave the way for the Cardinals' solid rushing attack.

    Louisville has a strong defense that should limit their opponents to around 20 points per game  The Cardinal defense allowed 20.1 ppg allowed last year. Defensive end Marcus Smith recorded 5.5 sacks last year despite not being the starter. This year he is starting and looks to improve on that number. Louisville's entire secondary comes back along with middle linebacker Preston Brown to help improve the pass defense.

21. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    2011 Record: 8-5

    2012 Record (predicted): 8-4

    Bowl Prediction: Russell Athletic Bowl

    If Notre Dame gets through their brutal schedule with 8 wins, then they deserve to be ranked.

    The Irish have road games at Michigan State, Oklahoma and USC with home games against Michigan, Stanford and BYU and a game against Miami (FL) in Dublin, Ireland. To say the Irish will be tested this season is an understatement.

    Offensively, quarterback Tommy Rees returns, but if he can't cut down on his turnovers (14 INTs last season) he may lose his starting job. Luckily for him, running back Cierre Wood can take some of the pressure off of the passing game. Wood ran for 1,102 yards and 9 TDs last season. Notre Dame also has arguably the best tight end in the country in Tyler Eifert who is the team's leading returner in receiving yards (803 yards last year).

    Notre Dame's defense features one of the best players in the country, middle linebacker Manti Te'o. Te'o recorded 128 tackles and 5 sacks in his junior year and luckily for the Irish, elected to pass on the NFL Draft and return for his senior season. Six other starters from last year's team return as well, including safeties Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta.

20. Kansas State Wildcats

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    2011 Record: 10-3 (7-2)

    2012 Record (predicted): 9-3 (6-3), 4th in Big 12

    Bowl Prediction: Alamo Bowl

    Kansas State was a big surprise last season, going 10-2 in the regular season and earning a spot in the Cotton Bowl. This year they won't be sneaking up on anybody, but they'll be up for the challenge.

    Quarterback Collin Klein is one of the best play makers in the country. Klein threw for 1,918 yards and 13 TDs and added 1,141 rushing yards and an incredible 27 TDs on the ground. If Klein can improve his accuracy as a passer, he can join Heisman winners Tim Tebow and Cam Newton as one of the only players to ever throw and run for 20 TDs in a single season.

    The Wildcats secondary could prevent this team from repeating last season's success. In the Big 12, you need to be able to at least slow down the passing game, but K-State ranked 103rd in the nation in pass defense last season. That won't result in the same success if it happens again this year. Cornerback Nigel Malone had 7 interceptions last season and he's back to help improve the secondary. Defensive end Meshak Wiliams recorded 7 sacks last year and middle linebacker Arthur Brown had 101 tackles, so having the two of them back will keep the Wildcats rushing defense amongst the best in the country.

19. Tennessee Volunteers

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    2011 Record: 5-7 (1-7)

    2012 Record (predicted): 9-3 (5-3), 3rd in SEC East

    Bowl Prediction: Capital One Bowl

    My surprise pick this year is Tennessee in the top 25. The Volunteers won only 5 games last year, but the schedule is a bit more favorable this year. Tennessee doesn't play LSU or Arkansas and gets Florida, Alabama and Missouri in Knoxville.

    6'6" junior quarterback Tyler Bray should have a break out year for the Vols, especially since his favorite receiver, Da'Rick Rogers, is returning as well as four starters on the offensive line. The offensive line will also help to improve the running game, which ranked 116th in the country last year. Tennessee will use multiple backs including Rajion Neal, Marlin Lane and Devrin Young.

    Nine starters return from last years 28th ranked total defense. Sophomore linebacker, AJ Johnson, is the teams leading returner in tackles with 80 and he will play a big role in improving the Vols run defense. Tennessee's secondary is amongst the deepest in the country and ranked 12th in the nation in passing defense last year.

18. Clemson Tigers

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    2011 Record: 10-4 (6-2)

    2012 Record (predicted): 9-3 (7-1), 2nd in ACC Atlantic

    Bowl Prediction: Russell Athletic Bowl

    Clemson's great 2011 season ended rather embarrassingly with a 70-33 Orange Bowl loss against West Virginia. What that game showed is that this defense can't handle a high powered offense.

    Luckily for Clemson, their offense will put up plenty of points this year with quarterback Tajh Boyd returning as well as one of the best receivers in the country, Sammy Watkins. Watkins caught 12 of Boyd's 33 touchdown passes last year. Also returning is running back Andre Ellington who creates balance for the Tigers offense. Ellington ran for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns last year and should put up similar stats this year. The only question mark on this offense is the offensive line which returns only two starters.

    If the Tigers want to repeat last year's success, then the defense needs to play better. Clemson ranked 71st in the nation in total defense and 9th in the ACC. The linebackers should be improved and the secondary returns every starter so expect an improvement in the pass defense as well. The major issue for Clemson will be the line where only one starter returns and he'll be joined by three sophomores who need to grow up quickly.

17. Texas Longhorns

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    2011 Record: 8-5 (4-5)

    2012 Record (predicted): 9-3 (6-3), 3rd in Big 12

    Bowl Prediction: Cotton Bowl

    It's been a disappointing couple of years for Longhorns fans.

    Uncertainty and inconsistency at the quarterback position ever since Colt McCoy's departure has plagued Texas. They're hoping that this year can bring signs of progress from their signal caller.

    The problem is, just like last year, there is no clear number one quarterback. David Ash and Case McCoy (Colt's brother) both saw snaps last year, but it does look like Ash has the edge to get the starting job. The good news for Texas is that they have a very good running game. Malcolm Brown is the team's leading returner in rushing yards, and Joe Bergeron is also back to provide some electricity when Brown needs a breather.

    Texas ranked 11th in the nation in total defense last year and returns a ton of talent. Defensive ends Jackson Jeffcoat (8 sacks last year) and Alex Okafor (7 sacks) are back to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks. The secondary sees three starters returning including sophomore cornerback Quandre Diggs, who totaled 4 interceptions last year.

16. Nebraska Cornhuskers

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    2011 Record: 9-4 (5-3)

    2012 Record (predicted): 10-2 (6-2), 3rd in Big Ten Legends

    Bowl Prediction: Gator Bowl

    Nebraska is a team that could very well be playing in the Big Ten Championship game this year. They have the talent, but they have a difficult schedule playing at Michigan State and Ohio State as well as home games against Wisconsin and Michigan.

    Offensively, the Huskers can run the football. Bruising running back Rex Burkhead, ran for 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns last year and quarterback, Taylor Martinez, added 874 yards of his own and 9 touchdowns. But, if Nebraska wants to succeed against the better defense that they face, then Martinez needs to improve on his passing. He threw 13 touchdowns and was picked off 8 times and completed only 56.3% of his passes which tied for 91st in the country.

    Nebraska's defense loses a few key players that they need to find replacements for. Shut down cornerback Alfonzo Dennard is now in the NFL, so new starter Mohammed Seisoy has some big shoes to fill. At times last year, Nebraska's defense looked great and other times it was horrible. Consistency is the key for the Cornhuskers this season.

15. Arkansas Razorbacks

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    2011 Record: 11-2 (6-2)

    2012 Record (predicted): 9-3 (5-3), 3rd in SEC West

    Bowl Prediction: Outback Bowl

    If Arkansas was in just about any other conference other than the SEC, they'd be the favorite to win. However, in the SEC, they may be the 5th best overall team. And it doesn't help that head coach Bobby Petrino was relieved of his duties following an offseason incident involving a motor cycle and a woman who was not his wife.

    Quarterback Tyler Wilson is one of the best in the country at his position and he'll put up similar numbers to his 3,638 yards, 24 TDs and 6 INTs from a year ago. Running back Knile Davis returns from an injury and he'll join Dennis Johnson in a backfield that not only will give the Razorbacks a solid ground game to take the pressure off of Wilson and the passing game, but immediately becomes one of the best in the SEC.

    The Razorbacks are one of the rare SEC teams that has a sup-par defense and an explosive offense. Arkansas loses four of their best defensive players and if this team wants to contend in the best conference in the country, the defense needs to improve. Linebacker Alonzo Highsmith is the teams leading returner in tackles (80) and sacks (4.5) and he is the best player on this defense. We'll see how good this team will be in their third game of the season when they host Alabama.

14. Michigan State Spartans

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    2011 Record: 11-3 (7-1)

    2012 Record (predicted): 10-2 (6-2), 2nd in Big Ten Legends

    Bowl Prediction: Capital One Bowl

    Michigan State has a difficult schedule with home games against Boise State, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Nebraska and away against Michigan and Wisconsin. They lose their starting quarterback and top two receivers, but the Spartans are still a threat in the Big Ten.

    Andrew Maxwell takes over at quarterback and has the talent to be an effective replacement as long as he establishes a rapport with the new receivers. Luckily for Maxwell, the Spartans have a veteran offensive line that returns four starters. The line will help protect Maxwell and will also pave the way for running back Le'Veon Bell who ran for 948 yards and 13 TDs last year.

    Michigan State's defense will carry this team this year. The Spartans return eight starters from last year's 6th ranked total defense. Chris Norman, Max Bullough, and Denicos Allen combine to make one of the best linebacker units in the country. Bullough had 89 tackles last year and Allen recorded 11 sacks, both lead all returning players. The secondary returns three starters including both cornerbacks and strong safety, Isaiah Lewis, who picked off 4 passes last year.

13. Virginia Tech Hokies

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    2011 Record: 11-3 (7-1)

    2012 Record (predicted): 11-2 (7-1), 1st in ACC Coastal

    Bowl Prediction: Chick-fil-a Bowl

    Virginia Tech's schedule will once again allow them to be ranked in the top 15. Other than a road game at Clemson and a home game against Florida State, Tech should be able to roll through their schedule.

    Offensively, the Hokies have a lot of question marks, but they also have one big answer: Logan Thomas. Thomas is one of the best quarterbacks in the country and he will carry this offense with his arm (3,013 passing yards, 19 TDs) and his legs (469 rushing yards, 11 TDs). Thomas needs his offensive line to learn quickly, as the only returning lineman is center, Andrew Miller.

    Replacing running back, David Wilson, will be a challenge for Virginia Tech, but they seem to always have a new running back waiting to step in. This time, it will be red-shirt freshman, Michael Holmes.

    As always, Virginia Tech will have a stellar defense. One of the best defensive lines in the country is lead by James Gayle who recorded 7 sacks last year. If the linebacker unit can stay healthy, which it hasn't during spring practices, it too will be one of the nation's best. Antone Exum, the team's leading returner in tackles (89), moves from safety to cornerback this year and the safety spots will be filled by two sophomores.

12. South Carolina Gamecocks

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    2011 Record: 11-2 (6-2)

    2012 Record (predicted): 10-3 (6-2), 1st in SEC East

    Bowl Prediction: Gator Bowl

    The quarterback position has been a problem for South Carolina for the past few years, but they're hoping that they've found their answer in Connor Shaw.

    Shaw took over as the starter after five games last season, but struggled at first before showing improvement in the Gamecocks last three games including their bowl victory against Nebraska. Coach Steve Spurrier is hoping that Shaw carries that over into this year. Running back Marcus Lattimore returns from a knee injury and if he stays healthy, he is a definite All-American and Heisman candidate. Lattimore ran for 818 yards and 10 TDs in only seven games last year and will be the pace-setter for the South Carolina offense.

    The Gamecocks have one of the best defenses in the country. Last year's top recruit, defensive end Jadaveon Clowney, recorded 8 sacks as a freshman while still learning the defense. He's now a sophomore and will torture opposing quarterbacks along with fellow defensive end Devin Taylor. South Carolina's secondary lead the team to the 2nd best pass defense in the country last year, but only one starter returns from that unit.

11. West Virginia Mountaineers

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    2011 Record: 10-3 (5-2 Big East)

    2012 Record (predicted): 10-2 (7-2), 2nd in Big 12

    Bowl Prediction: Sugar Bowl

    West Virginia is looking to make some noise in their first year as a member of the Big 12 Conference.

    The Mountaineers need to prove that they can still succeed in a more difficult conference playing more talented teams week after week. West Virginia's explosive offense fits perfectly in the Big 12. Geno Smith will be this year's Robert Griffin III, going from an unknown talent to a household name. Smith threw for 4,385 yards and 31 TDs last year in Dana Holgorsen's first year as head coach.

    Holgorsen is known for being an offensive genius and has a system that would allow even me to excel at quarterback. Smith has his top weapons returning in Tavon Austin (1,186 receiving yards 8 TDs) and Stedman Bailey (1,279 receiving yards 12 TDs). West Virginia's offense will be one of the best in the country and could lead them to a year like Oklahoma State had last year.

    Defense is a bit of a concern for WVU. The Mountaineers lost two defensive linemen from last year's team that they will have a hard time replacing. In the Big 12 you need to be able to slow down opposing passing games, so luckily for West Virginia both cornerbacks and safeties have experience starting. This includes safety Darwin Cook who recorded 85 tackles last year as a sophomore.

10. Ohio State Buckeyes

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    2011 Record: 6-7 (3-5)

    2012 Record (predicted): 10-2 (6-2), 2nd in Big Ten Leaders

    Bowl Prediction: Not eligible for postseason

    This will be a very interesting season for Ohio State.

    The Buckeyes are not eligible for the Big Ten Championship or a bowl game due to NCAA sanctions and it is up to new head coach Urban Meyer to keep this team focused and committed despite having nothing to play for.

    Quarterback Braxton Miller has tremendous potential and lead the team in rushing and passing last year. Urban Meyer loves dual threat quarterbacks, so expect Miller to have an impressive year. Ohio State has a surplus of running backs who will split the load and help take pressure off their young quarterback. The line loses three very talented starters, but Ohio State has a tendency to rebuild quickly at that position.

    Ohio State has a powerful defense that will create problems for everyone they play against. Defensive end John Simon recorded 7 sacks last year and he leads a veteran defensive line. The linebacker unit is inexperienced, but because the offensive line is so talented, the linebackers will have time to learn in the early games of the season. The Buckeyes secondary returns all four starters and will lead the defense to another top 15 season in passing defense.

9. Wisconsin Badgers

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    2011 Record: 11-3 (6-2)

    2012 Record (predicted): 10-3 (6-2), 1st in Big Ten Leaders

    Bowl Prediction: Fiesta Bowl

    The two time defending Big Ten champions will contend for another title this year.

    They lose quarterback Russell Wilson, but replace him with another transfer in Danny O'Brien who came to Madison from Maryland. O'Brien threw for 2,438 yards and 22 TDs his freshmen year before seeing a huge drop off his sophomore year under new coach Randy Edsall. O'Brien will be helped out by Heisman finalist running back, Montee Ball. Ball rushed for 1,923 yards and 33 TDs last year and will be the tone setter for this offense once again. Wisconsin's offensive line loses some talent, but the Badgers are always deep on the line so don't expect that to be much of an issue.

    Wisconsin struggled to stop the run last season, but it was never more apparent than in their 45-38 Rose Bowl loss to Oregon. The Badgers need improvement in order to slow down the run and get pressure on the quarterback. The linebacker unit is solid, including Mike Taylor who recorded 150 tackles last year. Wisconsin's secondary lead the team to the 4th ranked pass defense, but they lost two valuable starters who need to be replaced for the Badgers to succeed.

8. Georgia Bulldogs

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    2011 Record: 10-4 (7-1)

    2012 Record (predicted): 10-2 (6-2), 2nd in SEC East

    Bowl Prediction: Cotton Bowl

    The schedule favors the Bulldogs this year with no Alabama, LSU, or Arkansas. But they do have to go on the road against Missouri, South Carolina and Auburn.

    Georgia is lead offensively by quarterback Aaron Murray who threw for 3,149 yards and 35 TDs as a sophomore. Georgia's running game has been inconsistent since Knowshon Moreno was in the backfield. Isaiah Crowell will be the starter while Ken Malcome and Keith Marshall should see some carries as well. The big problem for Georgia's offense is their line. They lost two seniors and will have a freshman and a sophomore as replacements. If Georgia wants to succeed against SEC defenses, then the line needs to step up.

    Ten starters return for a defense that ranked 5th in the nation last year.  The linebacker unit may be the best in the country, lead by Jarvis Jones who sacked opposing quarterbacks 13.5 times last year.  The Bulldogs also have four seniors returning in the secondary and all three linemen are seniors as well.  This defense is experienced and extremely talented.

7. Michigan Wolverines

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    2011 Record: 11-2 (6-2)

    2012 Record (predicted): 11-2 (7-1), 1st in Big Ten Legends

    Bowl Prediction: Rose Bowl

    Brady Hoke is making Michigan fans forget about the Rich Rodriguez years.

    Hoke lead the Wolverines to 11 wins in his first year and has a team that can match that win total this year. Michigan opens up the season against Alabama at Cowboys Stadium and that is where we'll see just how good this team is. If they can at least hang in with Alabama then they should be able to contend in the Big Ten.

    Denard Robinson is the most lethal weapon in college football, throwing for 2,173 yards and 20 TDs and running for 1,176 yards and 16 TDs. Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint ran for 1,041 yards last year and he is back as the second piece of one of the best one-two punches in the country. The passing game needs some work, and Roy Roundtree is the only returning receiver with real starting experience. If Robinson has open targets to throw to, this will be one of the most explosive offenses in the country.

    Michigan had the 6th ranked scoring defense in the country last year and the 17th ranked total defense. However, the defensive line is a big question as three of last year's starters are gone. All three linebackers are back, but that was a unit that struggled at times last year. Finally, the secondary returns three starters and looks like the best part of this defense. 

6. Florida State Seminoles

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    2011 Record: 9-4 (5-3)

    2012 Record (predicted): 12-1 (7-1), 1st in ACC Atlantic

    Bowl Prediction: Orange Bowl

    Expectations were high for the Seminoles last year, but the team got off to a 2-3 and panic ensued in Tallahassee.

    Once again, expectations are high but this time I expect the Noles to meet them.

    Quarterback EJ Manuel is now a senior and has the experience and skills to have a big year, especially since he has a very talented receiving corp.  Rashad Greene had a big year as a true freshman and will join Rodney Smith and Willie Haulstead as Manuel's targets. Florida State ranked 104th in rushing offense last year and it was in large part due to poor offensive line play. The line is a huge question mark again this year, but the running backs are talented.

    Florida State has one of the best defenses in the country and it all starts up front with their loaded line.  Brandon Jenkins and his 8 sacks decided to return to school and join Bjoern Werner and Everett Dawkins as the returning starters. The secondary is also formidable with both cornerbacks returning and strong safety Lamarcus Joyner.  

5. Oregon Ducks

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    2011 Record: 12-2 (8-1)

    2012 Record (predicted): 11-2 (8-1), 1st in Pac 12 North

    Bowl Prediction: Rose Bowl

    The Quack Attack offense will once again be virtually unstoppable.The pure speed that Chip Kelly's offense has year after year is simply incredible and this year will be no different.

    Replacing LaMichael James is Kenjon Barner, who ran for 939 yards and 11 TDs last year as the second string back. Not only do the Ducks have Barner, but De'Anthony Thomas is back and he'll line up all over the field. He's a receiver, a running back, a return man and just an all around playmaker. Any time he touches the ball he could get into the endzone. It looks like freshman Marcus Mariota will be the quarterback and he'll be able to get accustomed to the system in Oregon's easy early season schedule.

    Oregon's defense hasn't gotten much attention due to their explosive offense, but this year's Ducks have a defense that will be the best they've had under Kelly. Dion Jordan plays defensive end and outside linebacker and can quickly cover the field. Safety John Boyett recorded 108 tackles last year and he is one of the best in the country at his position.

4. Oklahoma Sooners

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    2011 Record: 10-3 (6-3)

    2012 Record (predicted): 11-1 (8-1), 1st in Big 12

    Bowl Prediction: Fiesta Bowl

    Oklahoma had National Championship aspirations last year, but lost three disappointing regular season games and had to settle for the Insight Bowl.

    That won't be good enough this year.

    Landry Jones returned to school to lead this team to a championship and he has the supporting cast to get that done. Jones threw for 4,463 yards and 29 TDs last year, but he threw 15 interceptions. If he can cut down on the turnovers he'll be a Heisman candidate. Oklahoma's top receiver, Ryan Broyles, has gone to the NFL, but Kenny Stills has the skills to be the top target for Jones. The running game is lead by Dominique Whaley who was having a great year until he broke his ankle. The Sooners have a solid offensive line that will protect Jones and pave the way for Whaley.

    The big question for Oklahoma's defense is their line where only one starter returns. The three replacements are all seniors, but they don't have the experience. The linebacker unit also suffers some losses, but middle linebacker Tom Wort is one of the best in the Big 12. Oklahoma's passing defense ranked 79th last year, but all four secondary players return and look to improve that rank against the tough Big 12 offenses.

3. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    2011 Record: 12-1 (7-1)

    2012 Record (predicted): 11-1 (7-1), 2nd in SEC West

    Bowl Prediction: Sugar Bowl

    Nick Saban's Alabama Crimson Tide are reloaded and ready to make another title run.

    Quarterback AJ McCarron was fantastic in the National Championship Game last year and looks to take that momentum into this season. He'll have plenty of time to throw the ball thanks to one of the best offensive lines in the country. Four starters return from the line, including All-American candidate, center Barrett Jones. The line will also lead the way for new running back Eddie Lacy who ran for 674 yards and 7 TDs last year backing up Trent Richardson. The question mark with this offense is at the receiver position. Four receivers graduated from last year's team and now a new crop will have to make plays for McCarron.

    Only four starters are back from the best defense in college football, but Saban loads up on talent so that when his stars get drafted he can replace them without any setbacks. Returning linebacker Nico Johnson is the leader of this defense and safety Robert Lester is one of the best in the SEC. If Alabama's new starters play as well as expected, this team will be in the title hunt once again. 

2. USC Trojans

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    2011 Record: 10-2 (7-2)

    2012 Record (predicted): 13-0 (9-0), 1st in Pac 12 South

    Bowl Prediction: BCS National Championship

    USC is finally eligible for postseason play and they have a team that is ready to make up for lost time.

    Quarterback Matt Barkley returned to school to win a championship and he just may win the Heisman along the way. Barkley threw for 3,528 yards and 39 TDs against only 7 interceptions. He is one of the most accurate passers in the country and will most likely be the first player taken in next year's NFL Draft. Barkley is helped out by two of the best receivers in the entire country in Robert Woods and Marqise Lee. Woods set a Pac 12 record with 111 receptions and Lee contributed over 1,000 yards. Running back Curtis McNeal ran for 1,005 yards last year and he completes what may be the most complete offense in college football.

    USC's defensive line only returns one starter, but that is the only real question mark on this defense.  Six of the back seven are back, including linebacker Hayes Pullard who recorded 81 tackles last year as a freshman.  The secondary is filled with experience and will definitely improve on last year's pass defense that was ranked 102nd in the country.

1. LSU Tigers

27 of 27

    2011 Record: 13-1 (8-0)

    2012 Record (predicted): 13-0 (8-0), 1st in SEC West

    Bowl Prediction: BCS National Championship

    LSU's offense prevented them from winning a championship last year. They were completely shut down by Alabama, but this year's offense is going to be much better.

    New quarterback Zach Mettenberger is a better passer than Jordan Jefferson, whose inconsistent play killed the Tigers in the title game. LSU goes four deep at running back, with three players who ran for over 500 yards last year (Michael Ford, Spencer Ware, Alfred Blue) and Kenny Hilliard who averaged 5.4 yards per carry as a freshman. The Tigers top receiver is gone, but sophomores Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry are capable of filling his shoes. The ground game will carry the Tigers offense, but now that they have a quarterback who can throw the ball, they'll utilize the passing game more than last year.

    Defensively, LSU is loaded with players with All-American potential. Defensive ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo will pressure the quarterback as well as returning starter, defensive tackle Bennie Logan. The linebacker unit could be considered a question mark for LSU with only one starter returning, but it was a problem last year as well and they still had a dominant defense. In the secondary, the Tigers have Heisman finalist Tyrann Mathieu back for his junior year. The Honey Badger is a playmaker who will terrorize opposing quarterbacks once again and has breakaway speed as a return man. He'll be helped out in the secondary by one of the best safeties in the country, Eric Reid.

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