The temptation is great to pick against Alabama taking yet another BCS title, and the reason is simple: Nobody wins forever. Logic insists that, even with a program this majestic, the law of averages will rear its head. But Nick Saban might well prove to be the one man above that particular law. Ergo, we begin our Top 25 countdown exactly where you would expect.
1. Alabama: The Crimson Tide saw four of its players taken in Rounds 1 and 2 of the NFL draft, and such a personnel drain wouldn’t seem to augur well for another BCS championship run. Then we recall the 2010 NFL draft, which saw four ’Bama players taken in Round 1 alone — and sure enough, the subsequent season yielded a national championship. No college program has won three consecutive consensus national titles, or four in five years, but at this late date who’s willing to bet against the mighty men of Saban?
2. Ohio State: The Urban Meyer backlash rages on. It was reported that he turned in Florida for an improper recruiting bump. (Meyer denied doing so.) The arrest of Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, who played at Florida, was taken by many as another stain on Meyer’s time in Gainesville, and then Ohio State tailback Carlos Hyde was accused (but not indicted, although Meyer suspended him for three games) of assaulting a woman. Still, Meyer is the only active coach with half as many BCS titles as Saban, and he’s again at a place where he can win big.
3. Louisville: On talent, the Cardinals aren’t the third-best team in the nation. (Although you might want to ask Florida, which was routed by the ’Ville in the Sugar Bowl, about that.) But a check of the schedule — for the moment, ACC-bound Louisville is playing in the American Athletic Conference, which contains remnants of the Big East — offers not a single probable loss. Charlie Strong is a big-time coach who turned down big money to stay at Louisville, and Teddy Bridgewater might be the nation’s best quarterback, Johnny Manziel included.
4. Stanford: David Shaw is 23-4 since taking over from Jim Harbaugh as head coach. Kevin Hogan is 5-0 as the Cardinal’s starting quarterback, having presided over victories against Oregon State, Oregon, UCLA (twice) and Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. The running game is very good. The defense is stout. The schedule is difficult but manageable: Both Oregon and Notre Dame must come to Stanford. The overall talent might not be of top-shelf SEC caliber, but the Cardinal is a bona fide threat to reach the BCS title game.
5. Georgia: The Bulldogs fell five yards short of the BCS title game last season and could be better this season. You won’t find a more gifted offense on any campus. Start with Aaron Murray, and then keep going: Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall, Malcolm Mitchell, Chris Conley, Arthur Lynch, Jay Rome, John Theus. The Georgia defense is another matter. Eight starters were lost, four of them taken in Rounds 1-3 of the NFL draft. Against a front-loaded schedule, the young-but-not-untalented D will have to do its learning on the fly.
6. Clemson: Speaking of which, here’s the team Georgia will face in its opening game. Even without running back Andre Ellington and receiver DeAndre (Nuke) Hopkins, the Tigers’ offense should be fearsome. Quarterback Tajh Boyd became a big-time player last season, and his performance in the Chick-fil-A Bowl left LSU coach Les Miles almost speechless. (For the record, Loquacious Les is rarely at a loss for words.) The ballyhooed receiver Sammy Watkins, overshadowed by Hopkins last season, should be a focal point. If the ACC is to produce a real BCS hopeful, this figures to be it.
7. South Carolina: We move now to the second opponent on Georgia’s schedule. The Gamecocks are coming off consecutive 11-win seasons and, in defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, they have the best player in college football — and maybe, according to Mark Richt, on any level. The quarterback tandem of Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson isn’t bad, but Carolina is without the star-crossed tailback Marcus Lattimore, who was the driving force in its three-year domination of Georgia. For the first time since 2009, the Gamecocks should lose to the Bulldogs.
8. Oregon: So how much of it was Chip Kelly? The iconoclastic coach dashed off to the Philadelphia Eagles just ahead of NCAA sanctions, which turned out not to be nearly as bad as the Ducks had feared, and now Mark Helfrich, Kelly’s offensive coordinator of long standing, has been bumped up to head coach. Sometimes continuity works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Not many teams , though, will have two players as good as quarterback Marcus Mariota and running back De’Anthony Thomas in their backfield. Not many teams will outgain or outscore Oregon.
9. Notre Dame: The bloom came off the Irish rose in the BCS title game. In winning 42-10, Alabama made then-unbeaten Notre Dame look pedestrian, and the offseason wasn’t much kinder: Heralded quarterback prospect Gunner Kiel transferred to Cincinnati, and starting quarterback Everett Golson was suspended for the season. But Brian Kelly remains one of the nation’s better coaches, and his recruiting has been of Notre Dame quality. The defense, even without Manti Te’o, will be terrific. Stephon Tuitt of Monroe High is the nation’s second-best defensive lineman.
10. Texas: The numbers show a proud program in decline. Since losing the BCS title game to Alabama — quarterback Colt McCoy got hurt and coach Mack Brown ordered up the world’s worst shovel pass — in January 2010, the Longhorns are 22-16. They’re 0-6 against Oklahoma and Kansas State the past three years. But they return 19 starters, and the buzz from Austin is that Brown is re-energized. With no clear favorite in the 10-member Big 12, this could be the season that sees Texas return to prominence. Or it could be the season that sees Brown shown the door.
11. LSU: Another boom-or-bust candidate. The aforementioned Miles is on record as liking his team’s chances; others point to the 11 Tigers who declared early for the NFL draft as a clear sign that the Good Ship Leslie is, if not quite sinking, then surely taking on water. Still, the unsettled nature of Texas A&M (meaning Johnny Manziel’s troubling offseason) leaves a space behind Alabama in the SEC West, and LSU remains too solid a program ever to count out. The Tigers’ schedule — they open against TCU — isn’t as soft as Alabama’s and A&M’s, though.
12. Florida State: The Seminoles’ ballyhooed 2012 season wasn’t a washout — they did go 12-2, winning the ACC title and the Orange Bowl — but it wasn’t the breakthrough many had foreseen. Now the ’Noles must replace quarterback E.J. Manuel (drafted, rather surprisingly, by the Buffalo Bills in Round 1) and defensive coordinator Mark Stoops (hired by Kentucky as head coach), and they were key contributors. Still, Florida State’s schedule is such that it should go no worse than 9-3 — and perhaps a bit better. The Clemson game, however, will be staged at Clemson.
13. Florida: The Gators went 11-2, tied for first in the SEC East and played in a BCS bowl — Georgia fans still haven’t gotten over that last part — while having the nation’s 103rd-best offense. That has given way to an offseason of asking “How’d they do that?” and has forced prognosticators to do much head-scratching. There’s no consensus regarding Florida: Sporting News ranks the Gators fourth, while Phil Steele, who championed their cause last season, has them 18th and the USA Today coaches poll tabs them 10th. This rating splits the difference, albeit on the low side.
14. Miami: Assuming the long-awaited and sure-to-be-challenged-in-court NCAA sanctions don’t shutter this program, the Hurricanes should be very good. Indeed, the thought that the 2013 team might be capable of big things was one of the reasons the school chose to remove the middling 2012 ’Canes from the ACC Championship game, clearing space for Georgia Tech. Better to self-police and bank on down-the-road excellence, went the thinking. With quarterback Stephen Morris returning and a shaky defense apt to improve, it made sense then and now.
15. Texas A&M: On paper, the Aggies should be lodged in or around the top five. For a team based in the SEC West, the schedule is improbably soft. (It’s possible A&M could lose to Alabama on Sept. 14 and still finish 11-1.) But the guess is that Heisman holder Johnny Manziel, on whom everything depends, won’t make it through the season without getting suspended for something. His offseason has been a case study in how not to handle sudden stardom. Expect the addled Aggies to lose more than a few games they shouldn’t, and maybe many more.
16. Oklahoma State: Last summer, Cowboys coach Mike Gundy named freshman Wes Lunt his starting quarterback. Lunt kept getting hurt and has since transferred to Illinois, but the OSU offensive show should go on. The Cowboys were picked to win the unsettled Big 12 by league media.
17. Michigan: The best reason for watching the Wolverines in recent years — quarterback Denard Robinson — is gone, but Devin Gardner, who started five games last season, is more suited to coordinator Al Borges’ pro-style offense. Assuming it wins its division, Michigan could play Ohio State two weeks running.
18. TCU: Moving from the Mountain West to a BCS conference yielded a predictable decline — the Horned Frogs were 11-2 in 2011, 7-6 last season — but better days are ahead. Quarterback Casey Pachall returns from a DUI-related suspension, and TCU is that Big 12 rarity: It actually plays defense.
19. Fresno State: Tim DeRuyter took over from Pat Hill, who’s now in the NFL as the Falcons’ line coach, and lifted the Bulldogs to a share of the Mountain West title. They should do better this time. The quarterback is Derek Carr, whose brother, David, helped Hill put this program on the map.
20. Baylor: The Bears should stand as the poster team for the Big 12, the league that defense all but forgot. They averaged 572 yards and 44 points per game. They went 8-5, losing two games in which they scored 50 or more points. If they can muster a lick of stopping power, they’ll become a major player.
21. Wisconsin: Bret Bielema’s stunning leap to Arkansas did the Big Ten’s shaky image no good. Who leaves after three Rose Bowl runs to coach a team that, at its best, ran third in the SEC West? Gary Andersen, imported from Utah State to succeed Bielema, gets the benefit of 14 returning Badgers starters.
22. UCLA: So who knew Jim Mora could actually coach? The Bruins were supposed to run a distant second in Los Angeles, but they won nine games and beat city-rival USC, the nose-diving preseason No. 1. The caveat is that UCLA lost its final three games, which is something of a Mora pattern.
23. Boise State: After a geographically challenged flirtation with the Big East (which, as noted, is no longer the Big East), the Broncos have resettled in the Mountain West, a league they’ve ruled under coach Chris Petersen, who’s 84-8. But they might finish second to Fresno State this time.
24. Oklahoma: A 10-3 season was soured by an emphatic Cotton Bowl loss to Johnny Football and Texas A&M. The Sooners will be hard-pressed to get to 10 this time. They play Notre Dame, Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma State on the road, and they face Texas, as ever, in Dallas.
25. Northwestern: The Wildcats finished 10-3 and blew late leads in losing to Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan. So why aren’t they ranked higher? Because they didn’t play Ohio State or Wisconsin. This time around, Northwestern’s first two conference games are against Ohio State and Wisconsin.