Previews for college football season are often fruitless endeavors. With the high annual personnel turnover inherent in college sports, it is extraordinarily rare for a team to sustain a wide-open championship window. Conversely, programs can flip over disappointing rosters and shoot back into relevance, much like Auburn did last season.
But while it's nearly impossible to accurately forecast where the season will finish, it is feasible to see where the college football landscape starts. Various preseason polls have pinpointed a handful of early favorites, but with the four-team playoff system in place for 2014, the championship field is larger than it ever was during the BCS era.
So what will the preseason polls look like upon release? Here's a guess at how the top 25 will shake out before Week 1.
1. Florida State Seminoles
The defending national champs return 13 starters from their undefeated 2013 squad. Even with high-profile losses to the NFL including Kelvin Benjamin, Lamarcus Joyner and Terrence Brooks, the Seminoles still have the most talented team in the nation due to top-notch recruiting.
Reigning Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston is the obvious headliner. While Winston has made offseason headlines for his crab leg transgressions and defense of the NCAA, he remains the leader of the top offense in the country. Winston's dynamic playmaking has drawn comparisons to one of the top college and pro quarterbacks in recent memory:
The Seminoles do face a tough opening this year, as they face Oklahoma State in Arlington, Texas. However, they also play Clemson, Notre Dame and Florida at Doak Campbell Stadium, with Miami looming as their only truly challenging road test. Florida State will be favored in every regular-season game it plays this year, and should make its way into the playoff.
2. Alabama Crimson Tide
Following back-to-back losses to Auburn and Oklahoma to end last season, the Alabama Crimson Tide have a bitter taste in their mouths. But Nick Saban runs the steadiest programs in the country, so the Tide figure to have an excellent chance at redemption in 2014.
Annually a defensive powerhouse, Alabama is actually overflowing with more offensive skill position talent than nearly any team in the country. No team can match the running back duo of T.J. Yeldon and former top recruit Derrick Henry, while Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White and O.J. Howard should wreak havoc on opposing secondaries.
The biggest question mark may actually lie at quarterback, where Florida State transfer Jacob Coker will take the place of the departed A.J. McCarron. Coker has drawn rave reviews this spring, and he may actually face expectations to lead a more prolific offense than the McCarron-led units.
The SEC gauntlet is an annual barrier, though the conference champion will almost certainly make the playoff. Though archrival Auburn must travel to Bryant-Denny this year, road games at LSU and Ole Miss loom as significant stumbling blocks for Saban's crew.
3. Oregon Ducks
The perennially contending Ducks have yet to break through with a national championship, but with the unexpected return of quarterback Marcus Mariota, Oregon should once again find itself among the small handful of favorites in 2014.
Oregon is not infallible, however, and an ACL injury to top receiver Bralon Addison has left Mariota's pass-catching corps rather thin. Of course, despite playing in the Pac-12, the Ducks do have an advantage enjoyed by few teams in the conference:
A premier nonconference game against Michigan State looms in the second week, as does a November trip to UCLA. But recent nemesis Stanford will travel to Eugene this year and, all things considered, the Ducks have little excuse to win fewer than 11 regular-season games.
4. Ohio State Buckeyes
Though Urban Meyer still possesses an undefeated regular-season record at Ohio State, back-to-back losses against Michigan State and Clemson soured an otherwise excellent 2013 for the Buckeyes. With Heisman candidate Braxton Miller and a stellar defensive line, however, Meyer's crew could redeem itself in 2014.
The offensive line's development will be crucial, as the Buckeyes had multiple starting spots up for grabs after spring practice. Still, Meyer's recruiting has given Ohio State a considerable talent edge over most of the Big Ten, and there are few pitfalls in the schedule this year.
That could actually work against the Buckeyes, though, depending on how the SEC and Pac-12 shake out. Apart from a road trip to Lansing, Ohio State has few opportunities to make an impression on the selection committee. An undefeated season is a distinct possibility, but also a must for a playoff berth.
5. Oklahoma Sooners
After Bob Stoops' tenure had apparently stagnated, a shocking Sugar Bowl upset over Alabama has reinvigorated the program. Led by Trevor Knight, the Sooners are the consensus Big 12 favorite and legitimate playoff contenders.
Knight is one of the most intriguing players in the country this year, as Oklahoma is tying its hopes to the belief that the Sugar Bowl performance was not simply a one-game miracle. The mobile Knight represents a threat through the air and on the ground, but Stoops wants his quarterback to adjust his game in preparation for a long season:
If Knight proves worthy, a rock-solid defense and a relatively benign schedule should help the Sooners. Games against Oklahoma State, Baylor and Kansas State are all at Norman, so the Sooners should be favored in every game in 2014.
6. Auburn Tigers
Gus Malzahn's Tigers had a charmed run to the national title game last season, but repeating the task will be extraordinarily difficult. Nonetheless, with Nick Marshall back in tow, Auburn will once again be a top favorite in the SEC.
Malzahn's option attack terrorized the nation in 2013, and with Marshall improving as a passer this offseason, the offense should be an elite unit. But a defense that was subpar last season lost its best player in Dee Ford, and the speed-over-size emphasis could prove fatal against bruising offenses like Alabama and LSU.
Road games against Alabama and Georgia will likely see the Tigers as underdogs, while home contests against South Carolina and LSU are likely toss-ups at best. Auburn is good enough to beat any of those teams, but they cannot expect the same late-game fortune as they received last season.
7. UCLA Bruins
Potential first-rounder Brett Hundley should lead one of the nation's top passing attacks. Despite the loss of Shaq Evans, five of the Bruins' top six receiving targets return, while a powerful rushing attack should lead to a deadly balanced attack.
The wild card could be Hundley's struggles against top-notch competition. As ESPN's KC Joyner illustrates, Hundley's worst games have come on the biggest stages (subscription required):
As tremendous as Hundley's numbers have been in most situations, he has posted a 65.4 adjusted total QBR over the past two years against foes that end the season with a 75 percent or higher win percentage. That ranks 48th among quarterbacks from BCS conferences the past two years and is not a positive sign given how many potential teams of this caliber UCLA is apt to face this season.
Games against Oregon, Stanford and Arizona State will test the Bruins' championship viability. Jim Mora Jr. has rebuilt a previously moribund program, but it is still unclear if UCLA can break into the top tier of college football.
8. South Carolina Gamecocks
Though Steve Spurrier has yet to win an SEC Championship at South Carolina, his tenure has been one of steady improvement. Even with the losses of Jadeveon Clowney and Connor Shaw, the Gamecocks could have their best team of the Spurrier era.
Shaw's replacement, Dylan Thompson, does have some experience, having filled in for Shaw during various injury stints. The real key, however, could be running back Mike Davis, who is one of the nation's top dark horses after a 1,183-yard, 11-touchdown season:
In a wide-open SEC East, the Gamecocks are likely slight favorites over Georgia and Florida, considering the disappointing seasons the latter two programs had in 2013. Though South Carolina does have road trips to Auburn and Clemson, an SEC title-game appearance is far from out of the question.
9. Baylor Bears
Art Briles' offense has vaulted the traditional Big 12 doormats into legitimate national title contenders. After a Fiesta Bowl appearance in 2013, Baylor is now firmly on the national radar.
There are no questions about the Bryce Petty-led offense, which boasts tremendous skill position talent through the likes of Shock Linwood, Antwan Goodley and Devin Chafin. The defense, however, is much younger after the graduations of top starters Eddie Lackey, Ahmad Dixon and Sam Holl. Baylor improved tremendously on that side of the ball last year, but its Big 12 hopes likely hinge upon breakthroughs from underclassmen.
A November road trip to Oklahoma stands as Baylor's stiffest test of the year, as that game could decide the conference champion. The Bears should be favorites against Texas and Oklahoma State, so a double-digit win season is the new expectation in Waco.
10. Georgia Bulldogs
An injury-plagued 2013 may actually serve the Bulldogs well in 2014. New quarterback Hutson Mason played three games in place of the now-departed Aaron Murray, and with Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall healthy again, he figures to have an excellent supporting cast in place.
But a defense that forced plenty of big plays in 2013 has seen tremendous turmoil in the offseason. Though nine starters return from last year's unit, off-field issues have plagued the unit this spring:
The season could hinge upon an inexperienced secondary led by Damian Swann. Though the SEC's passing attacks will take a step back in 2014, the Bulldogs still have a brutal schedule that includes an opening two-week slate against Clemson and South Carolina. If Georgia somehow starts 2-0, though, a legitimate SEC contender could be in place.
11. Stanford Cardinal
David Shaw's smashmouth Cardinal have turned into legitimate powerhouses after four consecutive BCS Bowl appearances. Quarterback Kevin Hogan and wide receiver Ty Montgomery highlight a less experienced Stanford team that returns only 11 starters, but does have a strong foundation in place.
As the losses of Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck illustrated, Stanford's system has transcended personnel turnover. As ESPN's Travis Haney suggests, expecting regression could be foolish (subscription required):
Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw have instilled an incredible amount of confidence in the players who come to Palo Alto. They don’t know anything other than winning, just like those ahead of them did.
Stanford does have a difficult schedule, highlighted by trips to Eugene, Tempe and Westwood. That's as difficult a road schedule as any team, and two losses in that stretch could send the Cardinal out of playoff consideration. Nonetheless, Stanford figures to have an important say in the Pac-12 Championship picture.
12. Michigan State Spartans
If the playoff system had been in place last season, Michigan State's red-hot finish likely would have sent them into the field. As it is, the reigning Big Ten champions could still make a run at the inaugural playoff behind an SEC-like defense and a vastly improved offense.
Quarterback Connor Cook is largely responsible for the latter, stabilizing the Spartans' passing game after taking over the job last October. At the Nike Elite 11 quarterback camp this summer, reports suggested that Cook was ready to take another leap this fall:
The Spartans do face a brutal nonconference game against Oregon, but they also get Ohio State at home. Road trips loom against Michigan and Penn State, but given the recent trajectories of those programs, Michigan State should find itself favored.
13. LSU Tigers
Les Miles' program is no stranger to attrition, as few teams send more players to the NFL each year. With new starters at quarterback, running back and wide receiver, among other positions, a Tigers offense that soared in 2013 could take a step back.
However, that may not be true if all-world freshman running back Leonard Fournette fulfills the immense preseason hype. With LSU likely to return to its ground-and-pound roots as it breaks in a new quarterback (either Anthony Jennings or freshman Brandon Harris), the nation's top recruit has already drawn comparisons to arguably the best running back in the world:
Fournette will need to make an immediate impact, as a season-opening neutral site game against Wisconsin highlights a brutal schedule for the Tigers. LSU also has road trips to Auburn and Florida, though they do play Alabama at Death Valley this year. Still, depending on how the young offense matures, LSU is a viable dark-horse playoff contender.
14. USC Trojans
NCAA sanctions have taken a toll on USC's depth in recent seasons, and 2014 is no different. However, with a stable quarterback situation and the usual assortment of elite talent at the top of the depth chart, the Trojans could return to national relevance with enough breaks.
Cody Kessler led USC to six wins in his final seven starts last year, which has earned him the undisputed starting spot under center. Wide receiver Nelson Agholor and potential top-10 pick Leonard Williams give USC a strong starting lineup, so early-season contests against Stanford and Arizona State could give the Trojans a stage to shine.
But depth is crucial in a sport where injuries are inevitable, and it would not be surprising to see USC slow down as attrition takes its toll. Still, with new head coach Steve Sarkisian in place, the Trojans are on the right path toward re-establishing themselves as a premier Pac-12 program.
15. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
After a disappointing 2013 season, Notre Dame will regain the quarterback who led them to a surprising national championship game appearance in 2012. Everett Golson is back after being academically ineligible last year, and looked impressive during spring practices:
The Irish took a significant hit in terms of personnel losses this year, but a shutdown secondary headlined by KeiVarae Russell could stabilize a young squad. Golson will also have plenty of skill position talent to work with in tight end Ben Koyack (a Mackey Award candidate in 2013) and running backs Cam McDaniel, Tarean Foster and former 4-star prospect Greg Bryant.
However, Notre Dame does have a brutal schedule with trips to Florida State, Arizona State and USC, as well as home dates against Stanford, Michigan and Louisville. Though the Irish may be improved, that slate will make a double-digit victory season extremely difficult to achieve.
16. Wisconsin Badgers
Madison has emerged as a haven for running backs, and 2014 will be no different. Despite the graduation of James White, Melvin Gordon could power the Badgers to an even better showing on the ground, having averaged an eye-popping 8.1 yards per carry over his career.
However, Wisconsin is not simply a one-dimensional offense. Quarterback Joel Stave showed his inexperience last year, as turnovers and slow decision-making relegated him to the bench by season's end. However, even as raw as he was, Stave still showed an ability to reach the end zone:
Apart from the season opener against LSU and a road trip to Iowa, Wisconsin has an extremely kind schedule by virtue of playing in the weaker Big Ten West. A conference title game appearance should be the expectation for 2014.
17. Ole Miss Rebels
Hugh Freeze has rebuilt a previously dysfunctional program into a legitimate top-25 team. Unfortunately for the Rebels, playing in the SEC West relegates them to being the fourth or even fifth best team in their own division. Nevertheless, coming off an eight-win season, there is reason to believe the Rebels could take another step forward in 2014.
Bo Wallace is one of the best returning quarterbacks in the conference, and he headlines a group of 15 returning starters. Wallace will also get back the majority of his top targets, including receiver Laquon Treadwell, who compiled 72 receptions and five touchdowns in an impressive freshman season.
Ole Miss also has a relatively favorable schedule (at least given their circumstances), as they host both Alabama and Auburn. They also draw Tennessee and Vanderbilt from the SEC East instead of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina or Missouri. The Rebels will be hard-pressed to reach 10 wins, but an improvement from 2013 is possible.
18. Arizona State Sun Devils
Though Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley receive most of the hype surrounding Pac-12 quarterbacks, Arizona State's Taylor Kelly deserves consideration in the top tier as well. After totaling 4,243 total yards and 37 total touchdowns in 2013, Kelly is firmly established as one of the nation's top playmakers. According to Everett Cook of the Los Angeles Times, Kelly remains driven by the fact that he and the Sun Devils remain under the radar:
Being under the radar pushes me. It makes me stay humble. There’s a chip on my shoulder to outwork everyone else.… I see myself as the best one in the conference. That’s all that matters, and no one is going to take my confidence away from me. I think that’s the most important thing.
The redshirt senior has a strong supporting cast in place as well, as Jaelen Strong is the conference's top returning receiver, while running back D.J. Foster is arguably the best receiving back in the country. Redshirt sophomore receiver Ellis Jefferson could be a name to keep an eye on as well, as he wowed observers during spring practices.
Arizona State does face a brutal second month of the season, when it will play UCLA, USC, Stanford and Washington in four consecutive weeks. But Todd Graham has rejuvenated the program after Dennis Erickson's heinous tenure, and the Sun Devils could emerge as top Pac-12 contenders.
19. Kansas State Wildcats
Among long shot Heisman candidates in 2014, Wildcats quarterback Jake Waters stands out as an intriguing name. After a shaky start last season, Waters caught fire and posted one of the best quarterback seasons in program history:
Bill Snyder's crew is a consistent second-tier contender, nothing to scoff at given the abyss from which Kansas State rose. The Wildcats also have seven returning players who received All-Big 12 honors last year, led by wide receiver Tyler Lockett and defensive end Ryan Mueller.
Kansas State will have an opportunity to capture the nation's attention with a September contest against Auburn. A conference slate that includes trips to Oklahoma and Baylor will likely prevent the Wildcats from winning the Big 12, but an improvement from last year's eight-win season could occur.
20. Clemson Tigers
After losing Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins to the NFL, it would ostensibly appear as though Clemson is undergoing a transition season. However, while it will be difficult to match last year's Orange Bowl appearance, the Tigers could still be a viable ACC contender in 2014.
A defense that has traditionally been a weakness could carry the team this season. Clemson's defensive line was a tremendous unit last season, and All-America candidate Vic Beasley believes the line could be the best in the country this year:
The running back depth should cushion the transition to senior quarterback Cole Stoudt, who has thrown just 119 passes over his collegiate career. Road trips to Florida State and Georgia will test Stoudt early in the season, but expect the Tigers to stabilize after a tough start.
21. Texas A&M Aggies
Life after Johnny Manziel commences for Texas A&M this year, but don't expect Kevin Sumlin's program to take a significant step back. Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen provide the Aggies a pair of high-upside successors, and while growing pains are inevitable, there is enough talent in College Station to maintain top-25 status.
Even without Manziel, the Aggies welcome back 15 starters, including six of their eight top tacklers on defense. Tackle Cedric Ogbuehi also returns for his senior year to anchor a strong offensive line, which boasts another potential high draft pick in senior guard Jarvis Harrison.
The schedule is certainly difficult, as Texas A&M faces both Alabama and Auburn on the road, while also drawing Missouri and South Carolina from the SEC East. A mid-tier bowl is the likeliest end result during this transition season.
22. Washington Huskies
New head coach Chris Petersen carries an impressive track record from Boise State and will head a rising Washington program. After notching their first top-25 finish since 2001, the Huskies face higher expectations despite losing quite a bit of talent in the offseason.
Washington does get much of its defense back, including five starters from the front seven. Defensive end Hau'oli Kikaha could emerge as the team's best pass-rusher after a breakthrough performance in the Fight Hunger Bowl, while cornerback Marcus Peters returns after leading the team with five interceptions in 2013.
Losing Keith Price, Bishop Sankey and Austin Seferian-Jenkins on offense will hurt, and an October road game against Oregon will serve as a litmus test for how far the Huskies have progressed. But Washington is headed in the right direction and could be a legitimate Pac-12 contender shortly with Petersen's arrival.
23. Florida Gators
Will Muschamp's squad was arguably the most disappointing in the country last year after a 4-8 campaign. However, the roster talent is plainly obvious, and some like ESPN's Phil Steele have pinpointed Florida as a prime rebound candidate in 2014 (subscription required):
This season, the Gators have 14 returning starters, and several young players saw extensive action because of injuries last season. The offense has really struggled in the Muschamp era but should be improved, especially with a healthy QB in Jeff Driskel, who is a great fit in new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper's system...Last season, the Gators' offensive line had three players start at each of the left tackle, left guard and right tackle spots, with only center having the same starter for all 12 games. This season they return 66 career starts and figure to be stronger and more stable.
Florida's defense should be one of the best in the country, led by cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and the defensive end tandem of Dante Fowler and Jonathan Bullard. With a healthy season from Driskel and a potential breakout from wide receiver Demarcus Robinson, last season's offensive impotence could become a distant memory.
24. Texas Longhorns
The Longhorns are in the unfamiliar position of being a mid-level Big 12 team. With new head coach Chuck Strong instilling a disciplined culture, however, the lackadaisical and underachieving squads of Mack Brown's final days are gone.
Despite tremendous defensive talent, Texas allowed over 400 yards per game over the last two seasons. Much of that unit returns, and with top-notch talent like Cedric Reed, Jordan Hicks and Quandre Diggs, Strong's defensive background could engineer a significant turnaround:
David Ash is healthy again, and Strong has named the junior his starter for the season. A challenging schedule that includes a neutral-site game against UCLA and back-to-back contests against Baylor and Oklahoma could limit the ceiling for 2014, but Texas should begin to maximize its talent once again.
25. Marshall Thundering Herd
Marshall is arguably the only team in the country that absolutely should finish the season undefeated. The Thundering Herd are likely the best non-power-five conference team this season, as quarterback Rakeem Cato leads an explosive passing attack:
Marshall will not threaten the playoff picture, as they do not play any significant nonconference games, while Conference USA itself is one of the weakest in the FBS. But coming off a 10-win season and a Military Bowl victory over Maryland, the positive momentum should continue for the Herd.