by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

1-OHIO STATE...As the great Kentucky play-by-play voice Cawood Ledford liked to say, “Write it down.” For if the Buckeyes are the same team in 2015 that we saw for the final three games from last season, they will repeat as FBS champion. Giving hope to the masses, however, is that OSU did not flash that form for much of 2014 and was vulnerable enough at different times of the campaign to actually lose to a modest Virginia Tech and survive narrow escapes at Penn State and Minnesota. Still, hard to find any weak spots, and even Braxton Miller’s bum shoulder and summer move to WR actually works to OSU’s benefit, unclogging the logjam at QB that still involves J.T. Barrett and bowl hero Cardale Jones. In August, however, Urban Meyer’s team looks to have the best shot to run the table in the regular season, and since serious opposition in the Big Ten is probably limited to Michigan State, it would be a surprise only if OSU did not re-qualify for the Final Four. Along the way, either QB, Barrett or Jones, or RB Ezekiel Elliott could emerge as serious Heisman contenders.

2-TCU...A year ago at this time we were wondering where the Frogs might fall in the second division of the Big 12. Four months later we were wondering how a team as good as TCU turned out to be a year ago could be bypassed for the Final Four. It’s a new season and now the Frogs are out for redemption, with most of an offense that scored almost 47 ppg back in the fold, including sr. QB Trevone Boykin, on a short list of serious Heisman candidates after his breakout 2014. There are some graduation losses to be filled on defense, but HC Gary Patterson and d.c. Dick Bumpus have been turning out nationally-ranked stop units for the past decade, so we doubt the drop-off (if any) on the stop end will be noticeable. The roadblock that stood in the way of the Froggies a year ago, Baylor, must visit Fort Worth this term on Thanksgiving Friday, November 27 in what could effectively be a quarterfinal matchup for the Final Four.

3-AUBURN...There’s a little “team du jour” feel about Auburn, which did not exactly roar down the stretch a year ago. Defensive issues late last season prompted HC Gus Malzahn to move out d.c. Ellis Johnson and replace him with Will Muschamp, who had a decorated run as a d.c. at Auburn and Texas before enduring a bumpy time as Florida HC the past four years. But Muschamp’s scheming is expected to add extra bite to the Tiger defense, and new QB Jeremy Johnson is supposed to have more tools than the man he backed up, Nick Marshall, the past two years, which should keep the Gus Malzahn offense humming. If the “D” improves as expected, Auburn likely becomes the team to beat in the crowded SEC West.

4-BAYLOR...After getting shut out of the debut edition of the Final Four last season, could the Big 12 really get a double-entry in 2015? Maybe so; remember, had a couple of results fallen differently in conference title games last December, the Big 12 could have had two team in last year’s Final Four, instead of none. Whatever, the road is paved pretty nicely for the Bears, who do not have a challenging pre-league slate and play most of the expected Big 12 contenders in Waco...except for revenge-minded TCU, which blew a 21-point lead to Baylor a year ago and gets to host the Bears in the return match on November 27. But underestimate the Bears at your own risk, as HC Art Briles has been reloading on offense with no drop-off in recent years, and scouts like new QB Seth Russell to pick up where RG III and Bryce Petty have left off in recent campaigns.

5-ALABAMA...The joyless Nick Saban has had more reason to brood the past two seasons after the Crimson Tide would end each campaign in depressing fashion. But the “Nick-tator” has had Bama in the national title conversation since his second season in Tuscaloosa and 2015 should be no different. Still, there are questions are on defense, where coordinator Kirby Smart’s star is shining a bit less brightly these days after his platoon leaked a bit much in crucial late-season games the past two years, and at QB, where the now-departed Blake Sims emerged as a surprising playmaker a year ago, and we wait again for ex-Florida State transfer Jacob Coker to emerge. But the “O” should be fine, as Coker (or RS frosh David Cornwell) can always hand the ball to chop-busting, Eddie Lacy-like RB Derrick Henry. Smart’s defense, however, could use a shutdown corner to emerge as the Tide secondary is likely to come under repeated fire in the fall.

At the recent Pac-12 Media Day, Ducks HC Mark Helfrich did not want to talk about Eastern Washington transfer QB Vernon Adams, who had yet to enroll in school. But Pac-12 sources believe the playmaking Adams gives the Ducks their best chance to minimize the departure of Heisman-winning QB Marcus Mariota and make another run at the Final Four. Post-Mariota, we now get to see if Helfich can keep the program at the same altitude it has been flying since the Chip Kelly era, and if the recent high level of recruiting can sustain the Ducks as a national contender. We will find out soon enough in a September 12 matchup vs. revenge-minded Michigan State at East Lansing.

7-MICHIGAN STATE...Speaking of the Spartans, HC Mark Dantonio has several key pieces back from last year’s 11-2 edition that suffered setbacks only vs. national finalists Ohio State and Oregon. That includes QB Connor Cook, a fifth-year senior who has won bowl games the past two seasons and resisted the temptation to make himself available for last May’s NFL Draft. An absence of note, however, is longtime Dantonio sidekick, d.c. Pat Narduzzi, now Pitt’s head coach, but Dantonio has promoted from within and most Big Ten observers do not expect MSU’s stop unit to skip a beat. As a year ago, Sparty’s chances to crash the Final Four likely come down to how MSU fares vs. the Ducks (at East Lansing on September 12) and Buckeyes (this fall at Columbus on November 21).

8-GEORGIA...After 14 seasons, the natives might finally be getting a bit restless with HC Mark Richt, who was recently named as one of the four most under-fire SEC head coaches despite his 136-48 career mark in Athens. But in the lesser of the SEC divisions, there is opportunity for the Bulldogs to make some noise this fall IF new o.c. Brian Schottenheimer (replacing Mike Bobo, now Colorado State’s HC) can adapt to the college game after years of NFL experience, and a QB emerges after an inconclusive spring and the first time in nearly a decade that UGa entered fall camp not knowing who the QB might be. What we do know about the offense is that soph RB Nick Chubb (1547 YR as a frosh) could be on a short list of legit Heisman hopefuls. The defense, in its second year under coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, might need to become an elite platoon for the Dawgs to get back to the SEC title game for the first time since 2012.

9-FLORIDA STATE...In retrospect, there were plenty of distractions last year in Tallahassee, not the least of which were Heisman QB Jameis Winston’s various adventures and controversies. Unfortunately for Noles fans, the team's off-field issues continued thru this spring and summer, and some in the region wonder if HC Jimbo Fisher, himself going through a divorce, is capable of keeping a lid on the situation. We’ll see. The post-Winston vacuum at QB might be solved by Notre Dame sr. transfer Everett Golson, who was in the Heisman mix when he visited Tallahassee with the Irish last October but had surrendered his job to Malik Zaire by the end of the season. The Noles lost more than just Winston to the NFL Draft, too, but Jimbo’s assembly line has been producing top-grade talent for several years. And let’s not forget that before the Rose Bowl blowout loss to Oregon, the Noles had won 29 games in a row. Still the team to beat in the ACC.

10-ARIZONA STATE...The Sun Devils have won 10 games each of the past two seasons, and were in the Final Four discussion into last November, so taking the next step into serious national title contention might not be that far away. The defense, with nine returning starters from a platoon that ranked 12th nationally in sacks, might be the best of the Todd Graham era in Tempe. And while three-year starting QB Taylor Kelly has graduated, sr. Mike Bercovici beat USC and Stanford in a relief role last season and has been patiently waiting for 2015 his entire college career, rather than transferring to give himself a chance at significant minutes earlier. To justify this ranking, however, ASU is going to have to beat Texas A&M in the opener at the Houston Texans’ NRG Stadium on September 5. Both USC and Oregon will also be visiting a refurbished Sun Devil Stadium this fall.

Last year was probably Paul Johnson’s best in Atlanta, as Tech was playing like a Top Ten team at the end of the season, beating SEC powers Georgia and Mississippi State and within two points of then-undefeated Florida State in the ACC title game...all contests away from Bobby Dodd Stadium. Johnson has the most-lethal on-field pilot he has ever had to run his pet option offense, jr. QB Justin Thomas, who has more speed than any recent Jacket QB and can also pass the ball downfield, reflected in his 18 TD passes a year ago. New RBs must emerge from what was the nation’s leading rush offense a year ago, but when has a Johnson Georgia Tech team ever been short of runners? Playing in the lesser half (the Coastal) of the Atlantic Coast Conference also enhances the Jackets’ chances to buzz this fall.

While everyone on the West Coast seems to be on the USC bandwagon, Bruins HC Jim Mora appears to be satisfied by flying slightly under the radar entering 2015. Which, in UCLA’s case, is understandable after do-everything QB Brett Hundley’s departure. But Mora does have the nation’s top-rated prep QB from last season, Josh Rosen, ready to take the keys to the Ferrari that is a roster with 17 returning starters and several established playmakers (such as RB Paul Perkins and LB Myles Jack) still in the Westwood fold. According to several Pac-12 sources, the rabbit up Mora’s sleeve might be new d.c. Tom Bradley, for years Joe Paterno’s trusted aide at Penn State and when last seen helping forge a major improvement a year ago for what was a sieve-like West Virginia defense.

We understand some of the excitement in South Bend, but we nonetheless advise Domers (and Sports Illustrated, which ranked the Irish No. 4 in its preseason poll) to pump the brakes just a bit. Much of the excitement seems to be due to a narrow win over a flighty LSU team in last December’s Music City Bowl, though many of the pundits seem to be conveniently ignoring how ND lost five of its last six regular-season games, with the defense (as well as QB Everett Golson, now at Florida State) falling apart down the stretch. Ten starters are back on the stop unit, but the platoon ranked a poor 82nd in scoring and 75th overall a year ago, so perhaps the enthusiasm should be a bit tempered.  A lot of faith is also being placed upon soph QB Malik Zaire, who has little starting experience other than the bowl win over LSU. Note that for the first time in memory, the Irish face no Big Ten sides in their regular-season schedule.

We have been a bit down on HC David Shaw’s game management skills in recent years, but we and some other Pac-12 observers noted something different down the stretch last season in Palo Alto, when the Cardinal routed Big Game rival Cal, UCLA, and then Maryland in the Foster Farms Bowl to close the season in grand fashion. In the process, Shaw seemed to take the reins off of now-sr. QB Kevin Hogan, a four-year starter who would flourish down the stretch in 2014. The OL, rebuilt a year ago, now enters this fall as a more-seasoned unit. The schedule is a challenge, and Shaw and d.c. Lance Anderson have seven starters to replace on defense, but the stop unit has been performing at a high level for years, and a rejuvenated Hogan gives Stanford at least a puncher’s chance vs. every foe on the schedule.

Optimism is high at the Coliseum as SC appears to be almost beyond the depth issues created by scholarship limitations due to recent Regie Bush-related NCAA penalties. There is also a legit Heisman contender in QB Cody Kessler, who tossed 39 TD passes and only 5 picks a year ago as he played pitch-and-catch with a variety of receivers in the Steve Sarkisian offense. We remain unconvinced, however, that Sarkisian is a top-level coach, as his penchant for fiddling with the offense and play-calling would directly cost the Trojans a couple of wins a year ago. Much upgrade is also needed on defense after ranking 115th nationally against the pass a year ago. The Trojans should start quick vs. a pair of Sun Belt foes (Arkansas State and Idaho), but the schedule gets tough later in September when Stanford and Arizona State appear on the slate. If the Trojans are 4-0 entering October, then perhaps the Final Four talk can commence. But not until.

16-OLE MISS...
We rarely recall a season being wrecked as much by one play as Ole Miss’ a year ago, when WR Laquon Treadwell fumbled after breaking his leg as he was about to score the winning TD in the final seconds vs. Auburn. A likely W thus turned into an L, the team’s top playmaker was sidelined, and subsequent lopsided losses to Arkansas and TCU in the Peach Bowl were still to come. But the Rebs have been on the ascent since HC Hugh Freeze arrived from Arkansas State in 2012, and sixteen starters remain from last year’s 9-win side. A healthy Treadwell will provide a nice target for juco QB Chad Kelly, considered by many SEC scouts as a likely upgrade from erratic predecessor Bo Wallace.

We understand the excitement in Death Valley, as the prospect of soph QB Deshaun Watson playing a full season has the IPTAY crowd justifiably giddy. After all, Watson tossed 14 TDP and just 2 picks in only five starts a year ago as a frosh when injuries would limit his contributions. But the Clemson hype ignores a couple of potential concerns, including a near-complete rebuild needed within a defense that ranked first nationally a year ago, and the promotion of new co-o.c.’s by HC Dabo Swinney after the creative Chad Morris would move to SMU. An early three-game stretch vs. Louisville, Notre Dame, and Georgia Tech will indicate how well Dabo has filled in the roster gaps.

Many of the same questions as in recent years at Baton Rouge, where HC Les Miles will again search for some consistency at the QB position. Which became a bit harder in the offseason with the suspension of projected starter Anthony Jennings (who was erratic a year ago), opening the door for soph Brandon Harris to take the reins of the offense. But after ranking 114th nationally in passing a year ago, much improvement is needed. Until then, the offense likely pivots around ballyhooed soph RB Leonard Fournette, off of a 1034 YR debut in 2014. Concerns defensively revolve around new d.c. Kevin Steele, a curious hire by Miles after longtime d.c. John Chavis moved to SEC West rival Texas A&M.  Are the war drums going to start to beat in baton Rouge if Miles comes in at 8-5 again?

A long way down for the Sooners, who were our preseason number one a year ago before the campaign would fall apart in November and into a bowl no-show vs. Clemson, causing longtime HC Bob Stoops to throw several assistants under the bus. In the aftermath, Stoops has effectively gone “back to the future” with new o.c. Lincoln Riley, hired from East Carolina to resurrect the spread offense that Stoops used to run when no one else did in the Big 12 when he arrived (with Mike Leach his o.c.) at Norman in 1999. The offensive pilot could either be Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield or jr. Trevor Knight, who flopped a year ago after hinting at much upside as a frosh, especially in the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. There will be temptation to run, too, with soph RB Samaje Perine having set an NCAA FBS single-game record with 427 YR last November 22 vs. Kansas, breaking the record set by Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon the week before, and former ballyhooed recruit Joe Mixon now eligible. It’s on defense, however, where the Sooners must upgrade after ranking 117th vs. the pass a year ago.

20-ARKANSAS...If a member of another league, we would be tempted to place the Razorbacks considerably higher in our rankings. But in the minefield of the SEC West, there are probably too many explosive devices to avoid for Arkansas to make a serious Final Four run. Still, the Hogs look formidable, with most of Bret Bielema’s massive road-graders on the OL returning to blast holes for RBs Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, and with sr. QB Brandon Allen (only 5 picks last year) a mostly mistake-free offensive pilot. More than half of the starters from last year’s vastly-underrated defense that ranked 10th nationally must be replaced, however, and there is significant rebuilding needed in the front seven.

21-WISCONSIN...Though no one in Madison was in any hurry to push HC Gary Andersen out the door, no one in Badger-land is complaining too much that Andersen skipped town for Oregon State after just two seasons, either, not after the 59-0 Big Ten title game blowout administered by Ohio State. New HC Paul Chryst, most recently at Pitt, comes “home” to Camp Randall Stadium, where he served as o.c. for many of Bret Bielema’s teams, so the on-field look should be pretty familiar. Even with RB Melvin Gordon and his 2587 YR from 2014 now off to the San Diego Chargers; Corey Clement becomes the feature-back after gaining “only” 949 YR a year ago. But sr. QB Joel Stave, while having plenty of experience, has limitations, and there is considerable rebuilding needed along Wiscy’s usual bread-and-butter, its OL. A “D” that returns seven starters from a platoon that ranked 4th nationally should be a plus, and the Badgers look as likely as any to win the Big Ten West, but any talk of national honors probably goes out the window on opening weekend unless Wiscy can upset Nick Saban and Alabama at Arlington in Chryst’s Wisconsin HC debut.

22-ARIZONA...Along with the SEC West, the Pac-12 South looks like one of the best “divisions” in the country, and Arizona has proven it belongs in elite company after last year’s 10-win sojourn and appearance in the "New Year’s Six” Fiesta Bowl. But how long the Wildcats can continue to survive in the sort of ping-pong matches they often became involved in a season ago (and a too-fast pace contributing to a 103 ranking in total defense) might contribute to once again wearing out the team, which looked spent physically and emotionally late last year in losses to Oregon (Pac-12 title game) and Boise State (in the Fiesta Bowl). We’ll see if now-soph QB Anu Solomon, one of those who appeared out of gas at the end of 2014, can recover, and if playmaking LB Scooby Wright (getting some peripheral Heisman mention; the funky name doesn’t hurt!) can spark some improvement on the stop unit. The non-league part of the schedule provide a great chance to hit conference play 3-0 before a test at Tucson vs. UCLA, which has beaten Rich Rodriguez each of the past three years.

23-BOISE STATE...Finally, a non-“power league” entry makes our list. And the Broncos should belong in any Top 25 after qualifying as the rep from the “other leagues” for a New Year’s Six spot a year ago, which the Broncos used to their advantage in a wild 38-30 Fiesta Bowl win over Arizona. Most of the lineup (17 starters) returns for second-year HC Bryan Harsin, though the two starters he is missing from a year ago on offense–QB Grant Hedrick and RB Jay Ajayi–were the linchpins of an attack that scored 39.7 ppg, which ranked 9th nationally. The 2014 defense leaked a lot more than other recent more-decorated Boise platoons, but returns 8 starters. Boise’s Mountain half of the Mountain West is the tougher of the league’s two divisions, but at least there is no Ole Miss on the non-conference slate as a year ago. Road wins at BYU and Virginia in September will get the blue-carpet crowd talking about a run of the 2015 table.

24-NAVY...Get ready for a couple of potential featured storylines out of Annapolis in 2015. Navy enters a football league for the first time in its storied history, and most of its foes in the American are likely to be flummoxed by the patented Midshipmen option. Whose pilot, sr. QB Keenan Reynolds, already has 64 career TDs and will have a shot to break the all-time NCAA TD record (currently held by Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne) if he can stay healthy this season. And if so, Reynolds could emerge as a serious Heisman Trophy candidate. The September schedule provides a nice ramp-up to early–October dates vs. Air Force and Notre Dame, which will give us a better idea if the Mids are going to have a chance to show up in the rankings later this fall.

25-NC STATE...Looking for a stealth Heisman candidate? Try Wolfpack QB Jacoby Brissett, the former Florida transfer who last year became the most-exciting act in Raleigh since David Thompson when leading NCS back to a bowl and stabilizing the regime of new 3rd-year HC Dave Doeren, who had endured a rocky debut season in 2013. Dual-threat Brissett leads an offense with plenty of balance thanks to vet RBs Shadrach Thornton and Matt Dayes. Meanwhile, the “D” came alive down the stretch in 2014 when coordinator Dave Huxtable began to blitz regularly, and seven starters return from that disruptive platoon that helped key a bowl win in hostile terrioty at St. Pete vs. a dangerous UCF.  Mostly, however, the 2015 schedule breaks well, with four very winnable non-league games in September before the first serious ACC test vs. Louisville (at Carter-Finley Stadium) on October 3.

26-TENNESSEE...The “flavor of the month” in this year’s SEC East is undoubtedly UT, which has been picked as high as the top 15 in some polls. There is some justification for the excitement in Knoxville, considering how the offense moved after playmaker Joshua Dobbs assumed QB chores a year ago, but the Vols’ hoopla also has been stoked by the bowl romp past a disinterested Iowa. Remember, in the regular-season finale, UT would barely get past a wretched Vanderbilt. Still, there is reason for optimism with Dobbs and nine other returning starters on offense for HC Butch Jones, who also welcomes back eight starters on a stop unit that looked dominant at times in 2014. We’ll find out early if the hype is justified, as Oklahoma visits Neyland Stadium on September 12 in a revenge game for the Vols, who were whipped 34-10 at Norman last year.

27-OKLAHOMA STATE...Forgive us the references to the 1960s PGA Tour when mentioning OSU QB Mason Rudolph, whose namesake (though no relation) was a regular on the tour decades ago. (We’re wondering if Rudolph might be throwing to namesakes of Dow Finsterwald and Gene Littler this fall!) But Rudolph’s emergence as a frosh late in the 2014 campaign seemed to save the season for the Cowboys, who would upset Oklahoma in a rousing “Bedlam” classic and then dump Washington in the Cactus Bowl, and perhaps remove the noose from the neck of HC Mike Gundy, who was reportedly on the outs with mega-booster Boone Pickens and in danger of losing his job last November. After surviving a rebuilding season a year ago, and with 14 starters back in the fold, the Cowboys might be ready to make a serious move back to contending status, which will get a nice kick-start with a soft pre-league slate before a trip to Texas on September 26.

28-MISSISSIPPI STATE...We made a lot of noise with our bold prediction involving MSU a year ago. But the secret is out on the Bulldogs, especially QB Dak Prescott, whose adjustment to celebrity status in the SEC has not been without its drawbacks (read SI’s College FB preview edition for more details), and the Maroon are not going to be sneaking up on anybody this fall, either. The dynamic Prescott is still in the fold, but he is only one of seven starters overall who return to the 2015 mix in Starkville, where the defense, in particular, is in rebuild mode. We’ll find out this fall if Dan Mullen’s recruiting pipeline is really as stocked as some of our regional scouts have suggested.

29-UTAH...We’ve already talked about how tough the Pac-12 South will be this season. Part of that reason is Utah, which was good enough to beat both UCLA and USC last year and will not shy away from those featured matchups, as well as revenge battles vs. Arizona and Arizona State. The Utes are one of the few run-first offenses in the Pac-12, which should not change with last year’s revelation RB Devontae Booker (1512 YR in 2014) still in the fold, but more consistency at QB from sr. Travis Wilson (or perhaps now-healthy former Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson) would help. The South contenders likely cannibalize themselves again this season, probably keeping any away from Final Four discussion, though the Utes should safely land in another bowl, where HC Kyle Whittingham has excelled (now 7-1 after the Las Vegas Bowl romp past Colorado State last December).

30-MISSOURI...Time, perhaps, to give the Tigers and HC Gary Pinkel a bit more respect after stealing the SEC East crowns the past two seasons and winning impressively in bowl games along the way. Mizzou has been in the right place at the right time to occupy the power vacuum in the East created by recent drop-offs at Florida and Tennessee, and the Tigers should be in the mix again, with a now-experienced QB in jr. Maty Mauk. We’re not sure, however, if Mizzou can withstand another round of departures from an accomplished WR crew, and Mauk and the passing game were nothing great anyway (ranking 99th nationally thru the air) a year ago. A rebuilt DL and a new coordinator (Barry Odom, a onetime Mizzou aide hired away from Memphis to take the place of Dave Steckel, who left to become HC at Missouri State) are questions on defense. Defending the East crown likely comes down to a 3-game October stretch vs. South Carolina, Florida, and Georgia.

31-LOUISVILLE...The return of Bobby Petrino to the ‘Ville was a bit more bumpy of a ride than most envisioned a year ago, when injuries turned the Cardinal QB situation into a merry-go-round. Unfortunately for Petrino, few answers were forthcoming out of spring practice, and a revolving door at QB featuring Reggie Bonnafon, Kyle Bolin, Will Gardner, and newcomer Tyler Ferguson might be in the offing this fall.  Though unlike a year ago there is at least plenty of experience in that mix, with all save Ferguson having started games last season. The “O” could miss productive WR DeVante Parker, but a collection of transfers will look to fill the skill-position gaps. It was the “D” kept the Cards afloat last season when it finished sixth nationally, but will be breaking in seven new starters. Will the stop unit be up to the task again if the offense sputters?

32-FLORIDA...Do sleepers exist in the SEC? This season, that label might affix to Florida, which figures to upgrade significantly on offense under new HC Jim McElwain, a shrewd tactician who molded a powerful “O” as well as turning around the fortunes at Colorado State before returning to the SEC, where he once worked as Nick Saban’s o.c. at Alabama. After the “O” labored in the Will Muschamp regime (and distorted the attack-end stats a year ago when piling up 117 points in two games vs. Eastern Michigan and Eastern Kentucky), the attack seeks legit upgrades this fall as McElwain and new o.c. Doug Nussmeier (also a former Saban Bama o.c.) unleash a new-look offense that likely features RS frosh Will Grier at QB. The "D” was never a problem in the Muschamp years and should be strong and fast as usual. More upside in Gainesville, perhaps, than any SEC outpost this fall.

33-MICHIGAN...Is he psychotic? That’s one of many theories about hard-driving HC Jim Harbaugh. But what can’t be argued are the quick and dramatic turnarounds he authored at his last two jobs with Stanford and the NFL San Francisco 49ers. So, we’re not putting it past Harbaugh to jump-start the Ann Arbor engine that stalled for predecessor Brady Hoke. Harbaugh likely has some Big Ten experience at QB, though sr. transfer Jake Rudock gained all of that at Iowa, and other candidates wait in the wings to improve a passing attack that ranked a poor 110th nationally a year ago. The “D” was better than advertised in 2014, however, and brings back 24 of the 29 players who were listed on the final defensive depth chart. Watch the early schedule...a win at Utah in the opener could set up the Wolverines for a 6-0 start before the mid-October showdown at home vs. Michigan State. If that’s the case, be prepared for ESPN Game Day to return to Ann Arbor, and for Harbaugh’s return to his alma mater to be one of the top storylines of the first helf of the season.

34-MEMPHIS...Looking for the next hot name on the coaching carousel? Try Justin Fuente, who has steered Memphis into relevance and is likely on the radar for every major college job that will have an opening after this season. Of course, the Tigers believe they can be an elite program, too, and hold out hope that the Big 12 might come calling soon, while big boosters such as FedEx’s Fred Smith and other local hotshots believe they can hold onto Fuente. Stay tuned. In the meantime, the Tigers have a bit of reloading to do with a defense that lost eight starters from a platoon that ranked 11th in scoring “D” a year ago, but the O” returns strong-armed 6-7 jr. QB Paxton Lynch, who reminds in stature and style of a young Joe Flacco. The October 17 game at the Liberty Bowl vs. nearby Ole Miss could be a watershed game for the program.

35-KANSAS STATE...We learned long ago never to underestimate a Bill Snyder-coached team. And the old guy still has it, making K-State relevant again after his three-year hiatus between 2006-08 when the program would deteriorate under Ron Prince. Snyder has done some of his best work when flying under the radar, and that’s the word in the heartland this fall as Snyder likely reverts to a ground-oriented offense with no established passing QB remaining in the program after the departure of functional Jake Waters, and wideouts ranks thinned with the graduated of electric Tyler Lockett. The defense, under respected coordinator Tom Hayes, should again be formidable. Again, we caution underestimating any Snyder team because the loss of so many playmakers...the old coach has fooled us before.

36-BYU...Who knows what might have happened last fall at BYU had do-everything QB Taysom Hill not suffered a season-ending broken leg on October 3 vs. Utah State? Always a powerful runner, Hill had completed almost 67% of his passes as well before his injury, when the Cougs' 4-game win streak to begin the season would end. Hill returns fully recovered for 2015 and appears a Heisman darkhorse, though it appears he will be without key RB Jamal Williams, suspended in the summer. The defense, long a strong suit in Provo, regressed a year ago, causing HC Bronco Mendenhall to re-assume his old coordinator duties. We’ll find out in September if the Cougars are going to make any noise this fall, as Nebraska, Boise State (the only home game of the first four), UCLA, and Michigan wait just beyond the starting gate.

37-TEXAS A&M...Somebody has to lose in the SEC West, right? That might have to be the Aggies, who lost traction a year ago. Noting how far the defense had regressed over the past two seasons, HC Kevin Sumlin raided division rival LSU for d.c. John Chavis, who inherits a platoon with some existing playmakers, including DEs Myles Garrett and Julien Obioha, but this was the lowest-ranked stop unit in the SEC this fall. If Chavis can forge an upgrade, the Ags might have a chance, as the offense should be in good hands with soph QB Kyle Allen, who flashed real upside down the stretch in 2014. Improvement in the running game might come with assistant Dave Chistensen, the former Wyoming HC and hired off of Kyle Whittingham’s Utah staff to inject some life into what has been a dormant Aggie infantry.

38-WESTERN KENTUCKY...When last seen, WKU was barely hanging on at the Bahamas Bowl, repelling a Central Michigan 2-point conversion try after time expired to save a 49-48 win over the Chips, who scored the last 34 points of the game in the final 12 minutes, including a miracle 80-yard TD on the last play of the game. The Tops were involved in a few such wild games a year ago and should resemble last season’s “O” that would score a whopping 44.4 ppg, especially with sr. QB Brandon Doughty back for an encore after passing for a staggering 4830 yards and 49 TDs a year ago. WKU, of course, must see improvement from its 120th-ranked stop unit, but the top four tacklers return for vet d.c. Nick Holt. The Tops were also the only team to beat Marshall a year ago (in another shootout, this one by a 67-66 score in OT) and have a puncher’s chance vs. every team on their 2015 slate, and could unseat the Herd as C-USA champ.

39-TEXAS...We knew there were some internal distractions at Texas last season, but didn’t realize how deep those cracks were in the Longhorn foundation until the recent Big 12 media day in Dallas, when various sources from around the region painted disturbing tales about the culture change from the end of Mack Brown’s increasingly-lax regime to new sheriff Charlie Strong and his no-nonsense edict, which was at the core of the dismissal of nine Horns last year. Having the starting QB (David Ash) KO’d after the first week didn’t help in Strong’s debut season, either, but at least soph Tyrone Swoopes enters 2015 with some experience under his belt. Texas remains a work in progress, but without a repeat of last year’s distractions, year two of the Strong regime should go a bit more smoothly. A win in the opener at Notre Dame might turn the program in the right direction.

40-NORTHERN ILLINOIS...The Huskies have sustained as a dominant force in the MAC under 3rd-year HC Rod Carey, under whom the program has remained a conference power after the successes of the recent Jerry Kill and Dave Doeren regimes. And this year’s NIU might not slip from last year’s MAC-winning edition, especially with jr. Drew Hare now established at QB and bringing more of a passing edge to the “O” than mobile predecessors Jordan Lynch and Chandler Harnish (Hare tossed 18 TDP vs. just 2 picks in 2014). Eight starters are also back on defense. The Huskies get a shot at Ohio State at Columbus on September 19, and if they’re not too beaten up by the Buckeyes should have a decent shot in the rest of their games, with a November 3 trip to the Glass Bowl to face potent Toledo the likely title decider in the MAC West.


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