Preseason College Football Rankings: Spring Practice Top 25
Spring practices are underway. For the first time since last season ended, we're getting to see glimpses of what depth charts may look like (and how they may change). We're looking for names to watch, injury updates and areas of concern.
Football is back, and it's a beautiful thing.
In honor of that, let's revisit our preseason top 25. Rankings are based on returning players and coaches, plus recent news like injuries and the severity of them.
No. 25 Mississippi State
I've been reluctant to give Mississippi State top-25 props in the past. Simply put, the Bulldogs lose so, so much on offense and along the defensive front seven. That should be a recipe for disaster.
But I'm willing to give head coach Dan Mullen some credit here. Brandon Holloway, Ashton Shumpert and Aeris Williams will compete to replace running back Josh Robinson; Fred Ross, Fred Brown and Joe Morrow should compete for playing time at receiver.
There's a major rebuilding project underway along both the offensive and defensive lines. How quickly those units come together will say a lot about this year's outlook.
However, the team does have quarterback Dak Prescott coming back. That should count for something, right? Just how much remains to be seen.
No. 24 Wisconsin
Other than Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota and Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, perhaps no player had a bigger impact on his team than Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon.
Gordon is gone now, leaving Corey Clement as the successor in the Badgers rushing attack. Wisconsin should still be in great hands there, as Clement rushed for 949 yards at 6.5 yards per carry.
With Tanner McEvoy moving back from quarterback to defensive back, it should be the Joel Stave show under center.
"I think he’s a guy that’s got some pretty special abilities, and he can contribute in a lot of ways to this team," head coach Paul Chryst said of McEvoy, via Jason Galloway of Madison.com. "I think for us to be a good team and get the most out of this team, we’re going to need production out of him. I think there’s certainly a need at safety, and yet I think there’s some things that he can do offensively."
No. 23 Georgia Tech
Georgia Tech's questions this spring will almost exclusively be at the offensive skill spots. Quarterback Justin Thomas returns as one of the ACC's best, but the supporting cast around him will be brand new.
The Yellow Jackets have to replace the top four rushers (besides Thomas) and top two receivers from a year ago. Broderick Snoddy, who averaged more than 10 yards a rush last season, is coming off of a leg injury as well.
Stan Awtrey of the Macon Telegraph takes a deeper dive:
Who will be the primary A-backs and B-backs: Among those who graduated are Synjyn Days, Zach Laskey, Deon Hill, Charles Perkins and Tony Zenon. Broderick Snoddy returns from a broken leg and will be among the favorites at A-back, along with Dennis Andrews. The B-back spotlight likely will focus on redshirt freshman C.J. Leggett, who might have played last year had Days not emerged when Laskey was injured.
Georgia Tech also has to improve on defense. Though most starters are returning, this is a group that gave up more than five yards a rush and 7.5 yards per pass attempt in 2014.
No. 22 LSU
The quarterback battle between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris rages on for another week. Most recently, though, Jennings has taken a slight lead in the competition.
"Both guys are continuing to come," head coach Les Miles told reporters. "Today Jennings probably just a little more productive overall. He was just pretty crisp with his passes. He threw couple of touchdown passes. It's a very competitive spring. We're putting a lot in on them (QBs)."
Whether the competition is a sign of good things to come remains to be seen. Neither player impressed last season, and so far, there doesn't seem to be a lot of separation. However, if there's noticeable improvement from that position this spring, the outlook for the Tigers could be a lot rosier.
No. 21 Oklahoma State
Baylor and TCU are (and should be) the runaway favorites to win the Big 12 next season. (No co-champion jab intended there.) However, Oklahoma State could be a fun dark horse.
The Cowboys broke in what basically amounted to a brand-new team a year ago and won seven games. Most of the starting 22 returns, including quarterback Mason Rudolph.
Head coach Mike Gundy has already declared Rudolph the starter, but J.W. Walsh will get some package plays as well. The supporting cast around Rudolph needs development. Leading rusher Desmond Roland is gone, as is utility player Tyreek Hill, who was booted from the team last December following an alleged domestic-assault incident.
Perhaps Todd Mays steps into the role Hill occupied, as Jake Trotter of ESPN.com projects.
No. 20 Texas A&M
Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin is being paid like a top-tier coach at $5 million annually. However, he hasn't produced like one lately.
Sumlin made changes to his staff this offseason, though, bringing in defensive coordinator John Chavis from LSU and offensive line coach Dave Christensen from Utah. Chavis' impact will be closely watched this spring. The Aggies aren't lacking in young talent, but the defense ranked near the bottom of the SEC in all of the major categories.
Once preseason practice comes around, the focus will shift to the quarterback battle between incumbent Kyle Allen and freshman Kyler Murray. For now, it's about the development of the defense, especially in the secondary.
No. 19 Oklahoma
Oklahoma is actually starting to creep up my list. Since expectations are tempered following a disappointing 8-5 effort, it feels like plenty are sleeping on the Sooners.
Not that there isn't reason for that; Baylor and TCU figure to be the class of the Big 12. However, Oklahoma could be a dangerous No. 3 team that gets back to 10 wins and perhaps pulls off an upset of one of the two aforementioned teams.
The Sooners have to find more consistency at quarterback, whether it's incumbent starter Trevor Knight, Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield or someone else. We may not get an answer to that for some time. However, Oklahoma has perhaps the best running-back/receiver combo in the Big 12 with Samaje Perine and Sterling Shepard.
Provided the new-look offensive line comes together, this could be a potent offense under first-year coordinator Lincoln Riley. How Perine, Keith Ford and Joe Mixon coexist in the offense will be interesting to watch.
Defensively, Oklahoma will be a bit thin at linebacker and has to find a replacement for Jordan Phillips along the defensive front.
No. 18 Tennessee
Tennessee is beat up this spring, but it's too early to be concerned about it just yet. B/R colleague Brad Shepard has a more in-depth look at who's injured and how long they are expected to be sidelined.
Among those who will sit this spring are defensive linemen Derek Barnett, Curt Maggitt and Danny O'Brien. That leaves five scholarship D-linemen for the Vols. Running back Jalen Hurd will also be limited, meaning Tennessee will be spread thin at running back, too.
The expectations for Tennessee are high—we're talking SEC East champs—and for the first time in a while, this program could actually realize that potential. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs should pick up where he left off leading the offense.
We just may not find out this team's true identity in the springtime. It's not a problem, yet, but something to keep in mind.
No. 17 Arizona
Arizona snuck up on a lot of teams last year. That won't be the case this time around. The Wildcats could definitely win 10 games again in 2015, but opponents will be ready.
The Wildcats don't lack playmakers and were a young team last year. Receiver Cayleb Jones is a big, true No. 1 guy in the passing game. Anu Solomon was one of the best freshman quarterbacks in the country in 2014. The concern is the offensive line, which loses three seniors.
Linebacker and tackling-machine Scooby Wright returns on defense, but the Wildcats have holes to fill in the defensive secondary. Overall, this is a team that can again push for nine or 10 wins but won't be the true underdog it was previously.
No. 16 Arkansas
I'll go ahead and admit a bias here: Arkansas is my favorite team in this top 25. I'm not from Arkansas, nor do I have ties to the university. I just love watching a team on which every player seemingly weighs 400 pounds and smashes into things.
The offense shouldn't be an issue. The top two running backs, Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins, return, as does quarterback Brandon Allen. Allen has usually been efficient, but not flashy, for the Hogs. That's all the offense has required thus far. With new offensive coordinator Dan Enos, however, it'll be fascinating to see if the coaching staff invites Allen to sling it around more.
Defense is where things could be dicey. The Hogs lose linebacker Martrell Spaight, defensive end Trey Flowers and defensive tackle Darius Philon, arguably the three best players on that side of the ball. The Hogs defense shored up in the second half of the season. Young players will have to grow up quickly to keep that trend going.
No. 15 Florida State
The path to rebuild a program that lost just one game in the past two years won't be an easy one. Head coach Jimbo Fisher and his staff have recruited as well as anyone over the past few years. Now, we'll see how quickly it pays off.
Sean Maguire is the early leader to replace Jameis Winston at quarterback, and previous impact freshmen, like running back Dalvin Cook and receiver Travis Rudolph, should have even bigger roles in 2015. Opposite Rudolph could be Ermon Lane, a 2014 blue-chip recruit.
The Seminoles may be thin at linebacker this spring, but it also seems like the right time for Matthew Thomas to finally shine. Defensive back Jalen Ramsey should emerge as the unquestioned leader of the defense.
Overall expectations for Florida State are going to be tempered with so much turnover. However, the hype train could get going again if the Seminoles get off to a good start next season.
No. 14 Arizona State
USC will likely be the early favorite to win the Pac-12 South and maybe the entire conference on its way to a playoff appearance. Arizona State might have something to say about that, though.
The Sun Devils don't lose a ton off of last year's team, but don't confuse quantity with quality. Receiver Jaelen Strong is going to be tough to replace and the team's possible new No. 1 option is hurt. According to head coach Todd Graham, Cam Smith has a "unique" knee injury and will redshirt. Smith was the third-leading receiver a year ago with 596 yards and six touchdowns.
Additionally, ASU has suspended linebacker Davon Durant, a JUCO transfer, after he was arrested on counts of disorderly conduct and felony aggravated assault.
No. 13 Georgia
Georgia's retooled offense should mean a ton of carries for sophomore sensation Nick Chubb. As a freshman running in place of Todd Gurley, Chubb amassed more than 1,500 yards and 14 touchdowns.
The Bulldogs' responsibility this offseason is finding new playmakers to surround Chubb. The two leading receivers from last year's team, Chris Conley and Michael Bennett, are gone. Malcolm Mitchell has had injury issues in the past but could emerge as one of the better receiving weapons in the SEC.
The '15 Bulldogs could be a team that focuses on running the ball, controlling the tempo and winning the field-position battle. Is it enough to win the SEC East title?
No. 12 Ole Miss
The key for Ole Miss this spring and throughout the offseason is to get healthy. Wide receiver Laquon Treadwell and linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche are coming off of season-ending injuries but have already started running again.
The battle to replace Bo Wallace at quarterback features an interesting piece in Clemson transfer Chad Kelly, who was plagued by off-the-field problems before even joining the team. Kelly pleaded guilty in January to a non-criminal charge of disorderly conduct following an altercation with night-club bouncers in Buffalo, New York.
Last year, Clemson dismissed Kelly for conduct detrimental to the team. Head coach Hugh Freeze is committed to turning Kelly's life around, but the leash has to be short.
Ole Miss has loads of talent and Freeze has recruited his tail off. Does that finally pay off with an SEC West title in 2015?
No. 11 Auburn
Despite losing several key offensive members, Auburn is looking to reload in 2015. Jeremy Johnson is the early front-runner to succeed Nick Marshall at quarterback, but Sean White is pushing hard for playing time, according to Joel Erickson of AL.com.
"Jeremy and Sean, really, I've been pretty balanced with the way I've rotated them, splitting the reps," offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee told Erickson. "Those two guys have both overall had pretty good days. I'm really pleased with them trying to lead and be leaders out there."
Defense is the primary concern. This was a unit that ranked 10th in the SEC in points allowed last season. However, former Florida head coach Will Muschamp will do his best to turn things around in his first season as defensive coordinator. On the injury front, rising defensive lineman Gimel President is recovering from an undisclosed injury and should be back practicing before too long.
No. 10 Clemson
Once he's healthy, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson figures to be one of the ACC's best. As long as he's ready to go in Week 1, Clemson's preseason ranking shouldn't be affected too dramatically.
It's the Tigers defense that is the primary area of concern this spring. Gone is basically the entire defensive front seven, including defensive ends Vic Beasley and Corey Crawford. Finding new starters at every level of the defense is proving to be a challenge, per Zac Ellis of Sports Illustrated:
This spring defensive ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd and tackle D.J. Reader have taken control of a line that will badly miss Beasley and Jarrett. Venables singled out Mackensie Alexander, a former five-star recruit, and Jayron Kearse as leaders in the secondary, where the Tigers must replace Peters’s production.
If there's one good thing, it's that Clemson is in a division in which the biggest challenger will be Florida State—and the Seminoles are going through a massive rebuilding project of their own.
No. 9 UCLA
For UCLA, it's not so much about who's coming back on the field; it's who's going to be on the sideline.
Offensive line coach Adrian Klemm has been suspended, per the school, for alleged NCAA rules violations. What his future holds isn't immediately clear. Additionally, longtime Penn State assistant Tom Bradley is taking over the defense after a one-year stint as an assistant at West Virginia.
Most of the starting 22 is returning, with the biggest storyline being at quarterback. Freshman Josh Rosen was an early enrollee and expectations are high for him. Can he beat out Jerry Neuheisel, though?
No. 8 Oregon
It might not be fair to say Oregon's season rests on whether Eastern Washington transfer quarterback Vernon Adams pans out. He hasn't practiced once with the Ducks, so jumping to that conclusion isn't right. However, he could very well be a major addition that gets Oregon back into the playoff next season.
Whether it's Adams or Jeff Lockie (or someone else) starting at quarterback, Oregon should still be the early favorites to win the Pac-12 North. There's so much talent at running back, led by Royce Freeman, so the offense shouldn't drop off that much.
The defense will be worth watching as well. Chris Seisay is next in line to replace star cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.
No. 7 Notre Dame
Cue the "Notre Dame is overrated" comments here, but there's basically one big question for the Irish: quarterback. Even then, it's not a terrible concern.
Everett Golson can flat-out throw the ball. His one year "vacation," if you will, in 2013 paid dividends in his passing game. He just has major ball-security issues and he's going to be pushed by Malik Zaire for that starting job.
The defense broke in a lot of new starters last year and that, coupled with attrition, showed down the stretch when the Irish gave up more than 43 points per game in November. However, most of the defense is back. If that side of the ball improves, there will be less pressure on Golson/Zaire to win games single-handedly.
Sometimes, teams are best when coming off of a disappointing season. If the Irish solve their quarterback conundrum, this could be a dangerous team.
No. 6 Alabama
The story for the Tide this offseason has been turnover and general attrition. Sure, the losses of quarterback Blake Sims, wide receiver Amari Cooper, running back T.J. Yeldon and safety Landon Collins are notable, but it goes a bit beyond that.
Alabama could be thin at running back with the reported departure of Altee Tenpenny and suspension of Tyren Jones. Derrick Henry should be the primary back for Alabama, but who steps up behind him will be something to pay attention to.
The quarterback battle is wide-open, too. Florida State transfer Jake Coker might be the early front-runner to succeed Sims, but a handful of guys could walk away with the starting job.
No. 5 Michigan State
The top of the Big Ten East Division could feature the best one-two punch in college football. Ohio State will be, or should be, atop everyone's preseason top 25 poll. But Michigan State shouldn't be too far behind.
Two key pieces for the Spartans—quarterback Connor Cook and defensive end Shilique Calhoun—are coming back. Defensive tackle and former 5-star prospect Malik McDowell is still blossoming as a player.
If there's one thing to keep an eye on, it's the status of running back Delton Williams. Williams, who would be the team's leading returning rusher, was charged with brandishing a weapon in public this month and is suspended indefinitely.
No. 4 USC
The Trojans are getting an awful lot of offseason love, and it's becoming increasingly difficult not to buy in.
What should help USC this offseason is more depth during practice. That means more competition and theoretically better results. Quarterback Cody Kessler is one of the better ones in the Pac-12, and 2015 could be a breakout year for receiver JuJu Smith.
The defensive secondary has been an early pleasant surprise, according to an ESPN.com roundtable earlier this month. Adoree' Jackson was an exciting two-way player for the Trojans a year ago, and he's only going to get better at cornerback. He has ridiculous speed and ball skills that you'd expect to see from a veteran.
No. 3 Baylor
Spring performances are to be taken with a grain of salt. Stats are meaningless in the bigger picture, as coaches are evaluating a number of situations. However, if you must know, Baylor quarterback Seth Russell threw for 345 yards and four touchdowns in a scrimmage last Friday.
"He would probably tell you the same thing, but I thought Seth was just OK," head coach Art Briles said, according to Jerry Hill of BaylorBears.com. "And that's good. It's good that he's not where he's going to be. We expect a whole lot, he expects a whole lot."
Baylor has some star power to replace—Russell is looking to fill the shoes of Bryce Petty and linebacker Bryce Hager is gone—but Russell should inspire some confidence among Bears fans.
No. 2 TCU
The Frogs are dealing with some injury issues, but they don't appear to be serious enough to warrant a ton of concern. Quarterback Trevone Boykin will have surgery to repair a fractured bone in his wrist in early April, according to David Ubben of Fox Sports Southwest.
Additionally, leading receiver Josh Doctson is out with a fractured bone in his hand. Both should be 100 percent in time for preseason practices.
"Josh will be good," head coach Gary Patterson said via Carlos Mendez of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "Josh had had good practices. But you can’t catch with a cast on your hand."
That'll give other players an opportunity for more reps during spring ball. Still, TCU's biggest worry heading into the offseason is how it replaces key defensive stars like cornerback Kevin White, defensive tackle Chucky Hunter and linebacker Paul Dawson.
No. 1 Ohio State
It's going to take something extreme—a major injury, head coach Urban Meyer suddenly retiring again, etc.—for Ohio State not to be my No. 1 team between now and the start of the 2015 season.
It still doesn't matter who the quarterback is going to be, either. Right now, Cardale Jones, who played in the final three games of the season and helped the Buckeyes win a national championship, is the healthiest available. J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller are still limited.
"Cardale is getting more reps than he's ever gotten,” Meyer told B/R's Ben Axelrod. "He's still almost a rookie—an older rookie that hasn't had a lot of reps."
Ohio State can win with all three; that's a proven fact.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. Stats courtesy of CFBStats.com.