Preseason College Football Rankings 2014: Early Breakdown of NCAA Top 25

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistJuly 30, 2014

TALLAHASSEE, FL - APRIL 12:  Jameis Winston #5 of the Garnet team reacts to a pass against the Gold team during Florida State's Garnet and Gold spring game at Doak Campbell Stadium on April 12, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

College football rankings are not going anywhere, folks.

A playoff is upon us with the BCS a nightmare of the past, but rankings remain an important piece of collegiate football's culture, especially after Amway partnered with USA Today and the American Football Coaches Association.

These rankings, like all that came before them, are based on a combination of last year's results, additions or subtractions and projections based on the schedule and more.

Let's dive right into the first projected Top 25 of the season.

1. Florida State Seminoles

We can get cute and throw another team in the top slot and cite arbitrary things such as a "tougher schedule" and the proverbial "target on the champ's back" hooplah, but really, the Florida State Seminoles are the most talented team in the land.

These Seminoles return 13 starters from a year ago, with the most notable loss being wideout Kelvin Benjamin. But the losses mean little with Jameis Winston back in the fold, and as Emory Hunt of Football Gameplan points out, his trajectory is only on the upswing:

Miami is by far Florida State's toughest road test, and yes, the defense is in a state of flux, but when the man under center can complete better than 66 percent of his more than 380 attempts and have a 40-10 touchdown-to-interception ratio, the negatives start to dissipate.

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2. Oregon Ducks

As if the plug-and-play offense in Oregon needed any help, Marcus Mariota is back for another shot at a title and his team does not have to encounter USC or Arizona State.

Skeptics will point out that the Ducks will find a way to mess up a good thing on paper, which is possible—the last few years have seen Mariota and Co. continue to suffer strokes of bad luck, be it injuries or the simple bounce of the football.

But as long as he continues to produce at this clip, the Ducks are not falling out of the title picture:


It appears the football gods have smiled upon the Ducks this year. It is Mariota's responsibility to make sure his team comes through.

3. Alabama Crimson Tide

So what, because Nick Saban's Crimson Tide lost two games as the curtain was drawn on last season means they will struggle this year?


Saban captains the tightest ship on the seas, and a few losses and some turnover have never thrown a wrench in that. Many will point to the loss of AJ McCarron under center, but in reality, Blake Sims looked great last year and Jacob Coker is a signal-caller who—gasp—could not beat out Winston for the starting gig in the Sunshine State.

They say competition brings out the best in players, so Saban has made sure to point out that a battle is underway, per ESPN's Alex Scarborough:

That's really not internally the perception by me, our staff or our players. Jake Coker has the opportunity to come in and compete for the position. Blake Sims has been competing for the position. He really did a pretty good job in the spring. He didn't play great in the spring game, but we really didn't do the things that he's capable of doing.

No matter who takes the gig, the Crimson Tide will be in the title picture, as always.

4. Auburn Tigers

Gus Malzahn's offense ran wild on the nation a year ago, and while losing a talented back such as Tre Mason hurts, it is a scheme that essentially gets production no matter who takes the field.

That said, it certainly does not hurt that quarterback Nick Marshall is back in the fold—and improving as a passer.

The schedule is downright brutal for the Tigers next year, but a run-oriented attack led by surefire star backs in names such as Roc Thomas will do much to keep the pressure off what may be an iffy defensive unit.

5. Oklahoma Sooners

One-game miracle or legitimate turnaround for Oklahoma under Bob Stoops?

That is the ultimate question after the Sooners were able to knock off Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. The team has subsequently been named Big 12 favorites and is a trendy pick to come in at No. 1 overall.

As much as Oklahoma's ability to make the playoff hinges on the defense being able to once again vanquish the pass-happy offenses of the conference, the main pressure falls on Trevor Knight, who is now alone at the position with the weight of the program on his shoulders.

Kudos to him for 348 yards and four touchdowns to one interception with a 72.7 completion percentage against the Crimson Tide, but now Knight has to prove the production was no fluke.

6. Ohio State Buckeyes

By all accounts, Urban Meyer's focus on the defensive side of the football is going quite well this preseason, as illustrated by Lantern Sports:

Adolphus Washington and Co. should have little issue once again clogging running lanes and putting pressure on quarterbacks, so Chris Ash's addition should help the secondary turn a corner in a critical season for the program.

On offense, Braxton Miller will surely be back in the Heisman hunt one year removed from being in the thick of things despite essentially missing three games.

7. Baylor Bears

Jan 1, 2014; Glendale, AZ, USA; Baylor Bears quarterback Bryce Petty (14) throws during the second half against the UCF Knights in the Fiesta Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Look at thatyet another program with a top-tier quarterback back in school for a shot at the playoff. 

Bryce Petty is one year removed from a 62 percent completion percentage and 4,200 yards with a 32-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Even better, behind him is elite back Shock Linwood, who averaged 6.9 yards per tote on just 128 attempts last season.

If Art Briles' squad wants to build on its Fiesta Bowl showing last year, it will have to shine on one of next season's brightest stages—a November showdown with the Sooners in Oklahoma.

8. UCLA Bruins

Rinse and repeat.

Jim Mora Jr. has done an outstanding job on the West Coast with UCLA to this point, but his fate and eventual legacy there in the midst of a rebuild is directly tied to the performance of signal-caller Brett Hundley.

At first glance, Hundley's numbers—3,701 yards, 24 scores and nine picks on a 67.2 average—look great, but ESPN's KC Joyner points out that the impressionable gunslinger shrunk when Mora needed him most:

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.

That is one of a few reasons most experts thought it wise for Hundley to remain in school. His development will uplift or sink the program. 

9. Stanford Cardinal

It may seem dishonest in the face of all this quarterback talk, but a program's success can be directly stirred by a superb coach as well.

There is no better example of this than Stanford's Davis Shaw as the Cardinal head into next season.

The squad returns about half of the starters from a year ago, but that is no cause for concern under Shaw—who has proven time and again he did not just inherit recruiting classes from Jim Harbaugh, but improved upon them while perfecting the art of talent turnover.

The Cardinal will continue to be a force after four straight BCS appearances. A Pac-12 title, if not a playoff appearance, is not out of the question.

10. South Carolina Gamecocks

Dylan Thompson is a bit of a question mark under center with Connor Shaw out of the picture, but the presence of Heisman hopeful Mike Davis in the backfield will make the transition much easier.

Most, including coach Steve Spurrier, have high aspirations for the sophomore back, as illustrated by College GameDay:

Last year, Davis carried the ball 203 times for 1,183 yards and 11 scores, a surefire signal that Heisman numbers might be in the cards if his usage increases.

There is no proper way to make up for the loss of Jadeveon Clowney, but a run-first approach will make the lives of Spurrier and Co. easier in a weak SEC East.

11. Texas A&M Aggies

No Johnny Football, no problem.

Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen are rightful successors to the throne, and no matter who gains the job, elite tackle Cedric Ogbuehi will be there to protect the blind side.

The real issue that permeates from College Station is the road trips the Aggies must take to Alabama and Auburn, two facets of what makes up the nation's fourth-most difficult schedule:

Playoffs may not be a realistic end goal, but Manziel's impact on the program has brought on boatloads of young talent that ensure the Aggies are here to stay.


12. Georgia Bulldogs

With Aaron Murray out of the picture, Georgia is another squad that may or may not have what it takes to seize the SEC East in what appears to be a down year.

The focal point for the Bulldogs will be on the ground, which is easy to see thanks to likely Heisman contender Todd Gurley. In two seasons, he has averaged 6.1 yards per carry and has drawn the attention of many, including one Herschel Walker.

“Todd is a tough, tough ballplayer,” Walker said, according to dawgs247.com. “He's a very, very good ballplayer. The guy has got so much talent, and when you watch him play, you know that he can go to the next level with no problem.”

It will be a trial by fire right off the bat for Gurley and Co. with matchups against Clemson and South Carolina. We will know quickly if the team will be in the hunt.

13. LSU Tigers

The quarterback competition between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris, supervised by Les Miles, is none too encouraging.

Jennings has a highlight from last season in his 99-yard, game-winning drive against Arkansas after Zach Mettenberger went down, but Harris is essentially the same player, sans the experience with the playbook.

Fortunately for Miles, his defense is set to be elite once more, and a talented back by the name of Leonard Fournette has the chance to be the best in the country.

14. Michigan State Spartans

Remember the traits touched on with regard to Shaw? Mark Dantonio has been doing it even longer out of East Lansing.

It always hurts to lose a player like Darqueze Dennard, but the next-man-up philosophy within Dantonio's system will once again work wonders.

The real spotlight will be on quarterback Connor Cook, who held the Spartans back at times last season with his timid arm. That said, he was a whole lot more lively under center as the season wore on toward the Rose Bowl:

Should Cook continue on his upward trajectory, a Big Ten title is certainly a possibility.

15. USC Trojans

Injuries are an inevitable part of the sport, so the wheels may fall off for USC by midseason, as the roster has little depth to speak of thanks to sanctions in recent years.

But in the early stages of the 2014 campaign, the Trojans are going to look like a dangerous squad indeed, especially on the offensive side of things.

Cody Kessler won five of six contests to close out last season and has both Nelson Agholor and Leonard Williams to work with, as well as borderline elite backs Javorius Allen and Tre Madden to defer to in running situations.

Going the distance will be the issue for the Trojans, but for now they are a threat.

16. Wisconsin Badgers

The Wisconsin Badgers have one of the worst percentages in terms of returning players this year, but yet another stable of elite backs will do much to mitigate any growth issues the roster encounters.

James White is gone, but Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement are back to terrorize the collegiate football landscape yet again.

Joel Stave is quietly a sound option under center as well who should once again have no problems completing better than 60 percent of his passes with defenses transfixed on whoever lines up behind him.

17. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Want the main sleeper to watch next season? Try Notre Dame on for size, a school that gets a quarterback back who led the Fighting Irish to a title game in 2012.

That man is Everett Golson, who was academically ineligible a year ago. According to ESPN's Travis Haney, the young quarterback has been hard at work on improvement during his time away from the game:

Golson is also up about 15 pounds from the last time you saw him, in the title-game loss to the Alabama Crimson Tide. At just over 200 pounds, he looks a lot thicker than he did as a freshman.

From what I saw when he was throwing at the Elite 11 finals, he looked stronger and was accurate in drills. I would be tremendously surprised if Malik Zaire won the job, although Zaire was solid and pushed Golson in the spring. Remember that Golson has been re-acclimating with the program and his teammates.

We will soon see just how improved Golson truly is, with dates against Florida State, USC, Stanford and Michigan, among other strong programs, in the cards.

18. Arizona State Sun Devils

Do not let recent memory deter any notion that Arizona State is one of the best teams in the nation.

Yes, the Sun Devils flopped against Stanford and Texas Tech last year, but elite quarterback and potential Heisman contender Taylor Kelly will surely show no signs of regression next season in the pass-happy attack.

In 2013, Kelly tallied 4,243 total yards and 37 total touchdowns in an offense few could match, but he was often overlooked. If he takes another step and the program can form some semblance of a respectable defense, the school will be an afterthought no longer.

19. UCF Knights

It is easy to gloss over UCF.

A loss at both quarterback and running back is always a strong recipe for disaster, especially when the former was Blake Bortles and the latter was Storm Johnson.

But the Knights bring back pieces of a strong defense that pulled off an upset over Baylor. William Stanback took just 105 totes as a freshman and bullied his way to 443 yards and six touchdowns.

A trial by fire awaits against Penn State and Missouri to start the season, but a strong defense and running game goes a long way toward ensuring future success for the Knights.

20. Nebraska Cornhuskers

Ameer Abdullah is back for more after taking on 281 carries last season and accumulating 1,690 yards and nine scores on a crisp 6.0 yard-per-carry average.

Questions remain at quarterback, with Tommy Armstrong Jr. apparently leading the way after completing just 51.9 percent of his passes in a committee approach, but there are positives.

Abdullah once more takes the pressure off any quarterback under center, the offensive line figures to be rather stout and the defense can, at least in theory, improve. Even better, the team has a few cupcake games to start the season before encountering the Miami Hurricanes in mid-September.

21. North Carolina Tar Heels

Oct 5, 2013; Blacksburg, VA, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels quarterback Marquise Williams (12) looks to pass in the second quarter at Lane Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Free from the shackles of a committee with Bryn Renner, Marquise Williams is set to run wild on the collegiate realm next season.

He attempted just 217 passes last year but managed 1,698 yards and 15 scores to six interceptions. On the ground, he led the team in rushing with 536 yards and six more scores.

Larry Fedora's team returns a wealth of starters on both sides of the ball, but more important than anything else, the offense is even more explosive than last season's iteration that helped the school to win six of its last seven and a bowl game, with just a two-point loss to then-ranked No. 24 Duke the only blemish in that stretch.

22. Missouri Tigers

James Franklin and Henry Josey are gone, but in their place are two stellar players set to keep the Missouri Tigers' momentum alive.

At running back, Russell Hansbrough has just been waiting to inherit the load after rushing for 685 yards and four scores last year on a 6.0 average. Maty Mauk is a versatile threat waiting to blossom who has high aspirations, to say the least, as captured by CollegeFootball 24/7:

The future is in good hands in Missouri, even if the offense may not be as explosive as past iterations right out of the gate.

23. Florida Gators

Injuries derailed last year for Florida, but health and another year of experience suggest great things are on the horizon for the Gators.

Vernon Hargreaves III leads an absolutely loaded defense, and quarterback Jeff Driskel captains an offense for which he is a perfect fit, so to expect anything other than a massive increase on last year's 4-8 mark is silly.

24. Texas Longhorns

Uncredited/Associated Press

New head coach Charlie Strong talks a big game, but the jury is still out on whether or not he can turn around the Longhorns in a quick manner.

That said, his resume when it comes to defense speaks for itself, as captured by ESPN's Numbers Never Lie:

Defense should not be the issue, but the questions at quarterback will continue to linger with David Ash always representing an injury threat. Still, a return to form seems to be in the cards.

25. Oklahoma State Cowboys

The air-raid offense for the Oklahoma State Cowboys is in good hands thanks to J.W. Walsh, who showed strong signs in limited play last season.

Last season's leading rusher, Desmond Roland, returns and will also give the Cowboys a legitimate threat on the ground when paired with Walsh's capabilities in that regard.

Those two losses to close the season last year overshadow major wins over Texas Tech, Texas and Baylor. Expect a step in the right direction this year.

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