Yes, it is too early for college football rankings. There will be injuries in camp and highly touted kids who don’t show up.
But what else are you doing with your life, football fan? Watching the All-Star Game? Please.
Our top 25 is a different animal. Please read the disclaimer before you go all nuclear, as most of you did last year without understanding what we were trying to do. Then feel free to call me an idiot.
DISCLAIMER: This is NOT a power ranking. It is a projection of what the top 25 will look like going in to the bowl games once the season has been played out. In essence, it is a prediction of how we think the season will play out. The highest ranked teams are the ones we think will get through the regular season with the best record and be up there when the year is over.
If the best team in the country has an impossible schedule, they won’t be No. 1.
If you want preseason power rankings, I highly suggest Phil Steele. This is something different.
So, with that in mind, here we go:
No. 25: Pittsburgh. The schedule is brutal, with a road trip to Utah and an early matchup with Miami at Heinz Field. An improved Notre Dame and the always tough West Virginia are also potential losses. But they have some players. Dion Lewis might be the most exciting running back in college football this year, and defensively, the Panthers will be top 25 nationally again. Will have to break in some new starters—they have just five back on offense and six on defense – but there is talent here. Would have them ranked much higher if not for the schedule.
No. 24 Houston. Last year, we took a lot of heat for this “homer” pick. But when they got as high as No. 12 in the polls, we didn’t look quite so stupid. Like last year, UH has some high profile games against BCS foes that could boost them in the rankings. But they will have to win at UCLA and Texas Tech, which won’t be easy. And don’t overlook June Jones and SMU in Conference-USA. The Cougars faded down the stretch primarily due to a lack of depth. But Houston should be better this year, and should finish somewhere in the rankings. If the Cougars can stay healthy all year, it could be much higher than this.
No. 23 North Carolina. Butch Davis is an outstanding coach and he has built one of the best defensive units in the country. In a power ranking, they would be much higher than this. But their schedule, like Pitt’s, is brutal. They open with LSU in Atlanta, and as much as most prognosticators are trying to write off LSU, the Tigers are still tough. Then North Carolina gets Georgia Tech and goes to Rutgers. Throw in trips to Miami and Florida State and the Tar Heels are probably headed for another eight win season, even though they have more talent than last year. Plus, the ACC is going to be a lot better than people think this year.
No. 22 Stanford. The Cardinal loses running back Toby Gerhardt, but quarterback Andrew Luck is a star in the making. The Pac-10 shouldn’t be all that brutal this year, and Stanford has a chance to make some noise. They have eight starters back on offense, seven on defense, and a strong offensive line. Looking for big things.
No. 21 Notre Dame. Yes, I know. They are overrated every year. They get the benefit of the doubt because they are Notre Dame. But I love Brian Kelly as a head coach. You want the next Urban Meyer? Kelly is your man. He should make them instantly better. Will it be good enough to finish in the top 25? The schedule – as it is every year – is VERY Irish-friendly. We’re projecting this mostly on our faith in Kelly, plus nine returning starters on defense (although the defense was pretty bad last year). It might take another year or two to get them there, but we wouldn’t be shocked if they won eight games and managed to sneak into the top 25. Irish haters, your happy times are near an end.
No. 20 Penn State. This sure feels low for a team that finds a way to win a lot of games every year. But the Lions lost six starters on defense and have to replace their quarterback, which is never a good recipe for success. Plus, road games at Alabama, Iowa and Ohio State make for a difficult path. The rest of the schedule, however, is very manageable.
No. 19 Arkansas. A lot of projections will have the Razorbacks higher than this. Love what head coach Bobby Petrino is doing and Ryan Mallett is an absolute star. But a four-game midseason stretch could determine their fate – at Georgia, vs. Alabama, Texas A&M at Dallas and at Auburn. Georgia is a wild card, but it is always tough to play there. Alabama is Alabama; A&M will be better and Auburn has a chance to be outstanding. The only other problem areas, however, are at South Carolina and LSU to finish the season. The SEC is so tough, any slipups can drop you in the rankings.
No. 18 Georgia Tech. Easy to overlook their one-dimensional offense, but this is a well-coached, well-prepared football team. Once again, they should be in the thick of the ACC race and stay in the rankings all year. Eight starters back on defense should help.
No. 17 Utah. Too bad the Utes aren’t in the Pac-10 this year; they could be serious threats to win it. This is a program that will be in the mix every year when they move. As far as this season? They have a tricky schedule but do have eight starters back on offense. They get TCU and BYU at home, plus open with a tough Pittsburgh team in Salt Lake City. The other trouble spots are road trips to Air Force and Notre Dame. Hard to see them running the table through all of those.
No. 16 Wisconsin. They aren’t pretty to watch, and they never seem to be great, but they do win games and hang around all season. They are usually a safe bet to finish in the rankings somewhere. Still, the schedule is a bit trickier this year. They get Ohio State at home, but play at Iowa the next week. They play at Michigan late, and the Wolverines might have figured things out by then. But 10 starters back on offense from a 10-3 team bodes well for them.
No. 15 Auburn. This is a team that could make some serious noise this year. We don’t have a lot of faith in head coach Gene Chizik, but offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn is a mad witch. In addition, the schedule is very favorable, with home games against Clemson, South Carolina, Arkansas, LSU and Georgia. Hard to see them winning all of those, but having them at home really helps.They play at Alabama the last game of the season, which could help decide ‘Bama’s national championship fate.
No. 14 Nebraska. We love what Bo Pelini is doing, and the Huskers are on the verge of being the Huskers again. It might even happen this season. They do have nine starters back on offense, but when an offense is that bad, is it really a good thing to have all those players back? Plus, losing Ndamukong Suh and four other starters off that terrific defense is going to be tough to overcome. The schedule isn’t all that difficult – an early road trip to Seattle to face Washington won’t be much fun, but other than that, there are only three other potential losses – Texas at home, Oklahoma State at Stillwater and Texas A&M in College Station. The Texas game should be wild, and the Huskers will have revenge on their minds, but if they do pull that one off, the classic trap game awaits in Stillwater. And then there’s the Big 12 Championship Game, which means either a rematch with Texas or facing OU.
No. 13 LSU. The Tigers are being ignored by many, and coach Les Miles is suddenly on the hot seat. But this is a very talented football team with one major question mark: quarterback. Again. They really can’t be this bad on offense again, can they? Gary Crowton simply should be able to get more out of the offense. And the defense has been solid but not as dominant since Bo Pelini left. The Tigers play a brutally tough schedule, but we think this is the year they put it together and become national threats again.
No. 12 Oregon. The Ducks should win the Pac-10. They might have the most talent, but losing quarterback Jeremiah Masoli is big. With Masoli back, they could have been a threat to run the table and sneak into the title game. Without him? Their QB play will likely cost them a game or two, and a shot at a better finish.
No. 11 Virginia Tech. This just in: The Hokies are very good. Well coached. Excellent defense. They rarely beat themselves. They could be on the verge of a special season if a few things fall their way. The schedule is tough but not impossible. They open with a neutral site game against Boise that will likely be the Broncos one chance to lose this season. They also face stern tests with three straight games in November – Georgia Tech followed by road trips to North Carolina and Miami, then possibly the ACC Championship game.
No. 10 Iowa. It’s pretty amazing when you look at what Kurt Ferentz has accomplished at Iowa, going 81-55. When you watch the Hawkeyes play, they don’t blow you away with speed or flash. Like Wisconsin, they just wear you down and make plays to win late. It’s not sexy football, but it’s winning football. They return all four starters on the defensive line and starting QB Ricky Stanzi. They do have holes to fill on the offensive line, and the schedule isn’t a cakewalk. They do get Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin at home. The only potential road pitfall is an early trip to Arizona. Otherwise, expect the Hawkeyes to be in the mix.
No. 9 Oklahoma. Steele has the Sooners No. 1, which does make some sense. They schedule has some interesting games – overrated Florida State visits Norman on Sept. 11. Disciplined Air Force can always be sneaky, and a trip to Cincinnati won’t be a walkover, either. But those are all games OU should win. It’s that Saturday, Oct. 2 game against Texas they have to get past. Nov. 6 at A&M won’t be a free throw, either. If the Sooners beat Texas? Sure, they could be No. 1. But until he becomes big-game Bob Stoops again instead of Baylor Bob, we’ll go with Texas.
No. 8 TCU. The Horned Frogs ran the table and picked up a BCS bid last year, establishing themselves among college football’s elite. Because of that, they could probably slip up once and still finish this high, which is what we are projecting. Gary Patterson is one of the best coaches in college football, and TCU is a threat year in and year out. The Frogs have a tricky opener against Oregon State, but should win that at home. They also get Baylor at home, which won’t be a walkover either. The potential slip ups, however, are a crosstown trip to play at SMU (don’t laugh; the Ponies are on the rise) on Sept. 25 and the ever-difficult Salt Lake trip to face Utah. If the Frogs fade those two games, they could finish much higher.
No. 7 Miami. This has been slowly building for the last few seasons, but the Hurricanes might finally be back. And if they are, they will be serious title contenders. They will play the biggest early game of the season on Sept. 9 at Ohio State. We’re expecting a close loss, then an outstanding remainder of the year. QB Jacory Harris is primed for another big season.
No. 6 West Virginia. We have them a lot higher than most rankings because a) they are damned good; b) schedule wise, they have a chance to make some serious noise in the polls. The schedule is frankly pretty easy. A road trip to LSU on Sept. 25 will be tough, but if they survive that one, the only real test left on the schedule is a trip to Pittsburgh on November 26 to determine the Big East champ (although Rutgers a week later won’t be a walkover). They have 16 starters back off a 9-4 team, including Heisman candidate Noel Devine. A darkhorse candidiate to be in the top two at season’s end.
No. 5 Florida. The Gators lose a lot off a powerhouse, including quarterback Tim Tebow. But Urban Meyer won a national championship with Chris Leak at quarterback. As dominant as Tebow was, we don’t expect them to miss a step with John Brantley. They return six starters on offense, but do lose some key receivers. However, Meyer has several studs waiting in the wings. Defensively they Gators have to reload as well, but they have had top recruiting classes and should once again be among the nation’s elite. They play at Alabama on Oct. 2, but other than that, the schedule should be doable. The most important game will be the rematch in the SEC championship game; whoever wins that plays for it all.
No. 4 Texas. It will be easy to write off the Longhorns with the departure of Colt McCoy, but this team is stacked with five star players and they will be back for another run. As usual, the Longhorns schedule is hyper-soft. They have to go to Lubbock, which is never an easy place to play, but the Raiders are a complete wild card with Mike Leach gone and it’s hard to see them being a threat. UCLA travels to Austin, but the Bruins aren’t that good. In essence, Texas has to win three games – OU on Oct. 2, the hatefest at Nebraska on Oct. 16 and the Big 12 Championship game. If they do that, they play for the title. If they lose one of those, they finish right here. Projecting them to beat OU and get upset by Nebraska. Even with one loss, however, they might get in the title game over an unbeaten Boise if Alabama were to lose twice.
No. 3 Boise State. The Broncos have a high profile opponent in Virginia Tech to open the season. If they win that, they should be in the top five all year. Oregon State at home on Sept. 25 should provide a measuring stick against TCU, since the Frogs play them as well. If Boise gets by those two, it’s another unbeaten season, and another likely to end up short of a title game appearance. A one-loss Texas, Alabama or Florida team would get in over them — maybe even a two-loss SEC team. But we’d love to see the controversy when it does happen.
No. 2 Alabama. They lose nine players off a world-class defense, so there is bound to be a drop-off. But the offense is back and intact. The schedule is SEC-tough, plus Penn State, but they do get the Lions and Florida at home. Potential title-killers are at Arkansas (Sept. 25) and at LSU on Nov. 6. But this is Nick Saban and Alabama is back in a big way, and a serious threat to go back to back. The schedule and turnover on defense are big concerns, but it’s hard to put this team any lower than No. 2.
No. 1 Ohio State. The Buckeyes are a little bit of a risky pick, because if they lose to Miami on Sept. 11, they likely can’t finish this high. But in reality, they have to win only four games to play for the title, and two of those are at home – Miami and Penn State. Those plus road trips to Iowa and Wisconsin will be the serious tests. And there is every reason to believe the Buckeyes will pass those tests this year. Terrelle Pryor will have a breakout season, and the front seven of the defense will likely cover for a suspect secondary. They have nine starters back on offense from an 11-2 team last season. This team is sitting on go, has one of the best coaches in America and the schedule to make it to the BCS title game.
You’ll notice no USC or Florida State in these rankings. Georgia didn’t make it either.
As to probation teams, we have a theory on schools like USC; they play for an undefeated season. Once they lose, they tend to pack it in and lose more games, and that could easily happen to the Trojans and drop them out of the rankings. We’re not sold on Jimbo Fisher at Florida State, and Georgia’s schedule is just too tough.
Some Pac-10 teams that just missed: Arizona, Oregon State, Cal. The middle of the Pac-10 is a tossup, and we think those teams will all take turns beating each other. The league is just not all that strong this year.
Others who could surprise and show up in the rankings: Rutgers and Cincinnati in the Big East, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State in the Big 12, BYU in the Mountain West and SMU or Central Florida out of C-USA. Another team to keep an eye on is Navy.
So there you have it. Feel free to fire away…