Bleacher Report's Very Early Top 25 for 2014 College Football Season
You have two options: you can force yourself to hate-watch SEC basketball, or you can begin thinking about the next college football season.
Consider this the red pill/blue pill scenario. Go ahead; take your pick.
For those of you who chose wisely, welcome to an early—and that word cannot be stressed enough—look at college football’s Top 25 for next season.
By the time you read this, (insert very important underclassman here) from (insert prominent university here) will have unexpectedly decided to take his talents to the NFL, shifting the Top 25 accordingly.
It’s a fluid situation, and much is to be determined with key departures and arrivals. But it’s never too early to look ahead. Plus, keep in mind what the alternatives are, and this exercise will gain clarity.
It’s worth noting that this is not an assessment of schedules, and a team’s path to the College Football Playoff did not impact its ranking whatsoever.
It’s also worth noting that if your team is not included—or is ranked lower than you believe it should be—then just assume I hate your school. This is some sort of vendetta, and you should take it personally. (That is an attempt at humor. We’re going to disagree—as we should—and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.)
I took the red pill, too, remember?
Central Florida: The defense will return just about everyone, but the losses of Blake Bortles and Storm Johnson dropped them out of the rankings.
Oklahoma State: I love Mike Gundy, but the Pokes are losing a ton of talent on both sides of the ball, including their quarterback, star wide receiver and key pieces across the defense.
Mississippi State: This is not a typo. Dak Prescott looks like a star at quarterback, and his playmakers will return as well. The defense has some really nice players, too, headlined by the absurdly talented Chris Jones.
Nebraska: Ameer Abdullah will be a monster at running back, but both lines are losing a lot of talent, and there are still questions about Tommy Armstrong Jr. being the guy at quarterback.
Texas: With concussion issues hopefully behind him, David Ash could excel next season. The team has more talent than many believe, but he still has major questions and major changes to deal with.
Texas A&M: It doesn’t feel right leaving the Aggies off this list, but the losses of Manziel and Evans are enormous. The defense won’t get worse, but it won't be fixed overnight. Kevin Sumlin is really hard to bet against, though.
Washington: This team will be a yearly fixture under Petersen, but the offense will lose its quarterback and running back. The change at coach, while for the better, could take time.
Wideout Cody Hoffman and linebacker Kyle Van Noy, two staples of the program the past few seasons, are off to the NFL, and they will be difficult (impossible?) to replace.
With that said, this could be the year quarterback Taysom Hill puts it together. He’ll be back along with talented running back Jamaal Williams, who ran for more than 1,200 yards in 2013. If the Cougars can develop wide receivers, the offense has a chance to take a leap.
The defense will lose a handful of key contributors, especially in the front seven, but many players that played their way into the rotation will return.
The season didn’t end on a good note for Duke, but Johnny Manziel can do that to even the best of teams.
Heading into next year, however, the Blue Devils have plenty to be excited about. This includes quarterback Anthony Boone—who was fabulous in the Chick-fil-A Bowl—and Jamison Crowder, one of the most explosive wideouts in the country. And with David Cutcliffe, the offense should roll.
The defense has concerns, especially in the front seven, but this team is trending up. No longer a cute story and a basketball joke, 2014 could (and should) continue the upward trend for the Blue Devils.
23. North Carolina
After a 1-5 start in 2013, the Tar Heels responded by winning six of their final seven games. The dominating Belk Bowl win over Cincinnati was perhaps a sign of things to come given the overwhelming youth on the roster.
The majority of the starters on each side will return, although UNC will lose its best playmaker. Tight end Eric Ebron declared for the NFL draft, and the offensive line will require some reconfiguring.
But Quinshad Davis is a talented wideout who could really explode in 2014, and quarterback Marquise Williams has shown flashes of brilliance as well. Both will be playing in a friendly and familiar offense in 2014, and a surprise season could be imminent.
Of Marshall’s four losses in 2013, three came by a combined 13 points. Eight of the 13 points came against Virginia Tech in triple overtime, a valuable and necessary tidbit.
The architect of this fantastic year was quarterback Rakeem Cato. The undersized but wildly productive playmaker will return in 2014, and his favorite target— Tommy Shuler—will return with him.
The defense, which closed strong near the end of the season, will return 11 of its 12 top tacklers on the stats sheet.
Marshall might not carry the same name or conference prowess as others, but it should not be disregarded.
The cupboard has been emptied.
Quarterback Tajh Boyd, wide receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant, running back Roderick McDowell and defensive end Vic Beasley are headed to the NFL draft. These are the reasons why Clemson isn't ranked higher on this list.
All of these players factored in enormously to the Tigers’ success this year. And yet, despite their absence, there is plenty to be excited about given the circumstances.
The defense—outside of Beasley and a handful of others—will look pretty similar next season and should continue to improve. Offensively, Chad Morris is still navigating play-calling duties, which means there's hope to be had.
20. Arizona State
The losses of a few key performers are going to hurt badly, but that doesn’t mean you should count out Todd Graham and his adorable headset just yet.
On offense, running back Marion Grice is gone, and that one stings. The great unknown, however, comes on defense, where the Sun Devils have to replace a lot of production. Basically, the entire front seven will be new, and this was an area of strength for the team last season.
Taylor Kelly will return at quarterback, which is an enormous lift. He will be joined by wideout Jaelen Strong, who broke out in 2013 along with gifted running back D.J. Foster.
The offense will be exceptional; it’s the stopping of opposing offenses that’s concerning.
19. Notre Dame
The Irish, if it’s even possible, might enter the fall underrated. I know. I can’t believe I wrote that, either.
The return of Everett Golson will be the story in South Bend, and he will be greeted with ample weapons. Tarean Folston looks like a solid player at running back, while DaVaris Daniels—assuming he overcomes his recent academic woes—should give them a threat on the outside.
Defensively is where the potential problems could begin to surface, and the front seven will have its work cut out for it. Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt are gone, and Brian Kelly can only hope that his successful recruiting in recent years will pay off quickly.
If it does, things could get interesting.
18. Kansas State
After losing four of its first six games, Kansas State closed out the season by winning six of its last seven. The only loss came against Oklahoma, and it was close contest throughout.
Bill Snyder proved his wizardry yet again—as if you had any doubts—and he’ll return a number of integral parts of last year’s squad.
Jake Waters and Daniel Sams each factored in large at quarterback, and they will be back. Wideout Tyler Lockett will also return. Snyder will have to find a reliable back with John Hubert gone, but the offense should look like the one we saw in the second half.
The defense won’t bring back everybody, but there will be plenty of familiar faces.
17. Ole Miss
If Ole Miss can patch up its offensive line, it could be scary. That’s an enormous if, with more than half of the group moving on, but it doesn’t hurt to have gifted left tackle Laremy Tunsil locked in for at least two more seasons.
Yes, the unbelievable crop of youth will be a year older, and the defense won’t lose much. Offensively, Donte Moncrief will have to be replaced at wideout, but Laquon Treadwell is poised to pick up the slack, and then some.
Can Bo Wallace be more "Good Bo" than "Bad Bo" next season? If yes, then this could be the year Ole Miss surges.
The Bears were no fluke, so let’s just crush any notion of that right now. However, Art Briles’ team will look mighty different next season.
Of course, it won’t look different at quarterback. Bryce Petty will be back, and another offseason under one of the greatest offensive masterminds of our lifetime is bordering unfair.
The bad news is that Baylor’s offensive line—a key part to their success in 2013—will lose three players. Tevin Reese, the team’s best wideout, is also gone. And the defense will be without talented safety Ahmad Dixon along with many other key members.
There’s Top 10 potential here, but there’s also work to be done.
Yes, the Badgers will lose talent on both sides of the ball, and they must find playmakers on each side. Finding a playmaker at running back shouldn’t be a problem, however, as Melvin Gordon will return along with the majority of the offensive line.
For a team like Wisconsin, this is significant.
The key to their season—minus just giving Gordon the football as often as possible—will be developing quarterback Joel Stave. He has the size and the tools, but can he be consistent enough?
14. South Carolina
Steve Spurrier’s quarterback tinkering will pay off in 2014. After a brilliant season, Connor Shaw exhausted his eligibility, which means the job is officially Dylan Thompson’s. Thompson, of course, has seen the field a bit over the last few years, and he is more than capable to lead this team.
It also helps having a running back like Mike Davis, as the bowling ball with feet will be back next season. Almost the entire offensive line will return as well, which means the running game could be dynamite once again.
The concern for Spurrier comes with a handful of key departures beyond just Shaw. Defensive linemen Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles are gone, as is cornerback Victor Hampton and wideout Bruce Ellington.
There are playmakers to replace, but S.C. seems poised to replace them.
If you’re going to put Missouri in the Top 15 heading into next year, you’re assuming that quarterback Maty Mauk is going to step into the starting role and deliver out of the gate. Yes, I'll just raise my hand and leave it there.
After a brief sample size of Mauk, this scenario feels likely. It doesn’t hurt that he’ll have wideout Dorial Green-Beckham back for another season, the most physically gifted pass-catcher in the country.
The bad news, however, is that Gary Pinkel has work to do. Defensive ends Michael Sam and Kony Ealy are NFL bound, as is running back Henry Josey and wideout L'Damian Washington. The offensive line will require some shuffling as well.
And yet, despite the unknown, Missouri feels like they are here to stay.
No team in the country dealt with more consistent and serious losses due to injury than Georgia last season—OK, maybe Florida.
Even at the very end, running back Todd Gurley was running on one leg (still quite effectively, I might add). Gurley will return for his junior year, and he is the best back in the country. His running mate, Keith Marshall, will also be back after suffering a torn ACL.
Hutson Mason, who filled in for Aaron Murray once the latter went down with an ACL injury, will likely be the starting quarterback. And while there’s certainly room for growth, he will have another offseason of reps and a handful of key wideouts back healthy next season.
Youth was a problem on defense in 2013, although the Georgia defense should be a much-improved group.
With USC, it’s not a question of talent—especially on defense—but rather a concern over depth. The NCAA sanctions and scholarship cuts leave this team thin at a few key places—particularly both lines—and a rash of injuries might be too much to overcome.
One place the Trojans do have depth, however, is running back. Javorius Allen, Tre Madden, Justin Davis and Ty Isaac will give USC one of the most athletic backfields in the country. At wide receiver, Marqise Lee is off to the NFL, but Nelson Agholor—the team’s leading wide receiver—is back and poised to explode.
Who will be the team’s starting quarterback? Cody Kessler makes the most sense given how he played down the stretch, but Max Browne will get a look with a new coach who recruited him.
After enduring a mass exodus of underclassmen a season ago, LSU weathered the storm quite nicely. This year, the exodus will be slightly abbreviated, but the losses are still noteworthy.
For one, the Tigers will have to replace Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry at wide receiver, perhaps the most dynamic duo in the country. LSU will also be without quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who was integral before he went down with a knee injury late in the season.
The defensive line will lose Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson, leaving a hole in the middle of the defense.
Don't worry, there's good news: running back Jeremy Hill is returning, and top recruit Leonard Fournette could join him in the backfield. If that’s the case, due to the fact that these two talents will be running behind an experienced O-line, LSU might not have to throw a pass all season—OK, maybe one.
The Bruins have two major items left to accomplish on their offseason to-do list.
The first was keeping Jim Mora and quarterback Brett Hundley, which it appears they have done. Now, they’ll have to replace Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt at linebacker, which won’t be easy.
Defensively, however, UCLA returns experienced players at other positions, and good recruiting by Mora should help.
Next, the Bruins need to find a consistent running attack outside of Hundley and linebacker Myles Jack. As much as we love to see Jack run the ball, this is a position that could use help.
As a whole, however, the outlook is bright. The Pac-12 is loaded, and this team is a big reason why.
8. Michigan State
The spring will be critical for Michigan State, as the team will look to develop players in a few key places.
On defense, Sparty will lose more than half the unit that made it the best in the country, including linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen along with Darqueze Dennard, the best cornerback in the country.
On offense, quarterback Connor Cook and running back Jeremy Langford are coming back, but they’ll be working with a rebuilt offensive line. Cook should continue to develop, and the defense should plug in capable replacements, but the other losses are noteworthy.
Mark Dantonio has things absolutely rolling, and it's not unreasonable for the defense to be one of the best in the country yet again.
The development of quarterback Kevin Hogan will dictate whether this ranking sinks or swims. Despite his bullpen-reliever delivery, there’s a distinct possibility he could develop into the solid player that many have predicted.
He’ll have ample weapons to throw to, but the Cardinal need to fill the role of the departing Tyler Gaffney, the team's bruising back and first-down machine. The team will also need to replace much of the offensive line, although this is a position of depth thanks to recruiting.
On defense, the position of concern will be linebacker. Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy are off to the NFL, and those will be some big shoes to fill.
Even with the holes, however, David Shaw has done a wonderful job of developing and stockpiling his team with talent. The team may drop off a bit, but not much.
By ranking Oklahoma this high, one is assuming two things.
First, and most importantly, is that quarterback Trevor Knight will be the player we saw in the Sugar Bowl. He might not be that good over the course of the season, but if he is anything close to that, the Sooners will be a menace.
Second, is the assumption that the defense—particularly the front seven—will be even more active come the fall, making life difficult for Big 12 offensive lines. With the majority of this unit coming back, it seems likely.
The Sooners need to find a running back and develop wide receivers, but there are options at both positions.
5. Ohio State
Here's the list: four offensive linemen, one Carlos Hyde, one Ryan Shazier and one Bradley Roby.
That’s what Ohio State is losing, which is a daunting bit of talent to replace. Don't hit the panic button just yet, though.
Braxton Miller will be back at quarterback, and he should be better. If he can tighten things up throwing the ball, the offense can be that much more dynamic.
Losing Hyde hurts, although running back should be a position of strength yet again. Ezekiel Elliott could be the next great Buckeye back, and there are ample options on offense.
On defense, Joey Bosa and Noah Spence (after serving a three-game suspension) will lead one of the best defensive lines in the country. Take note, Big Ten quarterbacks.
The Auburn team you watched nearly win the last BCS national championship will look a lot like next year’s team. With another offseason under Gus Malzahn—and with quarterback Nick Marshall poised to take a leap—the rest of the SEC should be concerned.
While the team will remain mainly intact, the Tigers will lose some pieces. Left tackle Greg Robinson and running back Tre Mason are off to the NFL, ready to capitalize on their big seasons. On defense, Dee Ford will leave the defensive line and cornerback Chris Davis is also gone. These two won games for the Tigers in 2013.
Yet, despite the losses, Auburn should thrive. Gus has it going.
Let’s start with the bad news: quarterback AJ McCarron and linebacker C.J. Mosley are gone, leaving enormous holes at key positions and leaving leadership up in the air.
For most teams, losses like this simply cannot be replaced the following fall. And while there’s no way Alabama can replace that type of talent during spring practice, the machine has been built to absorb these types of blows by the time next season rolls around.
If Nick Saban can find a quarterback, the offense could thrive. T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry will be deadly at running back, Amari Cooper should have a bounce-back year at wide receiver, and O.J. Howard could be the best tight end in the country as a sophomore.
The Ducks will return their two biggest pieces. Quarterback Marcus Mariota is back, poised to be even better on a healthy knee all season. Cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olom also surprised many by announcing he was returning, an enormous lift for a defense that should be solid at every level.
As for losses, Nick Aliotti’s departure as defensive coordinator might be the most significant change. Losing De’Anthony Thomas hurts as well, although the offense should be just fine. The combo of Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner at running back should be terrifying.
With so many weapons in so many places, 2014, from a distance, looks like the year the Ducks could take that next step.
1. Florida State
There are still ample questions regarding which playmakers on offense will return, but another offseason of development for Jameis Winston trumps all draft decisions that are still being weighed.
The good news for FSU—as if it needed any more—is that both lines should be back intact, and the defensive line could be even more terrifying.
Defensively, the Seminoles will have to replace Christian Jones and Lamarcus Joyner, a task that is easier said than done. With that said, Florida State has become Alabama-ish in its ability to replace and develop talent at an alarming rate.
On offense, Karlos Williams is going to explode at running back. You’ve been warned.