by Dave Miller
May 07, 02014
With spring football officially concluding for FBS programs across the country this past weekend, it's time to re-evaluate the pre-spring way-too-early Top 25 that I posted in the latter part of February.
After each school has gone through its 15 practice sessions, we have a little better idea of where programs stand heading out of spring practice and into the summer months.
Let’s take a glance at how the National Football Post stacks up the Top 25 as we get closer to the new season, which is not too far away. And, of course, these rankings ARE subject to change.
The Top 15
1. Florida State: The Seminoles recorded their first BCS national title since 1999 and should remain a top contender for a spot in the new College Football Playoff because of the return of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston. Sure, the ‘Noles lose offensive weapons such as Devonta Freeman, James Wilder Jr. and Kelvin Benjamin, but Rashad Greene, Nick O'Leary and Karlos Williams are back along with four starters from a strong offensive line. The defense loses Lamarcus Joyner and Tim Jernigan, but there is plenty of talent such as Mario Edwards Jr., Ronald Darby and Jalen Ramsey on the unit now led by coordinator Charles Kelly.
Nick Marshall has improved as a passer, making the Auburn offense even scarier.
2. Auburn: Quarterback Nick Marshall had a very strong spring in which he continued to develop more fully as a passer to go along with his run skills in Gus Malzahn’s no-huddle offense. JUCO transfer D’haquille Williams was also the talk of the spring because of his game-breaking ability at wide receiver. And while Tre Mason was beastly last season, Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne will be productive at running back. Defensively, coordinator Ellis Johnson was arguably the best assistant hired last offseason and has good material to work with on The Plains.
3. Alabama: The Crimson Tide lost back-to-back games to close out last season, which was odd for a program of its stature. Head coach Nick Saban was able to land Jake Coker from Florida State as the heir apparent to three-year starting quarterback AJ McCarron, and it will be a much-needed arrival to a position that needs help despite Blake Sims’ solid spring before an underwhelming spring game 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 in addition to dependable cornerbacks?
4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes will enter the new season coming off of back-to-back losses to close out the 2013 campaign after 24 consecutive wins under head coach Urban Meyer. Quarterback Braxton Miller is back and should be even more effective in the Power Spread offense despite missing spring with an injured shoulder. And he should have more playmakers emerge around him this fall. The arrival of former Alabama center Chad Lindsay bolsters the O-Line. Defensively, the line returns all four standout starters, and the skilled defensive backs brought in the last few recruiting cycles should benefit from what is expected to be a more aggressive scheme under new co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash.
5. Oregon: The Ducks must be able to solve their “Stanford problem” this season if head coach Mark Helfrich and Co. want a shot at the CFP. Nine starters were expected to return on offense, including expected Heisman Trophy-contending quarterback Marcus Mariota, but receiver Bralon Addison (61 catches for 890 yards and seven touchdowns last season) tore ligaments in his knee and his status is very much uncertain. Can redshirt freshmen Devon Allen and Darren Carrington step up and become key parts to the passing game? Running backs Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner should build off of their numbers from 2013, but longtime underrated defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti is now retired.
6. Oklahoma: The major question surrounding the Sooners is whether the team will get consistent play each Saturday from Trevor Knight, who broke out in a huge way in the team’s Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. Remember, OU did not look like an elite team in losses to Texas and Baylor, but they finished 2013 with back-to-back victories over Oklahoma State and the Crimson Tide to garner huge expectations heading into 2014. Knight had a good spring, but he raised eyebrows with a bit of a rough spring game. He is unquestionably one of the most fascinating players to watch in the fall. The defense returns a ton of experience, and the unit really improved last year despite depth issues as the season wore on.
7. Michigan State: The Spartans enter as the defending Big Ten champions, but defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi has to replace top stars such as cornerback Darqueze Dennard and linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen. However, 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 (1,422 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns last season).
8. UCLA: The Bruins have a ton of starters back, led by quarterback Brett Hundley and an offensive line that continues to grow and improve, as well as 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. In addition, end Owamagbe Odighizuwa returns after missing 2013 with a hip injury.
9. Georgia: While it would be tough for any program to lose a longtime starting quarterback such as Aaron Murray, who re-wrote the SEC record book, the Bulldogs at least have a very confident replacement in rising senior Hutson Mason. The new starter will be surrounded by tons of skill players such as wide receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley as well as running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. The biggest addition for the 'Dawgs, however, has been new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. This is a unit that simply must be much better, and it will start with a strong linebacker corps led by Jordan Jenkins. But the defensive line and secondary will tell the story of the 2014 ‘Dawgs.
10. Baylor: Can Art Briles’ team remain a national force after claiming a Big 12 championship last fall? They don’t return a ton of starters, but quarterback Bryce Petty and receiver Antwan Goodley lead what should be another exciting offense despite some questions along the offensive line. Losing key parts such as safety Ahmad Dixon and linebacker Eddie Lackey hurt a defense that improved last season. And that improvement was a key to last season's success. If the defensive line holds up and Georgia transfer Chris Sanders helps out the secondary, do not dismiss the Bears as the team to beat in the Big 12.
11. Stanford: The loss of defensive coordinator Derek Mason is a big blow, as are the departures of key contributors such as Shayne Skov, Ben Gardner and Ed Reynolds. But David Shaw’s presence alone softens the blow, as he has continued to maintain the strong program built by Jim Harbaugh. 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. In addition, replacing four starting offensive linemen isn’t such a difficult chore because of the incredible recruiting job done in that area the last few seasons.
12. South Carolina: Steve Spurrier looks to lead the Gamecocks to their fourth straight 11-win season behind senior quarterback Dylan Thompson, who has a good amount of starting experience. But anyone who watched the comeback victory at Missouri last season knows just how valuable Connor Shaw was to this program. Losing Jadeveon Clowney, Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton hurts, but the biggest question is whether the program can get immediate impact performances from their soon-to-arrive freshmen cornerbacks.
13. Notre Dame: While Malik Zaire impressed all spring, Everett Golson is poised for a big season after working with quarterback guru George Whitfield while sitting out for the Fighting Irish in 2013. The offense has more playmakers for a unit that Brian Kelly knows must step up to help out a defense that lost some key pieces. Can new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder dial up enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks?
14. LSU: Once again, Les Miles' squad lost a ton of underclassmen to the NFL Draft, so the offense will be reliant on a lot of young players. We’ve all heard about the immensely talented Leonard Fournette at running back, but Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn may end up being just as important as the Bayou Bengals look to replace Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry at receiver to give either Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris top targets for the passing game. Another big 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?
15. Clemson: It certainly is a chore to replace star quarterback Tajh Boyd as well as receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant. But Chad Morris is still coordinating the offense, and rising senior Cole Stoudt is more than capable of running the show until true freshman Deshaun Watson is ready to become the face of the offense. Most intriguing about the Tigers is the fact that the defense could actually overshadow the offense in 2014. End Vic Beasley is the standout of a unit that recorded 14 sacks in the spring game.
The Next 10
16. Wisconsin: Second-year head coach Gary Andersen has to replace some key players on defense, as nearly the entire front is gone. But the Badgers return Melvin Gordon, who will pace an always-strong rushing attack. Dual-threat Tanner McEvoy may have the edge for the starting job under center, but who will catch the football?
USC's Leonard Williams is one of the best defenders in the nation.
17. USC: New head coach Steve Sarkisian inherits some nice offensive pieces in quarterback Cody Kessler, receiver Nelson Agholor and tailbacks Javorius Allen and Tre Madden, who will work in the new hurry-up offense. New defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox is one of the best in the country, and he inherits stars in safety Su'a Cravens and lineman Leonard Williams.
18. Texas A&M: Quarterback Johnny Manziel, left tackle Jake Matthews and wide receiver Mike Evans are all going to be high NFL Draft picks this coming weekend. But head coach Kevin Sumlin will oversee a productive offense whether sophomore Kenny Hill or incoming freshman Kyle Allen is running the show. And coordinator Mark Snyder's defense took its lumps last year and adds end Myles Garrett.
19. Arizona State: Quarterback Taylor Kelly is a third-year starter with a ton of weapons around him. But the Sun Devils lost a lot of production defensively up front, including Will Sutton. But this is the year that head coach Todd Graham's program shows that it has arrived as a consistent conference contender.
20. Nebraska: The Cornhuskers get back leading rusher Ameer Abdullah and top receiver Kenny Bell to help out quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., who won the starting job under center. The offensive line should be pretty strong, and the front seven should be solid, led by defensive end Randy Gregory.
21. North Carolina: Larry Fedora's squad won six of its final seven games last season despite being an incredibly young team. Junior Marquise Williams should get the starting nod under center despite Mitch Trubisky still competing for the job. Whoever runs the hurry-up offense will have good weapons at wide receiver and running back. But the defense must be able to find a way to stop the run.
22. Kansas State: Head coach Bill Snyder is seventy-four years old. And he just happens to be a magician. The Wildcats turned around their season in 2013, winning six of their final seven games behind the play of quarterback Jake Waters, who had a very good spring. Can freshman Dalvin Warmack emerge as the top running back?
23. Oklahoma State: I'm buying J.W. Walsh as a consistent performer at quarterback for the Pokes after the offense looked out of sync at times last season. Running back Desmond Roland returns, and the offensive line should be better after dealing with the injury bug last fall. But the Pokes lost six solid senior defenders, including cornerback Justin Gilbert.
24. Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze's Rebels will get even more production from their incredibly strong 2013 signing class, which helped them notch wins over Texas and LSU last year. Quarterback Bo Wallace has an absolute star to throw to in receiver Laquon Treadwell, and the defense could be nasty.
25. Texas: Quarterback remains the No. 1 question mark. But 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.
Teams on the radar (in no particular order): Florida, BYU, Texas Tech, Louisville, Missouri, Utah State, Iowa, Duke, Michigan, Miami (FL), Bowling Green, Houston, Washington, Cincinnati and Marshall
Dave Miller, the college football editor and writer for the National Football Post, is on Twitter @Miller_Dave.