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2014 Preseason Top 25: A first guess

By Jerry Hinnen | College Football Writer

Jameis Winston will aim for holding a second crystal football a year from now. (USATSI)
Jameis Winston will aim for holding a second crystal football a year from now. (USATSI)
It's a popular saying that there's no longer any offseason in college football. The regular season gives way to the bowls which yield to Signing Day which moves aside for spring camp which slides into summer workouts and all manner of off-field diversions -- realignment, Johnny Manziel, coaches fired over motorcycle accident cover-ups, what have you -- and before you know it, it's fall camp and the pads are out again.

So don't think of this first guess at the Associated Press's preseason Top 25 poll as too early, or even early at all. The 2013 season is over. And so the 2014 season has begun. Embrace it.

1. Florida State: The Seminoles will lose several contributors from their perfect 2013 run, most notably All-American defensive back LaMarcus Joyner, center Bryan Stork and potentially junior wideout Kelvin Benjamin. But the Heisman Trophy winner will be back, and Jimbo Fisher has recruited well enough that any hole will immediately be plugged by just another blue-chip NFL-bound prospect. They'll start 2014 where they ended the season before.

2. Alabama: Even after finishing the season on a two-game losing skid, even after losing AJ McCarron and C.J. Mosley, the Tide remain the most dependable "brand" in college football. And among a host of candidates for the second, Nick Saban and Co. will likely get the benefit of the doubt for the second spot, particularly if the quarterbacks on hand have a solid spring.

3. Stanford: The Cardinal have emerged as the most reliable team in the Pac-12, and even if they lose some of their star wattage going into 2014 -- linebackers Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy are gone, and star guard David Yankey might be close behind -- it's hard to imagine David Shaw's team taking much of a step back, especially if Kevin Hogan bounces back from an up-and-down 2013.

4. Auburn: The Tigers might lose Tre Mason and star left tackle Greg Robinson to the draft, and many of their steadiest defenders are seniors. But Nick Marshall and at least seven other offensive starters will return to Gus Malzahn's offensive machine, and the Tiger front seven has plenty of young talent to build around.

5. Oregon: Marcus Mariota will be back, and if he's healthy, the Ducks might once again be favored in every game on their 2014 schedule. The defense will be a question mark following the departure of coordinator Nick Aliotti and up to six starters, but Mark Helfrich's team should be in the Pac-12 mix regardless.

6. Ohio State: The Buckeyes should enter 2014 as the Big Ten favorite once again, thanks to Braxton Miller's return to school. Carlos Hyde and big chunks of the offensive line are gone, but Urban Meyer won't allow for much offensive backsliding, and the defense is well-stocked despite saying good-bye to Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby.

7. Michigan State: The Spartans absorb some heavy blows on the Rose Bowl-winning defense, with Max Bullough, Darqueze Dennard, Denicos Allen and Isaiah Lewis all leaving. Three seniors on an underrated offensive line are gone, too. But quarterback Connor Cook's development should keep the offense respectable, and end Shilique Calhoun will lead a defense that's never struggled to find productive players under Mark Dantonio. If Pat Narduzzi hangs around, so much the better.

8. UCLA: The Bruins' big win over Virginia Tech in the Sun Bowl combined with Brett Hundley's return could vault them into the preseason top 10; outside of Oregon, no one in the Pac-12 will boast a more explosive or more experienced offense. Anthony Barr's loss will hurt the defense, but at a glance this still shapes up as a potential 10- or 11-win team.

9. LSU: No program has been hurt more by early draft defections in recent years than Les Miles', and that's continued this offseason with defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson leaving the defense, and wideouts Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. on the offense. But John Chavis's defense is going to keep being its nasty self, and quarterback Anthony Jennings looked impressive in late-season relief of the departed Zach Mettenberger.

10. Georgia: Aaron Murray's gone, but Todd Gurley isn't, and the Bulldogs seem to play their best defense when expectations are lower. (Having up to 10 returning starters on that side of the ball should help, too.) If the Bulldogs' collection of injured receivers can return to full strength in 2014, this is still the likely SEC East favorite.

11. South Carolina: Jadeveon Clowney is off to the NFL along with three other key junior contributors, and ever-underappreciated quarterback Connor Shaw has exhausted his eligibility. But Dylan Thompson has plenty of experience in relief of Shaw, Mike Davis might be the SEC's best tailback when healthy, and the offensive line will be highly experienced. The defensive line and secondary will need fresh recruits, but there's not enough uncertainty here to think a Steve Spurrier team will slip far.

12. Baylor: The surprisingly listless loss to UCF took some of the shine off of the Bears' Big 12 championship season, but with Bryce Petty (presumably) and Art Briles coming back, there's no reason to think they can't repeat. Wideout Tevin Reese and NFL-bound tailback Lache Seastrunk were excellent players, but the skill positions under Briles seem to be plug-and-play.

13. Oklahoma: If Trevor Knight can reproduce the kind of show he put on in the Sugar Bowl, the Sooners will likely enjoy co-favorite status in the Big 12 with the Bears; up to nine returning defensive starters on the unit that shut down Oklahoma State in the season finale is good news indeed, even if the loss of center Gabe Ikard and multiple skill position threats is not.

14. USC: The Trojans' success after being unshackled from Lane Kiffin suggests that with an entire offseason to put their nose to the grindstone under new coach Steve Sarkisian, a big season could be in the offing. Quarterback Cody Kessler improved by leaps and bounds in the season's second half, and end Leonard Williams will lead the Trojans' usual crew of blue-chip defenders.

15. Texas A&M: No, there won't be any Johnny Manziel magic going forward, but Kevin Sumlin has proven he's capable of developing quarterbacks, the skill position talent remains a cup overflowing, and the much-maligned defense certainly can't be any worse in 2014.

16. Clemson: Speaking of teams losing their quarterbacks, Tajh Boyd is gone, and the incredible receiving tandem of Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant is, too. But as long as Chad Morris is around, the Tigers won't fare too badly on that side, and the defense shapes up as maybe the best of Dabo Swinney's tenure.

17. Missouri: Maty Mauk takes over at quarterback, and will still have Dorial Green-Beckham to throw to, and likely Henry Josey to hand off to. That -- and Gary Pinkel's steady coaching -- should ease the sting of losing outstanding bookend defensive ends Michael Sam and Kony Ealy, as well as star corner E.J. Gaines.

18. Wisconsin: The Badgers ended the year on a disappointing two-game losing streak, and said goodbye to linebacker Chris Borland and five other members of its front seven. But quarterback Joel Stave and tailback Melvin Gordon return; pair them with anything approaching the typical Badger offensive line, and it should be a typical Badger season.

19. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys' losses on defense are heavy, particularly in the secondary, where Justin Gilbert and Daytawion Lowe are moving on. But quarterback J.W. Walsh and tailback Desmond Roland should give the Pokes a potent rushing tandem, and at this stage Mike Gundy has earned the benefit of the top-20 doubt.

20. Notre Dame: The Irish quietly had a perfectly successful 2013, winning nine games and dealing Michigan State its only loss. Brian Kelly must replace both his coordinators and two stud defensive linemen in draft-bound juniors Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, but the return of quarterback Everett Golson will be most welcome.

21. Arizona State: The Sun Devils may not be able to adequately replace the likes of Will Sutton or Davon Coleman on the defensive line, but D.J. Foster seems ready to step in for Marion Grice at tailback and Taylor Kelly should benefit from another year of development under center.

22. Texas: The Longhorns weren't as bad as their final two games -- ugly losses to two high-powered offenses in Baylor and Oregon -- might have made them appear, Tyron Swoopes should give the quarterbacking an upgrade, and Charlie Strong's arrival should do the same for the defense. Losing Jackson Jeffcoat stings, though.

23. UCF: The Blake Bortles-Storm Johnson combo has left Orlando, but 10 returning defensive starters haven't, and the three-headed receiving monster of Rannell Hall, J.J. Worton and Breshad Perriman should make life easy for whoever wins the starting quarterback job.

24. Ole Miss: The Rebels didn't quite live up to their billing in 2013, but if Hugh Freeze can coax some further improvement from Bo Wallace, a defense that returns up to 10 starters and is absolutely loaded with developing stars -- end Robert Nkemdiche and safety Tony Conner among them -- could lead Ole Miss back into the SEC west's top half.

25. Louisville: Their 2014 coach is still a mystery, and Teddy Bridgewater has left the building. But this is still a program that's gone 23-3 the past two seasons, has ample talent at wide receiver and tailback, and finished the year No. 1 in the nation in total defense. The losses even aside from Bridgewater are substantial, but this program has enough momentum that the right coaching hire should keep them on the radar.

Also considered: Iowa, Miami, North Carolina, Washington, North Dakota State

 
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