UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
College Football

Defending champ Florida State leads SI preseason college football Top 25

Defending champ Florida State leads SI preseason college football Top 25

At long last a new season dawns, and with it comes the inaugural College Football Playoff. Now, for the first time in the history of the sport, programs across the nation will compete for a spot in the four-team field. At least one major-conference champion will be left on the outside looking in.

So, which teams are poised to succeed? Which could fall short of expectations? The College Football Playoff era is here -- will it prove any less controversial than that of the oft-maligned BCS?

As the first weekend of games approaches, Sports Illustrated unveils its preseason Top 25, including its four playoff-bound selections. For more college football preview content, be sure check out SI's Preseason All-America Team, 2014 schedule guide, TV media roundtable and much more.

College Football Preview: Playoff predictions

Sports Illustrated senior writers Andy Staples and Pete Thamel unveil their picks for this year's first-ever College Football Playoff.

SPORTS ILLUSTRATED PRESEASON TOP 25
 
  • 1
    FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLES
    2013 RECORD: 14-0 (8-0)
    After Florida State’s 34-31 win over Auburn for a 14-0 finish and the final title of the BCS era, only four players (WR Kelvin Benjamin, DT Timmy Jernigan and RBs Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr.) left early for the NFL. Senior tackle Cam Erving and senior guard Tre' Jackson stayed, meaning Florida State will bring back four-fifths of its offensive line. Wideout Rashad Greene, who has led the team in catches and receiving yards in each of his three seasons in Tallahassee, also chose to return. So did senior tight end Nick O’Leary, whose blocking and pass-catching helped ignite a 2013 offense that led the country in yards per play (7.67).
     
     
  • 2
    ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE
    2013 RECORD: 11-2 (7-1)
    Last season did expose some cracks in the Crimson Tide, but they were relatively minor. Rebuilding at Alabama doesn’t mean what it does anywhere else. For the first time since Nick Saban's arrival in 2007, Bama didn’t have NFL-ready talent developed at one position: cornerback. That group had lost one first-rounder a year for three seasons. The attrition, plus injuries, forced the Tide to play raw athletes who weren’t ready. This year, they should get more out of sophomore Eddie Jackson, junior Bradley Sylve and junior Cyrus Jones, while five-star freshmen Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey offer depth. Safety Landon Collins will provide a steadying influence, and an up-front push led by 320-pound sophomore defensive end A’Shawn Robinson should make the secondary’s job easier.
     
     
  • 3
    OKLAHOMA SOONERS
    2013 RECORD: 11-2 (7-2)
    Oklahoma’s win over Alabama in last season’s Sugar Bowl showed what this year’s Sooners could be. In overwhelming the Crimson Tide 45-31, the Sooners rolled out an aggressive defense and a passer with a knack for Johnny Manziel-like improvisation. Now they need to add a sense of consistency, starting with redshirt sophomore quarterback Trevor Knight.
     
     
  • 4
    OHIO STATE BUCKEYES
    2013 RECORD: 12-2 (8-0)
    As Urban Meyer enters his third season at Ohio State, his SEC-style front four should bull-rush the Buckeyes into the College Football Playoff. Tackles Michael Bennett, a 6'2", 288-pound senior, and Adolphus Washington, a 6'4", 288-pound junior, fit new line coach Larry Johnson’s preference for leaner bodies and explosive hips over sloppy gap stuffers. Bennett projects as a first-round pick after racking up 7.5 sacks in 2013. A healthy Washington brings the pass-rushing skills of a converted end; his return will leave coordinators baffled about which tackle to double-team.
     
     
  • 5
    UCLA BRUINS
    2013 RECORD: 10-3 (6-3)
    Finding a dominant runner not named Brett Hundley is the top item on the Bruins’ to-do list. The 6'3", 227-pound junior quarterback led UCLA on the ground last season (748 yards and 11 touchdowns), and the second-most-talked-about rusher was Myles Jack, who racked up 267 yards and seven TDs while also starting at linebacker. “I think Brett developing as a passer, and the receiving corps we’ve got should help us run the ball,” says coach Jim Mora. “I like when Brett takes off and runs, but I’d like to be able to just pound it at people.”
     
     
  • 6
    MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS
    2013 RECORD: 13-1 (8-0)
    For Michigan State to repeat as conference champs, the offense must catch up with its defense. Junior quarterback Connor Cook proved his big-game mettle in the Big Ten title game and the Rose Bowl, and he’ll have almost all of his top targets back, including senior receiver Tony Lippett (44 catches, 613 yards) and second-year tight end Josiah Price (17 for 210). Bruising senior back Jeremy Langford (1,422 yards) returns as well. The highest priority: quickly and effectively replacing three O-line starters. Wasting the Spartans' defensive talent would be criminal.
     
     
  • 7
    AUBURN TIGERS
    2013 RECORD: 12-2 (7-1)
    Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason is off to the NFL, but the offense shouldn’t miss a beat. Senior Nick Marshall is Gus Malzahn’s first returning QB in his nine seasons as a college coach, and Marshall will play behind one of the country’s best lines. Junior receiver Sammie Coates (21.5 yards per catch in 2013) and senior tailbacks Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant (a combined 1,257 rushing yards) will be major contributors. “We focused on being more balanced,” Malzahn says of the offseason. “I really feel like we accomplished that.”
     
     
  • 8
    OREGON DUCKS
    2013 RECORD: 11-2 (7-2)
    Keeping Marcus Mariota on the field is the Ducks’ biggest concern in 2014. When he’s healthy, Mariota is one of the nation’s best players and a potential No. 1 pick in the 2015 NFL draft. Before a sprained left MCL slowed him in a 26-20 loss to Stanford last November, Mariota & Co. appeared headed to the BCS title game. Still, he finished with 3,665 passing yards, 31 touchdowns and only four interceptions. (He tacked on 715 yards and nine TDs rushing for good measure.) Now the 6'4", 215-pound junior -- 40 pounds heavier than when he arrived as a freshman -- is a preseason Heisman favorite in a conference stacked with quarterback talent.
     
     
  • 9
    STANFORD CARDINAL
    2013 RECORD: 11-3 (7-2)
    Stanford isn’t turning pass-happy, but the Cardinal will adapt as they work in four new O-line starters. The one returner is junior left tackle Andrus Peat (6'7", 316 pounds), a future NFL cornerstone. The four other assumed starters arrived with Peat as part of a 2012 recruiting haul of linemen considered one of the best ever. Operating behind them, third-year starting quarterback Kevin Hogan (20 TDs and 10 INTs in ’13) will throw to All-America return man Ty Montgomery (10 TD catches) and field-stretcher Devon Cajuste (22.9 yards per reception).
     
     
  • 10
    BAYLOR BEARS
    2013 RECORD: 11-2 (8-1)
    There are heightened expectations in Waco after Baylor won its first Big 12 title last year, especially because senior quarterback Bryce Petty returns. Petty threw for 4,200 yards and 32 TDs in 2013 while leading Baylor to 52.4 points per game. He also racked up a team-high 14 touchdowns on the ground. Petty will have help from returning redshirt sophomore back Shock Linwood, who gained 6.9 yards per carry last fall, second in the conference. The Bears also bring back five of Petty's top six targets, a group that accounted for 75% of the team's '13 receptions.
     
     
  • 11
    SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS
    2013 RECORD: 11-2 (6-2)
    South Carolina lost the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft (defensive end Jadeveon Clowney) and the best quarterback in school history (Connor Shaw). So why are the Gamecocks confident that they can stretch their streak of seasons with double-digit victories to four and win the SEC East for the first time since 2010? Because they bring back almost everyone else. South Carolina had one of the youngest teams in the country last season, and those kids accounted for 78.9% of their rushing yards and 74.8% of their receiving yards.
     
  • 12
    GEORGIA BULLDOGS
    2013 RECORD: 8-5 (5-3)
    New defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who coached in the last three BCS title games, has to turn around a unit that gave up the most yards per play (5.4) of the Mark Richt era. The Bulldogs also allowed 29.0 points per game, 10th in the SEC. There was a different vibe around the D this spring, with many players talking of a culture change since Pruitt’s arrival. The offense has a giant question mark at quarterback, now that the SEC’s all-time leading passer, Aaron Murray, is gone. But new starter Hutson Mason, a senior, knows coordinator Mike Bobo’s offense.
     
     
  • 13
    NOTRE DAME FIGHTING IRISH
    2013 RECORD: 9-4
    If Notre Dame earns a playoff berth, Everett Golson will have a say in it. But it’s what the quarterback says that will be crucial. The 6‐foot senior endured his season-long suspension for cheating on a test in part by honing his football IQ with quarterback guru George Whitfield last year, and he is prepared to embrace the intricacies of coach Brian Kelly’s offense instead of running a remedial version of it, as he did in 2012. He’ll first have to fend off 6‐foot sophomore Malik Zaire in what Kelly insists isn’t “artificial competition.” Expect the cannon‐armed Golson to start and to far surpass his '12 numbers (58.8% completion percentage and 12 TDs).

    Click here for a complete scouting report.

     
  • 14
    LSU TIGERS
    2013 RECORD: 10-3 (5-3)
    Saying LSU’s roster is young is like calling "Breaking Bad" intense or Kanye West outspoken. The Tigers have relied on freshmen and sophomores in each of the past few seasons, and the pattern will continue since seven underclassmen entered the 2014 draft. The latest recruiting class features dual-threat passer Brandon Harris, rangy wideout Malachi Dupre and, most notably, running back Leonard Fournette, whom coach Les Miles, at SEC media days, compared with Michael Jordan. LSU needs more than just strong performances from its newest arrivals, though. The defensive players who started to break out in 2013 have to emerge as stars.​

    Click here for a complete scouting report.

     
  • 15
    WISCONSIN BADGERS
    2013 RECORD: 9-4 (6-2)
    Melvin Gordon watched the Heisman Trophy ceremony last year and envisioned having his own front-row seat. To reach that perch, he’s set his sights on a big number -- 2,000 yards. “It’s definitely a goal I want to reach,” Gordon says. The entire Badgers roster should share the desire. A Heisman-worthy campaign from the 6'1", 213-pound junior would indicate the team has found the answers needed to push for a playoff berth. Gordon ran for 1,609 yards last year, and if his fellow Badgers can provide balance, he should do better this season. If it all coalesces, Wisconsin will have a shot at sneaking into the playoff.
     
  • 16
    CLEMSON TIGERS
    2013 RECORD: 11-2 (7-1)
    With signal-caller Tajh Boyd and receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant off to the NFL, the Tigers will have to amp up their defense to reach double-digit wins for the fourth consecutive season. The good news is that consensus All-America defensive end Vic Beasley chose to return for his senior year. The 6'2", 235‑pound Beasley had 23 tackles for loss a year ago and needs eight sacks to break the Clemson career mark of 28. “Maybe some of the names everybody’s heard are more on the defensive side now instead of on the offensive side,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said, “and maybe that’s OK.”

    Click here for a complete scouting report.

     
  • 17
    USC TROJANS
    2013 RECORD: 10-4 (6-3)
    Not all Trojans boosters were happy with the hiring of former Pete Carroll assistant Steve Sarkisian, but the first-year USC coach inherits a talent-rich roster, which is always a good starting point. Quarterback Cody Kessler, receiver Nelson Agholor and tailback Javorius Allen, all juniors, are back and should play well in Sarkisian’s up-tempo, no-huddle style. The 6'1", 210-pound Kessler struggled with consistency last season. Junior defensive end Leonard Williams anchors one of the best lines in the country, but USC will be learning its third scheme in three seasons. The secondary has question marks, and don’t be surprised if true freshman Adoree’ Jackson gets reps at corner -- and at receiver.​


    Click here for a complete scouting report.

     
  • 18
    OLE MISS REBELS
    2013 RECORD: 8-5 (3-5)
    Ole Miss had one of the SEC’s best attacks at times last season, averaging 6.0 yards per play and a league-leading 78.3 plays per game, but execution was often a problem. The Rebels ended the year next to last in the conference in red zone efficiency (73.9%). That inability to finish kept Ole Miss from contending in the SEC West last season. Senior Bo Wallace holds the keys to coach Hugh Freeze’s up-tempo offense. Sophomore receiver Laquon Treadwell and sophomore tight end Evan Engram should give Wallace plenty to work with through the air, while tailbacks I’Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton, who combined for almost 1,100 rushing yards last year, will man the backfield.

    Click here for a complete scouting report.

     
  • 19
    ARIZONA STATE SUN DEVILS
    2013 RECORD: 10-4 (8-1)
    Arizona State will score a lot. Coach Todd Graham’s high-octane offense is led by school-record-breaking quarterback Taylor Kelly, who enters his third season as a starter. Kelly has a slew of weapons, including NFL-ready redshirt junior wide receiver Jaelen Strong and do-everything junior running back D.J. Foster. “This,” Graham says, “is going to be the best football team we’ve had.”

    Click here for a complete scouting report.

     
  • 20
    TEXAS A&M AGGIES
    2013 RECORD: 9-4 (4-4)
    To make the College Football Playoff, Texas A&M will probably need to go -- at worst -- 3-1 against the following four opponents: South Carolina, Alabama, Auburn and LSU. That’s a big ask for a team that will have a first-year starter at quarterback (sophomore Kenny Hill or freshman Kyle Allen) and a defense that was one of the SEC’s worst in 2013. So, why do the Aggies have a chance? Because they’ve got a deep backfield running behind another likely top-10 NFL draft pick at left tackle in Cedric Ogbuehi. They have two potential matchup nightmares in tight end Cam Clear, who can scoot despite a weight that hovers around 275, and redshirt freshman Ricky Seals-Jones, a 6’5”, 240-pounder who arrived as a receiver but will likely get the Jimmy Graham treatment as a flexed-out tight end.
     
  • 21
    KANSAS STATE WILDCATS
    2013 RECORD: 8-5 (5-4)
    To contextualize what he must do to vault Kansas State into the College Football Playoff, Jake Waters can cast an eye to the program's strapping new assistant director of recruiting and defensive quality control: Collin Klein, the 6'5" dual-threat signal-caller who piled up 37 total touchdowns and 3,380 total yards en route to a third-place finish in 2012 Heisman Trophy balloting. A schedule featuring Auburn in September offers a path to playoff consideration. To manage it, Kansas State needs a comprehensive ground game after losing its top two rushers, as well as production from four viable new starters in the front seven to complement Big 12 defensive lineman of the year Ryan Mueller (11.5 sacks in '13).
     
  • 22
    MISSOURI TIGERS
    2013 RECORD: 12-2 (7-1)
    Health and leadership were critical to Missouri’s unexpected rise in the SEC East last year. They figure to play an equally essential role in the Tigers’ quest to defend their division crown. After an injury-riddled 2012 campaign that saw Mizzou miss the postseason, coach Gary Pinkel’s team went 12-2, capped by a 41-31 win over Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl. Pinkel attributes the success to conditioning, limiting contact in practice and playing a lot of guys. He hopes the latter keeps his team from regressing without quarterback James Franklin, defensive linemen Kony Ealy and Michael Sam and running back Henry Josey, who all left for NFL.

    Click here for a complete scouting report.

     
  • 23
    OREGON STATE BEAVERS
    2013 RECORD: 7-6 (4-5)
    Oregon State needs to establish some balance offensivelyA year after passing for a Pac-12 record 4,662 yards, quarterback Sean Mannion returns with a group of unproven receivers and a banged-up offensive line. Junior center Isaac Seumalo, one of the only four-star recruits to ever pick the Beavers, is still recovering from a broken foot suffered in last season’s Hawaii Bowl win over Boise State. Seumalo and a handful of other experienced linemen missed time this spring, prompting coach Mike Riley to admit in July, “I’m worried about our offensive line."

    Click here for a complete scouting report.

     
  • 24
    NEBRASKA CORNHUSKERS
    2013 RECORD: 9-4 (5-3)
    Nebraska will look to pound opponents behind its stable of running backs, led by star senior Ameer Abdullah. The 5’9”, 195-pound jitterbug rushed for a Big Ten-best 1,690 yards with nine touchdowns last season. There’s no fear of wearing him out. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong, who posted a 7-1 record as a starter last year, is a legitimate running threat, too, but his passing must improve to keep defenses honest. If everything comes together, Nebraska could have a dominant ground attack reminiscent of past Big Red glory days. That, plus an improved defense led by All-America-caliber end Randy Gregory, could spell a run in the Big Ten. 
     
  • 25
    MARSHALL THUNDERING HERD
    2013 RECORD: 10-4 (7-1)
    For Marshall to have a chance at making the College Football Playoff, it must go undefeated. That would require a Heisman-caliber season out of Rakeem Cato, who enters this fall with 10,176 career passing yards. Last year the Thundering Herd won double-digit games for the first time since 2002, and with 15 returning starters the potential for a special season is there. They averaged more than 42 points a game in 2013, constantly putting pressure on foes to match the Herd strike for strike.

    Click here for a complete scouting report.


More College Football

SI.com

Drag this icon to your bookmark bar.
Then delete your old SI.com bookmark.

SI.com

Click the share icon to bookmark us.