Photo credit Joe Faraoni, ESPN Images
by Lisa Horne
Sure it is a tad early to throw out a Top 25 preseason poll but it does give college football fans something to gnaw on before National Signing Day on Wednesday, February 4.
These rankings are an educated guess as to how teams will finish at the end of the regular season. Ohio State, TCU, Clemson and USC would make the College Football Playoff according to this first poll. Of course, reccruiting classes, injuries, transfers and roster changes can affect teams so these rankings are subject to change after signing day and spring games.
Conference breakdowns are as follows: Pac-12 and SEC each had six teams in the Top 25, ACC and Big 12 had four, Big Ten three, Independent one and Mountain West one.
No. 1 Ohio State
The Buckeyes open at Virginia Tech and then get a three-game non-conference cupcake slate before opening conference play. They avoid Nebraska, Northwestern and Wisconsin from the West and host Michigan State and Penn State at home. That looks like just enough meat to sate the College Football Playoff Committee.
No. 2 TCU
The Horned Frogs missed the inaugural College Football Playoff but they will not get overlooked again this year. Quarterback Trevone Boykin is expected to return and lead the lethal offense. The defense loses some top tacklers but head coach Gary Patterson has always reloaded well on the defensive side of the ball. The schedule is championship-worthy if Oklahoma and Baylor can stay in the Top 15.
No. 3 Clemson
The Tigers get Georgia Tech, Florida State and Notre Dame at home plus a date at South Carolina now looks doable. The defense will have to be rebuilt but the offense will take a lot of pressure off the defense if it can continue to score more than 30 points a game. With Seminole quarterback Jameis Winston declaring for the draft, the ACC's Atlantic division looks a lot more wide open.
No. 4 USC
USC opens with Arkansas State and Idaho before diving into conference play. The Trojans drew Cal, Oregon, Stanford and Washington from the North—that's a tough cross division draw. They do host Arizona, UCLA and Utah at home. This schedule should impress most of the CFP Committee. If USC wants to play for the national championship, it has to play complete games.
Receiver JuJu Smith, photo credit Lisa Horne
No. 5 Baylor
The Bears' defense was very impressive but the loss of quarterback Bryce Petty and receivers Antwan Goodley and Levi Norwood cannot be overlooked. Sure the Bears will reload on offense but there is a lingering perception problem for Baylor: its cupcake non-conference schedule. This year it's SMU, Lamar and Rice.
No. 6 Oregon
Heisman-winner Marcus Mariota will not be returning as the Ducks' quarterback. Neither will center Hronnis Grasu and defensive backs Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Erick Dargan. Oregon has done a great job of reloading but Mariota was the heart of this team. Ohio State also exposed the Ducks—if the defensive front seven do not start bulking up in the weight room, they will get punished in the trenches.
No. 7 Michigan State
One of the Spartans' biggest problems has been having consistent quarterback play. Connor Cook is returning after leading the Big Ten in passing productivity. With that settled, another concern is the loss of defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who is now Pittsburgh's head coach. Still, head coach Mark Dantonio is one of the best defensive-minded coaches in FBS and develops talent better than most.
No. 8 Georgia
Last year the Bulldogs suffered a plethora of injuries. If they can stay healthy this year, then a championship run is not out of the question. Alabama is in rebuilding mode, LSU is still mediocre and Ole Miss and Mississippi State were exposed in their respective bowl games. Georgia's schedule looks fairly pedestrian with two potential roadblocks at Tennessee and at Auburn plus a season-ender at Georgia Tech.
No. 9 Notre Dame
With numerous suspensions (presumably) no longer in effect, the Fighting Irish's defense should be better. Notre Dame returns almost everyone. If the quarterback situation can be resolved—Everett Golson or Malik Zaire?—and the Irish can survive a season-opening, three-game gauntlet of Texas, at Virginia and Georgia Tech, they could challenge for the CFP.
No. 10 UCLA
The good news is that UCLA was a very young team last year so it should have a lot of depth and experience this year. The bad news is that UCLA has to play at Stanford and Utah without quarterback Brett Hundley. And let's not forget a USC squad that is no longer on scholarship restriction and waiting to exact revenge.
Photo credit Lisa Horne
No. 11 Auburn
Everything we need to know about Auburn will be answered on September 27. The Tigers will have played Louisville, Jacksonville State, LSU and Mississippi State. Will Muschamp is the new defensive coordinator so expect improvement from a defense that faded in the latter half of the 2014 season.
No. 12 Arizona
Quarterback Anu Solomon is returning and that's good news for Wildcat fans. He should have better touch on the ball after an impressive first year under center. Linebacker Scooby Wright III also returns.
No. 13 Wisconsin
The Badgers have a new coach (again!) in Paul Chryst. They do lose stud running back Melvin Gordon and the quarterback situation (again!) is a point of contention. Still, you just know the Badgers' O-line will be fierce.
No. 14 Arizona State
The Sun Devils lose quarterback Taylor Kelly and receiver Jaelen Strong but Mike Bercovici filled in admirably when Kelly was sidelined with injury. Arizona State opens with Texas A&M in Houston and then plays two soft non-conference games before playing USC and UCLA in back-to-back weeks. Ugh.
No. 15 Boise State
The Broncos lose their starting quarterback and running back but they return almost everyone on both sides of the ball. Don't be shocked if they are challenging for a playoff spot.
No. 16 Alabama
Here is the Crimson Tide's offense in a nutshell: two starters return. More pressing is Alabama's secondary and its inability to defend the pass. By mid-October, Alabama could be 2-4 because Wisconsin, Ole Miss, Georgia and Arkansas all look to be in better shape.
No. 17 Tennessee
I'm not going all in on the hype because the Volunteers played their best football against South Carolina, Kentucky and Vanderbilt. Nevertheless, I do love the speed of this team and Butch Jones has made football in Knoxville fun again.
No. 18 LSU
Why an elite SEC team cannot consistently recruit an elite quarterback who is an effective field general boggles the mind. Yet once again, head coach Les Miles must ponder this scenario. Will the magic of the Mad Hatter work this year?
No. 19 Georgia Tech
Does anyone want to play the Yellow Jackets? This high-octane running offense may feel like it lost two cylinders because four running backs are gone. Still, when you run the option, it's all about the O-line and the Yellow Jackets' line returns almost intact.
No. 20 Texas
I love head Charlie Strong's emphasis on defense and the Longhorns have improved tremendously in that area. Last year Texas moved from sixth-best defense in the league to second-best. Texas could be the sleeper team of the year but only if its 113-ranked offense improves.
Photo credit Lisa Horne
No. 21 Florida State
Heisman-winning quarterback Jameis Winston is off to the NFL and that will make a difference on this team. The Seminoles have recruited well and have exceptional talent but who will fill the leader role?
No. 22 Arkansas
The Razorbacks looked vastly improved last season but is that improvement a result of playing SEC teams that were overrated? Alabama, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and LSU all got exposed in their respective bowl games. I want to believe but I'm not 100 percent sold on Arkansas.
No. 23 Utah
Two injured quarterbacks and three games going into overtime were alarming. Kaelen Clay dropping the football before the goal line (and an Oregon defender picking up that ball and scoring a touchdown) was devastating. Utah's luck should change this year.
No. 24 Kansas State
As long as Bill Snyder is the head coach at Kansas State, I will have the Wildcats in my Top 25 every year. They've never let me down and are the quintessential sleeper team in college football.
No. 25 Virginia Tech
Last year the Hokies were the only team to beat Ohio State, the eventual 2014 national champions. The Hokies dealt with numerous injuries last year but this year could be special. They return all of their defensive starters plus their skill players. If the offense stays healthy and improves then they could be playing for the ACC Championship.