by Dave Miller
February 19, 02014
With National Signing Day in the rearview mirror and spring practice on the horizon (although programs such as Duke and Tulane have already begun spring drills), it's time to re-evaluate the way-too-early Top 25 that I posted right after Florida State beat Auburn for the final BCS national championship.
Early entries into the NFL Draft have been announced and the coaching carousel has stopped spinning, so we have a little better idea of where programs stand heading into spring practice.
Let’s take a glance at how the National Football Post stacks up the Top 25 as we get closer to leaving winter behind and welcoming spring. And, of course, these rankings ARE subject to change, especially with potential transfers, suspensions and injuries on the horizon.
1. Florida State: The Seminoles are coming off of their first BCS national title since 1999 and have a chance to remain a top contender for a spot in the new College Football Playoff because of the return of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston, who will lead an offense that loses running backs Devonta Freeman, James Wilder Jr. and wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. But receiver Rashad Greene and running back Karlos Williams will be back as will four starters from a strong offensive line. End Mario Edwards Jr. leads a defense that loses key players but developed depth last year.
2. Ohio State: The Buckeyes lost back-to-back games to close out the 2013 season after 24 consecutive wins under Urban Meyer. But quarterback Braxton Miller is back and should be even more effective in the Power Spread offense, which should have more playmakers emerge this fall. Defensively, the line returns all four starters, and the skilled DBs brought in last February should help offset the loss of cornerback Bradley Roby.
T.J. Yeldon is a big piece of the Alabama offense.
3. Alabama: The Crimson Tide, like the Buckeyes, lost back-to-back games to close out last season. But don't expect that trend to continue under Nick Saban, who was able to land Jake Coker from Florida State as the heir apparent to three-year starting quarterback AJ McCarron. He will work under new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. Running backs T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry and wide receiver Amari Cooper are some of the best players at their positions nationally, but can the defense find a better pass rush?
4. Auburn: Gus Malzahn returned to The Plains and had one of the most incredible first years as an SEC head coach, taking the Tigers to the BCS title game and nearly hoisting the crystal football. The team is expected to bring back eight starters on offense, including quarterback Nick Marshall. And there is good depth at running back and receiver, although Tre Mason was beastly last season. Defensively, coordinator Ellis Johnson was arguably the best assistant hired last offseason.
5. Oregon: I flipped the Ducks above Stanford since my first way-too-early rankings came out because I believe that they can solve their Cardinal problem this season (perhaps I will change my mind before the opening game this year). Mark Helfrich gets back nine starters on offense, including quarterback Marcus Mariota, and running backs Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner should build off of their numbers from 2013. The big question is whether they can withstand the loss of longtime underrated defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti. But leading tackler Derrick Malone returns at linebacker as well as Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, one of the top cornerbacks in the country.
6. UCLA: The Bruins received some great news when quarterback Brett Hundley announced that he'd be returning to Westwood for another season. He's one of an expected 16 starters coming back, including the team's top four rushers and a strong crop of receivers. Losing All-American linebacker Anthony Barr hurts, but Myles Jack and the entire secondary will be back.
7. Oklahoma: The Sooners did not look like an elite team in losses to Texas and Baylor, but they finished last season with back-to-back victories over Oklahoma State and Alabama to garner high expectations heading into the 2014 campaign. Trevor Knight looks like the answer at quarterback following his strong Sugar Bowl, but will he be consistent for a full season? The defense is expected to return nine starters, and the unit really improved last year despite depth issues as the season wore on.
8. Michigan State: The Spartans finished off a 13-1 campaign with a win over Stanford in the Rose Bowl, and Mark Dantonio's squad isn't expected to suffer much dropoff, although coordinator Pat Narduzzi will have to replace top stars such as cornerback Darqueze Dennard and linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen. But he is one of the best DC's in the country. Offensively, quarterback Connor Cook will only continue to improve, and running back Jeremy Langford is one of the best in the country.
9. Baylor: The Bears are coming off of a Big 12 championship, but can Art Briles' team remain a national force? They don't return a lot of starters, and the team's improvement on defense was a key to last season's success. But quarterback Bryce Petty and receiver Antwan Goodley lead what should be another exciting offense. Losing key parts such as safety Ahmad Dixon and linebacker Eddie Lackey hurt a defense that really improved, but this was a program that was trending upward even when the defense was porous.
10. Georgia: It will be very difficult for the Bulldogs to replace longtime starting quarterback Aaron Murray, who re-wrote the SEC record book. And three starting offensive linemen are gone. But I think rising senior Hutson Mason showed that he can be very solid in his two starts to close out the 2013 season, and receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley join Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall as explosive offensive weapons. Perhaps the biggest addition for the 'Dawgs, though, was landing Jeremy Pruitt from Florida State to replace Todd Grantham as defensive coordinator. But the dismissal of safety Josh Harvey-Clemons hurts, although the defense could still bring back nine starters.
11. Stanford: While the loss of defensive coordinator Derek Mason is a big one, I think David Shaw's presence on The Farm softens the blow a bit. Left tackle Andrus Peat is the lone starter back on the offensive line, but it's a position that the Cardinal have recruited quite well. Running backs Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson are also gone, as are linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov and safety Ed Reynolds. But the Cardinal are stronger at receiver, and quarterback Kevin Hogan has a chance to take a big step forward after failing to do so in 2013.
12. South Carolina: The Head Ball Coach has done an amazing job in Columbia, leading the program to three straight 11-win seasons. But anyone who watched the comeback victory at Missouri last season knows just how valuable Connor Shaw was to this program. However, new starting quarterback Dylan Thompson has a good amount of experience and will lead a team that is expected to bring back 14 starters, including potential Heisman candidate Mike Davis at running back. Losing Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles hurts, but the defense should be better against the pass.
13. LSU: For the second consecutive year, Les Miles' squad loses a boatload of underclassmen to the NFL Draft, including receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, running back Jeremy Hill and defensive tackle Anthony Johnson. But Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee will pace another strong rushing attack, and I'm intrigued by dual-threat signal-caller Anthony Jennings. The question is how will coordinator John Chavis develop all of the top talent that the program has been able to bring in the last few years on the defensive side of the ball.
14. Notre Dame: I may be reaching a bit on the Fighting Irish, but I think returning dual-threat quarterback Everett Golson is in for a huge year. He finished 2012 strong and worked with George Whitfield this past season while sitting out for the Irish. Golson will have enough playmakers on an offense that Brian Kelly knows must step up to help out a defense that loses some key pieces. Kelly has recruited well since arriving in South Bend, which makes last season more of a hiccup than anything else.
15. Clemson: There's no doubt that the Tigers will miss star quarterback Tajh Boyd as well as receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant. But Chad Morris is still coordinating the offense, and Dabo Swinney has some intriguing options to replace Boyd, including rising senior Cole Stoudt, sophomore Chad Kelly and incoming freshman Deshaun Watson. End Vic Beasley is back to lead a defense that could be primed to help out an offense that may need time to gel.
16. Wisconsin: Gary Andersen has a tough task of replacing some key players on defense, as nearly the entire front will be gone. But the Badgers will return Melvin Gordon, who will pace an always-strong rushing attack. Quarterback Joel Stave must improve, though, and he'll have to do it without receiver Jared Abbrederis, who caught 78 passes for 1,081 yards and seven touchdowns last year.
17. USC: The Trojans certainly were hit hard by underclassmen declaring early for the NFL Draft, as receiver Marqise Lee, defensive end George Uko and safety Dion Bailey are among those forgoing their final college seasons. But new head coach Steve Sarkisian inherits quarterback Cody Kessler, receiver Nelson Agholor and tailbacks Javorius Allen and Tre Madden. New defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox is one of the best in the country, and it looks like he'll inherit eight returning starters, including safety Su'a Cravens and lineman Leonard Williams.
18. Missouri: The Tigers are in good hands offensively with quarterback Maty Mauk taking over for James Franklin despite the unit losing some key personnel. Gary Pinkel's squad also loses ends Michael Sam and Kony Ealy as well as cornerback E.J. Gaines from the defense, but I expect the Tigers to remain contenders in the SEC East.
19. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys did not always look in sync offensively last season, but I don't expect that to last into this fall if they are able to stabilize the quarterback position, likely with J.W. Walsh. Running back Desmond Roland returns, and the offensive line should be better after dealing with the injury bug last fall. But the Pokes do lose six solid senior defenders, including cornerback Justin Gilbert.
20. Arizona State: The Sun Devils should contend for a Pac-12 title, as quarterback Taylor Kelly is a third-year starter with a ton of weapons returning on offense. But ASU loses a lot of production defensively up front, including Will Sutton. Still, Todd Graham seems to be building a solid, consistent program in Tempe.
21. Texas A&M: Maybe the losses of quarterback Johnny Manziel, left tackle Jake Matthews and receiver Mike Evans are too much for the Aggies to overcome. But I just believe that Kevin Sumlin is too good of a head coach and program-leader to allow this team to take too much of a step back. The offense should be productive, but likely less exciting, no matter if it's rising senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill or incoming freshman Kyle Allen running the show. The defense is the major question. Coordinator Mark Snyder could get immediate help with the arrival of end Myles Garrett, though, and last year's inexperience should be less of a factor this season.
22. Texas: New head coach Charlie Strong will make an immediate impact on the defensive side of the ball, where the Longhorns were criticized for not being tough or physical enough the last few seasons. The major question is whether former starting quarterback David Ash can return healthy from his concussions and if the Longhorns are committed to a power rushing attack. Strong could inherit eight defensive starters, and we already know that the unit improved immediately upon his arrival.
23. Louisville: Even without Teddy Bridgewater, new head coach Bobby Petrino should contend in the school's first season in the ACC because likely new starting quarterback Will Gardner will be surrounded by playmakers, including running backs Dominique Brown and Michael Dyer as well as solid receivers. But the Cards do lose a ton on defense, including safety Calvin Pryor.
24. North Carolina: The Tar Heels won six of their final seven games last season despite being an incredibly young squad. Larry Fedora is a fantastic head coach whose team could be a real ACC sleeper this fall despite losing tight end Eric Ebron. I like new starting quarterback Marquise Williams, who has nice weapons at wide receiver.
25. Ole Miss: The Rebels will get even more production from their incredibly strong 2013 signing class, which helped them notch wins over Texas and LSU last year. Head coach Hugh Freeze is still salty from the Egg Bowl loss.
Teams on the radar: Nebraska, Duke, Washington, BYU, Utah State, Florida, Kansas State, Miami (FL), Michigan, Arizona, Iowa, Central Florida, Bowling Green, Houston, Pitt and Penn State.
Dave Miller, the college football editor and writer for the National Football Post, is on Twitter @Miller_Dave.