Predicting How USA Today 2013 Preseason Coaches Poll Will Look

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistJuly 30, 2013

Predicting How USA Today 2013 Preseason Coaches Poll Will Look

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    No preseason poll got it right last year, and no preseason poll ever will. Doing so is more or less impossible. But in the battle between AP and USA Today Coaches, the latter poll's preseason forecast came much, much closer.

    USC was No. 1 in the last year's AP preseason poll, but the coaches ranked LSU and Alabama ahead of it. They also ranked Stanford three spots higher, Virginia Tech four spots lower and Notre Dame more than the AP pollsters.

    This year's version, just like any year's, will be covered in red ink by midseason. That's just the way of the world. Michigan State was No. 13 in both preseason polls last season; soon-to-be eight-loss Arkansas was the consensus 10th-best team.

    But with USA Today set to publish the poll on Thursday, it never hurts to look ahead.

    *Note: These rankings are NOT the subjective rankings of the author. They are his prediction on how the first USA Today Coaches Poll will look, not necessarily how it should look.

Others Receiving Votes

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    30. Wisconsin: The Badgers appear to be regressing this year. Gary Andersen will get them back on track eventually, and the front seven is good enough to beat some quality teams, but right now, the personnel doesn't match the scheme.


    29. Baylor: Between Lache Seastrunk and Tevin Reese, the Bears can score with anyone—and from anywhere on the field. Especially if Bryce Petty is even close to as good as folks in Waco say he is. But until the defense proves it can stop somebody, anybody, it's hard to rank Baylor in the top 25.


    28. Northwestern: Northwestern went 10-3 last season, beat two SEC bowl teams and is returning 15 starters. But the early poll returns weren't great. Big Ten media members voted the Wildcats fourth in the Legends Division behind Michigan, Nebraska and Michigan State.


    27. Oregon State: OSU returns 15 starters from a team that went 9-4 last season, including a bruising young running back in Storm Woods and a home-run threat in wide receiver Brandin Cooks. The perception that they overachieved might keep them out of the top 25 to begin the season, but it shouldn't be long before the Beavers find themselves there.


    26. Michigan State: Sparty started the season ranked No. 13 last year, but they stumbled to a 7-6 record. Their five Big Ten losses came by a combined 13 points, though, which seems to indicate progression to the mean this season. MSU also bookended the season with low-scoring wins over Boise State and TCU, an impressive non-conference profile for a 7-6 team.

25. Miami Hurricanes

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    2012 Record: 7-5

    2012 Final Ranking: NR

    Returning Starters: 18 (10 Offense, 8 Defense)

    Miami's offense wasn't that close to being elite last year, finishing just 46th in Football Outsiders' F/+ rankings. But with 10 starters returning, especially All-American-caliber running back Duke Johnson and rocket-armed quarterback Stephen Morris, they seem to be a lock to improve on those numbers this season.

    The real questions lie on defense, where the 'Canes home-road splits were abysmal. They allowed 32, 52, 36, 41, 41 and 45 points in six games away from Miami last year, an average of 41.2 per contest.

    This year, the Hurricanes get North Carolina and Florida State on the road, two of the ACC's best projected offenses. The defense does have eight returning starters, but none of them received a single All-ACC preseason vote from the media.

    They'll need some overachievers to step up and help buoy the offense. 

24. USC Trojans

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    2012 Record: 7-6

    2012 Final Ranking: NR

    Returning Starters: 15 (8 Offense, 7 Defense)

    USC underachieved last season, but there's a reason it started with a top-three ranking. The Trojans roster is loaded with talent from top to bottom, enough that they will never be physically overwhelmed.

    The offense loses just three starters from last year, but who was lost is more important than how many. That trio of deportees—quarterback Matt Barkley, wide receiver Robert Woods and center Khaled Holmes—were all former Pac-12 first- or second-teamers.

    Clancy Pendergast should reinvigorate the defense, though. And with Marqise Lee out wide, it doesn't matter which former 5-star quarterback is under center. Don't expect another 7-6 season.

23. Nebraska Cornhuskers

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    2012 Record: 10-4

    2012 Final Ranking: 23rd

    Returning Starters: 12 (8 Offense, 4 Defense)

    Nebraska's defense collapsed down the stretch last year, allowing 115 points in its final two games. But the situation wasn't quite that dire: Its opponents, Wisconsin and Georgia, both had highly efficient offenses and plenty of time to prepare. Plus, in the two games prior, the Cornhuskers allowed just 21 combined points.

    This year, the Huskers suffer massive attrition on the defensive line, but they should improve as the year goes on. They also get Northwestern and Michigan State in Lincoln, which should give them a slight advantage for a top-two spot in the Legends Division.

    Taylor Martinez, Ameer Abdullah, Kenny Bell and Spencer Long are each capable of All-Big Ten production on offense, combining to form one of the conference's strongest units. Even slight defensive regression won't be enough to sabotage that.

22. Arizona State Sun Devils

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    2012 Record: 8-5

    2012 Final Ranking: NR

    Returning Starters: 15 (7 Offense, 8 Defense)

    Arizona State doesn't have sexy, big-name offensive playmakers, but what it lacks in firepower it makes up for with stifling defense.

    Will Sutton is a legitimate Outland candidate at tackle, affecting plays even when he's taken out of them. His presence demands attention, and that lets the players around him—including one of the country's top secondaries—fly around the ball to make plays. 

    Quarterback Taylor Kelly could be the story of the season. If he regresses even slightly, Arizona State will be hard-pressed to reach eight wins again. But if he continues his progression toward stardom, eight, nine or (dare I say) 10 isn't inconceivable.

    Especially with just four true road games.

21. TCU Horned Frogs

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    2012 Record: 7-6

    2012 Final Ranking: NR

    Returning Starters: 16 (7 Offense, 9 Defense)

    Not unlike the Sun Devils, TCU has a reigning Conference Player of the Year on its defensive line, a blue-chip secondary patrolling the deep third and a high-upside quarterback who will define its season.

    The experiment isn't fair. There are too many variables, most notably the shift from Mountain West to Big 12. But it's worth noting the Horned Frogs' record with and without quarterback Casey Pachall in the lineup. Since the start of 2011, TCU is 15-2 when Pachall starts under center and 3-5 when he doesn't.

    If Pachall can jump back in, relearn the ropes and perform at the level he's used to, TCU's offense should be drastically better this season. The defense will be dominant as always, led by All-American cornerback Jason Verrett and the Big 12's best secondary. That's a recipe for success.

    T-minus one month until the Horned Frogs take on LSU in Arlington.

20. Ole Miss Rebels

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    2012 Record: 7-6

    2012 Final Ranking: NR

    Returning Starters: 19 (9 Offense, 10 Defense)

    Hugh Freeze was supposed to translate recruiting success to on-field success in time, but after encouraging signs of improvement last season, it appears that upgrade might happen sooner than expected. 

    The Rebels went just 7-6 last year, but they played a brutal schedule (at Alabama, at Georgia, at LSU and home for Texas A&M) and endured poor luck in a couple of close losses.

    This year, Georgia is off the schedule, replaced by a home game with Missouri, and Ole Miss returns 19 starters—in addition to bringing in the No. 1 overall recruit, Robert Nkemdiche, and a blue-chip defensive lineman from junior college Lavon Hooks.

    Everything about that seems to point toward progression.

19. Boise State Broncos

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    2012 Record: 11-2

    2012 Final Ranking: 14th

    Returning Starters: 9 (5 Offense, 4 Defense)

    Per Football Outsiders, the pigskin analogue of Baseball Prospectus:

    The strongest indicator of how a college football team will perform in the upcoming season is their performance in recent seasons.

    Our program F/+ ratings, which represent a rolling five-year period of play-by-play and drive-efficiency data, have an extremely strong (.76) correlation with the next year's F/+ rating.

    In short, unlike its more fickle professional sibling, college football allows programs to build (and remain built) thanks to coaching and recruitment. And over the five-year period alluded to above, Boise State's program F/+ of plus-29.7 percent is second-best in the country—trailing none but a certain two-time defending champ from the southeast.

    The Broncos suffered major losses from last year's 11-2 roster, but that's nothing they haven't overcome in the past. So long as Chris Petersen is roaming the sidelines, Boise State will be a staple of the preseason polls.

18. Michigan Wolverines

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    2012 Record: 8-5

    2012 Final Ranking: NR

    Returning Starters: 12 (6 Offense, 6 Defense)

    After losing 10 starters, the Wolverines are counting on big contributions from a host of younger players—at least at the beginning of the season.

    That's not necessarily a bad thing, though. Per 247Sports, Michigan's 2010 and 2011 recruiting classes were 16th and 26th in the country, while its 2012 and 2013 classes ranked sixth and fourth, respectively.

    A lot rests on the right shoulder (and legs) of quarterback Devin Gardner, but if you believe the reviews coming out of practice, that's exactly how Brady Hoke wants it. He has a chance to be special, and 2013 could be his breakout year.

17. UCLA Bruins

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    2012 Record: 9-5

    2012 Final Ranking: NR

    Returning Starters: 12 (7 Offense, 5 Defense)

    Even with the loss of first-round-pick Datone Jones, UCLA brings back two of the most accomplished defenders in college football.

    Anthony Barr might have gone top-10 had he left last season, but he returns to Westwood after 13.5 sacks (second in FBS) and 22 tackles for loss (fifth in FBS)—all of which came in his first season playing defense. Linebacker Eric Kendricks, meanwhile, led the Pac-12 with 149 total tackles and was first in the country with 93 solo tackles. 

    On offense, Brett Hundley will be in the spotlight following the loss of Johnathan Franklin. He looked more than capable as a freshman in 2012, but that was with the aid of an All-Pac-12 running back to preoccupy opposing defenses.

    If Hundley can maintain his standard of high play, UCLA is (and rightfully should be) the odds-on favorite to win the Pac-12 South.

16. Texas Longhorns

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    2012 Record: 9-4

    2012 Final Ranking: 18th

    Returning Starters: 19 (10 Offense, 9 Defense)

    How much sway does Phil Steele actually have?

    The much-respected magazine magnate and college football prognosticator is all over Texas this year, projecting them to finish No. 4 in the country. His rhetoric makes media types swoon, but it remains to be seen how his predictions will affect the coaches.

    Even if voters don't buy Phil Steele's College Football Preview, though, there's plenty to like about the Longhorns. That includes the 19 returning starters, the bulldozing offensive line and the presence of a sure-fire starting quarterback in David Ash.

    Texas finished fourth in the Big 12 media poll, closely behind aforementioned TCU. That's an indication that it won't start the season much higher than somewhere in the mid-teens.

    But come November and December, it won't be shocking to see the Longhorns gracing the top 10.

15. Oklahoma Sooners

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    2012 Record: 10-3

    2012 Final Ranking: 15th

    Returning Starters: 11 (7 Offense, 4 Defense)

    Landry Jones is finally a graduate of Oklahoma, ending a four-year run at quarterback that felt more like a decade.

    He will be replaced by Blake Bell, a daunting physical specimen who has scored 24 rushing touchdowns in the past two seasons working out of a special goal-line package. With plenty of talent around him, Bell will be counted on to translate red-zone success into efficiency between the 20s. If his arm proves up to the task, Oklahoma's offense shouldn't suffer without Jones.

    The defense, however, is a slightly different story. Massive attrition struck the defensive line the offseason, forcing Bob and Mike Stoops to abandon OU's long-cherished 4-3 scheme in favor of a 3-4.

    The Big 12 as a whole is unlikely to score at the same rate it did last year, which should allow a young Sooners defense to learn and grow in time. But it better start rounding into shape by November—late-season trips to Baylor and Oklahoma State both look pretty daunting. 

14. Louisville Cardinals

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    2012 Record: 11-2

    2012 Final Ranking: 13th

    Returning Starters: 16 (6 Offense, 10 Defense)

    Teddy Bridgewater is the real deal at quarterback, and he proved as much in a 33-23 dismantling of Florida in the Sugar Bowl. Now, if Louisville wants to be regarded as a legitimate contender, the defense needs to follow suit.

    The unit returns 10 starters, which is great, but it only finished 48th in last year's F/+ rankings (per Football Outsiders). That won't cut it in 2013, as the Cardinals somehow left the Big East for an even softer conference, the newly formed AAC.

    Louisville will be expected to win all its games in a convincing manner. It needs to look light years, not mere miles, better than its competition if it wants BCS respect.

    The sky isn't necessarily the limit for the Cardinals, but it's certainly close to the expectation. 

13. Florida State Seminoles

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    2012 Record: 12-2

    2012 Final Ranking: 8th

    Returning Starters: 11 (7 Offense, 4 Defense)

    The Jameis Winston narrative is not overblown. He isn't the product of some sort of Bristol conspiracy, searching for a young, fun quarterback to brand as the next all-star.

    The truth is exactly what the stories all say: In 2013, Florida State will go as far as Winston takes it.

    That's a big burden for a freshman quarterback, but just last season, the whole world saw what someone his age is capable of. And just like Johnny Football, Winston plays behind a mauling offensive line and has some pretty talented weapons around him. 

    On the other side of the ball, Timmy Jernigan, Christian Jones and LaMarcus Joyner give Florida State one of the best DL-LB-DB combos in football. They have a superstar at every level of the defense and plenty of support around them.

    If their quarterback matures on the fly, the Seminoles might be BCS-bound. 

12. Oklahoma State Cowboys

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    2012 Record: 8-5

    2012 Final Ranking: NR

    Returning Starters: 15 (8 Offense, 7 Defense)

    Oklahoma State won the tight four-way race for first place in the Big 12 media poll, and it's likely to follow suit as the highest-ranked Big 12 team on the national polls.

    Why all the optimism after an 8-5 season? Experience.

    The Cowboys bring back 15 players, and not the frothy type, but the influential kind. The receiving corps is talented and deep, led by All-American candidate Josh Stewart, and should benefit from having multiple capable options at quarterback.

    The defense lost its trademark aggressiveness last season, but the promotion of linebackers coach Glen Spencer to defensive coordinator might fix that. Between Calvin Barnett, Shaun Lewis and Justin Gilbert, he certainly has turnover-producing bodies at his disposal.

    Of the other top-five teams in the Big 12 media poll, Oklahoma State gets four of them (Kansas State, TCU, Baylor and Oklahoma) at home. If the Cowboys can hold serve in Stillwater, only a road game at Texas might stand between them and a top-five ranking.

11. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    2012 Record: 12-1

    2012 Final Ranking: 3rd

    Returning Starters: 13 (5 Offense, 8 Defense)

    Yes, Everett Golson is suspended for the season. And sure, Manti Te'o is suiting up for the San Diego Chargers. Those are losses that warrant our attention.

    But Notre Dame will be fine.

    Tommy Rees is perhaps the most accomplished backup quarterback in college football. The senior is capable of stepping right in and competently running the offense. There's a chance he even brings some improvement; it's not like Golson was an All-American or anything.

    It won't take much more than competence, though, to keep the Irish competitive. Not with that defense. Notre Dame has two legitimate All-Americans, Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix, on its three-man defensive line and six other starters returning around them.

    There's a real chance the defense improves on its 2012 performance this season. If it does, that wouldn't be addition by subtraction after losing Te'o; it would just be addition by experience.

10. Florida Gators

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    2012 Record: 11-2

    2012 Final Ranking: 10th

    Returning Starters: 10 (6 Offense, 4 Defense)

    Florida finished 10th in last year's Coaches Poll, but that's a misleading number. The Gators came out flat and uninspired against Louisville in the Sugar Bowl, but before that, they went 11-1 through an SEC schedule.

    That deserves some serious plaudits.

    Last year's offense, predictable and stagnant, should benefit from Jeff Driskel's much healthier offseason—not physically, but mentally. Driskel knows he's the starter entering the season, which should eliminate the timid decision-making that plagued him last year. He only threw five interceptions in 2012, which was great, but it was also a product of risk-averse tendencies.

    The defense loses seven quality starters, but the Gators have recruited well enough to survive that loss. Dominique Easley and Loucheiz Purifoy are the proven commodities, but guys like Dante Fowler and Vernon Hargreaves have All-American potential down the line.

    The schedule is tougher this year, so another 11-win season is unlikely. But the 2013 Gators might actually be better, in a vacuum, than last year's team. 

9. LSU Tigers

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    2012 Record: 10-3

    2012 Final Ranking: 12th

    Returning Starters: 12 (8 Offense, 4 Defense)

    LSU tied Alabama with nine draft picks last season, a testament to how well Les Miles has recruited and developed talent. In 2013, those skills will be of utmost importance.

    The Tigers had 10 players leave early for the NFL last season (11 if you count Tyrann Mathieu), a harrowing number for any program.

    But thanks to Miles, they should have enough horses in the stable to nullify that loss. Even though Lamin Barrow is the only returning starter in the front seven, LSU is still not a team you want to run the ball against—especially with new starting defensive tackle Anthony Johnson, a former blue-chip recruit, patrolling the middle.

    On offense, Zach Mettenberger was consistently inconsistent last season. But he showed flashes (especially against Alabama) of what made him so highly touted to begin with. The infusion of Cam Cameron's vertical, pro-style system should do wonders for him as a senior.

    It's a proverb as trite as it is annoying, but with the LSU Tigers, it's true: They don't rebuild; they just reload.

8. Clemson Tigers

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    2012 Record: 11-2

    2012 Final Ranking: 9th

    Returning Starters: 12 (6 Offense, 6 Defense)

    Clemson's final two games last year couldn't have been much more different. Saddled with the task of playing two SEC powerhouses, South Carolina and LSU, in a row, the Tigers jumbled one embarrassing defeat (vs. SC) with one unexpected victory (vs. LSU).

    So it's hard to say what to expect from Clemson this season. It depends which team shows up on any given Saturday. But after the way it dismantled LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, it's capable of beating anybody. 

    With DeAndre Hopkins gone to the NFL, Sammy Watkins should break his sophomore slump and look more like the All-American he was in 2011. And so long as Tajh Boyd is back there launching deep balls his way, Clemson will always have one of the nation's most explosive attacks.

    The Tigers do lose three starting defensive backs from 2012, but that might be addition by subtraction. In their two losses last season, the defense allowed 12 plays that covered 25 yards or more. Some fresh blood in the deep third might turn out to be a good thing. 

    But not having to play Florida State in Tallahassee this season? That's a blessing in disguise. 

7. South Carolina Gamecocks

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    2012 Record: 11-2

    2012 Final Ranking: 7th

    Returning Starters: 12 (7 Offense, 5 Defense)

    Jadeveon Clowney is both overrated and properly rated at the same time.

    Properly rated in that he is, for a fact, the bar-none best defensive player in college football. That's not just hyperbolic spew; it's the truth.

    But Clowney is overrated in the notion that he is South Carolina's only important player.

    In truth, the Gamecocks went 11-2 last season, and they stand poised to enjoy similar success this coming season because they are loaded from top to bottom with playmakers. Whether it be Clowney's partner in crime, Kelcy Quarles, on the defensive line or versatile receiver Bruce Ellington, South Carolina has weapons to spare behind its Heisman candidate.

    The biggest question comes under center, where the binary between Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson is still shrouded in confusion. Shaw is the starter, but how often will Thompson see the field? How much does it matter?

    Those queries will be settled in the early going. But for now, having two field-ready quarterbacks is a good problem to have.

6. Stanford Cardinal

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    2012 Record: 12-2

    2012 Final Ranking: 6th

    Returning Starters: 14 (6 Offense, 8 Defense)

    No top-10 team was more blessed by its juniors last offseason. Defensive end Ben Gardner, outside linebacker Trent Murphy and inside linebacker Shayne Skov all forewent the NFL draft for their senior seasons in Palo Alto. 

    The result is perhaps the only defense in America that can challenge Alabama's for the title of "best in college football." That holds especially true when you throw in the contributions of Henry Anderson and Ed Reynolds. This unit held Oregon to just 14 points last season and somehow might be even better in 2013.

    There were some impact losses at skill positions, most notably those of running back Stepfan Taylor and tight end Zach Ertz, but the offense returns enough to stay competitive. That's doubly true up front, where the Cardinal might also have the nation's best offensive line.

    If quarterback Kevin Hogan, still undefeated as a starter, continues his hot streak from the end of last season, No. 6 might be too low of a ranking.

5. Texas A&M Aggies

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    2012 Record: 11-2

    2012 Final Ranking: 5th

    Returning Starters: 11 (6 Offense, 5 Defense)

    Contrary to what ESPN's Paul Finebaum would have you believe, Johnny Manziel is not the Aggies' biggest concern heading into the season. He's the reason they're still a top-five team.

    In the course of his long, free-wheelin', frat party-attendin' summer, people seem to have forgotten how good Johnny Football is at quarterback. He's the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and an explosive threat like few have ever seen. 

    How many freshman quarterbacks do you know who have won at Alabama? How many quarterbacks, period?

    There are reasons to be skeptical of Texas A&M this season. The defense loses six starters, and Ryan Swope, the underrated keystone of last year's offense, is gone as well. There are places where the Aggies might struggle.

    But quarterback isn't one of them.


4. Georgia Bulldogs

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    2012 Record: 12-2

    2012 Final Ranking: 4th

    Returning Starters: 12 (9 Offense, 3 Defense)

    Georgia returns nine starters from what might have been the nation's best offense, which is scary enough to offset most of its defensive questions.

    Quarterback Aaron Murray has more starts (41) and touchdown passes (95) than any other FBS player, giving the Bulldogs both experience and talent under center. He lines up behind an offensive line that returns five starters with 99 starts among them. The unit is also one of the nation's best.

    The defensive attrition is massive, but there were highly touted players waiting in the wings behind guys like Jarvis Jones, John Jenkins and Alec Ogletree last season. By the end of the coming season, this unit should once again be functioning at a high level.

    Therein lies the Bulldogs' biggest problem, though: How fast can the defense gel together?

    Their first two games are at Clemson and home to South Carolina, two opponents that should also grace the preseason top 10. That's some serious trial by fire for a band of young defenders.

    But at least they'll benefit from the bluest of blue-chip offenses, one that's capable of making up ground in a hurry. Per The Football Outsiders Almanac, Georgia averaged 10-plus yards per play on 26.5 percent of its drives last year—the highest total in the nation.

    That kind of explosion can compensate for a young defense.

3. Oregon Ducks

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    2012 Record: 12-1

    2012 Final Ranking: 2nd

    Returning Starters: 15 (8 Offense, 7 Defense)

    That "15 returning starters" metric is a tad misleading, as it allows for the glaring omission (and palpable presence) of Chip Kelly's departure.

    Had Kelly returned, Oregon might have stolen some first-place votes from Alabama. It returns more starters than the Crimson Tide and might have been just as good in 2012. But Kelly's move to the NFL provides just enough uncertainty for 'Bama to (probably) reign unanimous.

    Oregon is still a force to be reckoned with after promoting offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich to head coach in order to keep its continuity. The return of quarterback Marcus Mariota, wide receiver Josh Huff and all-purpose threat De'Anthony Thomas should help make that transition an easy one as well.

    The real reason Oregon ranks so high is its defense—perhaps the best Eugene has seen during this modern Ducks dynasty. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu leads a super-charged secondary, a unit that's big and athletic enough to handle any receiver in the Pac-12, including Biletnikoff favorite Marqise Lee at USC.

    Helfrich's Ducks—by virtue of personnel more than coaching—might be more balanced than any team Chip Kelly ever coached in Eugene. They might ascend to new heights this season as well.

2. Ohio State Buckeyes

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    2012 Record: 12-0

    2012 Final Ranking: NR

    Returning Starters: 13 (9 Offense, 4 Defense)

    Unlike the AP, which ranked Ohio State No. 3 in its final poll, the coaches poll followed the BCS' lead and ignored what happened in Columbus last year.

    This year's schedule is favorable, even more so than last year when the Buckeyes went 12-0. The offense should be the Big Ten's best, especially with a mauling, veteran offensive line. And even if Urban Meyer doesn't think Braxton Miller is Heisman ready, that puts him in the small minority.

    Only four starters return on defense, but two of them, linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby (pending legal troubles), are legitimate All-American candidates. Sophomore bookends Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence could both reach that level by next year.

    Don't let the anti-Big Ten bias fool you. This is not 2013's version of Notre Dame—a lamb for the SEC's slaughter come the BCS National Championship Game. Ohio State is stacked.

1. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    2012 Record: 13-1

    2012 Final Ranking: 1st

    Returning Starters: 13 (6 Offense, 7 Defense)

    The American legal system has the principle of "innocent until proven guilty." The Alabama football team has the principle of "No. 1 until proven otherwise."

    This year, the defense comes back largely intact, led by linebacker C.J. Mosley on the weak side. And even though there are questions on the offensive line—which lost Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker—the Tide's skill players are the best Nick Saban has ever coached.

    It's title or bust in Tuscaloosa this season, where anything but a crystal trophy would be a major disappointment. But what else is new?