College Football 2014 Predictions: Better, Worse or the Same for Top 25 Teams

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistJanuary 9, 2014

College Football 2014 Predictions: Better, Worse or the Same for Top 25 Teams

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    The 2013 college football season is in the books, with Florida State clearing space in the trophy case for some crystal and the rest of FBS wondering what it needs to do to get one of those fancy trophies.

    There's roughly 33 weeks until the next real games happen again, which leaves us with nothing but our thoughts, beliefs and desires—and plenty of time to speculate.

    Based on who's staying and who's coming back and using the final Associated Press Top 25 poll as a gauge, we're projecting whether the top teams of 2013 will be better, worse or the same in 2014.

25. Washington Huskies

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Better or worse: the same

    Why? The Huskies traded up in coaches, getting Boise State's Chris Petersen to replace the gone-to-USC Steve Sarkisian. But Petersen will be taking over a team that loses its starting quarterback (Keith Price), running back (Bishop Sankey) and tight end (Austin Seferian-Jenkins). Two of those players (Sankey and Seferian-Jenkins) have left early for the NFL draft.

24. Vanderbilt Commodores

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Better or worse: worse

    Why? All signs point to coach James Franklin not being at the helm for the Vanderbilt Commodores next season. His name has been mentioned with nearly every major FBS coaching vacancy (not to mention some in the pros), and Donnie Collins of the Scranton Times-Tribune is reporting he's been offered the Penn State job.

    Assuming Franklin leaves for this (or some other) opportunity, Vandy will be hard-pressed to find someone who can keep going what Franklin had established in Nashville.

23. Duke Blue Devils

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    Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

    Better or worse: better

    Why? The Duke Blue Devils return most of their best players in 2014, which should make them poised for another run at a division title. Their schedule also is quite favorable, with home games against Kansas and Tulane and a trip to Troy on the non-league slate and an ACC schedule that doesn't include Clemson, Florida State or Louisville.

22. Wisconsin Badgers

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    Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports

    Better or worse: worse

    Why? The Wisconsin Badgers hold on to their biggest offensive weapon in running back Melvin Gordon, but the defense that was so dominant in 2013 was heavy on seniors. Look for Gary Andersen to use this upcoming season as a chance to implement more of his system, which could lead to some growing pains.

21. Arizona State Sun Devils

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Better or worse: the same

    Why? Jaelen Strong flirted with the NFL, but the talented receiver is coming back in 2014. That means the Sun Devils offense will return all its major weapons, and they'll be needed more than ever with the number of losses to weather on the defensive side.

20. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    The Star-Ledger-USA TODAY Sports

    Better or worse: the same

    Why? The return of Everett Golson from a one-year absence due to academics is the saving grace for a Notre Dame Fighting Irish team that will have to revamp its defensive line and hope whoever Brian Kelly tabs as the new offensive and defensive coordinators can get up to speed before the upgraded schedule kicks in.

    Notre Dame doesn't play a road game until mid-October, but that game is at Florida State. The Irish also play at Arizona State and USC, both in the back end of the season.

19. USC Trojans

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Better or worse: the same

    Why? The injury issues that forced USC to turn to many younger players should help hold the team steady itself in 2014 under new coach Steve Sarkisian. Despite losing at least five underclassmen early to the NFL draft—most recently tight end Xavier Grimble—the return of 2013 breakouts such as running back Javorius Allen, receiver Nelson Agholor and safety Su'a Cravens should provide for a solid year.

    But if injuries flare up again, the Trojans' lingering scholarship limitations could cause problems.

18. Texas A&M Aggies

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    Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

    Better or worse: worse

    Why? The Aggies' impressive recruiting class, per 247Sports, includes commitments from the nation's top quarterback (Kyle Allen) and top receiver (Speedy Noil), as well as some stud defensive players. But no amount of hyped future stars can replace the loss of do-everything guys like Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans.

    A&M also has to play at Alabama, Auburn and South Carolina (whom it opens with), which would have been daunting enough with Johnny Football.

17. Oklahoma State Cowboys

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    Better or worse: worse

    Why? The Cowboys gave up on J.W. Walsh midway through last season, so having him be considered a viable starting quarterback is a risky proposition. Offense might need to carry OSU in 2014 with numerous defensive losses, and with a schedule that opens with Florida State (in Arlington, Texas) and ends with trips to Baylor and Oklahoma, getting back to 10 wins will be difficult.

16. UCLA Bruins

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    Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    Better or worse: better

    Why? The UCLA Bruins may lose a stud linebacker in Anthony Barr, but they've got possibly a better one right behind him in two-way phenom Myles Jack. Add in the return of quarterback Brett Hundley for one more year of NFL preparation, and this team has all the makings of a Pac-12 divisional champ at the very least.

    It helps that UCLA gets Arizona, Stanford, Oregon and USC all at home next season.

15. Louisville Cardinals

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    Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports

    Better or worse: worse

    Why? Athletic director Tom Jurich's hiring of former coach Bobby Petrino to replace Charlie Strong feels more like a solid single than a home run, and there's also the issue of having to replace uber-quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and several key defensive pieces.

    Add in a move to the ACC and a schedule that includes trips to Clemson and Notre Dame, and it'll be difficult for Louisville to fare as well as in 2013.

14. LSU Tigers

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Better or worse: the same

    Why? The performance (or lack thereof) by freshman quarterback Anthony Jennings in the Outback Bowl has to leave Tigers fans concerned about the future, but the possible return of running back Jeremy Hill, according to a report by Ross Dellenger of The Advocate, would help balance things out.

    Throw highly touted recruit Leonard Fournette into the backfield, and LSU should do no worse than it did in 2013. Not that three losses is welcomed in Baton Rouge, however.

13. Baylor Bears

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    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    Better or worse: the same

    Why? The Bears' success the last few seasons shows that Art Briles has installed a system that will work no matter who is on the field. But having Bryce Petty back for his senior year to spread the ball around to so many options (Lache Seastrunk going pro will have minimal impact on the offensive production) also helps.

12. Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

    Better or worse: worse

    Why? Getting Braxton Miller to stay was a big win for the Ohio State Buckeyes, but he alone won't make up for the departure of power running back Carlos Hyde or defensive early exiters Bradley Roby and Ryan Shazier.

    OSU's schedule is quite difficult next year—at least compared to the fluff factor that was the 2013 slate—with an opener against Navy in Baltimore, early visits from Cincinnati and Virginia Tech and a Big Ten lineup that sends it to Michigan State, Minnesota and Penn State.

11. Stanford Cardinal

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Better or worse: worse

    Why? It might be unwise to discount the Stanford Cardinal, seeing how it "backslid" (read: It didn't) after losing its coach and superstar quarterback to the NFL in back-to-back seasons, but this time there might actually be cause for concern. Stanford's offense weighed heavily on Tyler Gaffney, whose graduating, while the defense loses huge playmakers in Trent Murphy and Shane Skov.

10. Central Florida Knights

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    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    Better or worse: worse

    Why? The Cinderellas of the final BCS have lost their franchise quarterback and their star running back early to the NFL, while George O'Leary will also be breaking in a new defensive coordinator.

    The Central Florida Knights will struggle to put up the same kind of record as in 2013. They have a schedule that includes a visit to Missouri and a game with Penn State in Ireland, but the American Athletic Conference should still be winnable.

9. Oregon Ducks

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    Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

    Better or worse: better

    Why? Marcus Mariota is coming back to take care of unfinished business, while most of his offensive weapons are returning as well. The defense is losing its veteran coach, but Ifo Ekpre-Olomu will still be roaming the secondary. 

    The Oregon Ducks will show if they're contenders very early, as they host Rose Bowl champ Michigan State on Sept. 6.

8. Clemson Tigers

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    Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

    Better or worse: worse

    Why? The Clemson Tigers lose nearly every significant contributor on offense and defense from their Orange Bowl-winning team, making them one of the most likely top teams to take a big step back in 2014. They also have to visit Georgia and Florida State, not to mention end the year with their traditional tussle against South Carolina, albeit at home.

7. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

    Better or worse: worse

    Why? This might be the loosest use of the word "worse" in written history, as when it applies to the Alabama Crimson Tide, it simply means the likelihood of being unbeaten and No. 1 in the nation entering the final day of the regular season is less than in 2013.

    With AJ McCarron and his legacy gone, Alabama needs to break in a completely untested quarterback, but whoever that is will have the luxury of knowing Kenyan Drake, T.J. Yeldon and Sugar Bowl star Derrick Henry are available to hand off to on a regular basis.

6. Oklahoma Sooners

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    Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Spor

    Better or worse: better

    Why? The uneven season that was 2013 finished on a very high note with the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama, and Trevor Knight will enter his sophomore year as a hot commodity. And though two standouts are gone on defense, that unit could still be one of the Oklahoma Sooners' best in some time.

    Look for Oklahoma to take the Big 12 title and earn a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

5. Missouri Tigers

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    Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

    Better or worse: worse

    Why? The Maty Mauk/Dorial Green-Beckham combination should be a fun one to watch and will be quite productive. But the Missouri Tigers' superb defense of 2013 is mostly headed to the NFL, which could make their 2014 campaign involve many more shootouts than slugfests.

4. South Carolina Gamecocks

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    Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports

    Better or worse: worse

    Why? Gone are Connor Shaw, Bruce Ellington, Jadeveon Clowney and numerous other standouts from the South Carolina Gamecocks' latest 11-win team, but Mike Davis should be among the top running backs in the SEC if not all of FBS.

    South Carolina's schedule is a funny one, in that all of its early-season tough opponents (Georgia, Missouri, Texas A&M) are at home, while the back-end's slate includes visits to Auburn, Clemson and Florida.

3. Michigan State Spartans

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Better or worse: the same

    Why? The underrated Michigan State Spartans unit that bulldozed through the Big Ten and then took down Stanford in the Rose Bowl will return mostly intact, with the notable exception of Thorpe Award-winning cornerback Darquez Dennard.

    MSU will test itself early when it visits Oregon, but when it comes to league play, the schedule sets up nicely with visits from Michigan, Nebraska and Ohio State.

2. Auburn Tigers

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    Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

    Better or worse: the same

    Why? Auburn won't sneak up on anybody like last season, but with Gus Malzahn's scheme and the weapons returning—even with Thursday's news that Tre Mason was going pro—the Tigers will remain near the top of college football yet again. 

    The schedule could be tricky, though, as Auburn has a sneaky early-season trip to Kansas State as well as SEC road games against Georgia, Ole Miss and the season-ending Iron Bowl at Alabama.

1. Florida State Seminoles

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    Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

    Better or worse: the same

    Why? Jameis Winston has another year in college, and barring a post-Heisman letdown, he should keep the Florida State Seminoles in the running for back-to-back titles. The jury is still out on whether receiver Kelvin Benjamin will go pro early, while defensive tackle Tim Jernigan declared himself for the draft on Thursday. Regardless of who leaves, though, the overabundance of talent on the roster and the constant crop of top recruits make it likely FSU can easily replace any losses.

    The season opener against Oklahoma State in Arlington, Texas, will be a great way for the defending champs to kick off another title run.