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Preseason College Football Rankings: Post-Spring Practice Top 25

Brian PedersenFeatured ColumnistApril 28, 2014

Preseason College Football Rankings: Post-Spring Practice Top 25

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    With college football's spring practice season almost in the books—we're looking at you, Oregon schools—the last major offseason period is behind us. All that's left is the long wait for the first games of 2014.

    Before you know it, the calendar will read late August and we'll be enjoying a strong crop of opening-week games highlighted by some marquee neutral-site matchups. Then each subsequent Saturday will give us more and more, until we get to the inaugural College Football Playoff.

    But before we get there, it's time for a very important task: re-ranking the nation's best teams.

    Here's our look at Bleacher Report's Preseason Top 25, Post-Spring Practice Edition, taking into account events that have occurred during spring ball that may have an effect on a team's outlook for the fall. Like any way-too-early ranking, they're more based on speculation and projection than much empirical evidence, not that this will quell the accompanying debate much.

     

25. Clemson Tigers

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Clemson's quarterback situation cleared up a bit when Chad Kelly was dismissed from the team in mid-April, and he has since signed to play at a junior college. Kelly was fighting for the job, along with freshman DeShaun Watson, but it will be senior Cole Stoudt that gets the nod when the season begins in four months.

    With that decision out of the way, the Tigers can spend preseason practice getting the rest of their skill spots figured out. The defense looked great in the spring and should be this team's strength when the season begins. 

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 at Georgia

24. Texas Tech Red Raiders

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    Donald Miralle/Getty Images

    Davis Webb had a great spring, building off his breakout Holiday Bowl performance against Arizona State to firmly cement himself as Texas Tech's leader at quarterback. That's a good thing, because with nearly every other passer leaving the program during the offseason, the Red Raiders will be counting on him. 

    Beyond that, though, Tech looks to be a similar team from last year, though with a much tougher start to Big 12 play with trips to Oklahoma State and Kansas State right off the bat.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 vs. Central Arkansas

23. Mississippi Rebels

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    Rogelio V. Solis

    Behind the experience of senior quarterback Bo Wallace and rising sophomore wideout Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss' offense should be even better than it was in 2013. If the defense can make similar strides, the Rebels should have a great shot at a nine- or 10-win season.

    The high-profile win opportunities abound this fall, with both Alabama and Auburn on the home slate along with the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game against Boise State. The talent is there; the Rebels just need to find a way to break through.

    2014 opener: Aug. 28 vs. Boise State (in Atlanta)

22. Texas A&M Aggies

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    Jeff Roberson

    With Kenny Hill suspended indefinitely following a public intoxication arrest and Matt Joeckel announcing his transfer, Texas A&M's quarterback situation seems to be down to just true freshman Kyle Allen. We didn't get to see the stud recruit in action in a formal setting this spring, as the Aggies had no official end-of-practice scrimmage, but all signs point to him running the show.

    He'll have another great group of offensive players around him, but the key to A&M being an elite team is whether its defense can show improvement. It will get a litmus test right off the bat with a trip to Columbia, South Carolina for the SEC Network's debut to open the season.

    2014 opener: Aug. 28 at South Carolina

21. Kansas State Wildcats

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Kansas State ended last season by winning six of seven, including a trouncing of Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, and most of that team is back to make a strong push for a spot in the top tier of the Big 12 in 2014.

    Senior Tyler Lockett is among the nation's best wide receivers, while quarterback Jake Waters has come into his own as a passer. A Sept. 18 visit from Auburn looms large as a potential launching point for a breakout season.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 vs. Stephen F. Austin

20. Missouri Tigers

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    L.G. Patterson

    Missouri had to part with its most explosive offensive player when it dismissed wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham on April 11 in the wake of his involvement in multiple off-field incidents. While the loss will alter how the Tigers operate on offense, it shouldn't be considered a death knell for the team.

    Quarterback Maty Mauk will be asked to find other weapons to utilize, while Mizzou's defense will continue to move on from the great front line that helped lead it to the SEC East title in 2013. While a repeat of last year might not happen, this team is still good enough to challenge for a division crown.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 vs. South Dakota State

19. Nebraska Cornhuskers

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    Nati Harnik

    While no news is usually good news, it's also good when the most exciting thing to happen to a college football team during the offseason is when its coach brings a cat to the spring game. In other words, there's been nothing to indicate Nebraska shouldn't be primed for a good 2014 season.

    Ameer Abdullah's return for his senior year helps solidify the Cornhuskers' solid run game, which will be relied on heavily as the quarterback situation gets settled. And on defense, it's all about seeing how much more dominant Randy Gregory can be after last season's breakout performance.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 vs. Florida Atlantic

18. Georgia Bulldogs

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Georgia's spring has been all about getting star players healthy and getting the defensive starters used to the new schemes brought forth by coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. So far, so good, which bodes well for a bounce-back season in 2014 after last year's up-and-down, injury-riddled campaign.

    Todd Gurley should be a Heisman candidate if he can avoid further injury, and the defense can only get better. Throw in a starting-caliber Hutson Mason at quarterback, and Georgia should be back in the mix for the SEC East title and possibly more.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 vs. Clemson

17. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    USA TODAY Sports

    A strong spring by redshirt freshman quarterback Malik Zaire will keep Notre Dame's quarterback position up for grabs until preseason practice, when Everett Golson will have to come up big to get back his old job after missing the 2013 season. It's the most pressing storyline for the Fighting Irish from an individual standpoint, but the real issue is whether they can handle the upgraded schedule.

    Notre Dame will face 10 teams that played in bowls last season (going a collective 7-3), starting with Conference USA champ Rice and later including defending national champ Florida State. It should be fun to watch, but it might be a bit too much for the Irish and their lofty expectations to handle.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 vs. Rice

16. North Carolina Tar Heels

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    USA TODAY Sports

    North Carolina was two different teams last season: the one that started 1-5 and the one that ended with six wins in seven tries. The team looked pretty darn good at the end. That's the group that looks to be on the field at the start of the 2014 season and should be among the more explosive units in the country.

    The Tar Heels lost their most talented offensive player from last year in sizable tight end Eric Ebron, who left early for the NFL draft. But they bring back many other stars, most notably punt return extraordinaire Ryan Switzer, who should provide a few moments of excitement each game.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 vs. Liberty

15. Arizona State Sun Devils

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    Rick Scuteri

    Last year's showing in December notwithstanding—blowout losses to Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game and to Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl—Arizona State had a very good year in 2013. While some big names are gone from both sides of the ball, the Sun Devils bring back enough to indicate that a repeat of the first four months of last season is possible.

    Senior Taylor Kelly has come into his own as a solid dual-threat quarterback, while receiver Jaelen Strong is poised to have an even bigger year than his FBS debut in 2013. And with Stanford, UCLA and Notre Dame all at home, the ball is in the Devils' court to have a great year.

    2014 opener: Aug. 28 vs. Weber State

14. LSU Tigers

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The Brandon Harris-Anthony Jennings competition to be LSU's quarterback dominated the spring, but that battle won't be won until August. Yet that's also when the Tigers welcome No. 1 recruit Leonard Fournette to camp.

    LSU lost a ton of stars from last year's team to NFL draft early entry, but that's become the standard in Baton Rouge. The key each season is how Les Miles mixes the holdovers with the next batch of stars, and this latest combination is probably one of the most highly anticipated of Miles' tenure.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 vs. Wisconsin (in Houston)

13. South Carolina Gamecocks

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    USA TODAY Sports

    There's no more Jadeveon Clowney or Connor Shaw. Yet South Carolina should be as good as it was last season, if not better, assuming it can stay healthy.

    Dylan Thompson may be the most action-ready quarterback successor in the country, while Mike Davis is primed to be a Heisman candidate if he avoids the nagging injuries that limited him at times in the past. All the pieces are there for the Gamecocks to win the SEC East.

    2014 opener: Aug. 28 vs. Texas A&M

12. USC Trojans

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    USA TODAY Sports

    USC is one of a handful of high-profile programs breaking in new coaches this season, but Steve Sarkisian has the luxury of inheriting a team stocked with talent and coming off a great finish to last season. However, with all that comes added pressure.

    The Trojans have settled their quarterback situation with Cody Kessler set to be the starter again, and he'll have plenty of weapons to work with. The defense is loaded as well, with tackle Leonard Williams and safety Su'a Cravens as a pair of elite players set to keep getting better.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 vs. Fresno State

11. Baylor Bears

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Baylor was a national title contender last season until one bad night in Stillwater, but the Bears still won the Big 12 title to make 2013 a big year. Yet the loss to Central Florida in the Fiesta Bowl took away some of the shine and also provided some additional motivation for this season.

    With Bryce Petty back for his senior year at quarterback and still plenty of offensive weapons at his disposal, Baylor has a chance to repeat what it accomplished last season. Trips to Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech stand in the way of the Bears' goals, but an offense that explosive is capable of nearly anything.

    2014 opener: Aug. 31 vs. SMU

10. Wisconsin Badgers

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    Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

    Gary Andersen's first season at Wisconsin was a successful one, winning nine games without making many adjustments from the previous coaching staff's approach. Having a veteran defense and great rushers can help with that.

    But Andersen is ready to turn the Badgers into his team, one that will look to maximize Melvin Gordon's running ability but also stray from the mostly vanilla offenses that populate the Big Ten. The LSU clash at the start of the season is a great chance to show if that plan will work, but the real indicator will be how things go when league play begins.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 vs. LSU (in Houston)

9. Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Jay LaPrete

    One of the biggest knocks against Ohio State last year was its lack of quality competition in running out to back-to-back unbeaten regular seasons, a claim that was enhanced when the Buckeyes lost to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game and then to Clemson in the Orange Bowl.

    OSU's schedule is much tougher this season, but the team Urban Meyer is fielding might not be as good as the one he had in 2013. Still, it does have Braxton Miller at quarterback and some solid defensive players that are ready to fight for another conference title, so if the Buckeyes can put together a good record, there won't be much for critics to complain about.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 vs. Navy (in Baltimore)

8. UCLA Bruins

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    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Brett Hundley's return to Los Angeles was a big lift for UCLA as it prepared for a very important season, one in which it hopes to remain ahead of USC for Southern California supremacy. But for that to happen, the Bruins will need to get off to a fast start against a challenging schedule.

    UCLA has to face Texas and Arizona State, both on the road, in a 12-day span in September. If it can come out of that stretch unscathed, the sky is the limit for this program.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 at Virginia

7. Stanford Cardinal

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Stanford just wins. It's a pretty simple explanation for what the Cardinal have been able to do the last few years, no matter who is coaching or what personnel is available.

    Major losses at quarterback and other positions haven't slowed this program down, so there's no reason to believe its defensive holes can't be filled effectively for this season. Kevin Hogan is very underrated as a passer, while Ty Montgomery is an offensive star, and the next wave of defenders are ready for the challenge.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 vs. UC Davis

6. Oklahoma Sooners

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Oklahoma's late surge last season pushed it back into the national spotlight, compliments of the Bedlam comeback against Oklahoma State and the Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama. But with that late push comes increased expectations, not just on the team as a whole, but on quarterback Trevor Knight.

    Knight's play against the Crimson Tide was great, and it contributed to the Sooners moving Blake Bell to tight end (where he suffered a knee injury during spring practice). Whether Knight can remain at that level in 2014 is uncertain, but what is certain is that his play will go a long way toward determining how Oklahoma fares.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 vs. Louisiana Tech

5. Oregon Ducks

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    Associated Press

    Oregon took off the tail end of the 2013 regular season, falling out of the national title picture due to some uninspired play as well as a hobbled Marcus Mariota at quarterback. But several key pieces of that team decided to stick around for another year, and we couldn't be happier.

    The Ducks look to be as explosive as ever on offense, and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu could be the top player in the country at his position. An early September visit from Michigan State could expose weaknesses or set the stage for a spot in the first-ever College Football Playoff.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 vs. South Dakota

4. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Alabama has had one of the more active offseasons of any top team in college football, but unlike most of those elite programs, most of the news has been on the good side. Another great recruiting class is coming in, a key transfer was acquired in potential starting quarterback Jacob Coker and Tuscaloosa became the place for former USC coach Lane Kiffin to start his comeback.

    The Crimson Tide ended last season on a low note with back-to-back losses after an 11-0 start to its national title defense. How this year will finish is unknown, but expect Alabama to be dominant early and build off that start to remain in the mix for the playoffs.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 vs. West Virginia (in Atlanta)

3. Michigan State Spartans

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    Al Goldis

    Other than lockdown cornerback Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State brings back pretty much every other piece of the surprise team that won the Big Ten title and then took down the Rose Bowl. The big difference this year is that the Spartans aren't going to be able to sneak up on anyone.

    Connor Cook and Jeremy Langford are now known quantities on offense, as is Shilique Calhoun on the defensive line. MSU has become the hunted instead of the hunter, but the talent and the coaching staff look capable of handling this new role.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 vs. Jacksonville State

2. Auburn Tigers

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    John Bazemore

    Auburn was less than a minute from winning a second national title in four years back in January, only to see their hopes get dashed by Florida State's late-game heroics. No one outside of the program could have predicted anything of the sort from a team that was 3-9 the year before, but now it's hard to think that anything less is possible from the Tigers.

    Gus Malzahn has quickly gotten Auburn back into the elite of FBS, and despite some losses from last year's team, the 2014 version looks to be just as great. Nick Marshall's ability to throw the ball and the defense making some stops will ultimately determine whether another title run is possible.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 vs. Arkansas

1. Florida State Seminoles

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    Steve Cannon

    Florida State is the defending NCAA champion, and like Alabama the year before, it is deserving of the top spot until it loses. The Crimson Tide held onto that pinnacle until the final moments of the Iron Bowl loss to Auburn, and we all can't wait to see how long the Seminoles can remain No. 1.

    Schedule strength was a knock last year, but the 2014 slate is significantly upgraded. But regardless of who FSU plays, the real key is how Heisman winner Jameis Winston and others perform as reigning champs rather than being one of many vying for a title.

    2014 opener: Aug. 30 vs. Oklahoma State (at Arlington, Texas)

     

    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

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