The 2013 Spring Football Top 25
Let’s just get this out on the table right now: You’re going to disagree with my Spring Football Top 25, and these disagreements will probably take place early and often. Heck, you probably disagree with this sentiment, at least for the moment.
Nothing angers the masses quite like being disrespected in a pre-preseason poll, and I will undoubtedly hear from you—many of you—in the comment section. Your thoughts, as always, are appreciated.
Although we have plenty of time before actual preseason polls will be released, the rosters for most teams are now in place. Spring football is on the horizon, and for some, it's already underway.
Never has the term “spring” felt more loosely used.
These rankings will change with injuries, the inevitable offseason attrition and surprise performances from unlikely places, but for now, here’s my Top 25 with some observations for each team.
For me, Baylor is one of the most difficult teams to evaluate. I could see them competing for a Big 12 Championship, but I could also see them finishing somewhere in the middle of the pack. At this point, I'm not ready to bet against Art Briles.
On offense, you’ll have a hard time finding many running back combos better than the two Baylor will return. Lache Seastrunk—who is already talking, thinking Heisman—and Glasco Martin had fantastic seasons. Both finished out the year incredibly strong, and they closed with a combined 2,010 yards and 23 touchdowns.
With solid line play, those numbers could be easily reached this year if the two stay healthy.
Quarterback Nick Florence is gone, which means Bryce Petty will likely be next up. Petty has played limited minutes in games, although he’s a fantastic athlete with a great arm. He won’t have wide receiver Terrance Williams to throw to anymore, although many seem confident with his game.
The defense, which played better near the end of the year, needs to improve and play more consistently. For the season, the Bears allowed just over 37 points per game.
Although Alabama is, well, Alabama and Ole Miss has seemingly redefined “momentum” in the SEC, this is a fascinating year for Vanderbilt.
The 2012 season was good to the Commodores, and nine wins in the turbulent SEC should be looked at as a fantastic accomplishment. The question is: Now what? How do they sustain this momentum and perhaps elevate their recent success to another level?
Expectations (albeit realistic ones) are now in place at Vandy, and James Franklin will enter 2013 without quarterback Jordan Rodgers or running back Zac Stacy. They do, however, return one of the best wide receivers in the SEC in Jordan Matthews. Matthews finished 2012 with 94 catches, 1,323 yards and eight touchdowns.
The quarterback battle should be a good one. Austyn Carta-Samuels, who played limited minutes last year, and redshirt freshman Patton Robinette will each get a shot at the job.
At running back, Brian Kimbrow is someone to look out for. The highly regarded recruit ran for 400 yards and averaged nearly 6.5 yards per carry as a freshman, and he could be a potential breakout player in the conference.
Despite the Bruins’ ugly finish—which culminated with a beatdown on Baylor’s behalf in the Holiday Bowl—Jim Mora has something brewing here. After bringing in the No. 8 recruiting class this year according to Rivals, UCLA will try and capture the now while developing a solid group of young talent.
Quarterback Brett Hundley will be key in this, and he could very well be on his way to becoming one of the nation’s most explosive players. Some may argue that he’s already there. His continued development, however, will have to come without running back Johnathan Franklin, who is off to the NFL. Franklin ran for 1,734 yards with 13 touchdowns last season.
Although the offensive line will return four players, it has to improve. Starting three freshmen last year, the Bruins gave up 52 sacks. If Brett Hundley is going to make it through injury-free, that has to change.
Defense was clearly a priority for Mora in recruiting, and with talent coming in it’ll be interesting to see: a) which young players see the field early; and b) how much they improve in Year 2.
22. Boise State
After a breathless moment—right about the time the Oregon job opened up—things in Boise, Idaho, move right along, business as usual. Chris Petersen returns as the head coach, which means we’ve probably underrated Boise State for the 35th consecutive year.
The post-Kellen Moore era started off somewhat shaky, but quarterback Joe Southwick improved a great deal as the season progressed last year. His seasoning, along with the tutelage of Petersen, gives you much to be optimistic about in 2013.
Outside of Southwick, the offense will feature many new faces overall. Although the defense won’t lose as many bodies, the secondary will have to be rebuilt starting in the spring. Petersen recruited hard on the JUCO front, hoping for some immediate impact.
Boise State will begin the season with a rematch of their bowl game, and a trip to an improving Washington team will be very telling. It also likely be their toughest game in 2013.
On paper, the Broncos shouldn’t be as good as we’re accustomed to seeing—despite the potential of their QB—but we know this method simply does not apply with this team.
Hard to assess early, as usual.
A very solid season overall was soiled in Nebraska’s final two games, in which the Cornhuskers gave up a combined 115 points. If you weren’t aware already (or if that point total didn’t give it away), they lost both of those contests. Shocking, I know.
More than half of the team’s defensive starters are gone, which undoubtedly hurts in experience. But the holes were rather glaring even with the known “talent” in place. Bo Pelini has sent more than a handful of defenders to the NFL leading up to this offseason, and now he has to find the next great batch.
On offense, however, this team could be fun to watch. Taylor Martinez improved drastically last season—despite still having the occasional “Bad T-Magic” moment.
At running back, the loss of Rex Burkhead certainly stings, but it hurts much less when you have a player like Ameer Abdullah waiting to break out. At wide receiver, there are very few better than Kenny Bell, one of the most underrated players in the country.
Just where do they fit in the Big Ten? After the Buckeyes, it's pretty open to debate.
Northwestern got 10 wins last year, remember that? No? Well, take note.
Kain Colter is one of the most intriguing players in all of college football, and the Wildcats have learned how to use him as a quarterback, running back and receiver.
He returns along with quarterback Trevor Siemian and outstanding running back Venric Mark—who really should get more national recognition—to give Pat Fitzgerald a legitimate three-headed attack.
The offensive line, however, is getting a makeover; three members of the team’s front from last year will have to be replaced. With as much as they rely on running the football in a variety of ways, this will be integral to their success.
The defense, which only allowed 22.5 points per game last season (good for 29th in the country), will return seven starters and should once again be one of the conference’s best.
This is a very interesting team, and it wouldn’t shock me to see the Wildcats duplicate their success from this past season despite their conference improving around them.
The good news for Oklahoma is that four offensive linemen return along with running backs Damien Williams and Brennan Clay. The bad news is that the rest of the roster is a bit of a mystery.
The most talked-about change will be at quarterback. Landry Jones is out, and Blake Bell (a.k.a. "Belldozer") is likely in. Bell has certainly seen the field plenty, and Bob Stoops has used his large frame in the red zone.
How he will fare as a regular thrower—assuming he wins the job this spring—will likely dictate how they're able to move the football.
The Sooners lose a good chunk of their defense, and they will enter spring extremely thin. How thin, you ask? Well, the latest departures will leave them with just three defensive tackles and three cornerbacks for spring ball. Help (and bodies) are coming, but this is concerning to say the least.
Despite the uncertainty, much of the Big 12 remains a mystery going into the spring. If the defense can improve and find depth along the way, and if Bell can be a complete quarterback, Oklahoma could still find itself in the the Big 12 Championship mix.
18. Oklahoma State
To me, this is one of the most curious teams in college football. After enduring so much change—especially on offense last year—Mike Gundy’s team put forth a solid season despite a revolving door at quarterback.
Although Wes Lunt was named the starter last year, Clint Chelf and J.W. Walsh each threw for 1,500 yards once Lunt went down. For the season, Oklahoma State averaged nearly 46 points per game.
This is incredible considering: a) the injuries they endured; and b) the fact that they lost Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon in the same offseason.
Although having three quarterbacks in contention for a starting job is rarely considered a good thing, this is an exception. All three can play.
Change will remain a theme at Oklahoma State, and Gundy will operate with a new offensive and defensive coordinator. Running back Joseph Randle is also gone, foregoing his final season for the NFL. His production—1,417 yards and 14 touchdowns—will be difficult to replace.
On defense, the Cowboys have to get better, and perhaps new leadership will help spark this movement. This will likely be the difference between an eight-win season and hovering around a Big 12 title.
17. Oregon State
One of the biggest surprises of the past season likely won’t be vanishing into thin air once the clock officially hits 2013. Through the In-N-Out visits late night, Mike Riley resurrected the Beavers with some key wins in a conference in transition.
Who will be the starting quarterback? Better yet, will he stay the starter throughout the season?
Those are the questions surrounding Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz, both of whom saw meaningful minutes last year. Mannion burst out of the gate hot, but an injury derailed his season, and it was Vaz who played in the team’s bowl loss against Texas.
Regardless of who starts Week 1, they will be handing the ball off to one of college football’s better young running backs. Storm Woods showed flashes of brilliance as a frosh, and with four offensive linemen returning, there’s a high probability he blows past 1,000 yards if he stays healthy.
On defense, there are certainly questions. The Beavers lose at least one key player at every level, and it'll be difficult for them to match the tremendous production from a year ago. Still, what a difference a year makes.
Another team that knows plenty about the ups and downs of playing young players is the Longhorns. The Texas roster was jam-packed with underclassmen, which is good news. At least for one side of the football.
Although we expected Manny Diaz’s group to be one of the nation’s best in 2012, they were far from it. The defense gave up nearly 30 points per game, and they’ll be without defensive end Alex Okafor along with safety Kenny Vaccaro in 2013.
Defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat will return after suffering a season-ending injury last year, however, and he could be one of the Big 12’s best players if he can stay healthy.
On offense, what can we expect from quarterback David Ash? At times, he appeared to be turning the corner, while at other times—take the game against Kansas, for example—he looked every bit the part of an inexperienced freshman.
At running back, Texas is loaded. If the Longhorns can find balance on offense, get more consistent line play and see the young defense improve a great deal, a return to the top of the Big 12 could be in order.
Mack Brown could certainly use it. Anything less, and the 2014 offseason could be a bit more interesting.
15. Florida State
To me, this is where the Top 25 becomes cluttered. You could argue that we reached this point a few spots ago, and you're probably right, but you could make a great case for more than a handful of teams here and beyond.
The recruiting done by head coach Jimbo Fisher in recent years will likely pay off in 2013. The Seminoles have loaded up on talent, which makes the losses of defensive end Bjoern Werner and quarterback E.J. Manuel easier to cope with.
On the topic of Manuel, the starting quarterback opening will be one of the nation’s most intriguing. Clint Trickett has played limited minutes in the past few seasons—although he does have two starts under his belt and played well—while freshman Jameis Winston was the top overall QB prospect in 2012 and his ceiling is incredibly high.
The most difficult losses for Florida State, however, won’t be a player or specific unit. Instead, the losses of six assistant coaches—including defensive coordinator Mark Stoops (to Kentucky) and offensive coordinator James Coley—could disrupt some of the positive mojo that had been working in the Noles' favor.
The mass exodus at LSU was broadcast loud and clear, and it seemed more appropriate to report who would be staying with the team rather than who was leaving early. In total, 11 underclassmen declared for the NFL draft, which makes up more than 15 percent of the total declared underclassmen for the year.
So, what now?
The hits will especially hurt the front seven. Defensive ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery, along with linebacker Kevin Minter—the team’s best overall defender last year—will be difficult to replace. Although LSU isn’t quite Alabama on the talent assembly-line front, they Tigers are probably the next best thing.
In terms of development, look for players such as Jermauria Rasco, Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson to make an impact up front. This is where consistent and solid recruiting (hopefully) pays off.
On offense, the conversation will once again center on quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Last year at this time, we spoke about his great potential, great arm and the great unknown. After a season of mixed results with some signs of improvement at the end, it’s time for him to take the next step.
Here’s a team I’m definitely higher on than most.
Gary Patterson’s group was very young in 2012, and this could be seen by the fact that they had eight Freshman All-Americans last year. In total, 16 freshmen contributed to the team while they only had 11 seniors on scholarship.
Translation: The Horned Frogs are still very young, and that experience could pay off sooner than later.
One of those bright young stars is defensive end Devonte Fields, who was named the National Defensive Freshman of the Year. Fields will terrorize Big 12 offensive lines, and a defense that was already very good could be one of the nation’s elite soon enough. Ten starters will return on that side of the ball.
On offense, it’s all about quarterback Casey Pachall. Pachall was booted from the team following a DUI, spent time in a drug rehabilitation center and is now back and expected to compete for the starting job with Trevone Boykin. Although the Horned Frogs lost talented wideout Josh Boykin to the NFL, six starters will return.
So much but potential, but also so much youth. This could swing either way.
It’s only fitting that Michigan holds down the next spot in the Top 25, although this isn’t because of their bowl game connection. Coincidence, I swear.
It’s an interesting year for the Wolverines as they embark on the post-Denard Robinson era. Although it sounds somewhat daunting, I doubt they’ll skip a beat.
In fact, Devin Gardner could very well be one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the country heading into next season.
Gardner will finally benefit from an offseason of being "the guy," and the results will likely show. It also doesn’t hurt that left tackle Taylor Lewan—a likely top-five draft pick in 2014—has decided to return for his senior season. Without him, the line would be undergoing almost a complete overhaul.
The progress of running back Fitz Toussaint will be something to monitor this spring as he comes back from a broken leg he suffered in the middle of November. A healthy Toussaint along with incoming 5-star talent Derrick Green could give Michigan a fascinating one-two punch.
The Wolverines need to find some stability at wide receiver, however, which is something they have lacked in recent years.
11. South Carolina
By the time South Carolina’s first game rolls around, I’ll likely have watched Jadeveon Clowney’s hit on Vincent Smith a few more thousand times. That’s completely normal—my football therapist says so—and this is also where we begin our evaluation of Steve Spurrier’s 2013 team.
Clowney will indeed be back, despite the ridiculous conversations over whether he should sit out a season. His presence alone is crucial for this team, which will alter an opposing team’s offensive game plan entirely.
This is very good news, because the rest of the defense will be very young, filled with new faces.
On offense, Spurrier will get back Connor Shaw (who is undergoing offseason foot surgery) along with Dylan Thompson at quarterback. Although Shaw likely has a slight edge, we’ve seen the Ol’ Ball Coach turn to both plenty. Whoever plays, they will benefit greatly behind an offense line that will return four starters.
One loss that can’t be overstated, however, is wide receiver and special-teams wizard Ace Sanders. There's simply no replacing someone like that in one offseason.
The Gators will lose a lot on defense—including defensive coordinator Dan Quinn—but luckily (or unluckily, depending on if you have them on the schedule) they have plenty of talent still in place.
Defensive end Ronald Powell will be back healthy after tearing his ACL last spring. Also coming back along the defensive line will be disruptor Dominique Easley. If these two can stay healthy, offensive lines will have their hands full.
For the Gators, they simply have to find a way to be more consistent on offense, especially now that running back Mike Gillislee is gone.
Quarterback Jeff Driskel showed signs of brilliance last year, but he was often inconsistent as well. While some of this undoubtedly falls on his arm (and legs), the Gators need to find consistent playmakers to make his life easier.
They should be a more balanced team in 2013 and still a tough task against any SEC foe. With that being said, their unexpected and overwhelming success in 2012 is going to be a tough act to follow.
There’s a very good chance Louisville will go unbeaten next season. There’s also a good chance that even if they do, they’ll likely be left on the outside of the final BCS National Championship.
The Cardinals' Big East schedule is soft to say the least, although don't let this clutter the fact that Charlie Strong's team could be special.
The defense—which struggled at times last year—will be much improved, and almost every starter will return on that side of the football.
The offensive side will need some retooling with the losses of center Mario Benavides and left tackle Alex Kupper, but many of the skill players will return. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater will also return. If he continues to progress at the rate he is right now, this will likely be his final college season.
Bridgewater’s finest game last season came at the biggest moment, and his performance against the Florida Gators was a showcase of just how good he can be. Even scarier, he's still learning, still raw and only going to improve.
Quarterback Aaron Murray is back, as are running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. Although wide receiver Tavarres King is NFL-bound, Malcolm Mitchell will likely become a full-time pass catcher after dabbling on defense last year. This is wise, and Mitchell will perform if he can stay healthy.
The defense, however, is a different story. Mark Richt is about to earn the raise he just received.
Georgia will have to replace nine starters on this side of the ball, including linebackers Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree as well as defensive tackle John Jenkins. All three could be first-round picks in the upcoming NFL draft, and there are other glaring holes on that side of the ball.
The good news? Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham will be back in Athens after flirting with openings in the NFL.
Stopping teams is certainly the area of concern, but Richt has done a nice job stockpiling talent over the past few years. He’s not stockpiling at Nick Saban’s pace, but the offense will be good enough to keep the Bulldogs in most games. How the defense adapts will dictate their ceiling.
I’m slightly higher on this team than most, and much of my faith rests on the arm of Tajh Boyd. Boyd’s terrific season culminated with a gutsy win over LSU in the team’s bowl game, and perhaps this was the game that will finally alter the Clemson narrative.
Still, the losses of running back Andre Ellington and receiver DeAndre Hopkins are huge, and they will not be easy to replace. Luckily, Sammy Watkins is back, and it wouldn’t shock me to see the Tigers use him in more creative ways on offense.
Almost the entire offensive line will return, which is huge plus if you watched them play last season. When Tajh Boyd has time and space to step into his throws, there’s not much you can do to stop him.
On the topic of stopping people, that’s where this ranking may come into question. Although Clemson’s defense improved under Brent Venables, it still has a long way to go. Look out for stud DB recruit Mackensie Alexander, who will likely push for playing time early.
I have a feeling he’ll be hard to miss.
6. Notre Dame
With the BCS hangover and the Manti Te’o fiasco in the rear-view, Notre Dame closed out national signing day with one of the best classes in the country. Help is on the way, no doubt about it, but there are also plenty of reasons to be excited about the returning talent.
On defense, Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt will help give the Irish one of the best, most disruptive D-lines in the entire country. There are some holes to fill on the back end, although some of the players Brian Kelly recruited—including linebacker Jaylon Smith and safety Max Redfield—could contribute early on.
Everett Golson will be the key on offense once again, and his progression will dictate much of their success. Although tight end Tyler Eifert is off to the NFL, keep your eye on wideout DaVaris Daniels. He could be in for a big season after showing signs that he was ready to take that next step last year.
Although it’ll take a gargantuan effort to repeat last year’s success, Notre Dame isn't going away. A young roster with a ton of talent will be a tough matchup for anyone who draws the Irish in 2013.
Like Stanford, Oregon also has to replace their feature back. Kenjon Barner is off to the NFL, which means we’ll likely see more touches for the electric De’Anthony Thomas and a solid helping of 5-star recruit Thomas Tyner. Look for him to make a significant impact out of the gate.
And, of course, that’s far from the Ducks' biggest departure. Chip Kelly has taken his offensive prowess to the Philadelphia Eagles, and Mark Helfrich will be tasked with keeping the momentum going. Although he’s not Chip Kelly, he’s the closest thing to him. This just might just be good enough.
In terms of continuity, a good chunk of the staff remained with the team and many of the players will be back. The Ducks should be pretty solid across the offensive and defensive lines, and the defense should continue to be much better than many give them credit for.
The main event, however, will be Marcus Mariota. He was brilliant in his first season as the starter, and there’s no reason to believe that’ll change. Heisman talk should begin now, and really, it kicked up late last season.
Yes, 14 more Stanford tight ends are headed to the NFL this year, but Stanford is built to be a force yet again. Also, the Cardinal signed three more tight ends this past recruiting class, and they will undoubtedly turn out to be first-round talents.
I'm joking, maybe.
The biggest item when it comes to Stanford’s success—outside of a young, brilliant offensive line—will be the development of quarterback Kevin Hogan. As a freshman, Hogan was superb—not Marcus Mariota superb, but turning to him in the middle of the season seemed to be the turning point for this team. His development will likely determine the ceiling for Stanford in 2013.
The loss of running back Stepfan Taylor is a big one, but getting back Tyler Gaffney at the position was a welcomed surprise. Gaffney had tried his luck at pro baseball, but before he did, he was a very productive runner for this team. It’s not just him, however; Stanford has a handful of talented backs—including Barry J. Sanders—that should run wild behind that line.
3. Ohio State
Looking at Ohio State's schedule, an undefeated season doesn't just seem possible. It almost feels likely.
Losing players like John Simon and Johnathan Hankins along the defensive line is a massive blow, but I have plenty of faith in some of the young defensive talent of which we saw a taste last year.
Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington and Tommy Schutt may not be as talented just yet, but they are incredibly gifted and will get better. Urban Meyer has done a terrific job rebuilding this group quickly through recruiting, and the results will follow.
On offense, Braxton Miller. End of story. If he stays healthy, it’s that simple.
Miller will continue to improve as a passer, and he absolutely needs to. Outside of being a more dynamic talent, more designed throws will hopefully keep those hits down.
Meyer has also added some playmakers to this side of the football, and the Buckeyes should do plenty of damage against a schedule that appears more than favorable.
2. Texas A&M
The fascinating thing about Texas A&M is that it will likely have two players go in the top ten—perhaps even the top five—in the upcoming NFL draft, and there are still plenty of reasons to see this team getting better. Left tackle Luke Joeckel and defensive end Damontre Moore are gone and will be difficult to replace.
The good news? Offensive tackle Jake Matthews decided to stay one more year and should fit right in at left tackle.
Then there’s Johnny Manziel. As difficult as it is to believe that Manziel could possibly improve, don’t be surprised if it happens. It’ll be difficult for him to match the ridiculous numbers from this past season, but he should continue to develop as a thrower and benefit further from added experience. This all is rather terrifying for everyone else.
Simply put, it's impossible to overvalue what he does, especially given the way he plays.
Something to keep an eye on: Which young recruits coming in make an impact right away, especially at the skill positions on offense? A&M hauled in a fantastic class, and that should pay off sooner rather than later.
If you expected anyone else to occupy the No. 1 spot, you’ve likely been asleep for the past two months. If that’s the case, allow me to be the first to tell you that Alabama is really good and will remain that way for the foreseeable future.
Now, the offensive line is a legitimate concern. Barrett Jones, D.J. Fluker and Chance Warmack are gone, and someone will have to step into those huge (literally) roles. Luckily, however, Alabama has made replacing first-round picks look rather routine of late.
Quarterback A.J. McCarron returns, as does his favorite target and soon-to-be star, Amari Cooper. Although they lose Eddie Lacy at running back, T.J. Yeldon—along with a ridiculous stable of talented runners—should fill this void just fine. It's unfair, really.
On defense, linebacker C.J. Mosley will be back, which is massive. They’ll have to replace the likes of Dee Milliner at corner and Jesse Williams up front, but another ridiculous recruiting class should make the process easier. Again, unfair.
If you have another team ranked as your No. 1 right now, go ahead and start over.