Early look at Amway top 25 for 2015: They’re all chasing Ohio State – USA TODAY
Despite fears to the contrary, the inaugural season of the College Football Playoff was a resounding success for the Football Bowl Subdivision. It was particularly kind to Ohio State, which claimed the national championship with a 42-20 win against Oregon. With more than a dozen programs poised to make a run at next year’s national title, it’s time to close the page and turn ahead to the 2015 season. While rosters might change between today and August, especially with several talented underclassmen yet to decide on early entries into the NFL, here’s an early look at a projected top 25 for next season.
1. Ohio State (2014 record: 14-1)
Why No. 1? Because the Buckeyes are just getting warmed up. Urban Meyer has said that he thought the 2015 team would be his best yet at Ohio State — which is saying quite a bit, seeing that he’s won at least 12 games in each of his first three seasons. There’s an embarrassment of riches across the board, from quarterback through the secondary; All-America talent at nearly every position; the confidence that stems from this year’s run to the national championship game; one of the best coaching staffs in the country; and the idea that no team on the Buckeyes’ 2015 schedule can hang with their balanced attack. They are a near-consensus pick for preseason No. 1.
2. Auburn (8-5)
Why No. 2? Because adding Will Muschamp as defensive coordinator will give the Tigers the teeth they need to return to the championship race. At the same time, there’s no reason to think the offense will struggle in the transition from quarterback Nick Marshall to his likely replacement, Jeremy Johnson — better yet, there’s reason to think a more experienced offense will be even more explosive under Gus Malzahn’s direction. The Tigers look poised to make another run at a national title.
3. TCU (12-1)
Why No. 3? Because nearly every piece of this year’s superb group remains in the fold. That includes quarterback Trevone Boykin, perhaps the preseason favorite for the Heisman Trophy. Most of the losses come on defense, where TCU must replace a handful of playmakers at linebacker and in the secondary. That will test Gary Patterson and his staff in the early stages of next season, but the Horned Frogs will have the offense to carry the load. The biggest change might come in the team’s mindset: TCU will go from being the hunter to the hunted. Patterson will make sure his team stays on course.
4. Stanford (8-5)
Why No. 4? Because the Cardinal are supremely motivated by this season’s slide out of the championship picture. That Stanford slid to eight wins will push this team during the offseason. At the same time, the Cardinal have the perfect cast for David Shaw’s particular brand of football; the offense showed it can survive without wide receiver Ty Montgomery, who missed the last two games of this season, and the defense is superb along the back seven. Just three issues remain: one, if quarterback Kevin Hogan returns for his final season; two, if Stanford can replicate Montgomery’s impact over an entire season; and three, if the staff finds quality pieces along the defensive line.
5. Alabama (12-2)
Why No. 5? Because Nick Saban’s team is loaded, as always. But there are holes to fill: Alabama must replace quarterback Blake Sims, safety Landon Collins, running back T.J. Yeldon and All-America wide receiver Amari Cooper, among others. The Crimson Tide won’t fall off the map, not by a long shot, and are very much neck-and-neck with divisional rival Auburn in the Southeastern Conference. Yet much depends on how quickly the offense can find a groove with a new starter at quarterback and new faces in the passing game.
6. Baylor (11-2)
Why No. 6? Because Baylor isn’t going anywhere. The offense will continue to thrive as it moves away from quarterback Bryce Petty, thanks to holdovers at the remaining skill positions and what should be a terrific offensive line. The defense needs to be more consistent, but bringing back defensive end Shawn Oakman, a likely preseason All-America pick, should give the unit a huge boost. In all, the program has achieved enough during the last few seasons to expect nothing but more of the same in 2015.
7. Florida State (13-1)
Why No. 7? Because the Seminoles will be too young to win the national championship. But Florida State will still be considered the preseason favorites in the Atlantic Coast Conference. There will be new starters across the board, from quarterback to cornerback, and an overwhelming and defining sense of youth on both sides of the ball. FSU will have enough talent to notch double-digit wins during the regular season, but this team seems to have a brighter future in 2016 than in 2015. This year’s group needs to identify a new leadership core during the offseason.
8. Michigan State (11-2)
Why No. 8? Because the Spartans are in good shape if the team’s biggest concerns stand on the defensive side of the ball. Even if coordinator Pat Narduzzi is off to Pittsburgh, the system and scheme he leaves in place should lead to no noticeable decline in production. If anything, the bigger concern is in personnel: Michigan State must identify new contributors on each level of the defense. Let’s trust in the offense, led by senior quarterback Connor Cook, to deliver at a clip needed to compete for the Big Ten Conference title.
9. Mississippi (9-4)
Why No. 9? Because the Rebels improve with each passing season under Hugh Freeze. The offense may be more consistent with a new starter under center, particularly with wide receiver Laquon Treadwell back from injury. The defense will retool in the secondary without two all-conference picks, but the talent along the defensive line is undeniable — and it’s these contributors, led by Robert Nkemdiche, who set the tone for the entire defense. If they can stay healthy, the Rebels might sneak up and take the SEC West Division.
10. Oregon (13-2)
Why No. 10? Because there’s no denying the fact that Oregon will take at least a slight step back in 2015. That’s not just because the Ducks will lose Marcus Mariota, though that’s one of the primary factors behind a projected downturn. Oregon must also replace Hroniss Grasu, Jake Fisher, Keanon Lowe, Tony Washington, Erick Dargan, Troy Hill and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, and might need to deal with the early departures of two standouts on the defensive line. Oregon will still be one of the best in the Pac-12, but the team might undergo a slight retooling project in 2015.
11. Arizona State (10-3)
Why No. 11? Because of the sense of the unfinished business 16 returning starters will bring to the table in 2015. After falling short in the crowded Pac-12 South Division, motivation won’t be hard to find. At the same time, Arizona State will improve under center with Mike Bercovici’s ascension to the starting role, has an All-America talent at receiver in D.J. Foster, has options in the backfield and may be deeper across the board on defense. There are question marks on the offensive front, however, and a hole in the passing game without Jaelen Strong.
12. Clemson (10-3)
Why No. 12? Because the Deshaun Watson-led offense will be the ACC’s best. And the Tigers will need an uptick in offensive production while the defense rebuilds behind a handful-plus list of new starters — and will need to improve without former offensive coordinator Chad Morris, who left for SMU. There’s reason to think the offense will be ready to do the heavy lifting; there’s also cause to believe the defense will be better than advertised. It all comes down to whether Clemson can solve Florida State and win the ACC Atlantic Division.
13. Southern California (9-4)
Why No. 13? Because the talent is there to compete for the national title. That’s true even as USC deals with early departures to the NFL in wide receiver Nelson Agholor and defensive lineman Leonard Williams. Helping to pick up the slack are a number of talented holdovers: Cody Kessler, JuJu Smith, Adoree Jackson, Su’a Cravens and the entire offensive line, for example. The question remains depth, and whether the Trojans will have enough bodies to maintain a high level of play for the entire season.
14. Georgia (10-3)
Why No. 14? Because the defense will improve in its second season under coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. That’s a big deal: Georgia needs more consistency on this side of the ball to win not just the SEC East Division but the conference as a whole. At the same time, the offense has identified a leader in sophomore running back Nick Chubb, the engine behind the Bulldogs’ attack. Look for Georgia to be physical on offense and aggressive on defense; that formula, when combined with the division’s highest level of talent, makes this team the favorite to reach the conference title game.
15. Arizona (10-4)
Why No. 15? Because the Wildcats return the heart of a team that won the Pac-12 South. There might be some competition at quarterback, but look for sophomore Anu Solomon to hold onto his starting job. He’ll be joined by sophomore running back Nick Wilson and a gifted crop of receivers, though the Wildcats need stronger play up front. The defense might remain too spotty in the secondary to survive the regular season unscathed, but Arizona’s progression under Rich Rodriguez paints a rosy picture for this program’s future.
16. Boise State (12-2)
Why No. 16? Because Boise State is the class of the Mountain West Conference. While there are two significant holes to fill, at quarterback and running back, the Broncos should not only win their conference but also claim the top spot among non-major conferences in the push for a New Year’s bowl. Even as a few personnel questions loom large, it’s easy to have the utmost faith in Bryan Harsin and his staff, led by in-demand offensive coordinator Mike Sanford. Whether the Broncos can squeeze into the Playoff picture hinges on nonconference games against Washington, Brigham Young and Virginia.
17. UCLA (10-3)
Why No. 17? Because Jim Mora needs to find a quarterback. Brett Hundley, the star of each Mora’s first three teams, will skip his final season of eligibility and enter the NFL draft. Before moving forward, the Bruins must identify a capable replacement under center. But that’s one of the few dark spots on a roster otherwise growing more impressive by the season: UCLA will be less reliant on youngsters in 2015, which should prevent any inexplicable meltdowns, and will be able to trot out a depth chart brimming with talent and experience — everywhere but at quarterback, of course.
18. Missouri (11-3)
Why No. 18? Because even as Missouri deals with a depleted receiver corps and losses along the defensive line, it’s silly to count the Tigers out of the SEC race. Missouri might even be the preseason favorite in the East Division if not for those two issues: one, a completely rebuilt receiver corps, and two, the loss of a pair of superb defensive ends. But the schedule plays in the Tigers’ favor, with Florida and South Carolina coming at home and Mississippi State and Arkansas coming out of the SEC West Division.
19. LSU (8-5)
Why No. 19? Because the Tigers are going to miss former defensive coordinator John Chavis. His departure may very well force LSU’s offense to pick up the slack — and the Tigers’ offense is nothing if not inconsistent. The talent is there, beginning with sublime sophomore running back Leonard Fournette, but LSU won’t challenge Auburn and Alabama without vastly improved play at quarterback. And as always, the Tigers must deal with the specter of early departures to the NFL draft.
20. Wisconsin (11-3)
Why No. 20? Because new coach Paul Chryst will keep the Badgers humming along. He’ll maintain the same approach on offense, which will be a huge positive, and retaining coordinator Dave Aranda will make sure Wisconsin’s defense doesn’t miss a beat. The question may be overall talent and experience: Wisconsin will miss Melvin Gordon, obviously, and Chryst must maximize the passing game to recoup the lost production. This will be a very good team, likely the best in the Big Ten West Division, but not a legitimate championship contender.
21. Oklahoma (8-5)
Why No. 21? Because the Sooners are an enigma. If Bob Stoops’ staff shakeup yields immediate assistance — especially with the play at quarterback — Oklahoma may far exceed this early ranking. If not, the Sooners will stay one or two steps behind TCU and Baylor. It’s hard to tell in which direction the program is leaning: Oklahoma could be an influx of energy away from retaking the conference; OU could also be farther away from a national championship than at any point since Stoops’ first season.
22. Notre Dame (8-5)
Why No. 22? Because Notre Dame remains hard to pin down. There’s a competition at quarterback that will remain unsettled until spring drills — if not until fall camp — while Brian Kelly and his staff take a long look at Everett Golson and Malik Zaire. There are questions about a defense that came in well below expectations in 2014. But the Irish may need to replace just a handful of senior starters, which is a positive; capped this season with a feel-good bowl win; and has a manageable road schedule next fall, so this could be a surprise team nationally.
23. Georgia Tech (11-3)
Why No. 23? Because the Yellow Jackets have rediscovered their rhythm on offense. It’s clear that quarterback Justin Thomas is the answer under center; he may be the best Paul Johnson has had at the position since arriving in Atlanta in 2008. There’s a big hole along the offensive line and some changing pieces in the backfield, but the Jackets should still house one of the best running games in the country. Navigating a tough road schedule will provide the team’s sternest test.
24. Oklahoma State (7-6)
Why No. 24? Because this year’s young team will enter next season with enough experience to make noise in the Big 12. The Cowboys are riding into the offseason on a high note, thanks to wins against Oklahoma and Washington, and have found the right pieces at the offensive skill positions. Whether Oklahoma State can hang with the league’s best depends on the growth of its defense, and it’s a little too early to say whether that unit is up to the challenge.
25. Nebraska (9-4)
Why No. 25? Because there’s enough talent to make first-year coach Mike Riley’s debut a fairly successful one. Add to that a kind schedule: Nebraska draws Brigham Young, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Iowa at home, though the Cornhuskers do take a nonconference trip to Miami (Fla.) to take on the Hurricanes. In another year, perhaps, Nebraska would be a valid dark-horse contender coming out of the Big Ten. But even with assets in their corner, the Cornhuskers will hit a bit of a learning curve under the new staff.
PRESEASON TOP 25 TEAMS