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Predicting Preseason AP Top 25 Poll for 2014 College Football Season

Barrett SalleeSEC Football Lead WriterMay 12, 2014

Predicting Preseason AP Top 25 Poll for 2014 College Football Season

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    Florida State QB Jameis Winston
    Florida State QB Jameis WinstonDavid J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Spring practice is complete. Before you know it, players will be going through summer offseason conditioning and preparing for fall camp.

    That means preseason polls aren't too far around the corner. So to prepare you for them, let's take a shot at projecting what the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll will look like when it's released this August.

    The usual suspects will be at or near the top, including Florida State, Alabama, Auburn, Oregon and Oklahoma. But where will they land, who will bring up the rear and who will be left out entirely?

    Our projections—which are based on factors that typically sell well with voters such as offseason momentum, returning starters, star power and scheduling—are in this slideshow.

25. Texas Longhorns

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    Texas head coach Charlie Strong
    Texas head coach Charlie StrongUSA TODAY Sports

    Texas is going to find its way into the Top 25 one way or another, based primarily off program prestige and the fact that the Longhorns hired high-profile head coach Charlie Strong away from Louisville to replace Mack Brown.

    But there are still questions—lots of them, in fact. 

    The quarterback position is a major question heading into the 2014 season, and that's something that always seems to resonate with voters, despite the fact that four of the five national-title-winning quarterbacks are first-year starters.

    David Ash fractured his foot this spring and is coming off a season that was cut short by concussion symptoms. The defense wasn't a big strength last season, and if the offense isn't stable, it could relegate the Longhorns to the middle of the pack in the Big 12 again in 2014.

24. Kansas State Wildcats

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    Kansas State QB Jake Waters
    Kansas State QB Jake WatersChristian Petersen/Getty Images

    Kansas State won six of its last seven games to close out the 2013 season, and quarterback Jake Waters looked like a future star with his 271-yard, three-touchdown performance in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl win over Michigan.

    As noted in Sean Frye's Bleacher Report feature on him, Waters rebounded from some early struggles, and things seemed to click during the 2013 season. Now he has the whole offseason to build off that success and, more importantly, to remember the struggles and what not to do.

    There are some personnel concerns, particularly on defense where, according to Phil Steele's College Football Preview, the Wildcats only return four starters.

    But the combination of Waters and wide receiver Tyler Lockett should allow the defense—which was stout in the spring game, according to Kellis Robinett of The Wichita Eagle—to be successful simply by being opportunistic.

23. Nebraska Cornhuskers

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    Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah
    Nebraska RB Ameer AbdullahUSA TODAY Sports

    Voters like star power, and Nebraska has it in running back Ameer Abdullah. He'll be mentioned with some of the top running backs in the country.

    With the spotlight on the Nebraska program because of its tradition and its coach, Bo Pelini, being on the hot seat, there will be plenty of attention in Lincoln.

    Taylor Martinez exhausted what seemed like his 15th year of eligibility, and Tommy Armstrong will benefit from having a full offseason of work after stepping in midseason for an injured Martinez last year. Toss in wide receiver Kenny Bell, and Nebraska has some firepower.

    The team has struggled with consistency under Pelini, but it has the potential. Voters like potential.

22. North Carolina Tar Heels

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    North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora
    North Carolina head coach Larry FedoraUSA TODAY Sports

    North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora has gone through some bumps in the road during his first two seasons in Chapel Hill, but now it seems like he's ready to make a run at the ACC title.

    Marquise Williams should emerge as the No. 1 quarterback for an offense that's loaded with skill players. Seven guys return on a defense that was inconsistent at best last season, but another year of work should help on that front. 

    The schedule for North Carolina isn't terrible, but road trips in the middle of the season to Clemson and Notre Dame, with a home game against Virginia Tech sandwiched in-between, will be tough. If the Tar Heels can navigate through that, look out.

21. Louisville Cardinals

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    Garry Jones/Associated Press

    Bobby Petrino is back for his second stint as Louisville's head coach, and unfortunately for him, he'll be without superstar quarterback Teddy Bridgewater who moved on to make his living on Sundays.

    Bridgewater's absence will keep Louisville down in AP voters' minds during the preseason, but it won't leave the Cardinals out of the poll entirely.

    The reason is the defense, which finished first in the country last season in total defense (251.5 YPG). But a lot of the stars of that group are gone, including All-ACC defensive lineman Marcus Smith and safeties Hakeem Smith and Calvin Pryor.

    It will be up to new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham to first teach the veterans his system and then plug those holes with inexperienced starters. Judging from the confusion that reigned supreme under Grantham's defenses at Georgia, that may be easier said than done.

20. Missouri Tigers

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    Missouri QB Maty Mauk
    Missouri QB Maty MaukUSA TODAY Sports

    The defending SEC East champs are going to be competitive again, but the losses that Missouri suffered on both sides of the ball will make it difficult for AP voters to keep them in the Top 10.

    It isn't just the loss of Dorial Green-Beckham at wide receiver that hurts. It's the loss of DGB, leading receiver L'Damian Washington, fellow receiver Marcus Lucas, running back Henry Josey and quarterback James Franklin.

    I get that Maty Mauk was solid last year in relief of Franklin, but he completed only 51.1 percent of his passes (68-of-133) and has very few established weapons around him. They may be good, but they're unknown. That won't play well for voters.

    Defensively, the Tigers lived last season off generating pressure with four and taking advantage of mistakes. Defensive ends Michael Sam and Kony Ealy were a big part of that pressure, and cornerback E.J. Gaines played a key role in capitalizing. 

    Missouri will likely be competitive, but the uncertainty on the roster will keep the Tigers down a bit in the preseason rankings.

19. USC Trojans

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    USC head coach Steve Sarkisian
    USC head coach Steve SarkisianUSA TODAY Sports

    USC is going to get the benefit of the doubt because, well, it's USC. But make no mistake: Its inclusion in the AP poll won't be about reputation, it will be because of the talent it has coming back.

    Cody Kessler will now have an entire summer-conditioning session and fall camp to become better acquainted with the offense, and there's no shortage of talent around him.

    Defensively, the Trojans finished with the top unit in the Pac-12, and seven of those players return. That should help ease the transition to the Sarkisian regime and keep USC competitive in the Pac-12.

    The schedule is tough, but the Trojans have the talent to make a run.

18. Texas A&M Aggies

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    Texas A&M RB Tra Carson
    Texas A&M RB Tra CarsonUSA TODAY Sports

    Losing your star quarterback won't sit well with AP voters, even though seven of the last 10 starting quarterbacks in the BCS National Championship Game have been first-year starters.

    Texas A&M losing Johnny Manziel"Johnny Football" as he is commonly referred tois no exception.

    The absence of one of the most dynamic playmakers in college football history coupled with a defense that was more of a punchline than a power will make it hard for voters to take Texas A&M seriously heading into the season. But make no mistake, talent is there.

    A&M still has a loaded backfield, with Tra Carson, Brandon Williams and Trey Williams, a solid receiving corps that will get a boost from the return of Ricky Seals-Jones and a defense that remains largely intact, which should help it become a little bit more consistent.

17. Washington Huskies

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    Washington head coach Chris Petersen
    Washington head coach Chris PetersenTed S. Warren/Associated Press

    Washington did the impossible and lured Chris Petersen away from Boise State after his successful eight-year run as the Broncos' head coach.

    What he found in his new job is an offense that needs to replace quarterback Keith Price, running back Bishop Sankey and six starters on defense. 

    Petersen's successful track record at Boise State will grab the attention of voters, and the reputation that the Pac-12 has—particularly the Pac-12 North—will only help his preseason cause.

    There may be some questions on the roster, but Peterson's reputation makes Washington relevant in the preseason AP poll.

16. Clemson Tigers

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    Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney
    Clemson head coach Dabo SwinneyMike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    All of the focus this offseason at Clemson will be the absence of quarterback Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins. Not many eyes will veer toward the defense.

    That's a mistake, because the Tigers return seven starters on D, according to Phil Steele, including defensive end Vic Beasley. It will certainly be good enough to keep the Tigers in games.

    With Chad Morris calling the shots on offense, that's all the defense needs to do. Sure, there are some quarterback concerns with Cole Stoudt taking over, but Morris knows how to get the ball in the hands of his playmakers no matter who's taking the snaps.

    Clemson has been dancing at or near the top of the ACC and on the periphery of the national title race for a while now. Is this the year it breaks through that class ceiling? It wouldn't be the most shocking development in the world.

15. Wisconsin Badgers

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    Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon
    Wisconsin RB Melvin GordonUSA TODAY Sports

    Voters like continuity, and with only nine total starters returning, according to Phil Steele, that's a big reason why Wisconsin won't be in the Top 10 in the preseason AP poll.

    But voters also like superstars, and Wisconsin has one in running back Melvin Gordon—whom B/R's own Brian Pedersen ranked as the third-best player in college football heading into the 2014 season.

    Consider Wisconsin the sleeper in the Big Ten this season. Michigan State has the ring, Ohio State has the tradition and Penn State has all of the momentum. Meanwhile, Wisconsin is hanging out, continuing to stay true to its identity, regardless of who the head coach is.

    Now in his second season, Gary Andersen was solid in his inaugural campaign in Madison, posting a 9-4 record. After its season-opener against an LSU team with a ton of questions, he has a very manageable schedule.

14. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    Everett Golson is back at quarterback, and the emergence of Malik Zaire this spring will help push Golson this summer, getting him ready to resume his duties as Notre Dame's starting quarterback.

    That will play well in the eyes of AP voters. But let's be real: The quarterback of Notre Dame could be named "John Smith" and be a true freshman with a no-star rating who's playing with 10 other true freshmen starters, and the Fighting Irish would still get plenty of preseason love.

    Defensively, there are some questions in South Bend. They may persist into the season, and maybe new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder will solve them before then. Either way, they won't prevent Notre Dame from landing in the Top 25. 

13. LSU Tigers

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    LSU has been in reload mode ever since head coach Les Miles took over prior to the 2005 season, but the Tigers have had to deal with massive roster turnover in each of the last two seasons—on defense last year and offense this year.

    Voters know there's talent on LSU's roster, but quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris are still unknown, and there aren't any established receivers on the roster.

    Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard are good running backs, but they aren't going to grab headlines like incoming freshman Leonard Fournette. And that defense still has to replace two starters on the defensive line.

    The respect LSU has earned from four straight 10-win seasons will get the Tigers plenty of preseason love, but the perceived holes on the roster will prevent them from landing in the preseason Top 10.

12. South Carolina Gamecocks

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    There is no argument: These are the South Carolina football program's glory days. 

    For the first time, the Gamecocks posted three 11-win seasons in program history over the last three years, all of which landed them in the final Top 10. Despite that, they won't land in the preseason Top 10 this year, due primarily to the absence of defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, two other starters on the defensive line, quarterback Connor Shaw and leading receiver from last year Bruce Ellington.

    That won't last long once the season starts, though.

    Senior Dylan Thompson is an established quarterback who has plenty of experience, running back Mike Davis is a bona fide Heisman Trophy contender, wide receiver Shaq Roland looked like a budding superstar late last season, and while there may be talent gone from the front seven, Darius English, Gerald Dixon and J.T. Surratt can certainly hold their own.

11. Stanford Cardinal

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    Stanford is an old-school program playing on a new-school playground in the Pac-12.

    Head coach David Shaw's run-first, smashmouth style relies heavily on big bodies up front and a punishing running back.

    But don't be surprised if the Cardinal sling it around this year. Quarterback Kevin Hogan and wide receiver Ty Montgomery will be able to stretch the field and keep opposing defenses honest enough to give the running backs room.

    Stanford isn't sexy, but it's effective. That consistency will earn the Cardinal quite a few votes in the preseason AP poll.

10. Baylor Bears

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    Baylor QB Bryce Petty
    Baylor QB Bryce PettyUSA TODAY Sports

    Voters love returning starting quarterbacks, and Baylor has a good one in Bryce Petty. All he did last year was put up 4,200 yards, 32 touchdowns, only three picks and rush for 209 yards and 14 touchdowns.

    They also love stability, and head coach Art Briles has proven that he's going to make his system work regardless of which players leave the program. It just so happens that, this season, Antwan Goodley returns to lead a talented wide receiving corps, and Shock Linwood will do the same with the running backs.

    There's a ton of roster turnover on defense, but considering the way Baylor lights up scoreboards, all the Bears have to be is opportunistic in order to contend for the Big 12 title.

9. Georgia Bulldogs

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    Georgia is a polarizing team this offseason due to the way 2013 ended and the potential that still exists on the roster. The Bulldogs' rash of injuries and a poorly coached defense prevented them from winning their third straight SEC East title last year, but both of those issues appear to be resolved.

    Running back Todd Gurley has worked himself back into playing shape and will be joined by injured running back Keith Marshall and wide receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley this summer.

    Toss in healthy wide receivers Chris Conley and Michael Bennett with quarterback Hutson Mason—who looked like an Aaron Murray clone in the spring game—and head coach Mark Richt has a recipe for success on offense.

    He does on defense too, but you have to look behind the curtain a bit.

    Eight starters return off last year's defense, including the SEC's leading tackler (Ramik Wilson) and third-leading tackler (Amarlo Herrera). They have a new coordinator in Jeremy Pruitt who's also a teacher, something that former coordinator Todd Grantham was not. 

8. UCLA Bruins

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    UCLA QB Brett Hundley
    UCLA QB Brett HundleyUSA TODAY Sports

    A Heisman contender at quarterback, a charismatic coach and a program that's on the rise all play well with voters and will help land the UCLA Bruins in the AP preseason Top 10.

    Quarterback Brett Hundley is a bona fide superstar, and whether it's at running back or linebacker—or both—Myles Jack is one of those players who can make the Bruins appointment television.

    A trendy pick to not only win the Pac-12 but also contend for a College Football Playoff spot, UCLA will get plenty of love from voters.

    Don't be surprised if it lives up to the hype.

7. Oklahoma Sooners

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    "Big Game" Bob Stoops lived up to his nickname in the Sugar Bowl, when his Oklahoma Sooners—led by quarterback Trevor Knight—lit up Alabama's defense in a 45-31 win in New Orleans.

    That offseason momentum will carry over into the polls, with Knight drawing some Heisman love and the Sooners being mentioned prominently in the College Football Playoff discussion.

    Outside of Sterling Shepard, wide receiver is a bit of an issue and could prove to be a problem during the season if some of the younger players don't live up to their ends of the bargain. But Oklahoma is a hot program with offseason momentum and a flashy quarterback.

    That's a recipe for preseason-poll success.

6. Michigan State Spartans

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    Michigan State QB Connor Cook
    Michigan State QB Connor CookKevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    Considering the way it ended the season, it shouldn't be a surprise if Michigan State finds itself dancing in the Top 10 in the preseason polls.

    The Spartans have a stud running back in Jeremy Langford, have quarterback Connor Cook coming back off a solid Rose Bowl performance and have defensive end Shilique Calhoun leading a revamped defense. All three of those players were in B/R's Brian Pedersen's top-50 player list published after spring practice.

    The Spartans aren't sexy like Big Ten challengers Ohio State, but they get the job done, and they proved that last year. That will help them in the preseason AP poll.

5. Auburn Tigers

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    The defending SEC champs will find themselves in the preseason Top Five, thanks to eight starters returning off last year's dominant offense and a defense that is returning some key players who got better as last season went on.

    Quarterback Nick Marshall is the first signal-caller head coach Gus Malzahn has had return for a second season as a starter in Malzahn's entire college coaching career, and he looked like he has taken the next step during spring practice. The Tigers will be able to pound the rock just like they did last year, and if they add an intermediate passing game to the mix, the offense will be nearly unstoppable.

    Defensively, there are some roster holes. But the linebackers looked better as the season went on last year, there's still depth up front, and the secondary won't be riddled with injuries like it was last season.

    Auburn won't be ranked above intrastate rival Alabama because, even though it's unfair to Auburn and outright false, it will still be viewed as a team that "lucked its way" to the title game last year in some voters' minds.

4. Oregon Ducks

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    Oregon QB Marcus Mariota
    Oregon QB Marcus MariotaJonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    Voters love winning programs and programs with a Heisman Trophy candidate. But most of all, voters love points.

    Check off all three boxes for the Oregon Ducks.

    Marcus Mariota returns to try to take his Ducks to the next level and win the national title, and he's got the weapons to do it. Thomas Tyner and Byron Marshall will pose a tremendous challenge at running back, and as long as Mariota stays healthy, he should be able to live up to the NFL draft hype that has him higher than Florida State's Jameis Winston, according to SI.com's Thayer Evans and Pete Thamel.

    When the offense is clicking, all the defense needs to do is be opportunistic. 

    The Ducks will be squarely in the mix for the Pac-12 title and a berth in the College Football Playoff from Day 1.

3. Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Tradition matters for voters, and Ohio State's tradition will land the Buckeyes in the preseason Top Three in the AP poll.

    Braxton Miller is back at quarterback to lead a team that was one game away from playing for the crystal football last season. Head coach Urban Meyer will keep that offense clicking at an elite level, and Miller will benefit from another offseason working in the offense.

    But for Ohio State to be elite, it has to be better defensively. The front seven should be solid, thanks to a deep defensive line that will allow new defensive coordinator Chris Ash to keep those big bodies fresh up front. That should help the Buckeyes stay atop the Big Ten in sacks, where they led the conference a year ago (42). 

    Tired of the Buckeyes hanging around the "Big Dance" but not walking through the door? Get used to it, because they'll be on the doorstep from the moment the 2014 season starts.

2. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Speaking of tradition, Alabama has it by the truckload and will be the AP voters' favorite to win the SEC in 2014. 

    No, head coach Nick Saban doesn't have quarterback AJ McCarron returning, and Florida State transfer Jacob Coker will be the likely candidate to replace him.

    All the eggs are in Coker's basket, after Blake Sims looked average at best in the spring game. But the good news is that the Crimson Tide are loaded at wide receiver and running back, and they can be successful if Coker is just a caretaker. If he's a difference-maker, that's a bonus.

    The big question is on defense, where there are three holes in a secondary that, despite what the statistics say, wasn't very consistent against the pass last season. But Saban's track record coaching elite defensive backs will make that a non-factor in voters' minds and vault the Tide to the penultimate spot in the preseason rankings. 

    Despite the (gasp) two-game losing streak, Alabama will be a favorite to make the inaugural College Football Playoff.

1. Florida State Seminoles

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    Florida State had seven players drafted off its BCS National Championship team, but it returns Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston, running back Karlos Williams and a host of talented players who will be instrumental in the Seminoles' quest to repeat.

    The star power, combined with the reluctance of some voters to knock a team down until it loses, will keep the 'Noles in the top spot of the preseason AP poll.

    But how long will it last?

    This year's schedule features a neutral-site game against Oklahoma State, a visit from Notre Dame, a trip to Louisville and the annual intrastate rivalry game against a Florida team that should be vastly improved. 

    If head coach Jimbo Fisher is going to lead his team to a second straight title, it will be with some new pieces, through a much tougher road, with a target on its back. It will get the benefit of the doubt before the season, though, and be designated with the No. 1 ranking by the AP.

     

    * Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All statistical information is courtesy of CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted, and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.

     


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