by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

1-OKLAHOMA...Something happened late last season with the Sooners, who closed like a freight train with eye-opening wins at Kansas State and Oklahoma State and then outgunning Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Which partly coincided with then-RS frosh QB Trevor Knight finally taking control of the offense after an uneven season that included just five starts and a knee injury. But as long as the Knight who passed for 348 yards and 4 TDs vs. the Crimson Tide is the Knight we see in the fall, OU can run the regular-season table, especially with eight starters also back from d.c. Mike Stoops’ attack-minded 3-4 “D” that was the Big 12's best stop unit last fall. There’s also still a chance to Missouri transfer WR Dorial Green-Beckham could be eligible in the fall, which would add yet another weapon to the non-stop assembly line of skill-position weaponry at Bob Stoops’ disposal. The schedule breaks very well, as among expected Big 12 showdowns, only the Texas game (revenge for OU, at neutral Dallas) is away from home, with Kansas State, Baylor (another major revenge spot for the Sooners), and Oklahoma State in this year’s renewal of “Bedlam” all visiting Norman. Remember, there’s also no conference title game to worry about in the Big 12. Come January, we’d be surprised if OU is not in the new Playoff.

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2-FLORIDA STATE...Hard not to peg the Seminoles into the new Playoff mix after running roughshod through the ACC last season and winning FSU’s first national title since 1999. And since there’s no team in the league that looks as potentially menacing as last year’s Clermson (which lost a 51-14 verdict to the Noles), and with the season-ending Florida showdown at Doak Campbell, another smooth ride into January looks likely. True, Jimbo Fisher lost some key pieces from last year's BCS title winner, including d.c. Jeremy Pruitt (who moved to Georgia), but the assembly line is rolling in Tallahassee, and Jimbo should have able replacements to slot into the mix around a dominant core of returnees led by Heisman winner QB Jameis Winston. Now, we’ll see if Jimbo can possibly keep the Noles as hungry as they stayed for the entirety of last season when they were never seriously challenged until the BCS title game vs. Auburn. As long as Fisher keeps Winston away from the seafood section at the local Publix, the Noles should again be in the thick of the national title mix.

3-ALABAMA...We’re not buying Nick Saban’s filibustering regarding his new QBs that was on display at SEC Media Days, as Bama looks for a successor to A.J. McCarron. Most regional sources believe Florida State transfer Jacob Coker will be the man, but even if the joyless Saban wasn’t bluffing in Hoover, and if dual-threat senior Blake Sims or RS frosh Cooper Bateman are good enough to beat out Coker, the Tide should have a capable pilot for an attack loaded with a surplus of weapons in the backfield (featuring RB T.J. Yeldon) and at the receiver spots (including homerun threat Amari Cooper) to make it easier for the new QB. The usual haul of blue-chippers will also be ready to step into departure-created holes in the Tide’s defense, though d.c. Kirby Smart will be looking to reignite a pass rush that betrayed Bama down the stretch in 2013. Keep in mind, too, that the last time Saban lost a bowl game (2008 Sugar vs. Utah), Bama ran the table the following season, and rest assured last January’s Sugar loss to Oklahoma has been on the mind of Saban in the offseason as much as the unforgettable Iron Bowl loss to Auburn. Most importantly, we also suspect there are plenty of potential successors to the departed McCarron’s now-wife Katherine Webb to keep the TV cameras occupied during Tide games this fall.

4-OREGON...We admit to some concerns regarding the Ducks after their late-season fade a year ago cost them a BCS berth and a slot in the title game. Oregon certainly didn’t have the look of a national contender in November when manhandled at both Stanford and Arizona and very fortunate to escape the Civil War showdown vs. modest Oregon State. Which has rightly or wrongly caused some Pac-12 observers to wonder if Mark Helfrich (even with an 11-2 SU record in his debut season) is indeed a suitable successor to Chip Kelly in Eugene. But let’s not forget that QB Marcus Mariota was operating at something far less than 100% last November as he dealt with the effects of a knee sprain, and a healthy Mariota (who bypassed a near-certain first-round selection in las Mat’s NFL Draft) should be a serious Heisman contender . Some West Coast insiders are also suggesting that the retirement of longtime d.c. Nick Aliotti (replaced from within by ILB coach Don Pellum) might not be a negative. Expected showdown games vs. Michigan State and recent nemesis Stanford are both in Eugene, and a midseason clash at the Rose Bowl vs. UCLA will be against a Bruins team that has lost five straight to the Webfoots.

5-WISCONSIN...We’ll know before we get to September if this projection is off of the mark, because the Badgers will emerge (or submerge) as a serious national contender based upon the result of their August 30 opener at Houston vs. LSU. Win that one, and the Badgers can probably look forward to being favored in the rest of their regular-season as the restructured Big Ten has put Wiscy in a decidedly softer-looking West half of the loop, and thus missing projected East half heavyweights Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan, and Penn State (the Badgers get conference newcomers Maryland and Rutgers from the East instead). Wiscy has an experienced QB in Joel Stave and a potential Heisman contender in RB Melvin Gordon, and while the stop unit will undergo a near-complete overhaul for its front seven, HC Gary Andersen is a noted defensive mastermind. For now, all eyes are on that LSU opener at Reliant Stadium, perhaps the most significant showdown of the opening weekend action.

6-UCLA...After swinging and missing on his first two head coaching hires, it looks as if Bruin AD Dan Guerrero hit a homerun on the third pitch with Jim Mora, who has put the swagger back into a program that had lacked a sharp edge since the late ‘90s and early days of the long-ago Bob Toledo regime. Importantly, Mora (who quickly rejected offseason overtones from alma mater Washington, as well as Texas) has taken L.A. back from crosstown USC, and even more importantly welcomes back QB Brett Hundley, who opted for another year in Westwood instead of the NFL to chase UCLA’s first Heisman since the great Gary Beban, 47 years ago. Not to mention giving the Bruins a puncher’s chance of reaching the initial Playoff with a maturing roster now full of blue-chippers and featuring the best two-way threat in recent memory in soph LB-RB Myles Jack. Getting past Pac-12 North foes Oregon and Stanford has been a tall order in recent years, but the Bruins will be hosting both at the Rose Bowl, where they also welcome the hated Trojans in late November.

7-OHIO STATE...We suspected that Ohio State had been the beneficiary of a spectacularly favorable schedule for the first 24 games of the Urban Meyer regime before running into Michigan State (in the Big Ten title game) and Clemson (in the Orange Bowl) at the end of last season. Now, the Buckeyes enter 2014 on a two-game losing streak, with a pair of potentially-tricky games to open the new campaign vs. Navy (in Baltimore) and Virginia Tech, significant upgrades from non-league foes the past two years. The Bucks have also been placed in what looks like, for this season at least, the much tougher half (East) of the restructured Big Ten. Still, OSU projects as a favorite in all of its games save perhaps a November rematch vs. Mark Dantonio’s Spartans, which takes place in East Lansing. Heisman hopeful Braxton Miller returns at QB, though Meyer’s chances to get into the Playoff also rely upon a mostly-rebuilt secondary that was a recurring issue a year ago and loses a pair of senior safeties plus early departure CB Bradley Roby, a first-round pick of the Broncos in the NFL draft.

8-SOUTH CAROLINA...This might be Steve Spurrier’s best chance to win an SEC title with the Gamecocks, who have reached the conference title game just once (in 2010) on the ol’ ball coach’s watch. USC was the consensus choice of the masses at SEC Media Days to win the Eastern half of the loop despite the loss of some significant star power from last season, including top NFL draft pick DE Jadeveon Clowney (Texans). But 16 starters and 58 lettermen are back from last year’s 11-2 team that beat Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl, and sr. QB Dylan Thompson has seen plenty of action in recent seasons in relief of graduated starter Connor Shaw. Plenty of weapons are at Thompson’s disposal, including possible Heisman contender Mike Davis at RB and big-play Shaq Roland at WR. Clowney’s departure might not even be the negative it seems on the surface, given that many SEC observers believe he took “off” too many plays last season. Now, can the Gamecocks avoid the unexpected banana peels (last year it was Tennessee) that have caused occasional slips the past few years?

9-MICHIGAN STATE...There was nothing fluky about Michigan State’s 2013 run to the Big Ten crown and its first Rose Bowl win in 26 years. But now that the Spartans have become an elite program, can HC Mark Dantonio keep them perched near the top? We’ll see this fall, and get an early idea in a September 6 date at Oregon, which has already been installed as a double-digit favorite. Underestimate MSU at your own peril, although we would expect some dropoff from last year’s highly-ranked “D” that lost a lot of prime-cut talent to the NFL draft. Still, most of the key skill components return on offense, led by jr. QB Connor Cook, whose dramatic emergence as a playmaker, and his clutch throws in late-season wins at Nebraska, vs. Ohio State in the Big Ten titl, game, and Stanford in the Rose Bowl, gave Sparty a dimension that it had previously lacked. MSU gets also gets the Buckeyes, Nebraska, and Michigan in East Lansing this fall, so if there’s a dropoff, we don’t expect it to be too far.

10-AUBURN...As much as we (like everyone, save perhaps Alabama and Georgia fans) were thrilled by the Tigers’ wild ride a year ago, we suspect that Gus Malzahn’s team used up about a decade’s worth of miracles en route to the BCS title game. Hard to envision Auburn winning as many games in hair-raising fashion this season, and the team has already had to deal with the sort of distractions that did not surface a year ago (such as QB Nick Marshall’s offseason arrest for marijuana possession that will at least keep him out of the starting lineup for the opener vs. Arkansas). Malzahn’s team also won’t sneak up on anybody this season, wearing a big target instead after last season’s thrills. Assuming Marshall returns to the lineup quickly, he’ll have to upgrade his passing numbers that took a backseat to the nation’s top-ranked rushing offense (328 ypg) last year. And the defense was not a dominant unit last season even with the playmaking presence of departed DE Dee Ford (Chiefs first-round pick). The schedule has more potholes than last year, too, including a mid-September Thursday intersectional at Bill Snyder’s Kansas State, and tricky SEC dates at Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Georgia, and you-know-who in the Iron Bowl

11-GEORGIA...Just when the whispers surrounding Mark Richt’s future begin to surface in Athens, the Bulldogs often come up with a big season, as they did a couple of years ago. To answer those who are beginning to wonder again if Richt.has lost his magic touch, we wouldn’t be surprised to see Georgia rebound from last year’s 8-5 mark...even minus graduated QB Aaron Murray. That’s mostly because of a revamped “D” now coordinated by Jeremy Pruitt, who schemed BCS title winner Florida State’s top ranked defense a year ago and shook up the platoon in spring with an emphasis on big plays and takeaways, which last year’s defense didn’t force often enough (contributing to a lowly 102nd ranking in TO margin) for now-departed d.c Todd Grantham. While sr. QB Hutson Mason might lack Murray’s dynamism, he did get a test run late last year after Murray’s knee injury, and knows o.c. Mike Bobo’s offense like the back of his hand after serving as Murray’s caddy the past few years. The presence of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, perhaps the best 1-2 RB combo in the country, eases the transition at QB. Just in case, however, Richt is well-advised to not drop both ends of a difficult two-game span (Clemson and South Carolina) top open the season.

12-BAYLOR...As the latest indicators that Baylor might have arrived as a sustainable force among the nation’s elite, consider that HC Art Briles didn’t even consider offseason overtures from the University of Texas, and that the Bears move into a sparkling new home arena on the banks of the Brazos, 45,000-seat McLane Stadium, this fall. If there were ever a program on the move, it’s this one. And by this time, it has become apparent that the Briles highlight-reel offense is going to post big numbers no matter who is at QB, whether it be RG III, Nick Florence, or current starter Bryce Petty, who “only” passed for 4200 yards and 32 TDs (with just three interceptions) last season. Petty returns for a record-breaking attack that led the nation with a staggering 618.8 yards and 52.4 points per game in 2013, and he welcomes back most of his key receiving targets, including big-play Antwan Goodley (71 catches LY), while all-name soph Shock Linwood (881 YR in 2013) takes over featured RB duties from Lache Seastrunk. To win the Big 12 again, however, Baylor is probably going to have to beat a revenge-minded Oklahoma at Norman. And any chances to crash the Playoff also relies upon a “D” that while improved for vet coordinator Phil Bennett last season, often looked vulnerable in a 2ndary that was exposed in late-season losses to Ok State and UCF (in the Fiesta Bowl) and must replace three starters.

13-LSU...We never want to dismiss Les Miles-coached LSU teams, which have risen to the occasion before. SEC sources insist the personnel level is once again good enough to make a legit run at the Playoff, and it is worth noting that several of the Tigers’ key SEC West battles (Mississippi State, Ole Miss, and Alabama) take place in Baton Rouge. Plus, beyond a tricky opener vs. Wisconsin at Houston, the non-conference slate looks to be a cakewalk. There are some questions at the QB spot, however, where soph Anthony Jennings (who stepped in for an injured Zach Mettenberger late last season) and true frosh Brandon Harris will carry their battle for snaps into fall camp, and we are suspicious of a bit of potential overhype regarding ballyhooed true frosh RB Leonard Fournette, touted by some LSU zealots as the next coming of Adrian Peterson, or perhaps Herschel Walker (take your pick). Nothing like setting the bar at a reasonable level for newcomers, eh? As usual, there is plenty of depth and athleticism within the stop unit, though respected d.c. Jon Chavis was involved in plenty of position-switching in spring, especially at the LB spots that he believed underachieved a year ago. As usual, we look forward to Miles’ pre- and postgame quotes, which are apt to be inadvertently entertaining.

14-STANFORD...While acknowledging that 4th-year HC David Shaw has been able to sustain the momentum for the Cardinal program that he inherited from Jim Harbaugh in 2011, and has led Stanford to its first back-to-back Rose Bowls since the glory days of the John Ralston era in 1970-71, we also believe Shaw was directly responsible for last year’s losses to USC and in the Rose Bowl vs. Michigan State, as well as nearly blowing a big 4th Q lead vs. Oregon. An insistence upon smashmouth football and conservative offensive approach that would appeal to Charles Krauthammer would instead cost Stanford when Shaw took over the play-calling duties in the red zone and in short-yardage situations. Let’s also not hear about the Cardinal simply outsmarting foes, as recent Stanfrod teams have featured perhaps the top young QB of this generation (Andrew Luck) and an assembly line of NFL offensive linemen. The recipe is not likely to deviate much this season even with a mostly rebuilt OL, as Shaw has been recruiting reinforcements at a high level, while jr. QB Kevin Hogan enters his third year as the starter with has favorite receiving targets from 2013 (Ty Montgomery and Devon Cajuste) still in the fold. Don;’t expect much fall-off from the “D’ either after coordinator Derek Mason took the HC job at Vanderbilt, as seven starters return for promoted d.c. Lance Anderson, who retains Mason’s high-pressure 3-4 scheme. Unless Shaw excuses himself from occasional playcalling duties, however, and with several tricky road trips on the schedule, the Cardinal likely falls short of Final Four consideration.

15-MISSISSIPPI STATE...Looking for a sleeper to emerge out of the SEC? (It's not unprecedented...who was talking about Auburn and Missouri winning their respective divisions of the league last year, anyway?) Try Mississippi State, which parlays a manageable schedule, 18 returning starters, and a stealth Heisman candidate in jr. QB Dak Prescott into legit dark horse consideration. SEC observers noted a turnaround last November when the Bulldogs were trading points with Johnny Football & Texas A&M in College Station, had Alabama on the ropes minus an injured Prescott, then closed the regular season with rousing wins over Arkansas and Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl (when Prescott was heroic despite battling a painful shoulder injury) before routing Rice in the Liberty Bowl, all a far cry from the previous season’s collapse down the stretch. Many credit the leadership of do-everything Prescott, a Tim Tebow-sized bull and powerful runner who is also learning how to pass effectively. Now, HC Dan Mullen has hired a respected tutor, former Utah QB Brian Johnson, to further smooth the rough edges in Prescott’s game. Eight starters are also back on defense, including playmaking MLB Benardick McKinney, and eight D-linemen return who played at least 10 games in 2013. If the Bulldogs can solve their kicking problems (only 10 of 21 on FGs last season), all the better, as many SEC observers believe MSU can emerge much as Missouri did in the Eastern half of the loop last season. A breakthough win at LSU on September 20 could really get the ball rolling in Starkville.

16-KANSAS STATE...At some point, K-State is going to have to again replace HC Bill Snyder, a subject that causes apoplexy among Wildcat backers because no other coach in the past 40+ years has been able to make the program relevant. “Snyder II’ continued with another 8 wins and a bowl triumph last fall, but at 74 years of age, it’s hard to tell how much longer ‘ol Bill (who “retired” once before after the 2005 season) is going to be on the job. For the time being, however, Snyder stays, which should ensure another competitive KSU outfit. Snyder’s QB situation is much more settled than it was a year ago, with sr. Jake Waters now the established starter after impressive work down the stretch last season, and last year’s tag-team QB, Daniel Sams, now moved to a WR position where his big-play ability could come in handy and will complement the prolific Tyler Lockett, who caught 81 passes for 11 TDs a year ago and doubles as a lethal kick return threat. True frosh RB Dalvin Warmack, a ballyhooed prep from the Kansas City area, could also emerge as a force in quick order. There are some issues with a defense that lost seven starters, but Snyder’s familiar haul of juco imports could fill those gaps quickly, and holdovers such as DE Ryan Mueller and OLB Jonathan Thomas are established playmakers. The Cats must travel to Oklahoma and Baylor in Big 12 play, but a desirable bowl bid is a reasonable expectation...as it usually is for a Snyder team.

17-LOUISVILLE...While many expect the Cards to downgrade significantly after HC Charlie Strong left for Texas and QB Teddy Bridgewater made a premature (but expected) jump to the NFL, where he was a first-round draft pick by the Vikings, we think Louisville is instead one of the more intriguing storylines to the new season. That’s because of the return of HC Bobby Petrino, who has been around the track (both literally and figuratively) since he left the Cards after the 2006 term. We also don’t believe the move from the American to the ACC is going to prove a bridge too far for a program that has dominated SEC (Florida) and ACC (Miami-Fla.) reps in bowl games the past two seasons. Besides, Louisville’s willingness to hire Petrino confirms out suspicion that the Cardinals don’t care who they hire, they just want to win, which Petrino has done at most of his career stops. ACC sources say that new QB Will Gardner opened plenty of eyes in the spring game when completing 32 of 37 passes, and he’ll be surrounded by every weapon an unproven QB needs, including a offensive mastermind for a head coach. And though only four starters return defensively, remember it was the top-rated platoon in the land a year ago, and new d.c Todd Grantham (from Georgia) is not without credentials. Though the ACC did the Cards no favors by placing them in the Florida State-Clemson side of the league, we’d still keep an eye on these guys.

18-MARSHALL...Here’s our top candidate for the “New Year’s Six”bowl slot allotted to the best from among the champs of C-USA, the Mountain West, Atlantic, MAC, and Sun Belt. Marshall’s chances of running the regular-season table and then avenging last December’s C-USA title game loss to Rice (especially if this year’s league championship game is held at Huntington) look pretty good to us, especially considering a non-conference slate with Ohio U as the toughest-looking foe, and even the Bobcats must visit Edwards Stadium. The Herd is trying to mount an insurgent Heisman campaign for sr. QB Rakeem Cato, who has already passed for over 10,000 yards and 91 TDs in his college career. Cato’s preferred target, WR Tommy Shuler, who has caught at least 1000 passes in each of the past two seasons, remains in the fold, so we don’t expect much drop-off from an offense that scored 42.1 ppg in 2013. Meanwhile, the “D” went from awful to awfully good in its first season under d.c. Chuck Heater, a former Michigan RB but longtime assistant whose schemes help cut the Herd’s point allowance almost in half (from 43.1 ppg to 22.9 ppg) , and the three leading tacklers return from 2013. Don’t be surprised to see the Herd in the Peach or Fiesta Bowl come January.

19-CLEMSON...There are no more whispers in Death Valley, as there were a few years ago, about HC Dabo Swinney being the right guy to lead the program. Although the circumstances surrounding his promotion (at midseason in 2008, replacing Tommy Bowden) were a bit unorthodox, Dabo has lead the Tigers to BCS bowls in two of the past three seasons. Getting into the successor “New Year’s Six” might be tricky this season, especially minus departed offensive linchpins QB Tajh Boyd, WR Sammie Watkins, and RB Roderick McDowell. Importantly, however, Dabo has retained his top-notch coordinators, Chad Morris (offense) and Brent Venables (defense), so we don’t expect Clemson to slide too far. Senior QB Cole Stoudt has shown well in previous brief auditions, while soph WR Mike Williams has been compared favorably to another ex-Tiger-now-NFL wideout, DeAndre Hopkins. The core of the stop unit also returns for Venables. True, Clemson fans could be reduced to talking about the Music City Bowl after early trips to Georgia and Florida State, and Dabo hasn’t beaten end-of-season foe South Carolina in a couple of years, so we highly doubt the Tigers become involved in any “Final Four” talk. But don’t expect Clemson to disappear.

20-OLE MISS... We can think of a few other leagues across the country (starting with the Big Ten) that Ole Miss might win. Unfortunately for the Rebs, they’re in the loaded SEC West, where they have to deal with three different schools that have played in the last three BCS title games (Alabama, LSU, and Auburn), plus resurgent Mississippi State and Texas A&M. After 15 wins and bowl successes the past two seasons under HC Hiugh Freeze, some believe this could be a breakthrough year. Perhaps, but a bit more consistency might be required from sr. QB Bo Wallace, especially in the big games in which he has often faltered. There are also some questions along an OL that must replace four starters, although Freeze’s upgraded recruiting efforts have landed plenty of blue-chippers in Oxford the past two years, and it likely manifests in improved depth this fall. After an injury-plagued 2013, the defense also returns nine starters including star soph DT Robert Nkdemdiche. Ole Miss (which gets Alabama and Auburn at Vaught-Hemingway) likely makes some noise this season, but can Wallace really lead the Rebels back to the promised land?

21-NEBRASKA...Bo Pelini has been walking the tightrope for so long in Lincoln that we almost think “much-maligned” is his new middle name. A succession of nine or ten--win seasons in Cornhusker-land is not necessarily a ticket for job security with a support base that still remembers Tom Osborne (and older sorts who recall Bob Devaney) and would even run favorite son Frank Solich out of the state over a decade ago for related transgressions (i.e., not winning big enough). Pelini, who might have been saved by a Hail Mary TD pass to beat Northwestern last November, has only 11 starters back in the mix from 2013, and we are unconvinced that QB Tommy Armstrong (9 TDP last fall) is enough of a passing threat to balance the offense and take some of the attention away from slashing RB Ameer Abdullah (1690 YR in 2013), who is getting some peripheral Heisman mention. Five of last year’s OL seniors who started 102 games in their careers must also be replaced. The defensive losses were not quite as severe, and seven starters (including star DE Randy Gregory) are back in the fold. Pelini has never won any charm contests in Lincoln, and another mediocre year (by Nebraska standards) could hasten his departure. By the way, if you’re looking for a possible successor, keep an eye on Wyoming (and former wildly-successful at North Dakota State) HC Craig Bohl, with deep Husker ties.

22-NOTRE DAME...We did not expect the Domers to live another charmed life a year ago like they did in 2012 when qualifying for the BCS title game and then ruthlessly exposed by Alabama. Especially after QB Everett Golson was ruled ineligible before the start of last season. So, a year after facing the Crimson Tide for all of the marbles in sunny Miami, Notre Dame would instead get Rutgers in the cold Bronx as its bowl assignment last season. Expect the Irish to land somewhere in between for its postseason reward this fall, especially with Golson reinstated and ready to pick up where he left off two years ago. Unfortunately, the Domers wouldn’t appear to have the same “D” they had in 2012, especially replacing five regulars, including NFL draftees NG Louis Nix III (Texans) and DE Stephen Tuitt (Steelers) along the front seven, and with a new d.c. (Brian VanGorder, who has worked in the NFL the past decade, taking the place of Bob Diaco, now the UConn HC) also in the mix. Golson reinstates a running threat at QB, but the OL is as green as it has been under Brian Kelly, and many of the skill-position weapons, though loaded with potential, have yet to establish themselves as forces. There are also plenty of tough assignments on another challenging schedule that has added a road trip to Florida State, plus home games vs. dangerous North Carolina & Louisville, as part of ND’s new scheduling arrangement with the ACC. But don’t forget, the Irish QB (Golson) is still undefeated in the regular season!

23-SOUTHERN CAL...After more than holding its own in a turbulent season that saw HC Lane Kiffin ousted before September was complete, and speculation surrounding his eventual successor to dominate storylines for the rest of the campaign, SC can at least now look forward to calmer waters with new HC Steve Sarkisian, a member of Pete Carroll’s accomplished staffs of the past decade at Troy and for the past five years having established his head coaching chops at Washington. Sarkisian has already altered the time-tested SC offensive formula (first installed by Sark’s mentor Norm Chow over a decade ago) by introducing an uptempo, no-huddle (but no spread) style that was installed in spring to mixed reviews. We’ll see how jr. QB Cody Kessler handles the new workload this fall. As usual, there are plenty of playmakers in the mix, with jr. WR Nelson Agholor perhaps ready for a huge breakout year, but those weapons disappeared at some inopportune times a year ago. Meanwhile, new d.c. Justin Wilcox introduces a base 3-4 look to a “D” that mostly ran a 5-2 last season, with DE Leonard Williams an established force for a platoon that posted good numbers, mostly against lesser foes, in 2013; the Trojan “D” looked uncharacteristically slow against the two true quality offenses (Arizona State and UCLA) it faced in 2013. An early pivot point of the season comes in the second game vs. Stanford; but with effects of the Reggie Bush-related penalties having reduced scholarship numbers, the Trojans are not yet out of the woods depth-wise, and could be exposed by a spate on injuries in the fall.

24-NAVY...Didn’t expect to see the Midshipmen anywhere on these pages except for our Indies’ Retrospective piece, right? But don’t be surprised for the Annapolis bunch to make some real noise this season with a schedule that sets up nicely for at least ten wins, with Navy getting to take shots at Ohio State (at the Ravens’ M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore) and Notre Dame (at the Redskins’ FedEx Field in Landover) in friendly territory. The Mids figure to be favored in all of their other games, and QB and option-pilot master Keenan Reynolds could emerge as a stealth Heisman candidate if he can replicate his staggering NCAA record of 31 rushing TDs (seven of those in a triple OT win at San Jose State!) that he set a year ago, as well as his 1344 rush yards. . The Navy option should again be hitting on all cylinders with the bulk of the OL in tact from a year ago as well as much of the potent rotation of RBs that along with Reynolds would rank second (barely behind Auburn) in national rushing stats. As usual, the Mid defense could be exploited by the higher-profile foes, and the heart of the platoon must be rebuilt after the departure of two nose guards, both ILBs, and the top two safeties, but veteran d.c Buddy Green is a respected schemer and has plenty of foot speed to utilize. A trip to San Diego’s Poinsettia Bowl, which has hosted the Midshipmen three times in the last decade, is the predetermined reward for a .500 or better record...though we project much better this fall.

25-NORTH CAROLINA...It has become apparent that HC Larry Fedora knows what he is doing. Witness the abject collapse of the Southern Miss program once Fedora left Hattiesburg, and, upon his hiring at Chapel Hill, the subsequent resurgence of the Tar Heels. Which was reflected in a 39-17 bombardment of Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl, a win led by now-jr. QB Marquise Williams, who flashed plenty of upside when replacing the injured Bryn Renner at midseason a year ago before leading the rout of the Berarcats in the bowl. With the ability to run, he adds a different dimension to the normal Fedora spread offense, and ACC sources say Fedora might be spoiled for choice at the position with touted RS frosh Mitch Trubisky also in the mix to take snaps. There are established skill-position weapons led by a collection of rangy receiving targets, plus dynamo soph Ryan Switzer, who took back five punts for scores a year ago. The “D” showed great strides in the second year of vet d.c. Vic Koenning’s aggressive schemes last season, cutting 10 ppg off its scoring allowance from 2012. The Heels also get a schedule break in the more-forgiving Coastal half of the ACC, and thus miss Florida State and Louisville this fall. Pssst...FYI, we’ve also heard whispers that Fedora could find himself in the mix for a possible opening at Florida should a change be forthcoming in Gainesville after this season.

26-IOWA...We are free to make concessions in the rankings for schedule strength and a team like Iowa figures to benefit from its placement in the new West half of the realigned Big Ten. And, like Wisconsin, the Hawkeyes miss all of the heavyweights from the East side of the loop...no Ohio, State, Michigan State, Michigan, or Penn State, with Maryland and Indiana the only “Eastern invaders” on the slate. Meanwhile, HC Kirk Ferentz, secure with the type of contract that Phillies GM Ruben Amaro seems to have given to most of his veterans, has some pieces to work with from last year‘s 8-win team that qualified for the Outback Bowl and lost narrowly in Tampa to LSU. Several key components are back offensively, including scrappy QB Jake Rudock (2383 YP as a soph starter in 2013) and punishing Mike Alstott-like RB Mark Weisman (975 YR LY). Six starters have to be replaced on defense, but last year’s stop unit ranked in the top ten nationally in most categories, and standout sr. DTs Carl Davs and Louis Trinca-Pasat return to anchor the defensive middle. Looking again at the schedule, it is not much of a stretch to envision the Hawkeyes hitting November as an undefeated team.

27-BYU...We admit to expecting a lot more last season from the Cougars, who were good enough to make Texas look like a grade school team in a vicious physical beatdown that forced Mack Brown to fire his d.c. (Manny Diaz), but proceeded to lose most of their close games and finish an unsatisfying 8-5 after the bowl loss to Washington. But the schedule is conducive to a recovery this season, especially if punishing QB Taysom Hill can improve his passing numbers to match his prodigious rushing stats (1344 YR in 2013) in the second year of o.c. Robert Anae’s go-fast-go hard scheme. The addition of UTEP transfer WR Jordan Leslie is expected to mitigate the departure of the school’s all-time leading receiver, Cody Hoffman. A bigger question this fall is if BYU can rediscover some of the rock-ribbed qualities of past stop units under the watch of HC Bronco Mendenhall, a Rocky Long disciple and noted defensive tactician who was not pleased at subpar rush “D” numbers (160 ypg) last fall. Do-everything LB Kyle Van Noy could be hard to replace. The Cougs are also ticketed to the new Miami Beach Bowl at the Marlins’ stadium if they get to .500, which should be no problem. Now the question in Provo is how much longer the school wants to extend this experiment as an independent entry with scheduling becoming more of a headache for AD Tom Holmoe. Time will tell on those matters (hint: the Mountain West will take back BYU quicker than it will take Cougar fan Marie Osmond to film another Nutrisystem commercial).

28-MICHIGAN...The pressure is on HC Brady Hoke after Michigan not only sagged to 7-6 (and 3-5 in the Big Ten) last season but often could not run the ball if its life depended on it, no doubt causing Bo Schembechler to roll over in his grave. When, after all, do Wolverine teams rank 102nd nationally in rushing stats? Feeling pressure, Hoke quickly shuffled the deck of his assistant coaches, namely throwing former o.c. Al Borges under the bus and liberating Doug Nussmeier from the gloomy existence enduring Nick Saban’s scowl at Alabama. Nussmeier will be trying to inject some life into the infantry that floundered a year ago mostly because of shoddy play along the OL, which started nine different players in various combinations...none of which seemed to work. Nussmeier imports the inside-zone rushing attack from Tuscaloosa, but tinkering with the line endured for the entirety of spring work and likely carries into fall camp. At least he has an established signal-caller in fifth-year sr. Devin Gardner, now working on his third different o.c. at Ann Arbor but an dual threat who passed for 2960 yards and 21 TDs last fall. Although a key component will be once-ballyhooed soph RB Derrick Green, whose potential emergence will be key to a revitalized infantry. Greg Mattison’s defense was forced to keep Michigan in many games last fall and at times buckled from the pressure, but it returns plenty of experience and depth and welcomes a potential impact newcomer in touted frosh CB Jabrill Peppers. Make no mistake, however, the clock is ticking in Ann Arbor, and it will likely be up to Nussmeier to improve the offense for Hoke to return in 2015.

29-WASHINGTON...There is a consensus among many regional observers that U-Dub made an upgrade, in a roundabout way, on the sidelines after last season, as Steve Sarkisian left Seattle after five seasons to return to his coaching roots at USC, and the Huskies were able to lure Chris Petersen away from Boise State. How the Huskies succeeded where others (including, if sources are to be believed, USC and UCLA) failed in luring Petersen and his 92-12 record from Boise is not much of a mystery to those who know Petersen, who say he was only likely to move within the Northwest and to a primo job like Washington. The fit thus seems to be about perfect, and though key offensive cogs QB Keith Price and RB Bishop Sankey have departed since last season., Petersen does not inherit a bare cupboard at the remodeled Husky Stadium. Soph QB Cyler Miles was at the helm of last November’s 69-27 explosion at Oregon State and is regarded as a better runner than Price, and if recovered from last year’s leg injury, 6'3 sr. WR Kasen Williams (with 142 career receptions) is one of the Pac-12's best. Nine starters also return from one of the Huskies’ best defenses in years. Oregon has remained out of U-Dub’s reach in recent seasons, but the schedule looks generally favorable this fall. Keep an eye on QB Miles, however, after he was suspended for spring practice, and his ability to quickly grasp the new Petersen playbook in fall camp and hit the ground running could help the Huskies break quick before a key Pac-12 North showdown on Sept. 27 vs. Stanford in Seattle.

30-UTAH STATE...When hearing college football insiders talk about the level at which Utah State has reached the past few seasons, we feel justified putting the Utags in our preseason rankings. Especially since USU managed nine wins last season even with star QB (and longshot Heisman hopeful) QB Chuckie Keeton going down for the count in an early October game vs. BYU with a knee injury. Keeton (18 TDP and just 2 picks LY before getting hurt) is now back for his senior season and this time has a seasoned backup in soph Darrel Garretson, who actually led USU to a 6-1 record down the stretch last fall and a win over Jordan Lynch and Northern Illinois in the Poinsettia Bowl. Much of the credit for the Logan renaissance was due former HC Gary Andersen, who moved to Wisconsin after 2012, but the program could be poised to sustain for a while longer under successor Matt Wells, promoted from o.c. upon Andersen’s departure. While Keeton has generated many headlines, it’s been the defense which has keyed the resurgence, and last year’s tweaks to the platoon (which ranked 7th nationally in scoring defense at 17.1 ppg) by d.c. Todd Orlando suggest that the successes of the Andersen years could endure, although there is some reloading to be done in the 2ndary that graduated four starters. The strength of the “D” should again be at the LB spots, where All-MW choices Zach Vigil and Kyler Fackrell return. But it’s the sharper edge that a healthy Keeton provides the offense that makes us believe the Utags are the team to beat in the Mountain.

31-ARIZONA STATE...The Sun Devils did not take a lot of momentum with them into the offseason, manhandled for the second time in the campaign by Stanford in the Pac-12 title game before a no-show effort in the Holiday Bowl vs. an aroused Texas Tech. Sources say those dud performances have served as a motivator in spring and offseason work. While the program has developed a sharper edge under 3rd-year HC Todd Graham than it had in the later years of the previous Dennis Erickson regime, a dropoff from last year’s 10 wins is likely with an almost-completely rebuilt defense. Graham and d.c. Keith Patterson will thus be relying upon a combination of juco recruits (especially along the DL), frosh, and untested sophs. The good news is that most of the reinforcements are well-regarded, especially one of the JC imports, DT Dalvon Stuckey. While the new-look “D” seeks traction, the Sun Devils can take their chances outscoring foes behind prolific sr. QB Taylor Kelly, entering his third year as a starter after accounting for 37 TDs and 4243 yards from scrimmage in 2013. Plenty of homerun, threats, including RB D.J. Foster (who assumes the feature-back duties from departed Marion Grice) and Larry Fitzgerald-clone WR Jaelen Strong (75 catches LY), provide ample weaponry. But do the Sun Devils have enough defense to make another run at the Pac-12 South crown?

32-CINCINNATI...It’s about time we get to an American entry and believe it should be the Bearcats, especially after Louisville has left the league for the ACC and UCF undergoes a period of transition after the departure of high NFL draft pick (third overall by the Jags) QB Blake Bortles. We admit to not being as impressed by HC Tommy Tuberville as we were earlier in his career, and Cincy’s victims list last season hardly resembled the SEC West (the Bearcats were also exposed by North Carolina in a Belk Bowl beatdown), but there are plenty of soft spots on the slate for the Bearcats to exploit again this fall. Especially if once-touted prep phenom and Notre Dame transfer QB Gunner Kiel is as good as the reviews from a couple of years ago. Though we’ll have to wait until September 12 for his long-awaited college debut, against Toledo. Just in case Kiel falters, former starter Munchie Legaux is apparently going to be available after a severe knee injury that many believed might have ended his career last September. Kiel will be helped by the top three returning rushers (led by Hosey Williams & Ralph Abernathy IV) from last season, and perhaps Kiel’s big arm will uncover some deep threat receivers who mostly worked underneath last fall (top WR Shaq Washington counted just one TD among his 78 catches). We are suspicious of Tubderville’s motives for firing 2013 s.c. Art Kaufman, who followed “Tub” from Texas Tech and coordinated the nation’s ninth-ranked “D” last fall; publicly, Tuberville said the change was to “upgrade” recruiting, though Cal HC Sonny Dykes was quick to hire Kaufman for the same role in Berkeley. Seven returning starters should smooth the landing for new d.c. Hank Hughes. But we’ve been losing respect for Tuberville since he politicked hard for the Texas Tech job, then left Lubbock in a hurry when the temperature began to rise. At the moment, we just can’t see any clear choices in the American other than Cincy.

33-FLORIDA...Count us among those who were a bit surprised that AD Jeremy Foley decided to bring back HC Will Muschamp after last year’s 4-8 debacle, the second time in three seasons that Florida has failed to get over .500 in the regular season on Muschamp’s watch. And injury plague or not in 2013, Gator fans know there is no excuse for ever losing to an FCS outfit like Georgia Southern. Such transgressions usually warrant a Gator football coach requiring Secret Service protection in Gainesville, but Foley, either recalling the 11-2 season of 2012 under Muschamp, or not wanting to get the reputation as being quick on the eject button after running out Ron Zook after a similarly troubled three season-stint a decade earlier, decided to give Muscahmp one more chance. What is obvious is that Muschamp has no clue about the offensive end after each of his Florida attacks has ranked in triple digits in national total offense stats. Now he’s on his third coordinator in four years, blowing out Brent Pease and luring Kurt Roper from David Cutcliffe’s staff at Duke. Injuries knocked Florida QBs for a loop last season, and a now-healthy Jeff Driskel returns with an offense that features more shotgun, no-huddle, and plays hinging upon his mobility. Now, can Roper succeed where Pease and Charlie Weis failed? Muschanmp is more hands-on with his “D” that has ranked among the nation’s leaders the past two seasons and returns seven starters, though pressuring opposing passers must improve. Bottom line, however, is that sources say that Muschamp is definitely on the clock and might need a 9-win season, and success vs. either Georgia or Florida State, to survive. Your move, Will.

34-DUKE...Speaking of David Cutcliffe, we hardly believe he will miss his departed o.c. Kurt Roper because it has been Cutcliffe‘s offense, not Roper’s, on display in Durham since 2008 (maybe Florida should have tried to lure Cutcliffe instead). Last year’s surprising 10-win breakthrough and ACC Coastal crown shocked many observers, but ACC sources claim it was no fluke, that the Blue Devils finally had enough defense to prevent from becoming roadkill each week, allowing the Cutcliffe offense added freedom. We’re not quite as sure that will be the case this fall, as d.c. Jim Knowles deals with heavy graduation losses across his DL that started the same four in every game last season. But three starters are back in a ball-hawking 2ndary that helped Duke generate 26 takeaways last season. Moreover, much of the offense is back in the fold, including sr. QB Anthony Boone, who passed for 2260 yards in a breakout campaign last fall. What Cutcliffe could miss is the change-of-pace that backup QB Brandon Connette (who transferred to Fresno State) has provided the past couple of years. But if Boone, who when last seen was passing Texas A&M silly in the Chick fil-A Bowl, stays healthy, and the “D” doesn’t become a liability, the Blue Devils again figure to be in the mix in the decidedly weaker half (Coastal) of the ACC.

35-NORTHWESTERN...As long as the Wildcats don’t go on strike this fall, expect a quick recovery from last year’s very deceiving 5-7 mark that could have been a lot better. Keep in mind that the Cats were 4-0 entering October before an Evanston donnybrook vs. Ohio State that was decided the wrong way in the final seconds. Two more losses in OT, and two others by three points (including Nebraska connecting on an improbable Hail Mary TD pass in the last seconds) would push the Cats out of bowl territory for the first time since 2007. But such is our respect for HC Pat Fitzgerald that we expect a bounce-back from NU, which welcomes back a whopping 16 starters (seven offense, nine defense). The attack, which has spent the past two seasons juggling the now-graduated Jimmy Hoffa of college sports, Kain Colter, and Trevor Siemian at QB, can now revert to its pass-first roots with Siemian taking over the job on a full-time basis. As long as he stays healthy, his big arm can wreak havoc for defenses, with Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler a prototype slot receiver who can stretch defenses. Former star RB Venric Mark, who eclipsed 1300 YR in 2012, is also back from injury. There are also veteran playmakers at every level of d.c. Mike Haknwitz’s platoon. In the wide-open Big Ten West, a healthy NU can be a factor, and at the least we expect Fitzgerald to get the Cats back into the bowl mix.

36-TEXAS TECH...It’s been pretty easy to figure out where things have gone wrong for Texas Tech the past few seasons. November, in particular, has been a bad month, when the schedule historically toughens, and the usual cupcakes from the non-conference slate are far back in the rear-view mirror; the Red Raiders are 0-12 in November games over the past three seasons. Moreover, it’s when the defensive manpower has annually wilted. Kliff Kingsbury experienced all of that as a first-year coach last fall, when the Red Raiders were still unbeaten into late October before losing five straight to close the regular season. To address that disturbing trend, Kingsbury made some adjustments in spring, including the move of last year’s leading rusher RB Kenny Williams to an OLB spot. Jucos, featuring 350-lb. NT Rika Levi, will hopefully add more reinforcements to the stop unit, which could also used more takeaways (only 19 last year). We have focused on the “D” because we are assuming there will not be much dropoff from another prolific Tech “O” that ranked 8th nationally in total offense in 2013 and returns soph QB Davis Webb, who dealt with illness last fall but still managed to throw for 403 yards and four first-half TD passes in the Holiday Bowl romp past Arizona State. Expect jr. jitterbug DeAndre Washington to more than adequately fill Kenny Williams’ shoes at RB. If the “D” doesn’t suffer its normal attrition, and the “O” cuts down on its 33 giveaways (too many), maybe November won’t be so bad this fall. We know the Kingsbury offense (which ranked second nationally in passing last season) will again be fun to watch.

37-MISSOURI...Amazing how so many have forgotten that Mizzou was a top five team for much of last season; more media attention has been paid to former DE Michael Sam for unrelated matters. But the departure of Sam, as well as fellow DE Kony Ealy, is part of the Tiger narrative for the fall and a defense that must replace seven starters from last season’s opportunistic platoon that keyed a superb +16 TO margin (ranking fifth in the country). Moreover, HC Gary Pinkel must replace his leading passer, rusher, and top three receivers (including dismissed big-play threat Dorial Green-Beckham) from lsst year’s 12-win team that averaged a school-record 491 ypg. But before fearing the worst, consider that the offense did not skip a beat last fall when now-graduated QB James Franklin went down with injury and soph QB Maty Mauk was thrown into the breach, and he was adept enough at running o.c. Josh Henson’s no-huddle spread that he led the Tigers to three straight SEC wins. And SEC sources believe all that explosive RBs Marcus Murphy and Russell Hansbrough lacked last season was more carries thanks to the presence of graduated Henry Josey. The Tigers should roar through the non-conference part of their schedule unbeaten before a crucial 3-game SEC East stretch vs. South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, with only the middle game at home. We don’t think the Tigers will be as prepared for that sort of a gauntlet as they were a year ago, but Pinkel’s program has progressed to the point where it is not likely to fall off of the map in one year, either.

38-UCF...It was quite a story authored last season by UCF, which used a midseason upset win at Louisville to pave the way to stealing the American title from the Cardinals before qualifying for the last edition of the BCS and a rousing 52-42 upset win over Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl. What can HC George O’Leary do for an encore? A repeat, for one thing, looks a tall order, with star QB Blake Bortles (and girlfriend Lindsey Duke, we assume) no longer in the mix, instead featured with the NFL Jaguars, who made Bortles the third pick in May’s draft. Expecting soph Justin Holman, who has thrown only career 14 passes, to pick up where Bortles left off appears to be more than a bit of a stretch, and top RB Storm Johnson also left early for the NFL after rushing for 1139 yards in 2013. American sources, however, suggest that unlike the Bortles-to-Holman QB situation, soph RB William Stanback will not likely be a dropoff from Johnson. Whatever, the offense figures to have hard time matching last year’s 35 ppg, but eight starters do return from a ”D” that allowed only 21 ppg (ranking 17th nationally) and is fortified by several high-profile JC additions. Early games vs. Penn State (in Ireland) and at Missouri will be tough tests for Holman, though O’Leary is hoping that most of the kinks will be worked out of the offense by the time AAC play begins on October 2 at Houston. The Knights will regress from last year’s magical season, but not disappear.

39-PITTSBURGH...We were bullish on the Panthers’ hire of Paul Chryst as head coach a couple of years ago and believe the Panthers displayed some signs of a breakthrough late last season, especially in the Little Caesars Bowl against Bowling Green when three then-frosh (RB James Conner, WR Tyler Boyd) and QB Chad Voytik) were instrumental in the 30-27 win. While Conner (799 YR) and Boyd (85 catches) had already established their credentials, it was Voytik’s performance at QB that came as a surprise and has allayed many fears in the Steel City after the departure of QB Tom Savage, who was taken by the Texans in the NFL draft. The defense must prove it can cope minus graduated DT Aaron Donald (Rams first-round pick), and the roster is still fairly young, with only 17 players remaining from the end of the Dave Wannstedt regime that preceded Chryst. But the schedule is not bad, as Pitt misses ACC Atlantic heavyweights Florida State, Clemson, and Louisville (and Notre Dame is off of the schedule this season). It is quite possible the Panthers could hit midseason at 6-0 before the slate begins to toughen thereafter.

40-BOWLING GREEN...The new flavor from the MAC could be the Falcons, who, technically, were last year’s flavor, too, after decisively upsetting Jordan Lynch and Northern Illinois in the conference title game. But didn’t BG lose HC Dave Clawson to Wake Forest after last season? Yes, though the highly-regarded Dino Babers moves from Eastern Illinois, where his prolific offense (led by NFL draftee QB Jimmy Garoppolo) made the Panthers one of the most-feared FCS entries. Now, Falcons jr. QB Matt Johnson (3467 YP and 25 TDs in 2013) appears to be the perfect fit to pilot the uptempo Babers attack that the new coach hopes will generate 90 plays per game. There is plenty of talent at the skill positions to adept quickly to the new offense, which also appears well-suited for jr. TB Travis Greene, who gained a whopping 1594 YR last year and can also catch passes out of the backfield. What really made BG tick last season was a rock-ribbed defense that ranked in the top ten nationally in scoring and total defense, although the Falcs hardly looked airtight in losses to Indiana and Pitt. Six new starters must be plugged into the mix, and the “D” must be able to adjust to a faster pace of games that the Babers offense will dictate. Big Ten Indiana and Wisconsin will also be challenging non-conference tests, but this still looks like the class of the Mid-American, and we are already licking our chops for when BG is featured in three straight MAC midweek specials in November.


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