by Brice Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

1-OREGON...Blasphemous not to pick an SEC team on top? Maybe. But the Ducks didn’t lose any more games than Alabama last season, only to have the misfortune of suffering their loss (to Stanford) a week after the Crimson Tide endured its only setback, which allowed Bama to leapfrog the Webfoots and get ahead in the queue for the BCS title game. We don’t worry too much about HC Chip Kelly’s departure to the NFL, either; the last time Oregon switched coaches (from Mike Bellotti to Kelly, promoted from offensive coordinator as was new HC Mark Helfrich), the Ducks merely reached the Rose Bowl for the first time in 15 years. And Helfrich has been prepped for the head job the past couple of years. Most of the key weapons on offense return, led by a couple of legit Heisman hopefuls in QB Marcus Mariota & RB De’Anthony Thomas (watch true frosh RB Thomas Tyner, too), while last year’s stop unit might have been d.c. Nick Aliotti’s best in Eugene since his “Gang Green” platoon in the Rose Bowl year of 1994. The return of the entire starting secondary also suggests the Ducks can withstand expected aerial bombardments in the Pac-12. Although the Stanford showdown in the Pac-12 North will be at Palo Alto, remember that Oregon has broken the half-century mark twice in the last three vs. the Cardinal, and will have plenty of revenge motivation on The Farm. Moreover, if the Ducks get to the Pac-12 title game, they project as decent-sized favorites for a game likely to be played at Autzen Stadium. But best of all for Oregon fans, the long-awaited NCAA penalties related to the Willie Lyles case amounted to not much more than a slap on the wrist. Who knows, we might finally get to see the Crimson Tide-Ducks matchup that we were denied last January.

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2-ALABAMA...What fun would it be to forecast a Bama three-peat, anyway? Although we suspect the joyless Nick Saban will have the Crimson Tide back in the title hunt as usual, remember that Alabama has needed results from elsewhere to break its way late in the regular season and conference title games the past two seasons to qualify for the BCS championship tilts. Similar challenges vs. the capable sides that dealt Saban his regular-season losses the past two years (Texas A&M & LSU) await in the regular season, and while memories of the Tide’s dominating title game win over Notre Dame remain fresh in everyone’s minds, last season’s loss to Johnny Football and extremely narrow escapes vs. LSU and Georgia (in the SEC championship) suggest that Bama really didn’t outclass the field as much as it might have seemed a year ago. Yes, the Tide is loaded with quality depth across the pitch, and should easily compensate for last year’s graduation losses. And the more Katherine Webb sightings the better as boyfriend A.J. McCarron tries for his third national title as a starting QB (and maybe a Heisman), too. Don’t worry, Bama will still be in the title mix, and can really jump-start its bid for a three-peat if avenging last year’s loss to A&M when Eli Gold is at the microphone for the rematch at College Station on September 14.

3-OHIO STATE...Had the Buckeyes decided to take their medicine a year earlier and ban themselves from a bowl in a forgettable 2011 season, Urban Meyer’s first team in Columbus (and not Alabama) might well have been playing Notre Dame for the BCS title last January 7 in Miami. Whatever. Meyer still hasn’t lost a game at OSU and might not lose one in the upcoming regular season, either, especially vs. a suspect Big Tten slate and a non-conference sked in which San Diego State might be the most difficult test. That schedule and the returning talent intersect nicely once again, especially jr. QB Braxton Miller, a Heisman hopeful whose work with passing guru George Whitfield resulted in quite a sneak preview in the spring game. Questions revolve around a defense which lost seven leaders from a year ago, but replenishments are at the ready. Now, would OSU rate this highly if it played in the SEC? And would the Bucks have dare dreamed about an unbeaten season last year if faced with the sort of demanding four-game gauntlet (at Florida, South Carolina, at Texas A&M, Alabama) that LSU had to run in midseason last fall? Heck no. But OSU plays in the Big Ten and doesn’t have to worry about an SEC team until perhaps the BCS final. And if it comes down to another Meyer vs. Nick Saban matchup as in the old days when Urban was at Florida, the Buckeyes would at least have the more likeable (if only slightly) coach.

4-GEORGIA...Truth be told, I voted for Georgia to win the conference at SEC Media Days in Birmingham, but the masses at the Wynfrey Hotel preferred Alabama once more, so putting the Bulldogs down a couple of notches from the top is no problem in the summer months. Besides, Georgia’s BCS hopes are in danger of taking a huge hit before we reach September if the Dawgs can’t survive their dangerous opener at Death Valley against Clemson. But HC Mark Richt knows what’s coming (the tough early-season slate also includes South Carolina and LSU in the first month), and let everyone in Birmingham know that UGa won’t be caught off guard. “We’ll be ready,” said the coach. Meanwhile, longtime o.c. Mike Bobo must feel like a kid in a candy shop with sr. Heisman candidate QB Aaron Murray and a collection of established skill-position weapons that includes RB Todd Gurley, who has made Dawg Nation forget about Isaiah Crowell (he’s now at Alabama State, by the way). SEC sources also suspect the loss of eight starters from last year’s sometimes-underachieving defense might actually be a plus, with a mix of experienced backups and hungry blue-chip recruits ready to step into the fray. True, there are plenty of trip wires as usual in the slate, and a possible SEC title game rematch vs. Bama looms in December. But remember that many SEC powerhouses have made BCS title games before with one loss (or even two, as was the case with 2007 LSU).

5-STANFORD...Once the Cardinal uncovered a playmaker at QB late last fall with now-soph Kevin Hogan, the Tree added the sort of extra dimension it lacked earlier in the season when losing at Washington and Notre Dame. With Hogan and most of the latest road-grading OL back in the fold, Stanford can avenge those defeats this fall and probably navigate around most of the other land mines on the schedule except for perhaps a revenge-minded Oregon, which visits Palo Alto for a Thursday night ESPN special in early November. While the offense has garnered plenty of headlines the past couple of seasons, it has been a granite-like defense that has placed the Tree in three consecutive BCS bowls, and this fall’s platoon might be the best of those recent editions. As for HC David Shaw, we think he’s proven he knows what he’s doing. Now what they have to worry about on The Farm is if the NFL comes calling again for the latest Stanford coach (John Ralston, Bill Walsh, Dennis Green, Jim Harbaugh...see the pattern?).

6-LSU...Like we said in the Ohio State preview, anyone who thinks last year’s Buckeyes would have been able to run the table with the sort of midseason gauntlet that LSU had to face might also be apt to buy oceanfront property in Phoenix. The only problem for the Tigers is that they have to face the same sort of schedule this fall, as Les Miles reminded the masses at SEC Media Days when noting that his LSU must face annual foe Florida and Georgia as its “crossover” teams in the league slate this season. But, in the manner of “The Hat,” LSU will embrace the challenge once more with at least an established QB in sr. Zach Mettenberger, the Ashton Kutcher look-alike who admittedly blew a bit hot and cold in his debut last year. It is hoped the addition of new o.c. and QB tutuor Cam Cameron might smooth some of the rough spots in Zach’s game. Meanwhile, shrewd d.c. Jon Chavis will have a month to get all of the new talented pieces on the stop unit to mesh before the heavy part of the conference slate commences. As usual, LSU will be somewhere in the national discussion.

7-SOUTH CAROLINA...How about a defender for the Heisman? No arguments here about the candidacy of do-everything DE Jadeveon Clowney, perhaps the most-dominant on-field force in the country and the linchpin for Gamecock defense that ranked among the nation’s leaders last season. We don’t worry about the Carolina stop unit; instead, the concerns are on offense, where HC Steve Spurrier has had surprising trouble getting it right at QB since he took over at Columbia in 2005 while struggling through various different options (Syvelle Newton, Chris Smelley, Stephen Garcia) throughout his Gamecock coaching career. Now, Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson seem to give Spurrier two capable QB options, although we have to wonder if the old hockey analogy (when you have two goalies, you have none) will apply to the ‘Cock QBs this fall. We’ll know quickly where SC fits in the SEC East and national puzzles after the September 7 showdown vs. Georgia in Athens.

8-CLEMSON...The SEC always seems to play a role with Clemson, and this season it provides a pair of bookends (Georgia in the opener, South Carolina in the closer) to the regular season for the Tigers and also their key to thinking about crashing the BCS title game party. Longtime IPTAY members don’t have to be reminded that the epic 1981 Tigers (as outlined in our ACC Retrospective piece) kick-started their national title campaign with an ambush of Herschel Walker and defending national champion Georgia (guilty of nine giveaways) at Death Valley, where Mark Richt’s highly-ranked Dawgs will have to contend with the deafening noise in another early-season battle (the opener on August 31, in fact) this season. They’ve been dreaming about a possible BCS title berth at Clemson since the day in January that sr. QB Tajh Boyd decided he wasn’t going to throw his hat into the NFL Draft ring after last season. Moreover, high-profile o.c. Chad Morris remains in the fold for another year, and in the second year of former Oklahoma d.c. Brent Venables calling the shots for the stop unit, meltdowns like the Orange Bowl embarrassment vs. West Virginia two years ago (when the Mountaineers dropped a 70-point bomb) are unlikely. The Tigers have the ACC’s best chance of becoming involved in the national title picture...if, that is, they can beat the Dawgs in the opener.

9-BOISE STATE...Scheduling has a lot to do with the rankings and Boise might have an easier road into the top ten than many others. Not that the Broncos have a cupcake slate this season, with an opener vs. Washington in the re-christened Husky Stadium, and road trips to Fresno State, Utah State, BYU, and San Diego State later in the calendar. Challenging enough not to dock Boise too many votes from the pollsters, but manageable enough for HC Chris Petersen to make a legit run at his third BCS berth. Word from Bronco Nation is that the playbook has been streamlined and will be much easier to implement for sr. QB Joe Southwick, now with a year as the starter under his belt, and the usual strong supporting cast is again on hand offensively. There is some reloading to be done on defense, but vastly underrated Boise stop units have been performing so well over the past few years that we expect little dropoff, especially with a couple of key playmakers like DE Demarcus Lawrence and DT Ricky Tjong-a-Tjoe still in the fold. They’re also happy in the land of the blue carpet that the program has opted to stay in the Mountain West, and as usual the Broncos loom as the most-likely BCS buster on the horizon.

10-FLORIDA STATE...The Seminoles were darned close to getting into the national title game last fall, blowing two games they shouldn’t have lost at NC State and at home vs. Florida. Getting back into that position might not be as easy in 2013 after QB EJ Manuel departed and was taken in the first round of the NFL Draft by the Bills, but word from Tallahassee is that RS frosh QB Jameis Winston might make everyone forget about Manuel...in time. Fortunately, he’ll have about half of the season to get used to college football before FSU faces its first (and likely biggest) test at Clemson on October 19. Plenty of skill-position help is in the wings, including an infantry attack that HC Jimbo Fisher finally has up to speed (the Noles ranked 24th nationally at 206 ypg on the ground) and features several established components such as Devonta Freeman and James Wilder, Jr. Beyond Winston, other newcomers are being asked to deliver, especially defensively and in a rebuilt front seven that lost several pieces to the NFL Draft from a year ago. But reinforcements are at hand and the schedule is favorable; if the pieces have fit together by the mid-October clash at Clemson, the Noles can start thinking about a return trip to the BCS as well as sneaking into the national title conversation.

11-TEXAS A&M...Not that we want to overreact to public pronouncements by any head coaches in the offseason. But we thought the comments (unprompted, by the way) made at SEC Media Days by A&M HC Kevin Sumlin regarding Heisman winning QB Johnny Manziel spoke volumes, at least about the coach’s attitude, regarding Johnny Football’s various offseason extracurricular activities. Manziel did not commit any crimes, but Sumlin questioned his judgement and actions on social media sites and overall behavior that made the Ag QB seem more Kardashian-like than A&M-like. And, like everyone else, we await for developments regarding recent allegations of Johnny Football selling his autograph for profit, which, if proven, could impact his eligibility for the fall. Manziel was obviously a revelation last season and triggered an Aggie revival, but he catches no one by surprise this fall as A&M will now be wearing a target on its back after last year’s breakthrough campaign. Of course, with another year of Manziel running the spread, perhaps the country's deepest stable of running backs, and receiver Mike Evans coming back, the Aggies aren't going to have problems scoring points this season. But d.c. Mark Snyder has to replace seven starters, including star LB Sean Porter and defensive lineman Damontre Moore, from last year’s plucky stop unit. New faces are going to have to hit the ground running, especially since revenge-minded Alabama makes an early visit to Kyle Field on September 14.

12-TEXAS...There’s a “Mack Brown Watch” in the Lone Star State as some wonder how much longer the current regime stays in charge at Austin, especially with that Vince Young-led 2005 BCS title looking a lot further back in the rear-view mirror these days, and embarrassing losses to Oklahoma piling up. Conventional wisdom in the region states that Brown is safe as long as AD DeLoss Dodds is on the job, but Dodds turns 74 in August; how much longer before he retires? In the meantime, Brown is once again implementing big changes for the fall, as this time his offense will go with a no-huddle, shotgun attack with a much faster tempo that a more-experienced jr. QB David Ash can hopefully detonate. Brown believes it's the best way for the Longhorns to survive in the fast-paced Big 12; stay tuned for further developments. Texas still wants to remain balanced on offense, so tailbacks Johnathan Gray, Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown will get their fair share of carries, but Brown is going to need more from the Horn defense, which ranked 73rd nationally in scoring (29.2 points per game) and often looked uncomfy when dealing with the hurry-up offenses it faced a year ago. Many Texas fans are viewing this season as an updated referendum on Brown, who returns 19 starters and will have no excuses if falling short of the BCS for the fifth straight season.

13-NORTHWESTERN...While some Big Ten observers overanalyze and believe that the decision of Cat HC Pat Fitzgerald to cancel the spring game because of a rash of injuries in practice sessions is a big negative, we instead suspect that Northwestern’s players were among the happiest in the country simply by not having to go through with a ritual that most college athletes despise. Ask many players, and they will tell you that spring practice is a terrible waste of time...really. We’d rather focus on the evolvement of Fitzgerald into one of the coaching stars of this generation, and his ability to get the Cats to punch above their weight in last year’s breakthrough 10-3 campaign that included the school’s first bowl win since the 1949 Rose Bowl. Yes, there is some reloading required on the OL, and that position group might have been hit hardest by nicks and bruises in spring. But the Cats have plenty of firepower coming back on offense, including their QB combination (Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian) and TB Venric Mark, who ran for 1,366 yards with 12 TDs. And seven starters are back from a “D” that was the best in Evanston since Fitzgerald led that unexpected Rose Bowl team of 1995. The slate isn’t a picnic, but most of NU’s big games are in Evanston, and two of the three expected Legends Division showdowns vs Michigan & Michigan State are to be played at Ryan Field as part of a three-game November gauntlet that also includes Nebraska at Lincoln. It might be asking a bit much to qualify for the BCS, but expect NU to at least be playing somewhere in Florida again on New Year’s Day.

14-LOUISVILLE...Forgive us for being a little bit skeptical regarding Louisville’s credentials; the Cards won a weak Big East last year, whipped at Syracuse and losing at home to UConn along the way, and were a handful of plays away from five more losses, including against what would be a winless Southern Miss. Yes, the Sugar Bowl romp past discombobulated Florida was impressive, but were those the real Cards in 2012, or the was it the side that lost at home to Paul Pasqualoni’s sub-.500 UConn? With loads of starters coming back, we understand the optimism at Papa John’s Stadium, and jr. QB Teddy Bridgewater is getting deserved Heisman mention. Further, HC Charlie Strong has also added more weapons around Bridgewater, including Florida transfers Robert Clark and Gerald Christian and tailback Dominique Brown, who sat out last season with a knee injury. And the midsummer announcement that former star Auburn RB Michael Dyer (whose star had dimmed considerably, like much else on The Plains, after Cam Newton's departure) would enroll for the fall adds another potential weapon to the mix. The schedule is also not too demanding (Ohio, Eastern Kentucky, Kentucky and Florida International as the non-conference opposition) and the Big East road games will be played at Temple, South Florida, Connecticut and Cincinnati...hardly an SEC-like slate. We just think the hype has gotten a bit out of hand at the ‘Ville because it looked so good in the Sugar Bowl; unless we were seeing things, the Cards didn’t look so powerful the rest of last season. We aren’t expecting the ‘Ville to run the table.

15-MICHIGAN...No shame in any of Michigan’s five losses vs. highly-ranked teams last season, especially with some of the injury issues HC Brady Hoke had to deal with a year ago. But didn’t the Wolverines used to win their share of those sorts of high-profile games? This fall, the “O” will look a lot different with QB Devin Gardner under center; Michigan fans caught a glimpse of the pro-style attack that o.c. Al Borges wants to run in the final five games of 2012, when Gardner replaced injured starter Denard Robinson, and the Wolverines spent spring installing the rest of their new offense. Other good news is that guards Ben Braden and Kyle Kalis look to have improved enough to stabilize the interior offensive line and receivers Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh have emerged as big-play threats. And after putting some teeth into the stop unit last season, d.c. Greg Mattison was able to fill most of the graduation losses on his platoon with upperclass replacements. The bad news from spring was that a tailback didn't emerge as Fitz Toussaint continues to recover from a broken leg, and leading tackler LB Jake Ryan suffered a torn ACL, with an iffy return date for the fall. Also, backup quarterback Russell Bellomy tore the ACL in his knee during spring practice and will miss the entire 2013 season, making Gardner's health a priority. And we saw how QB injury issues disrupted the Wolverines last season.

16-FLORIDA...Surprising to hear so many SEC insiders at Media Days in Birmingham who were whispering that HC Will Muschamp might have himself a problem or two in Gator Nation if his team regresses much from last season’s BCS and Sugar Bowl entry. Standards remain ridiculously high in Gaineville, and Florida fans have had an entire offseason to stew about that listless bowl loss to Louisville. Now Muschamp has to replace seven starters from a gnarly defense that camouflaged many of the shortcomings of the 2012 Gator offense, which has now ranked in triple digits in the two seasons since Muschamp arrived. Florida thus remains a work in progress on the attack end, averaging only 26.5 points and ranking 114th in passing with 146.3 yards pg last fall. Muschamp wasn’t thrilled by the progress of the “O” during spring, either, as the Gators had so many injured offensive linemen that they all but had to cancel their spring game; five incoming freshmen join 10 scholarship linemen this fall. And while quarterback Jeff Driskel made some strides under offensive coordinator Brent Pease in 2012, he still hasn't taken complete ownership of the offense. If the “O” struggles again, can the “D” carry the team once more? Keep in mind that Muschamp already used his mulligan after that 6-6 regular-season mark in his debut campaign of 2011; all Muschamp has to do is give a call to Ron Zook to remind him what can happen to Florida coaches who take a step backward in their third season.

17- WISCONSIN...Anyone who wonders about the credentials of new Badger HC Gary Andersen should refer to his exploits last season at Utah State, when the Ags were a couple of missed field goals away from taking the place of Northern Illinois in the BCS. Not to mention the quick-fix job that Andersen performed at Logan to make the Utags a relevant gridiron entity for the first time since Merlin Olsen was an undergrad over a half-century ago. Moreover, as college football insiders across the country have told us all offseason, Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez remains one of the shrewdest talent evaluators (coaches included) in the game, thus the hiring of Andersen must be considered a top-level endorsement. Andersen, a well-respected defensive schemer throughout his career, spent his first spring in Madison installing a new 3-4 looks for his stop unit while also trying to sort out his team's QB battle between Curt Phillips and Joel Stave. Insiders suggest Phillips might have the inside track as Andersen usually prefers more-mobile signal-callers, but juco transfer QB Tanner McEvoy rates as an intriguing darkhorse entering fall camp. Most importantly, Andersen inherits a roster with 23 seniors used to success after winning the Big Ten and qualifying for the Rose Bowl three years running. Don’t expect much drop-off after Bret Bielema’s surprise decision to bolt to Arkansas.

18-OKLAHOMA STATE... The Cowboys slipped a year ago for a variety of reasons that figure not to repeat this fall. Such as the post-Brandon Weeden QB situation that went through three different starters due to injuries in 2012, but emerges battle-tested and so deep that last year’s frosh starter Wes Lunt decided to transfer, with Clint Chelf and J.W. Walsh both appearing capable of leading the Cowboys back to prominence. There’s also the matter of a defense that slumped in 2012 and was not nearly as disruptive as the TO-forcing 2011 platoon. But the stop unit should have some more backbone this fall with 13 seniors on the defensive two-deep, and new d.c. Glenn Spencer, the team’s longtime LB coach, promises a more aggressive scheme than utilized under predecessor Bill Young. There’s a new offensive coordinator, too, after Todd Monken took the Southern Miss HC job, but HC Mile Gundy’s fingerprints are all over the “O” and the transition to new coordinator Mike Yurcich reportedly went very smooth in spring. If the Cowboys can get past their opener vs. Mississippi State at Houston, there’s a chance to generate some real momentum in Stillwater before the teeth of the Big 12 schedule begins.

19-OKLAHOMA...Expect a different look in Norman from the sorts of pass-happy Sooner teams we have been used to seeing since Bob Stoops took over the reins of the program in 1999 (can it really be 14 years ago?). Or maybe not, as big QB Blake Bell, the heiir apparent after the graduation of record-setting passer Landry Jones, was surprisingly beaten out for the starting job by RS frosh Trevor Knight in late August. Thus the ”Belldozer” likely remains simply a change-of-pace option with his powerful running ability (how about 24 rush TDs the past two seasons?), and we trust that Stoops had good reasons for naming Knight his surprise starter for the opener vs. ULM. Knight will be helped by eight returning starters on the attack end to ease the transition at QB. But it’s the ”D” that is cause for the most concern as Bob’s brother Mike replaces eight starters from a platoon that disappointed a year ago despite a heavy senior and veteran presence. A rebuilt 2ndary will also be tested by the many high-tech Big 12 passing attacks. Still, keep in mind that Stoops’ teams have never been far from contention in both their league and the BCS, and as usual cannot be discounted.

20-NOTRE DAME...Brian Kelly has quickly made ND relevant again on the gridiron, but the needle moved the wrong direction in South Bend during the spring with the announcement of QB Everett Golson’s suspension for the upcoming campaign. Suddenly the Irish offense was without the dynamic element that helped get it to the BCS title game last season. All hope is not lost, however, as most Domers know that their team has won games in the past with QB Tommy Rees, a former starter and now back in the first-string role after Golson’s suspension; indeed, Rees even bailed out Golson on a couple of occasions last fall. But the Irish caught every break imaginable in 2012 before being exposed by Alabama in the title game, and it is hard to envision every bounce going ND’s way once again this fall, especially minus their key playmaker. Expect some regression, especially with another challenging slate. And whatever shenanigans LB Manti Te’o was pulling off of the field last fall, his on-field production was substantial, and the Irish “D” could miss his unique and impactful presence. Domers don’t want to hear this, but expect a drop-off from 2012 this fall.

21-ARIZONA STATE...After the inconsistencies of the Dennis Erickson era that prompted a coaching change prior to last season, ASU showed signs of re-emerging as a factor for first-year HC Todd Graham in 2012, qualifying for its first bowl since 2008 and winning its first postseason game since 2005 when dropping a 62-point bomb on Navy (and it could have been much worse) in San Francisco’s Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Now there’s a buzz in the Valley of the Sun with plenty of playmakers back in the mix including exciting QB Taylor Kelly, who completed a school record 67.1% of his passes for 29 TDs and just seven picks last fall from an “O” that scored a whopping 38.4 ppg. And the DL, paced by A-A DT Will Sutton (who surprisingly bypassed the NFL Draft to return for one more season in Tempe), is one of the best in the region if not the country. We’ll know by midseason if ASU is for real, as an early four-week stretch has the Sun Devils hosting Wisconsin, trekking to Stanford, hosting Southern Cal, and flying to Jerry Jones Stadium in Arlington to face Notre Dame.

22-TCU...The Horned Frogs went to school last fall and learned plenty while finishing 7-6 in their first season of Big 12 competition. The stop unit remained a strength as they led their new loop in total defense, although it was a mostly bumpy ride on the attack end due in part to QB Casey Pachall’s midseason suspension. Pachall has been reinstated but given his character issues we’re hardly convinced that is a plus, nor are we convinced be will beat out soph Trevone Boykin (3-6 as a starter last fall but full of promise) for the first-string job. Last season figured as something of a transition year anyway for Frogs HC Gary Patterson as 17 true frosh saw playing action in 2012, but now TCU has a much-more experienced look about it, especially with nine starters back on “D” for respected vet coordinator Dick Bumpas. Still, the “O” is going to have to show progress if the Frogs want to outscore the likes of LSU in the opener at Jerry Jones Stadium and the rest of the Big 12's contenders.

23-UCLA... Amazing what a change in attitude can bring to a program. For the first time this millennium, UCLA played with a chip on its shoulder last season, won the Pac-12 South and beat hated Southern Cal for the first time in six years. Mostly due to the arrival of HC Jim L. Mora, who has lit a spark not seen in years in Westwood and now threatening to take ownership of L.A. back from those Trojans across town. Though all of the feel-good after the SC win was a bit diluted by a pair of losses to Stanford and a bowl blowout courtesy of Baylor afterward, the trajectory is unmistakably upward in Bruinland thanks to RS soph QB Brett Hundley, who proved a perfect triggerman for o.c. Noel Mazzone’s high-tech spread in 2012. Mazzone must choose from among an untested group of RBs to replace the highly-productive Johnathan Franklin, but blue chippers are in the mix, and most of Hundley‘s receiving corps remains from a year ago. Speaking of blue-chippers, there are bunches of them vying for spots in a mostly-rebuilt 2ndary which will perform behind a front seven full of established playmakers, including LB Anthony Barr (he of the KO of SC QB Matt Barkley) and DE Cassius Marsh. If UCLA can get by a September 14 date at Nebraska, don’t be surprised to see the Bruins as an unbeaten when they hit a nasty late-October stretch at Stanford and Oregon in back-to-back weeks.

24-BAYLOR...It’s been apparent for a while now that Baylor HC Art Briles knows what he is doing. The offense that made RG III a Heisman winner in 2011 and allowed successor Nick Florience to put up big numbers a year ago still lives in Waco, although Briles’ playbook will have to accommodate another QB this fall (probably jr. Bryce Petty, who has spent three years watching Griffin and Florence). Matching last year’s whopping 44.5 ppg might be a bit of a chore, but anyone who watched all of the speed on the field for Baylor in the bowl romp past UCLA knows that Briles has plenty of firepower on hand, led by a collection of homerun wideouts and coast-to-coast RB Lache Seastrunk, the onetime Oregon recruit who emerged as a big-play monster for the Bears last fall. As usual, defense is a concern in Waco, although last year’s stats were distorted by the uptempo pace of Baylor’s games. Despite ranking 119th overall, there were signs of palpable improvement late last season, and eight starters return for longtime coordinator Phil Bennett. The schedule is backloaded, so Petty will have some time to get comfy at the controls before the showdown games commence in November.

25-GEORGIA TECH... Looking for a potential sleeper in 2013? Consider the Yellow Jackets, finally rid of the dead weight otherwise known as d.c Al Groh, way past his sell-by date when “wrecking” the Ramblin’ Wreck “D” with his ill-advised 3-4 alignments before being humanely dismissed by HC Paul Johnson at midseason a year ago. No coincidence that Tech played its best games of last season post-Groh, including an aroused effort in the Sun Bowl upset win over Southern Cal. Respected defensive tactician Ted Roof, hired from Bill O’Brien’s staff at Penn State, figures to do a much better job with the stop unit that has adjusted back to base 4-3 looks and will now feature playmaker Jeremiah Attaochu at a DE rather than LB spot. Of course, upside might be limited if Johnson’s pet option offense can’t uncover at least a bit of an aerial diversion under soph QB Vad Lee, who performed with some flair when called upon a year ago. But Lee has a better arm than predecessor Tevin Washington and returns most of his supporting weaponry. Let’s see if Johnson really tweaks his time-tested “flexbone” formula after experimenting with more shotgun looks in spring.

26-NEBRASKA...Are those the faint beats of war drums we hear in the distance at Lincoln? Although the Huskers are 49-20 under Bo Pelini as their head coach, the Big Red faithful are reportedly becoming a bit restless at the constant meltdowns in big games, especially the defensive collapses in all four NU losses a year ago when Pelini’s “D” allowed a staggering 53.5 ppg. The “Black Shirt” defense which seemed to respond to Pelini (who coordinated the platoon back in the Frank Solich era) in his first couple of years as head coach has instead regressed alarmingly, ranking a distant 90th in rush defense stats a year ago, so we don’t know if the loss of eight starters from that underachieving platoon is good or bad news. Nor do we know if it is particularly good news that QB Taylor Martinez returns for a senior year after his mix of gaudy stats and penchant for self-destruction (note NU’s poor -12 TO margin in 2012) continued a year ago. The Huskers will score points as usual with almost all of Martinez’ supporting weaponry in tow (including RB Ameer Abdullah, who rushed for 1137 yards after Rex Burkhead went down with injury last fall), but a new-look front seven on the defensive side must upgrade if NU wants to make it back to the Big Ten title game, where it needs to make amends after getting napalmed by a 70-point Wisconsin explosion last December at Lucas Oil Stadium.

27-OLE MISS... The word around SEC Media Days in Birmingham was that Ole Miss ought to be a better team in 2013 than it was in 2012...but that might not be reflected in the W-L record thanks to an unforgiving slate that has a particularly nasty stretch of five games, including three in a row on the road at Texas, Alabama, and Auburn preceding home dates vs. Texas A&M & LSU, by mid-October. At which point the Rebs might have to struggle to simply get back into the Liberty or BBVA Compass Bowl discussions. But the arrow is definitely pointing up in Oxford for second-year HC Hugh Freeze, who has won at every stop in his career in all sports (including girls basketball at Briarcrest Christian High in Memphis, where his football teams also won state titles) and owns a gaudy 37-13 SU record as a college football head coach at NAIA Lambuth, Arkansas State, and Ole Miss. The recruiting haul was also the best in ages at Vaught-Hemingway led by the bluest of blue chips, DE Robert Nkemdiche, who also played the role of Pied Piper as a few other top recruits decided on Ole Miss just to join him in Oxford. But we’re not sure how much the frosh contribute this fall, so it will be up to former juco QB Bo Wallace to eliminate some of the errors that proved costly a year ago, to give the Rebs a chance in their many high-profile games. Eight starters including Wallace on offense and plenty of playmakers on defense return from last fall, so the pieces are in place. That thankless schedule, however, is tempering the enthusiasm.

28-KANSAS STATE...Underestimate shrewd HC Bill Snyder at your own risk. The crafty old fox has now resurrected the Wildcat program twice in his storied career, with last year’s 11-2 mark among his greatest masterpieces. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of reloading that is necessary after last year’s Fiesta Bowl entrant was gutted by graduation, including do-everything QB Collin Klein. But much as Klein emerged from nowhere a few seasons ago, so might either JC transfer Jake Waters or soph Daniel Sams to pilot the attack, and both showed promise in spring. They’ll be able to hand off to vastly underrated RB John Hubert, a mini-back at 5'7 who has nonetheless gained 1945 career rushing yards. There are more questions defensively, where d.c. Tom Hayes is looking at almost a complete rebuild after losing all but two starters from 2012. But the schedule is not too daunting, and we never want to sell short a Snyder-coached team.

29-MIAMI-FLORIDA...Give HC Al Golden credit for sticking it out in Miami despite the school’s self-imposed bowl bans the past two seasons. The bad news is that there is still no resolution to the ongoing NCAA inquiry (which has been filled with more twists and turns than a Real Housewives episode on Bravo) related to the Nevin Shapiro scandal, which threatens more sanctions for the program. Although many observers believe that the NCAA will consider the Canes’ own bowl bans as “time served” and might go lenient on the penalties, whenever they are handed down from Indianapolis. Stay tuned. On the field, the Canes intrigue, with QB Stephen Morris now a well-seasoned senior and soph RB Duke Johnson looking like the program’s best runner since the days of Edgerrin James and Clinton Portis over a decade ago. The Canes’ problem lately hasn’t been on offense, but rather on the other side of the ball, where the stop unit was shredded a year ago as it tumbled to a sickly 116th total defense rating. With its offense, Miami is well-equipped to trade points in shootouts, although Golden’s program will not progress to the top of the ACC until the “D” comes around.

30-FRESNO STATE...We’re inclined to give the Bulldogs a mulligan for the bowl game egg they laid in Hawaii. After all, a week in Honolulu after an entire autumn in Fresno could be pretty distracting. And the ‘Dogs were facing an SMU side coached by June Jones, extra-motivated in a return to his old coaching haunt at Aloha Stadium. The only long-term repercussion of the bowl is if Fresno foes go to school on the Mustangs’ all-out blitz tactics that tossed Bulldog QB Derek Carr for a loop. Otherwise, Carr was close to flawless last season, passing for 4104 yards and 37 TD passes in the first year of new HC Tim DeRuyter’s uptempo, no-huddle spread that generated a whopping 38 ppg. Most of Carr’s top targets remain in the fold, and BYU transfer RB Josh Quezada is well-equipped to fill the shoes of the graduated (and highly-productive) Robbie Rouse. DeRuyter, a longtime defensive tactician, and his d.c. Nick Toth also revamped the Bulldog “D” in 2012 and turned it into a ball-hawking platoon that caused a whopping 35 turnovers and contributed mightily to FSU’s +15 and impressive 7th national rank in TO margin. Now the question in Fresno is how long the program might be able to hang on to rising star DeRuyter, who was in the mix for offseason openings at Cal and Colorado and figures to be on many short lists for some high-profile opportunities if the Bulldogs perform as they did a year ago.

31-OREGON STATE...Just when personable HC Mike Riley seemed to be stepping into some quicksand in Corvallis, the Beavers made a nice recovery to 9-4 last season to temporarily take the heat off of their head coach, now in his 11th season of a second tour of duty at OSU. What we’re a bit concerned about, however, is Riley’s apparent waffling between QBs Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz, each of whom having performed with some flair in 2012 but perhaps entangled in a distracting “who’s the starter” controversy this fall. By us, it would be a clear vote for Mannion, with 18 starts under his belt and who got the Beavs off and flying last season before going down with injury; the plucky Vaz started five games and had his moments, but seemed more prone to mistakes and poor decisions. We’ll see. There is established supporting weaponry on hand led by RB Storm Woods (940 YR) and WR Brandin Crooks, but the “D” is going to need juco reinforcements to step in right away to plug some graduation-caused holes on the DL. The schedule ramps up to a crescendo in late October when Stanford treks to Reser Stadium, beginning a difficult stretch drive for the Beavs. Riley is best advised to have his QB situation settled before the slate really begins to toughen.

32-MICHIGAN STATE...Give HC Mark Dantonio credit for keeping MSU relevant in the Big Ten and providing some much-needed prestige for the league with bowl wins over Georgia and TCU the past two years. But the Spartans had to scramble just to get postseason-eligible last season as the program seemed to lose some traction after recent successes. And Dantonio is only going to be able to do so much if his offense (which scored over 26 points just twice in 2012) doesn’t uncover a few more playmakers, a task made more daunting this fall after the departure of punishing RB Le’Veon Bell. Upgrades are needed at the WR spots after a severe case of dropsies hindered much of what QB Andrew Maxwell was trying to accomplish last season. Again, the defense (which ranked 4th nationally a year ago) will be expected to keep the Spartans close in most games. But in an era of sports-car like offenses, MSU’s jalopy is having some trouble keeping pace.

33-NORTH CAROLINA...No, we’re not ranking the Tar Heels just to score points with our favorite Chapel Hill alum Heather Childers. Instead, we’re doing so just a little bit to impress Heather but more out of respect for HC Larry Fedora, whose impact at previous stop Southern Miss was reflected in the Golden Eagles dropping off the map to 0-12 immediately after his departure from Hattiesburg. Not to mention keeping last year’s Heels upbeat throughout a difficult set of circumstances when dealing with no bowl carrot resulting from infractions committed during the Butch Davis regime. Winning 8 games in that sort of storm was impressive, and now the clouds have broken as the bowl ban has been lifted. Senior QB Bryn Renner returns after adjusting seamlessly to the Fedora spread when passing for 3356 yards and 28 TDs a year ago, while RBs A.J. Blue and Romar Morris should be able to collectively replace most of the yards generated by departed RB Gio Bernard. We haven’t yet mentioned the defense, which needs some real upgrades after several torch jobs last season, but there is experience in the secondary led by jr. CB Tim Scott. Despite those stop unit shortcomings, Renner and the offense give UNC a puncher’s chance in every game, even the opener at South Carolina, and the Heels miss the powerhouses from the other half (the Atlantic) of the ACC, Clemson and Florida State, in the regular season.

34-MISSOURI... Interesting developments at the SEC Media Days in Birmingham included Mizzou HC Gary Pinkel moving about almost unnoticed during the festivities, absent the Secret Service-like details that surround many of the other league coaches. We’re afraid it’s going to take a while for the Tigers to get used to the intense SEC spotlight. As for Pinkel, we wonder if he might become a victim of success earlier in his career, when Mizzou won big; expectations have thus been raised in Columbia, where the Tiger faithful are beginning to wonder if Pinkel can come close to that sort of success in the SEC. On the hot seat this fall, Pinkel could benefit from some breaks in the injury department, especially at QB, where the electric James Franklin was banged up a year ago. A healthy Franklin and a return to form of onetime star RB Henry Josey, out since late 2011 with a devastating knee injury, would give Pinkel a chance to hold on to his job. The Tigers’ schedule breaks very well, with four winnable non-conference games out of the chute before SEC play commences at Vanderbilt in early October. We’re still not sure if Mizzou has enough “D” to thrive in the SEC, but if Franklin is available, the offense can trade points, and the likes of South Carolina, Florida, and A&M might get more than they bargained for in late-season visits to Columbia.

35-SOUTHERN CAL...Funny to be ranking the Trojans so low after SC was a consensus top five pick heading into last season. What a difference a year can make, however, as by the end of the 2012 campaign we would have been nuts to even rank Troy as high as 35th, while HC Lane Kiffin has gone about alienating almost the entirety of the SC fan base after his peculiar behavior and last year’s meltdown. Not just any meltdown, either, after SC dropped four of its last five games to limp home at 7-6, losing to old rivals UCLA and Notre Dame in the same year for the first time since 1995 and embarrassing itself in the Sun Bowl vs. Georgia Tech. The experiment with Lane’s papa Monte as the d.c. was a dismal failure; Monte has moved back to the NFL while jouneyman coordinator Clancy Pendergast tries to defend against the many spread offenses of the Pac-12 much better than did papa Monte the past few years. There is frontline talent all across the roster but depth is being impacted by the scholarship limitations related to the Reggie Bush-related penalties. And post-Matt Barkley, Kiffin now has to decide on a new QB between holdover Max Wittek (very unsteady in limited 2012 work) and frosh hotshot Max Browne. The good news is that star WR Marqise Lee remain in the fold and last year's highly-decorated recruit, soph deep threat Nelson Agholar, has plenty of upside. The schedule provides the chance for a quick start, but the Trojans eventually will face the sort of tests they failed last season when Kiffin did a good job at poisoning the atmosphere around the Coliseum (and in the SC clubhouse, if reports are to be beleived). Pressure to make a coaching change will become unbearable for AD Pat Haden if the Trojans underwhelm again this fall.

36-VANDERBILT... Looking for the “hot stock” among up-and-coming coaches? There’s a “buy” rating on Vandy’s James Franklin, who has managed to accomplish the unthinkable at Nashville by leading the Dores to back-to-back bowls and their first nine-win season in almost a century last fall. Now that Vandy is starting to resemble an SEC program on the field, however, it is also resembling one of them off the field, too, as a nasty off-field incident resulting in the suspension of four players has become an unwanted hot topic for the Dores. Not the sort of stuff they’re used to dealing with at Vandy. Let’s see how the program handles this unaccustomed and unwelcome position in the limelight. On the field, however, Franklin’s team indeed looks more like an SEC entry these days with playmakers such as WR Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, plus DE Walker May and CB Andre Hal. A key this fall will be the progress of Wyoming transfer QB Austyn Carta-Samuels, who takes over for the exciting Jordan Rodgers; Carta-Samuels blew hot and cold earlier in his career at Wyo, and we suspect that Rodgers could be missed. But the schedule breaks very well (Austin Peay, UMass, UAB, and Wake Forest the non-conference foes), and a third straight bowl looks within reach. Which could become a double-edged sword for the Dores, as continuing to keep the brash Franklin (USC? Texas?) in the fold beyond 2013 might become problematic.

37-VIRGINIA TECH...We’re not used to rating the Hokies outside of the top 20, much less in the low 30s, but for the first time in two decades there is some concern in Blacksburg that HC Frank Beamer might not have all of the answers. Beamer is not on the hot seat like he was in 1993 (after all, the Hokies have since qualified for 20 straight bowls), but we have to wonder about his enlistment of new o.c. Scott Loeffler, ostensibly to put more oomph into an infantry attack that Beamer believes has gone too soft in recent years. Loeffler, however, is off a very difficult season in the same role at Auburn where his offense couldn’t get of the tarmac, much less onto the runway; for Beamer’s sake he ought to hope that the more-forgiving defenses of the ACC will be more accommodating to the Loeffler offense than the SEC stop units last year. We’ll see. We do know that QB Logan Thomas regressed last season when he threw 16 picks. Perhaps the stage is set for a resurgence of the old-style Beamer teams that won with defense and special teams; Bud Foster’s stop unit returns nine starters and perhaps one of the best DLs in the country, although the VPI special teams have not been up to their old standards lately. The revamped offense gets an ultimate litmus test in the opener vs. Alabama , but there’s hope thereafter as the rest of the slate is not nearly as daunting (no Florida State or Clemson from the ACC Atlantic, either).

38-UTAH STATE...Upon reflection, look how close the Utags came to running the regular-season table a year ago, when missed field goals prevented a win at Wisconsin and an OT period at BYU. USU rolled past everyone else and destroyed a representative Toledo in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise. Now, we know that HC Gary Andersen has moved to Wisconsin, and the Utags promoted from within as former o.c. Matt Wells takes charge. Sources say the transition has been about as seamless as possible, with Wells a popular pick among the returning players. Wells’ ace-in-the-hole is jr. QB Chuckie Keeton (3373 YP and 619 YR in 2012), a playmaker deluxe who has been getting some peripheral Heisman mention, plus the OL returning en masse, but after years of highly-productive RBs Robert Turbin and Kerwynn Willaims, Wells is concerned about depth at the position, and a new set of WRs must emerge. Andersen also took most of his defensive staff with him to Madison, although MWC sources say new d.c. Todd Orlando, most recently at FIU, has added several twists to a veteran “D” that allowed just 15.7 ppg in 2012. The schedule is no picnic, however, and the new MWC slate is also more of a challenge than the Utags faced last year in the WAC. But USU might have been better than every Mountain team (Boise State included) last season.

39- BYU...It was pretty easy to figure out what prevented BYU from scaling some real heights last season. The answer was offense, or lack thereof, which contributed to four losses by six points or fewer. Sensing a need to change the recipe, HC Bronco Mendenhall hired his former o.c. Robert Anae, who has spent the past two years at Arizona, to help jump-start the strike force. The new/old fast-paced scheme seems well-suited to soph QB Taysom Hill, who flashed upside in a couple of late-season starts, and the decision of prolific WR Cody Hoffman (100 catches LY) to bypass April’s NFL Draft for one more season in Provo should help the offense further. By this point we are accustomed to excellence from the Mendenhall stop unit, which despite losing seven starters from last year’s platoon that ranked third nationally will still have a menacing look since Poinsettia Bowl hero LB Kyle Van Noy, who like Hoffman decided to bypass the NFL Draft, remains in the fold. The schedule (including Texas, Boise State, Wisconsin, and Notre Dame, among others) is a bit nasty, however, which makes breaking in a new offense and, essentially, a new QB in Hill an even greater challenge.

40-NORTHERN ILLINOIS... The new Huskies regime under first-year HC Rod Carey was able to get a test run in the Orange Bowl last New Year’s night against Florida State, the culmination of a wildly successful campaign like none before it in DeKalb. Now it’s completely Carey’s show after predecessor Dave Doeren departed for NC State prior to the landmark BCS bowl date. NIU has been winning big for a few years now and made a seamless transition to Doeren from Jerry Kill a few years ago, so these sorts of coaching calisthenics are nothing new for the Huskies. Best of all for Carey is that his star QB Jordan Lynch returns to the fold after a spectacular 2013 when passing for 3138 yards and 25 TDs while rushing for 1815 yards and another 19 scores. All of that behind an OL that featured no returning starters a year ago. This year, four OL starters return, although other playmakers must step up offensively. While the “D” seems to lack depth and experience after losing seven starters to graduation, that is hardly a death sentence in the MAC. Lynch is good enough to get NIU back to the MAC title game and another bowl for sure, although a return trip to the BCS appears a bit much to ask.

Others to watch: UCF, Washington, Rutgers, Penn State, Tulsa, Cincinnati, San Diego State, Mississippi State, Ohio, Auburn.

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