The 2014 NCAA football preseason rankings have been released, with the reigning national champion Florida State Seminoles atop the Amway Coaches Poll as they seek to repeat.
This will be the first year for a new playoff system, though, so it will require the Seminoles to defeat multiple, high-quality opponents if they're meant to successfully defend their title. Standing in their way are a slew of quality teams, namely the No. 2-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide, winners of three of the last five national championships.
Coming in at third are the Oklahoma Sooners, who defeated Alabama in the Sugar Bowl to get a big win for coach Bob Stoops after some recent difficulties in the postseason. That bodes well for the Sooners' chances to contend for college football's ultimate prize in 2014.
All of these teams are experiencing quite a bit of roster turnover, though, so let's take a closer look at the established top three atop the NCAA hierarchy.
No. 1 Florida State Seminoles
Jameis Winston returns to quarterback the team he led to the national title as a mere freshman, but a number of absences at the skill positions will demand more from the sophomore signal-caller.
Wide receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw are no longer around, while running backs Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. are also gone. That leaves Karlos Williams in the backfield, along with seasoned receiver Rashad Greene as Winston's likely No. 1 target.
Tight end Nick O'Leary will figure prominently in the passing game, too, and so as long as Winston continues to develop in coach Jimbo Fisher's complex offense, Florida State should be fine on that side of the ball.
As for defense, there is a plethora of talent gone from last year's starting 11 that the Seminoles need to account for, namely inside linebacker Telvin Smith. Defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan is a big subtraction from the trenches, and the secondary also took hits in losing safeties Lamarcus Joyner and Terrence Brooks.
Fisher is deploying a hard-line, intense approach in dictating to his players what it will take to repeat as champions, per ESPN.com's Jared Shanker:
We study guys who had attitudes of domination who won for long periods of time -- Joe Montana, John Elway repeated, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson. Those guys all had that killer instinct and were guys who wanted to be on top, stayed on top, and one championship wasn't enough.
[...] Michael Jordan, you never saw him not play to the max, and that, to me, to the players, sends a message. It’s a constant education to me, to these kids, to get them to think in that type of mold, because it’s human nature to win and relax.
There's the saying that it's better to aim high and fall short than to not shoot for the stars. It appears Fisher isn't afraid of challenging his players to succeed on an all-time great level. That's what it will take, especially with the playoffs and every opponent wanting to be the one that topples the mighty champions.
Winston's ability to carry the weight on offense will also depend on Williams settling into a feature back role. The defense also must reload and stop the run close to how it did in 2013 (via NCAA.com), where the Seminoles allowed a nation-low seven touchdowns on the ground.
No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide
Just as Florida State was last year with Freeman, Wiliams and Wilder, the Tide will go three deep in the backfield this year with T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake.
Yeldon already has 26 touchdowns on the ground in two years in Tuscaloosa, but Henry's emergence in the Sugar Bowl loss last year may lead to a more even split on carries. The big question for Alabama is: Who will be running the offense now that AJ McCarron is gone to the NFL?
The QB competition between fifth-year senior Blake Sims and Florida State transfer Jacob Coker is ongoing, but it appears Coker is the favorite to take the job. If these rankings hold up, it would be quite fascinating to see Coker battle the Seminoles for the national championship as a member of the Tide.
Here's what wide receiver Christion Jones had to say about Coker, per USA Today's Marq Burnett:
He definitely has sparks that he brings to the table that's shown that he can be one of the greatest quarterbacks to play here. But I can also say all our quarterbacks show those sparks at moments that they can be that quarterback. It's just going to be all about being consistent and coming out every day and competing and being consistent with your performance.
Jimmy Burch of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram responded to that in reporting that most expect Coker to get the nod over Sims:
Coker has the superior talent from the pocket, while Sims could still be deployed in a package thanks to his running ability. Either way, this figures to be a more dynamic offense under first-year coordinator Lane Kiffin than the Tide have had in the past.
The physical identity and ground-and-pound power playing will still be there, but with playmakers like Amari Cooper on the outside, this unit could be as special as it's been in years.
And coach Nick Saban always has an elite defense, though it will be interesting to see how he tweaks his schemes this year. After Texas A&M Heisman winner Johnny Manziel lit up the Tide two years in a row and dual-threat Oklahoma QB Trevor Knight put on a breakout show in the Sugar Bowl, Saban must find a way to neutralize more athletic quarterbacks.
That will ultimately determine how successful Alabama is. The Tide are bound to be among the best teams in the nation, but containing QBs in the open field and navigating a brutal SEC schedule are the chief concerns. A more explosive passing game and perpetually fresh legs at running back should help.
No. 3 Oklahoma Sooners
A lot of Oklahoma's high ranking seems to be predicated on the fact that Knight came to play against Alabama and Stoops won a big game. However, now the pressure is on in Norman for the Sooners to make the playoffs and become a true factor in the national championship picture.
Knight must play at the level he flashed against the Tide for Oklahoma to be a true contender. After all, quarterbacks often separate the good teams from the ones that are truly great at any level of football.
There's no question all the skills are there for Knight to be a threat with his arm and legs. What remains to be seen is whether he can sustain the brilliance he showed in dismantling Alabama.
"He can be the Sugar Bowl guy," said Sooners co-offensive coordinator Josh Heupel, per USA Today's George Schroeder. "Everybody in our program is really confident he's gonna be that. He's got a really high ceiling."
Lightning-quick pass-rusher Eric Striker will be screaming off the edge to give Big 12 QBs nightmares. Rising sophomore Dominique Alexander is bound to lead the Sooners in tackles with his nose for the ball, though, giving Oklahoma a formidable linebacker corps.
Who will win the 2014 national title?
Former Sooners QB Blake Bell has transitioned over to tight end, so he could be an X-factor for the Oklahoma offense with his size and speed. As long as he can block and use his big frame to shield defenders, Knight could connect with him often in the red zone, giving the Sooners an added dimension.
All three of the top-ranked teams should be deep, but neither the Tide nor Oklahoma have a settled quarterback situation. That could wind up costing both a shot at the national championship, while Winston should prove to be an elite option for Florida State once again. The disparity will likely reveal itself if any combination of these teams meet in the new playoffs.
With the new postseason comes a chance for teams not as highly ranked at the moment to leapfrog the established powers with transcendent QB play. That's why the premier programs should be on the lookout for Marcus Mariota and the fourth-ranked Oregon Ducks, the Brett Hundley-led No. 7 UCLA Bruins and the No. 10 Baylor Bears, quarterbacked by Bryce Petty.
This college football season may not have quite the complications the BCS has tended to promote in the past. However, the playoff twist and talent depth at the all-important quarterback position should make it as compelling as ever.