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College Football

Alabama headlines SI's preseason college football Top 25

Can Alabama make a run at a third consecutive national title? Can Stanford continue its remarkable ascension? Can Texas A&M compete if Heisman winner Johnny Manziel misses time? Can Ohio State replicate last year's 12-0 campaign? Can Oregon maintain its standard of success under new leadership?

These are just a few of the myriad questions percolating as the college football season approaches. Sports Illustrated's preseason Top 25 attempts to answer them -- and many more.

For more college football preview content, check out SI's 2013 schedule guide, four teams that can beat Alabama package, preseason All-America Team, media roundtable and much more.

  • 1
    1Alabama Crimson Tide
     
    last week: N/A
    Last season AJ McCarron drew raves from coach Nick Saban for his heady, risk-averse play. McCarron led the nation in passing efficiency (175.3) and threw a school-record 30 touchdown passes. This fall he should put up even more impressive numbers, because in Saban's seven years in Tuscaloosa he has never had more gifted skill-position players. There's running back T.J. Yeldon, who rushed for an Alabama freshman-record 1,108 yards. There's sophomore wideout Amari Cooper, who caught a school-record 11 touchdown passes. And there's 6-6, 237-pound freshman O.J. Howard, who was ranked by Rivals.com as the nation's No. 1 tight end and may end up as the gem of the Crimson Tide's 2013 recruiting class. -- Lars Anderson

  • 2
    2Stanford Cardinal
     
    last week: N/A
    The Stanford defense, which finished No. 5 nationally against the run (97.0 yards per game) and helped lift the Cardinal to a Pac-12 championship and a 20-14 Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin, has eight starters back, including the safety tandem of All-America Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards and standout linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov -- as well as nickelback Usua Amanam, the defensive MVP of the Rose Bowl. The Cardinal may have the most loaded D outside of the state of Alabama. Meanwhile, they remain formidable on the offensive front, led by All-America guard David Yankey, while sophomore quarterback Kevin Hogan (5-0 as the starter) is now far more versed in the offense. -- Stewart Mandel

  • 3
    3Texas A&M Aggies
     
    last week: N/A
    If Heisman winner Johnny Manziel isn't declared ineligible amid reports that the NCAA is investigating if he accepted money for autographs, he'll likely follow the trajectory of other quarterbacks in the Kevin Sumlin/Dana Holgorsen coaching tree (Houston's Case Keenum, Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden, West Virginia's Geno Smith) and improve on his 68.0 percent completion rate. That will make the SEC's top offense last season (558.5 yards per game) even scarier. Up front, All-America senior tackle Jake Matthews slides over to replace Luke Joeckel on the left side. The receivers, led by sophomore Mike Evans, are young but talented. And the backfield could go four deep with returnees Ben Malena and Trey Williams and touted transfers Brandon Williams (Oklahoma) and Tra Carson (Oregon). The Aggies might not catch defenses by surprise this year, but that doesn't mean they'll be easy to stop. -- Stewart Mandel

  • 4
    4Ohio St. Buckeyes
     
    last week: N/A
    Urban Meyer's teams usually make major strides his second season. (Utah capped the 2004 season with a Fiesta Bowl appearance; Florida capped the '06 campaign with a national title.) The Buckeyes were undefeated in Year 1, but there's room for improvement. The multi-skilled Braxton Miller is entering his third year as a starter, and he's ready to emerge as a complete quarterback and Heisman contender. Miller has a wealth of weapons: senior running back Carlos Hyde (suspended for the first three games), receivers Devin Smith (junior) and Corey (Philly) Brown (senior) and speedy but injury-plagued senior Jordan Hall, who should return to play the Percy Harvin role, the key to a Meyer offense. Miller will also operate behind four returning starters, led by senior left tackle Jack Mewhort. Meanwhile, after struggling on defense for much of the past two seasons, the 2013 D more closely resembles the upper-echelon units of Jim Tressel's heyday. -- Stewart Mandel

  • 5
    5Oregon Ducks
     
    last week: N/A
    The Ducks bring back the core of a starting offense that scored an FBS-best 89 touchdowns last season, and at least three of those players (sophomore quarterback Marcus Mariota, junior running back De'Anthony Thomas and senior wide receiver Josh Huff) are proven home run threats. Thomas has scored 33 touchdowns in two seasons, while Mariota set the school record for touchdowns in a season (38). The Ducks averaged one point for every 32.9 seconds of possession, and offensive coordinator turned head coach Mark Helfrich isn't expected to ease the pace. -- Gabriel Baumgaertner

  • 6
    6South Carolina Gamecocks
     
    last week: N/A
    The Gamecocks are led on defense by college football's most feared player, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. Even scarier for opponents: The 6-foot-6, 274-pound junior reportedly ran the 40-yard dash in 4.46 seconds in July. On offense, coach Steve Spurrier has two quality quarterbacks in senior Connor Shaw, the returning starter who is also a running threat, and junior Dylan Thompson, a prototypical passer who went 2-0 last season while filling in when Shaw was out with shoulder and foot injuries. The offensive line returns four starters, led by 6-4 junior left guard A.J. Cann. There's depth at the skill positions, including 5-9 junior wide receiver Bruce Ellington and 6-5 junior tight end Rory Anderson. -- Thayer Evans

  • 7
    7Louisville Cardinals
     
    last week: N/A
    Teddy Bridgewater, a junior, returns as one of the top passers in the country after racking up 3,718 yards, 27 touchdowns and a 68.5 percent completion rate in 2012. Bridgewater and the Cardinals, long dogged for their inferior résumé -- they move to the ACC next season -- trampled heavily favored Florida in last season's Sugar Bowl 33-23, kicking off a surge of momentum that carried into spring practice. There's talent on offense aside from Bridgewater: junior DeVante Parker and senior Damian Copeland headline a skilled receiving corps, while transfer running back Michael Dyer, a two-time 1,000-yard rusher at Auburn, adds a spark to the ground game. The defense, meanwhile, has nine returning starters from the unit that had three sacks and forced three turnovers against the Gators. -- Zac Ellis

  • 8
    8Notre Dame Fighting Irish
     
    last week: N/A
    Even though the Fighting Irish were manhandled by Alabama in the BCS championship game, Stephon Tuitt points to one positive he and his teammates took away from that 42-14 blowout in Miami: They know what to expect the next time they play for the national title, which, according to Tuitt, will be in January. "Now we have a taste of what it's like to be in that game, we all want to get back, and we're working harder than ever to do that," said Tuitt, a junior defensive end who led Notre Dame with 12 sacks last season. Though the Irish must replace eight starters from last year -- including quarterback Everett Golson, who was suspended for the season for academic reasons -- there shouldn't be a significant drop in overall talent because Brian Kelly's past three recruiting classes have been among the best in the nation. -- Lars Anderson

  • 9
    9Florida Gators
     
    last week: N/A
    The Gators have nine starters back from a team that put together the strongest regular-season résumé in the nation in 2012. Coach Will Muschamp and his staff have enough talent to fill the holes in the defense left by the early departures of tackle Sharrif Floyd, linebacker Jelani Jenkins and safety Matt Elam. Floyd, for example, will be replaced by senior Dominique Easley, who moves inside from defensive end. That will allow 6-foot-2, 263-pound sophomore Dante Fowler Jr. -- who could be the Gators' best player by season's end -- to assume a bigger role on the outside. Florida's offensive line will be bolstered by the availability of transfers Tyler Moore (Nebraska) at right tackle and Max Garcia (Maryland) at left guard. The run-first attack will rely on a stable of young backs led by sophomore Matt Jones, who gained 5.3 yards a carry in limited action last season. -- Andy Staples

  • 10
    10Clemson Tigers
     
    last week: N/A
    The Tigers bring back the ACC's best player and best offense. Quarterback Tajh Boyd lit up the ACC in 2012 to the tune of 3,896 passing yards and a conference-record 36 touchdowns. The senior has a trio of talented receivers to help him match last season's performance. Junior wideout Sammy Watkins looks primed to bounce back from a down year in 2012, while fellow juniors Martavis Bryant (10 catches for 305 yards) and Charone Peake (25 for 172) should be ready for bigger roles. With the bulk of a veteran offensive line intact -- led by senior tackle Brandon Thomas and senior guard Tyler Shatley -- Clemson could actually outdo last season's averages of 512.7 yards and 41.0 points, both school records. -- Zac Ellis

  • 11
    11Texas Longhorns
     
    last week: N/A
    The Longhorns at last look like the kind of talent-laden team Mack Brown once trotted out on an annual basis. Nineteen starters return from last year's 9-4 squad, which struggled mightily on defense before generating 10 sacks in a 31-27 Alamo Bowl win over No. 13 Oregon State. Standout defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat and outside linebacker Jordan Hicks, who both missed most of 2012 with injuries, are back as well. David Ash, overwhelmed as a true freshman in 2011, is now the Big 12's most experienced quarterback (18 starts), and receiver Mike Davis leads a proven group of skill players. The Longhorns began installing a hurry-up offense during bowl practices and amped it up in the spring. The new scheme is a nice fit for Ash, a 67.3 percent passer last season. -- Stewart Mandel

  • 12
    12Georgia Bulldogs
     
    last week: N/A
    This fall Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray will lead one of the nation's most explosive offenses, with 10 starters back from a unit that gained an FBS-best 7.09 yards per play last year. Combined with a young defense loaded with four- and five-star recruits, coach Mark Richt has arguably his most talented team. "We actually left points out there on the field against Alabama," said the 6-foot-1, 208-pound Murray, who holds the Georgia record for career touchdown passes (95). "Coming so close has definitely been motivation for us." -- Lars Anderson

  • 13
    13Florida St. Seminoles
     
    last week: N/A
    Despite big losses to the NFL, the Seminoles have plenty of veterans. Four starters return on the offensive line, along with 12 players who combined for 2,797 receiving yards in 2012. Florida State should gain plenty on the ground as well. Junior backs Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. could be the best one-two punch in the ACC. The spring game performance of 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman quarterback Jameis Winston had Tallahassee buzzing, but coach Jimbo Fisher is also considering sophomore Jacob Coker for the starting job. The D, which ranked No. 6 in the nation in points per game (14.7), has standouts such as middle linebacker Christian Jones. A talented group of linemen waited its turn in '12 behind NFL-bound Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine; now former role players such as junior tackle Timmy Jernigan and sophomore end Mario Edwards Jr. can establish themselves as stars. -- Andy Staples

  • 14
    14LSU Tigers
     
    last week: N/A
    Despite losing 11 underclassmen who left early for the NFL, the Tigers will be a threat to knock off Alabama in the SEC West because of the maturation of one player: senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger. A year ago, in his first season as the starter, the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Mettenberger struggled with his accuracy on intermediate-length passes and often appeared as slow-footed as a lineman. But working with new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron this spring, Mettenberger tweaked his throwing mechanics. He also spent dozens of hours performing speed drills on the LSU practice fields. The play of the new and improved Mettenberger, who possesses an NFL-caliber arm, will lift a young team looking to maintain its place near the top of the SEC pecking order. -- Lars Anderson

  • 15
    15Michigan St. Spartans
     
    last week: N/A
    The defense will be good, and it has the potential to be dominant. Six starters return from a unit that ranked first in the Big Ten in rushing defense, pass efficiency defense and scoring defense, led by hard-hitting linebacker Max Bullough and ball-hawking cornerback Darqueze Dennard. After limiting opponents to 16.3 points per game in 2012, the group's focus is now on creating takeaways -- and scoring defensive touchdowns. Meanwhile, the offense has four starters returning on the line, plus its two leading receivers, Bennie Fowler and Keith Mumphery. Michigan State lost five games by a combined 13 points last year. Even slight improvement could push the Spartans to the top of the league. -- Ben Glicksman

  • 16
    16TCU Horned Frogs
     
    last week: N/A
    The Horned Frogs had a fairly encouraging Big 12 debut last season, going 4-5 in the conference and 7-6 overall. Even more encouraging for 2013: Three of those losses came by seven points or fewer, and 15 starters return. That total includes nine from a defense that ranked 16th nationally in yards from scrimmage (323.9 per game) and saw a pair of stars emerge in cornerback Jason Verrett (AP third-team All‑America) and defensive end Devonte Fields (10 sacks and a conference-best 18.5 tackles for loss). Also back is quarterback Casey Pachall, who in four wins last September threw for 948 yards and 10 touchdowns with just one interception. But an October arrest for DWI led to a season-ending suspension and substance-abuse rehab, and he must now beat out sophomore Trevone Boykin, who was erratic as a starter last fall. -- Dan Greene

  • 17
    17Baylor Bears
     
    last week: N/A
    After Robert Griffin III took the Bears to their first and second bowl games since 1994, Nick Florence surprised fans by getting the team to a third straight bowl and setting a school single-season passing record (4,309 yards). Now the job of keeping that bowl streak alive belongs to a junior who has thrown just 14 passes. Fortunately for Bryce Petty, Baylor's offense is loaded. Senior guard Cyril Richardson, a second-team All-America, will help protect his blind side, while junior Lache Seastrunk -- who rushed for 1,012 yards last year after transferring from Oregon -- and senior Glasco Martin (889) form one of the most productive backfields in the country. Seastrunk said in December that he'll be gunning for the 2013 Heisman Trophy, and coach Art Briles calls him "an RGIII-caliber, game-changing type of player."-- Elizabeth McGarr McCue

  • 18
    18Michigan Wolverines
     
    last week: N/A
    The Wolverines bring back four starters on offense, and they'll reintroduce the pro-style attack that was the maize-and-blue's hallmark for decades. The change should work well for quarterback Devin Gardner, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound redshirt junior who completed 59.5 percent of his passes with a 2.2-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio in five starts at the end of last season. He'll be protected by arguably the nation's best offensive lineman, left tackle Taylor Lewan, who passed up NFL riches to return for his senior year. Senior wideout Jeremy Gallon is poised for a breakout season, and the country's No. 1 running back recruit, Derrick Green, will be pressed into immediate action. -- Ted Keith

  • 19
    19Oklahoma Sooners
     
    last week: N/A
    Landry who? The dream scenario for coach Bob Stoops would be for 6-foot-6, 263-pound junior quarterback Blake Bell -- known as the Belldozer for his short-yardage running -- to improve his accuracy and succeed the graduated Landry Jones. The backfield is deep and experienced with seniors Trey Millard and Damien Williams, who both have big-play ability, as well as seniors Brennan Clay and Roy Finch. Senior wideout Jalen Saunders emerged late last season as a star-in-the-making slot man, and sophomore receiver Trey Metoyer has immense talent as an outside threat. Senior center Gabe Ikard fronts an offensive line with a nice mix of experience and potential. -- Richard Deitsch

  • 20
    20Boise St. Broncos
     
    last week: N/A
    In September and October, Boise State quarterback Joe Southwick said he was tentative, inaccurate and often held the ball too long. But in November, he said, "something just clicked," and Southwick became one of the most productive quarterbacks in the nation. Over the last four games, he completed 76.7 percent of his passes for 888 yards, with nine touchdowns and no interceptions. Broncos coach Chris Petersen, who has only seven total starters returning -- the fewest of his eight-year tenure in Boise -- believes the 2012 late-season incarnation of Southwick will be on display in '13. -- Lars Anderson

  • 21
    21UCLA Bruins
     
    last week: N/A
    The Bruins have entrusted quarterback Brett Hundley with leading the team's no-huddle scheme. As a freshman last year he set school records for passing yards (3,745) and total yards (4,095). The 6-foot-3, 222-pound Hundley knows a lot of pressure will be on him to lead the attack, which averaged 466.5 yards last season but lost star running back Johnathan Franklin, who graduated. As good as Hundley is, the player coach Jim Mora is touting as a Heisman contender is 6-4, 245-pound senior linebacker Anthony Barr. A running back until 2012, Barr had 131⁄2 sacks and 211⁄2 tackles for loss last year, which ranked second and fourth in the nation, respectively. -- R.J. Rico

  • 22
    22Northwestern Wildcats
     
    last week: N/A
    The Wildcats' plan of attack remains the same as it was in 2012, when they went 10-3: Pound teams with a multifaceted ground game and make big plays on special teams. Northwestern presents a true dual threat at quarterback. Senior athlete Kain Colter starts, but he'll share time with junior Trevor Siemian, who's more of a pure passer. The two quarterbacks and the breakaway speed of senior running back Venric Mark will allow coordinator Mick McCall to switch tactics and surprise opposing defenses. In addition, last year's starting receivers (junior Christian Jones and senior Rashad Lawrence) return, along with one of the nation's best kickers in senior Jeff Budzien. -- Gabriel Baumgaertner

  • 23
    23Vanderbilt Commodores
     
    last week: N/A
    Vanderbilt finished last in the SEC in total defense in 2010, the year before James Franklin's arrival. Since, the fiery coach has elevated the unit to sixth in '11 and fifth last year, when the Commodores held SEC opponents to 250.0 yards -- and 10.9 points -- per game. They're likely to be as stingy this year. Six starters return, including key contributors such as senior defensive end Walker May, senior linebacker Chase Garnham and senior corner Andre Hal. Jordan Matthews led the SEC in 2012 with 94 catches, and Vandy is at its deepest along the offensive line, with senior left tackle Wesley Johnson (a three-year starter who has never been flagged for holding), junior center Joe Townsend and junior right tackle Andrew Bridges. -- Zac Ellis

  • 24
    24Northern Illinois Huskies
     
    last week: N/A
    There's never a good time to lose a head coach, but the Huskies at least have momentum and continuity to ease the transition. They went 12-2 in 2012, winning the MAC for the second straight year and earning their first BCS berth (a 31-10 Orange Bowl loss to Florida State). In addition, new coach Rod Carey -- who took over when Dave Doeren went to NC State -- has been on staff for two seasons and was the offensive coordinator in '12, overseeing a unit that outscored opponents 540-278. Foremost among the 16 returning starters is quarterback and Heisman candidate Jordan Lynch. Northern Illinois averaged 38.6 points, with Lynch accounting for 44 touchdowns and 4,953 yards (75.3 percent of the team's total) -- numbers that earned him seventh place in the Heisman voting. -- Martin Rickman

  • 25
    25Virginia Tech Hokies
     
    last week: N/A
    There's never a good time to lose a head coach, but the Huskies at least have momentum and continuity to ease the transition. They went 12-2 in 2012, winning the MAC for the second straight year and earning their first BCS berth (a 31-10 Orange Bowl loss to Florida State). In addition, new coach Rod Carey -- who took over when Dave Doeren went to NC State -- has been on staff for two seasons and was the offensive coordinator in '12, overseeing a unit that outscored opponents 540-278. Foremost among the 16 returning starters is quarterback and Heisman candidate Jordan Lynch. Northern Illinois averaged 38.6 points, with Lynch accounting for 44 touchdowns and 4,953 yards (75.3 percent of the team's total) -- numbers that earned him seventh place in the Heisman voting. -- Martin Rickman

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