The USA Today college football coaches poll was released on Thursday afternoon. It's our first indication of how opposing coaches feel about their peers.
The poll provides a framework for the season at hand, but it shouldn't be read or regarded as scripture. Arkansas was ranked No. 8 in last year's preseason version but finished the year 4-8. Notre Dame, meanwhile, began at No. 25 before ascending to No. 1 late in the season.
These teams deserve to be ranked so highly, but the season ahead is a long one. The only thing we know about the next few months is that we don't know anything about the next few months.
...And also that this poll will be covered in red ink.
The Beavers might as well have been called the Phoenix last year—rising, unexpected, from the ashes of two straight irrelevant seasons and becoming a competitive team.
This year, they bring back 15 starters, including four offensive linemen and sophomore running back Storm Woods. Whoever starts under center—whether it be highly capable Sean Mannion or highly capable Cody Vaz—will have the aid of good defense and a strong running attack.
A road game at San Diego State is the only real non-conference threat, and the Beavers also get to avoid UCLA in Pac-12 play. They get three of their projected top five opponents (Stanford, USC and Washington) at home but travel for dangerous games at Arizona State and Oregon.
this is a solid team with a manageable schedule. It isn't going to shock the world by beating Oregon or Stanford, but it should take care of most other opponents.
On paper, the Trojans are just as stacked as usual. That's the benefit of having a recruiter like Lane Kiffin as head coach.
But last year's on-paper talent didn't translate to tangible results. That's the downside of having a strategist like Kiffin as head coach.
So what to make of this year's USC team? A lot depends on how Clancy Pendergast's 5-2 defense translates to the personnel. By all indications, it's going well, but none of that means diddly squat until the real games start.
That said, the schedule shapes up nicely for a surprising year. The Trojans avoid Oregon, and they also get Stanford and UCLA at home. They have too much talent to lose both of those games at the Coliseum...right?
Wisconsin has made three consecutive Rose Bowls, but head coach Bret Bielema fled this offseason to join an SEC team that just went 4-8. If that's not a sign of the SEC-dominated times, what, exactly, would qualify?
Gary Andersen has taken the reins in Madison, and in time he should prove to be a good hire. But given the current personnel—especially stone-footed quarterback Joel Stave—it's hard to imagine he'll find Rose Bowl-type success in Year 1.
That said, the Badgers' schedule is pretty soft. They only play five road games, and three are against teams (Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota) that combined to go 4-20 in Big Ten play last year.
Last year, Wisconsin was far better than its 7-5 regular-season record. This year could be exactly the opposite.
Northwestern won its first bowl game since 1949 last season and returns 15 starters from that historic team. Chief among them are quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark, two of the most underrated playmakers in America.
Last year's three losses included heartbreakers against Nebraska, which Northwestern led 21-10 after three quarters before losing by one, and Michigan, which it led until the final seconds of regulation before losing in overtime.
Had one or two breaks gone its way last season, this could have been a one-loss team.
If the Wildcats can learn to close late leads, this could be a special season in Evanston. They get home-field advantage—or, as Northwestern likes to call it, not road-field disadvantage—against Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State, with road games at Wisconsin and Nebraska.
Learning to close late leads, though, is easier said than done.
UCLA got a huge boost this week when Notre Dame defector Eddie Vanderdoes was ruled eligible for the season. Now, the No. 6 overall recruit will join Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks on a suddenly star-studded Bruins defense.
The offense isn't half bad either, losing just four starters from a unit that overachieved in 2012. One of those losses, though, was All-American running back Johnathan Franklin, and none of his replacements jump out as particularly capable on paper.
The Bruins also have a brutal schedule, including road games at Nebraska, Stanford, Oregon and USC. In Football Outsiders' projections from May, UCLA was given a 69 percent chance of going 0-4 in those games.
It's hard to project TCU since so much of its season depends on Casey Pachall.
Though still not "officially" named the starter, Pachall has been wildly successful under center for TCU. The Horned Frogs have won 12 consecutive games in which Pachall has started, going just 3-6 after he left the team to enter rehab last year.
If he's back at full speed, Pachall will galvanize an offense that struggled, at times, to score last season. And he'll also be flanked by the Big 12's best defense, a unit that returns nine starters and probably owns the best secondary in college football.
The schedule is tough, starting with the season opener against LSU in Arlington—a game for which Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Devonte Fields is suspended. But TCU should round into shape by conference play. The Horned Frogs are a bona fide dark horse to win the league.
Prediction: 10-2 (Orange Bowl)
Here's a little nugget on how Football Outsiders ranks college teams each season:
The strongest indicator of how a college football team will perform in the upcoming season is their performance in recent seasons.
It may seem strange because graduation enforces constant player turnover, but college football teams are actually much more consistent from year to year than NFL teams. [But] 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.
And per the Football Outsiders Almanac, Boise State's Program F/+ rating is 29.7 percent—second in the country behind Alabama and nobody else.
So it's best not to focus on the substantial attrition or the (relative) struggles of quarterback Joe Southwick. As long as Chris Petersen is roaming the sidelines in Boise, the Broncos are a safe bet for double-digit wins.
Anyone who denies that is denying math.
Nebraska's defense collapsed down the stretch last season, allowing 115 points in its final two games.
Surrendering 45 to Georgia was understandable—though not acceptable—since the Bulldogs' offense was among the nation's best. But letting Wisconsin post 70 in the Big Ten Championship? There's no excuse for that.
Defense remains the primary concern, as seven starters need to be replaced, including almost all of the front seven. No matter how good Taylor Martinez, Ameer Abdullah and Co. are on the other side of the ball, the Huskers cannot subsist with a Swiss cheese defense.
This year's schedule is back-loaded, opening with five straight games in Lincoln, so at least the defense will get some time to coalesce.
It will need to be in tip-top shape by November, when Nebraska gets Northwestern, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State in successive weeks.
Devin Gardner began 2012 as a middling receiver and ended it as one of the nation's most intriguing quarterbacks.
His performance down the stretch invigorated Michigan's offense, providing it with a vertical dimension that Denard Robinson never could. This year he gets running back Fitzgerald Toussaint back in the lineup and adds blue-chip freshman Derrick Green to the rotation, giving the Wolverines one of the highest-upside backfields in America.
Things are a little dicier on defense, where five starters are gone and All-Big Ten linebacker Jake Ryan has a torn ACL. Brady Hoke claims he'll be back by October, which won't be believed until it's seen, but if it's true, that would be a godsend.
Michigan's post-October schedule goes: at Michigan State, vs. Nebraska, at Northwestern, at Iowa, vs. Ohio State. The Wolverines will need all the healthy bodies they can get.
Oklahoma has been one of the most consistently good programs of the decade. And in college football, much more than the NFL, those past performances seem to dictate future results.
But there are a lot of questions in Norman this year. Only 11 starters return, including just four from a defense that Johnny Manziel gashed in its last appearance. And even with seven starters back on offense, the uncertainty about Blake Bell's ability to be more than a part-time quarterback is troubling.
The in-conference schedule is also tough: Against the other five teams in the Big 12's projected top six, Oklahoma plays three road games, one home game and one "neutral" game with Texas in Dallas. On top of that, the non-conference schedule features a trip to Notre Dame.
All of which seems to suggest, potentially, a year of regression for the Sooners.
Texas is Phil Steele's baby, placing No. 4 in his noted (and respected) annual rankings. But are the Longhorns worthy of such an exalted position?
It's an interesting argument. The experience thing is no joke: Texas returns 19 starters and most of its two-deep from 2012, making it one of the most battle-tested units in the country. In a rapid-turnover sport like college football, the importance of that cannot be overstated.
But those starters return from a unit that was good, not great, last season and even worse the year before. Quarterback David Ash, in particular, has been wildly inconsistent, putting a limit on the Longhorns' BCS potential.
Week 3 will be telling for Texas. It will play host to Ole Miss and try to repeat last year's 66-31 blowout victory in Oxford. If the Longhorns can beat a much-improved Rebels team in Austin, it would seem to bode well for Steele's prognostication.
The Cowboys underachieved in 2012, winning just seven games in the regular season before destroying Purdue (which shouldn't have even been playing a bowl game) in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
They're also the Big 12's highest-ranked team in the coaches' poll.
It's not too hard to figure why, though. OSU returns 14 starters, and according to the Football Outsiders Almanac, its Program F/+ is the ninth best in the nation. That much continuity from a consistently good team is hard to ignore.
The schedule shapes up well, too. Of the Big 12's six highest-ranked teams, only Texas gets to play the Cowboys away from Stillwater. Kansas State, TCU, Baylor and Oklahoma all have to travel into Boone Pickens Stadium and try to escape with a win.
Prediction: 10-2 (Fiesta Bowl vs. NR Fresno State)
LSU can't be happy about such a low ranking, especially coming off a season when it beat Texas A&M and South Carolina. Against all other opponents last season, the Aggies and Gamecocks combined to go 22-2.
The Tigers did suffer heavy defensive losses, especially in the front seven, which is ostensibly why they're ranked down at No. 13. But Les Miles' pipeline is stocked with quality players, and attrition has never set him back in the past.
In short: Don't believe any tales of their demise; this will be the same old LSU.
Conventional wisdom says not to trust a team whose hopes hinge on a redshirt freshman quarterback. But conventional wisdom was invented before Johnny Manziel.
After the success Manziel enjoyed at Texas A&M last year, expectations are sky high for Florida State freshman Jameis Winston. Not that they wouldn't have been anyway—ever since coaching him at the Elite 11 passing camp, ESPN's Trent Dilfer has trumpeted Winston as a future No. 1 pick.
He won't have to carry the load, though. The Seminoles' defense returns tackle Timmy Jernigan, linebacker Christian Jones and cornerback/safety LaMarcus Joyner—perhaps the best DL-LB-DB combo in the nation. FSU will be as stout and smart and hard to beat as usual.
The big red circle on Florida State's ACC schedule is a trip to Clemson, its de facto rival atop the conference the past few seasons. The Seminoles miss Virginia Tech and get Miami at home, which bodes well, though a season-ending game at Florida could result in another loss.
Prediction: 10-2 (Sugar Bowl)
Linebacker Manti Te'o and quarterback Everett Golson, the most recognizable defensive and offensive players, respectively, on last year's BCS National Championship representative, are gone, leading some to believe the Irish will plummet back down the rankings.
Unfortunately—at least for those hoping that would happen—a lot of other people are back.
That holds doubly true on defense, where eight starters return. Defensive linemen Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt are both All-American candidates, and three members of last year's overachieving secondary are back as well.
The offense will be a work in progress without Golson, though new starter Tommy Rees was one of the most game-ready backups in the nation. He's been a little inconsistent in his Notre Dame career, but with 4,000-plus yards and 30-plus touchdowns to his name, it's not like he'll be overwhelmed by the gravity of the situation.
As far as schedules go, Notre Dame's is as difficult as usual. The Irish do get Michigan State, Oklahoma and USC at home, needing only to play at Michigan and Stanford among blue-chip opponents.
Critics lambasted Jeff Driskel for his uninspiring play last year, but he did do enough to win 11 games. When your defense is as good as Florida's was last season, sometimes playing sound, conservative, turnover-free football is better than gunning for a Maxwell Award.
That theory is reflected in the Gators' two losses last season. Driskel threw just five interceptions the entire season, but four of those came against Georgia and Louisville.
This year, he'll have to open things up a bit more, but not as much as people seem to think. Despite the personnel losses on defense, Will Muschamp will have that unit performing at a similar level. The Football Outsiders Almanac projects Florida to finish fourth in defensive efficiency.
The real problem in Gainesville isn't the attrition—it's the schedule. Non-conference tilts with Miami and Florida State are supplemented by a neutral-field game against Georgia and road trips to LSU and South Carolina.
The Gators' three SEC games at the Swamp are against Tennessee, Arkansas and Vanderbilt—three teams Florida could have afforded to beat away from home.
Driskel and Florida might both be better than they were last year. But even very good teams struggle to overcome a brutal schedule, and this one might be the nation's most difficult.
Louisville's ranking might strike some as high, but in truth, no team's place in the polls will matter less this year.
If they lose even one game on their cupcake schedule, the Cardinals have no shot at playing in the BCS. If they go undefeated, depending on the parity around them, there's a chance they could crash the title game.
Teddy Bridgewater might be the best quarterback in the nation, but football is different than basketball. It's harder for one player to elevate a team above its mean, especially since he spends roughly half of each game on the sideline.
So it's hard to say where, necessarily, Louisville will slip up—but it's equally easy to say that it will do so. Road games against Kentucky, South Florida, Connecticut and (especially) Cincinnati seem the most likely spots.
Lest we forget, the Cardinals lost two games last season (and needed overtime in another).
Clemson looked bad for long stretches in its two losses last season, but both came against teams (Florida State and South Carolina) that finished in the top 10.
On its own, that suggests Clemson was somewhere between the top and second tier last season—that they were good enough to crush middling teams but not good enough to beat great ones.
Supplemented by its bowl win over LSU, however, it suggests Clemson was itself a great squad.
Especially when you consider this ethos-fueled maxim from the folks at Football Outsiders:
Championship teams are generally defined by their ability to dominate inferior opponents, not their ability to win close games.
Football games are often decided by just one or two plays—a missed field goal, a bouncing fumble, the subjective spot of an official on fourth-and-1. One missed assignment by a cornerback, or one slightly askew pass that bounces off a receiver's hands and into those of a defensive back five yards away and the game could be over.
In a blowout, however, one lucky bounce isn't going to change things.
By that token, once again, Clemson is a great-not-good program—not "undefeated great," but certainly great enough to reclaim the ACC, especially with Florida State traveling to Clemson this year.
Prediction: 10-2 (Orange Bowl)
If the College Football Playoff had started last year, South Carolina wouldn't have made it. But if it had made the hypothetical playoff, it would have been a team nobody wanted to face.
The Gamecocks finished strong in 2012, ending the season with name-brand wins over Clemson and Michigan. Connor Shaw came into his own as quickly as Vincent Smith came out of his helmet, providing even higher expectations this season.
The schedule is certainly on South Carolina's side. Its only troubling road game is in Week 2 against Georgia, and with the Bulldogs' inexperienced defense, that might be the perfect time to get them. The only other SEC powerhouse on the schedule is the Florida Gators, whom the Gamecocks get in Columbia.
If they beat Georgia on Sept. 7, the Gamecocks' national championship bandwagon will fill up faster than...well, Vincent Smith's helmet popped off. Even if it loses, though, South Carolina should be playing a big-boy bowl in January.
Prediction: 11-1 (SEC Championship Game)
The bad news: According to an ESPN the Magazine feature, Johnny Manziel is on the brink of a mental breakdown.
The good news: He's still the best player in college football.
Manziel has made countless public appearances since last year's Cotton Bowl, enough that he now looks more natural in a Burberry dress shirt than maroon and white pants. That makes it easy to forget how dominant he was last season, so here's a quick reminder:
This season, the "Game of the Year" against Alabama awaits in Week 3. And while Florida is (thankfully) off the schedule, trips to Baton Rogue and Oxford both loom as games in which the Aggies might be underdogs.
Manziel—along with Jake Matthews and Mike Evans—has enough magic to win at least one of those games. If the Aggies can avoid slip-ups the rest of the season, that appears to make 10-2 their relative basement.
When did SEC football become all about the offenses?
Georgia has won the SEC East in two consecutive seasons, coming within 10 yards of a conference championship (and perhaps more) in 2012. And despite massive upheaval on the defensive side of the ball, it remains the biggest threat to knock off Alabama again this season.
The Bulldogs have perhaps America's most balanced offense. Opposing defenses must pick their poison against Aaron Murray, Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall, a revamped receiving corps and five returning starters on the offensive line. That's a lose-lose-lose-lose-lose proposition.
There are a few potential pitfalls, though. The young defense will need time to coalesce, but Georgia's schedule doesn't afford it that opportunity. Games at Clemson and versus South Carolina in the first two weeks will provide them trial by fire.
A home date with LSU and a neutral-field game (in Jacksonville) versus Florida also loom, peppering Georgia's schedule with potential defeats.
It won't be another one-loss regular season, but in this year's highly competitive SEC East, it might not need to be, especially if the Bulldogs beat South Carolina in Athens.
Prediction: 10-2 (Sugar Bowl)
Stanford's defensive front seven is loaded, returning the likes of Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy and Ben Gardner—all of whom could have easily gone pro last season.
It also brings back All-Pac-12 second-teamer Henry Anderson at end, and though Chase Thomas is gone from the linebacking corps, his potential replacement, James Vaughters, is loaded with blue-chip potential.
Which doesn't even speak of the Cardinal's other returnees, including All-Pac-12 safety Ed Reynolds and perhaps the best offensive line in football. Everywhere but the offensive skill positions, Stanford can compete with the nation's best.
Those skill positions are a question mark, but one David Shaw and the Cardinal should be (and historically have been) able to overcome. That holds doubly true if quarterback Kevin Hogan, who's still undefeated as a starter, continues doing his best half-decent impression of Andrew Luck.
Stanford will be an interesting experiment this season. It's an old-school team devoid of sexy names, but one that no team in the country wants to face. If they beat Oregon at home, the Cardinal can afford to slip-up at, say, USC and still win the Pac-12 North.
But when's the last time they've slipped up against USC?
Prediction: 12-0 (BCS National Championship Game)
Three straight seasons have ended with one loss in Eugene, though one of those came in the 2010 BCS National Championship. Still, as never-shy Ducks fans will tell you, eventually they're bound to get over the hump.
The loss of Chip Kelly didn't deter voters from picking Oregon, and it shouldn't deter the offense from eliteness, either. Kelly disciples Mark Helfrich and Scott Frost should keep the engine running at a high level, especially with pieces like Marcus Mariota and De'Anthony Thomas still in tow.
Defensively, the Ducks might have more talent than any team Kelly (or even his predecessor, Mike Bellotti) ever coached. The secondary, led by All-American candidate Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, is perfectly suited to stop newfangled spread offenses, college football's scheme du jour.
Unfortunately for Oregon, the team's toughest opponent, Stanford, has not adopted such an offense. And the Cardinal defense returns seven starters from a unit that held the Ducks to 14 points at home (in overtime) last season. And this year they have to play them in Palo Alto.
A new coach brings new hope to Eugene. But he can't bring a new result.
Prediction: 11-1 (Rose Bowl)
Ohio State may or may not be the second-best team in the country, but it probably has the second-best chance of going undefeated.
The schedule sets up nicely in Columbus, where the Buckeyes trade in Nebraska and Michigan State from last year's slate and replace them with Northwestern and Iowa.
Other than that game in Evanston and the season finale at Michigan, Ohio State, for the most part, should be able to go through the motions. An offense that returns nine starters and a defense loaded with blue-chip prospects is more than most of its opponents can handle.
Still, either Michigan or Northwestern might be able to knock the Buckeyes out. This team is plenty good, but not 24-consecutive-victories good. The law of averages will catch up with the Buckeyes at some point.
Prediction: 11-1 (Rose Bowl)
Believe the hype.
There are questions along the offensive line, but Alabama recruits well enough to mitigate them, especially with Cyrus Kouandjio, who might be the best tackle in college football, manning AJ McCarron's blind side.
Other than that, this might be the best offense Nick Saban has coached. Last season, returning wide receivers Amari Cooper, Kevin Norwood, Kenny Bell and Christion Jones combined to average 17.2 yards per catch, including 12 touchdowns of 30-plus yards.
The Football Outsiders Almanac projects Alabama to have the best offense and defense in college football, giving it 98 percent chance to reach 11-1 and a 78 percent chance to go 12-0.
Possessing a much easier schedule than 2012, the smart bet is to side with the latter.
Prediction: 12-0 (BCS National Championship Game)