Post-spring Power Rankings: Ohio State, Baylor lead too-early Top 25
Spring practice is over. Graduation has happened at some schools, and at others it’s right around the corner. The long break until fall camp is upon us, and plenty is certain to change before the first games kick off Sept. 3.
Still, that’s never prevented too-early speculation in the past. And while projecting college football rankings in May is much like deciding what’s for dinner five months before it’s served, we’re going to do it anyway. It’s time to start asking questions: Can Ohio State repeat? Which team will rule the SEC? Can a surprise contender crack the College Football Playoff field?
Without further ado, here is SI.com’s 2015 post-spring Top 25.
The three-headed quarterback storyline aside, the Buckeyes bring back 15 starters from last season’s national title team, including defensive end Joey Bosa, linebacker Darron Lee and tailback Ezekiel Elliott. And while Urban Meyer downplayed Ohio State’s progress this spring, that’s likely more of a motivational ploy than an indictment of roster stagnancy. Keep an eye on a budding receiving corps led by Corey Smith, Curtis Samuel and Noah Brown.
This would've seemed strange to write only a few years ago, but the Bears’ playmakers get the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise. Bryce Petty, Antwan Goodley and Levi Norwood are gone, but quarterback Seth Russell went 14 of 21 for 100 yards in the spring game and seems poised to keep Art Briles's attack humming at Bugatti Veyron-speed. Other players of note: 6’9” defensive end Shawn Oakman, who has already established a reputation as the nation's most intimidating player; tight end LaQuan McGowan, a 400-pounder who scored the most memorable touchdown of bowl season; and redshirt freshman wideout Ishmael Zamora, who makes catches like this and is primed to break out in a big way.
The offense should be loaded behind junior quarterback Jeremy Johnson, who went 14 of 22 for 252 yards with two touchdowns in the spring game, and fellow weapons Roc Thomas, Duke Williams and Ricardo Louis. Still, the reason Auburn appears set to compete for a playoff bid is a revamped defense under coordinator Will Muschamp. Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams should comprise a potent pass rush, while a secondary featuring Jonathan Jones (who recently underwent minor surgery) and Tray Matthews (who is eligible after sitting out last season following his dismissal from Georgia) should be much improved.
There are lots of hypothetical reasons why this could be the season Alabama falls, but discounting the Crimson Tide is akin to discounting House Lannister in Game of Thrones, and Nick Saban always pays his debts. The offense underwent a total overhaul following the departures of Blake Sims and Amari Cooper, but quarterback Jake Coker played well in the spring game (14 of 28 for 183 yards with a touchdown) and wide receivers Chris Black, ArDarius Stewart and Robert Foster could thrive in Lane Kiffin’s scheme. As for the defense: Well, it’s a Saban-led unit and boasts A’Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen and Reggie Ragland. Even with questions in the secondary, here’s betting Bama will be just fine.
Michigan State lost two games last season: at Oregon and against Ohio State. Those two teams went on to play for the national title, while the Spartans whipped their other 11 opponents by an average score of 45-17. Quarterback Connor Cook—who is being projected as a top-10 pick in the 2016 NFL draft—returns with defensive end Shilique Calhoun and cornerback Darian Hicks. Michigan State also has a rising star in Lawrence Thomas, a senior who has transitioned from fullback to nose tackle to defensive end and basically steamrolled offensive linemen all spring.
Notre Dame’s 2014 season went like every relationship Taylor Swift has ever had: It burned bright before ending in disaster. The Fighting Irish won their first six games before dropping five of their next six, although they rebounded to beat LSU in the Music City Bowl. Most of the focus this spring was on the quarterback race—Malik Zaire will start, as Everett Golson has announced his intention to transfer—but the program’s strength may be almost everything else. Front and center should be a ground game that features Tarean Folston, Greg Bryant and safety-turned-receiver-turned-tailback C.J. Prosise, of whom Brian Kelly told reporters in April: “He’s really rounding into a guy that you’re going to fear.”
In addition to bringing back two-way sensation and potential member of the Avengers Myles Jack, UCLA returns its entire offensive line and junior running back Paul Perkins, who can make a case for being the most dynamic player no one talks about. He rushed for 1,575 yards last season—more than Nick Chubb, Jeremy Langford and Josh Robinson—and went off for 194 yards with two touchdowns in the Bruins' Alamo Bowl win over Kansas State. Heck, he even boasts early Heisman Trophy odds of 20/1. UCLA has yet to name a starting quarterback, but the leader after spring practice is thought to be Josh Rosen, an early enrollee who has drawn labels as the future of the program. Rosen has more immediate concerns, though, like avoiding FOMO.
To expect Florida State to replicate its success of the past two seasons would be unrealistic. Jameis Winston and a host of other stars are gone, and was Guns N’ Roses really the same after Slash left? But have the Seminoles rebounded from losing a boatload of NFL talent before? Yes. Have they found ways to succeed while dealing with tons of injuries (such as the ones this spring to Chris Casher and Matthew Thomas and Reggie Northrup)? Yes. Do they have a handful of shiny new toys, including precocious safety Derwin James and electrifying receiver George Campbell, who blew past two defenders en route to a 65-yard touchdown in the spring game? Yes to that, too. The ‘Noles won’t enter 2015 with title expectations, but they have the pieces to reach the double-digit-win plateau once again.
Being the Oregon quarterback who follows Marcus Mariota must feel a bit like being the New York Yankees shortstop who replaces Derek Jeter. It’s a nearly impossible task, so maybe it’s best to bring in someone from the outside. Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams Jr. didn’t play this spring—he’ll arrive to campus over the summer, while Jeff Lockie went 9 of 9 for 223 yards with three touchdowns in the spring game—but regardless of who starts, the Ducks will surround him with plenty of weapons. Among them: Royce Freeman, who ran for 1,365 yards in 2014; Bralon Addison, who is back after recovering from a torn ACL; and Charles Nelson, who caught five passes for 144 yards in just the first half of Oregon's spring game.
Stanford’s 2014 season felt a lot like Michigan State’s ’12 campaign: It didn’t live up to the hype and featured lots of close losses (including a 17-14 defeat at Notre Dame that was decided when Golson, who was 20 of 42 passing to that point, threw a 28-yard scoring strike on fourth-and-11 with one minute remaining). Still, it was likely more of an aberration than an omen of a downfall to come. Senior quarterback Kevin Hogan came on strong toward the end of last fall, and junior tight end Austin Hooper made five grabs for 103 yards in the spring game. There’s also linebacker Blake Martinez, who should spearhead a defense that has routinely been terrific. “Blake Martinez is on the verge of stardom,” coach David Shaw told reporters after the team’s final spring scrimmage. “He’s got a chance to be really special.”
The Rebels were one of several SEC teams to finish spring practice without a clear top option at quarterback, as Ryan Buchanan (11 of 19), Chad Kelly (11 of 23) and Devante Kincade (9 of 18) all underwhelmed in the Grove Bowl. But keep in mind former starter Bo Wallace was anything but consistent last year, and Ole Miss still won nine games. Hope should sprout from a defense that swallowed offenses whole in 2014, the return of receiver Laquon Treadwell and the occasional flashes of brilliance from Jaylen Walton—fans may remember his 91-yard Egg Bowl scamper—such as this spring’s trick-play, 66-yard touchdown pass to Damore’ea Stringfellow.
Based on the eye test alone, USC appears to have the players necessary to make a run at a 2015 playoff berth. Quarterback Cody Kessler, receiver JuJu Smith (nine catches for 152 yards in the spring game) and safety Su’a Cravens are all bona fide stars. The problem? Despite the end of NCAA sanctions dating back to the Reggie Bush case, the Trojans still lack depth, especially on defense. USC’s return to glory—it hasn’t finished in the top five of the AP Poll since '08—is within reach, but a schedule that includes games versus Stanford, Arizona State, Washington and Notre Dame by mid-October will be formidable.
Could the Broncos finish undefeated in 2015? That’s a tall order, but it’s not out of the question. Second-year coach Bryan Harsin brings back almost the entirety of a front seven that dominated in the trenches last fall, plus all five starting offensive linemen and a veteran-laden secondary. Quietly efficient quarterback Grant Hedrick and pickle-juice-drinking running back Jay Ajayi are gone, but sophomore passer Ryan Finley has shown glimpses with both his arm and his legs; he went 13 of 25 for 196 yards in the spring game. The X-factor is new offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz, a former Gus Malzahn disciple who previously spent time at Springdale (Ark.) High, Auburn and Arkansas State. If he can get Boise State’s offense to sing, this group could be a whole lot more than just the Group of Five team to beat.
If sophomore Deshaun Watson can return to form after recovering from a torn ACL, Clemson will have the premier quarterback in the ACC and one of the best in the nation. The bigger issue will likely come on defense, where a team that limited opponents to 4.03 yards per play in 2014 loses eight seniors, including destroyer-of-worlds Vic Beasley and the vastly underrated Stephone Anthony. If coordinator Brent Venables can get an inexperienced group to play at a level even resembling that of last year’s unit, the Tigers should finish much higher than this.
Nick Chubb saw limited action in the spring game, but there's no doubt about what the tailback can do. Chubb ran for 1,547 yards as a true freshman and torched Louisville for 266 yards with two touchdowns in the Belk Bowl. For Georgia to enter the playoff conversation, however, it must replace the production of departed linebackers Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera (who combined to make 225 tackles including 17 for loss last season) and form a far more effective passing attack. Leonard Floyd—who is recovering from shoulder surgery—along with Reggie Carter, Tim Kimbrough and Lorenzo Carter should help with the former, while Faton Bauta, Brice Ramsey or Jacob Park will bear responsibility for the latter. That is, unless a certain former Notre Dame star sets his sights on Athens.
How stacked is Arizona State’s stable of running backs? So stacked that senior D.J. Foster, who rushed for 1,081 yards in 2014, has moved to slot receiver to help the team and boost his 2016 NFL draft stock. That puts the onus on Demario Richard, spring standout Kalen Ballage and touted redshirt freshman De’Chavon “Gump” Hayes to perform. Mike Bercovici takes the reins at quarterback, while nine starters are back from a defense that came together after a 62-27 loss to UCLA last September. Most notable may be redshirt senior cornerback Lloyd Carrington, who earned lofty praise from coach Todd Graham after the spring game. “Lloyd is the best corner I’ve worked with in my career because he’s the smartest, has the best character, has the best technique,” Graham told reporters.
Wondering if Wisconsin has a capable running back is like wondering if a Seinfeld re-run is airing on TV. The answer is always yes, and the product is always good. Melvin Gordon will barrel through defenders for the San Diego Chargers now, but the Badgers boast Corey Clement, Dare Ogunbowale and Taiwan Deal. Here's where things get iffy: Joel Stave, who had a case of the yips and went just 110 of 206 passing in 2014, was named the starting quarterback, and he lacks a true game-breaking receiver. The offensive line—which is now without Rob Havenstein, Kyle Costigan and Dallas Lewallen—also saw center Dan Woltz miss much of spring practice while recovering from an ankle injury. Wisconsin typically finds ways to win but has several areas of concern entering this fall. Its first test, against Alabama in Cowboys Stadium on Sept. 5, should be telling.
Georgia Tech has the key to its triple-option offense in place. Quarterback Justin Thomas, who amassed 2,805 total yards in 2014, is back for his junior season. But injuries have wrecked the team’s A-back and B-back depth, claiming C.J. Leggett (knee), Broderick Snoddy (leg) and Quaide Weimerskirch (foot). Expect growing pains on a unit that averaged 342 rushing yards per game last year. On defense it’s tough to understate the importance of the return of defensive tackle Jabari Hunt-Days, who had his scholarship revoked after being ruled academically ineligible last fall but was reinstated by the NCAA on May 9. He has received glowing reviews in practice, most of which sound something like this: “Jabari’s going to be a monster,” redshirt junior A-back Dennis Andrews told ESPN’s Andrea Adelson.
The Sooners hit the reset button with their personnel this off-season, working in eight new assistants headlined by offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. While that has made for a huge adjustment, particularly during a spring in which Oklahoma’s campus has been the site of racial unrest, it also sets the stage for a major turnaround if all goes well. This group was supposed to compete for a playoff berth last year and returns all-conference-type talents in receiver Sterling Shepard, linebacker Eric Striker and cornerback Zack Sanchez. Regardless of who takes snaps under center (neither Trevor Knight nor Baker Mayfield looked sharp in the spring game), he should have lots of help from a ground game led by Samaje Perine, who set an FBS record with his 427-yard rushing effort against Kansas last November.
It may be tough to remember now, but before quarterback Taysom Hill went down with a broken leg in a loss to Utah State last October, BYU was a dark-horse playoff threat and Hill was on the fringe of the Heisman Trophy race. Entering 2015, the Cougars may be set to make another charge. Hill didn’t participate this spring—Christian Stewart, whose eligibility expired last fall, helped out in that regard—but is reportedly on track to recover by fall camp. Factor in the return of tailback Jamaal Williams, who missed the final four games of last season with a knee injury, and a receiving corps that has a go-to target (Mitch Mathews), a breakout threat (Mitchell Juergens) and an impact juco transfer (Nick Kurtz), and this offense should be able to hang with the best of them. The schedule will mandate it: BYU’s first four foes are Nebraska, Boise State, UCLA and Michigan.
The Cowboys have a knack for surprising when they fly under the radar, and they’re doing just that as they head into the summer. Sophomore Mason Rudolph will be the guy at quarterback after passing for 853 yards with six touchdowns in the team’s final three games; his emergence prompted Daxx Garman to announce his intention to transfer in March. Emmanuel Ogbah is an All-America-type player at defensive end, while junior safety Jordan Sterns is wildly underrated after racking up 103 tackles in 2014. If the defense can generate turnovers—it had five in the spring game after forcing 14 all of last season—look for Oklahoma State to contend in the Big 12. That’s especially true if a murky backfield situation begins to clear up.
Next five: Arkansas, Utah, Mississippi State, Texas, Michigan