Ohio State, Auburn lead SI's 2015 preseason college football Top 25

2:08 | College Football
SI reveals 2015 preseason college football Top 25

These rankings and scouting reports appear in the Aug. 10, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.

Year One of the College Football Playoff went rather well. Ohio State, a team that lost early but appeared to be playing the best, most-dynamic football at season's end, got a chance to prove its mettle on the field, which the Buckeyes did by taking down Alabama and Oregon. The new system brought with it a selection committee that was free enough to drop undefeated Florida State to third in its final rankings, which was the right move (the Seminoles often looked shaky) but would have been unthinkable under the BCS. That's how it's supposed to work, right?

Sort of. Baylor and TCU were one-loss teams, like three of the four that made the playoff, yet neither Big 12 power was given a shot. This didn't quite feel right, but the reality is someone is always going to be left out. Even in an eight-team bracket—an expansion many see as inevitable—there will be little difference between, and much debate about, who's No. 8 and who's No. 9. But the debate is key: It reflects possibility and passion. It gives the regular season meaning. It makes early-August predictions about the Top 25 teams and the four-team playoff field a spark for study and discussion (and maybe even ridicule). Let the arguments begin.

STAPLES: Uncertainty reigns as 2015 college football season nears

Sports Illustrated's Preseason Top 25
  • 1
    1Ohio State Buckeyes
    2014 record: 14-1
    The nation’s knottiest quarterback competition gained some clarity on July 23, when senior Braxton Miller revealed he’s moving to H-back—a hybrid receiver position. That still leaves Ohio State with the most enviable and intriguing QB race, between sophomore J.T. Barrett and junior Cardale Jones. Each has established his credentials with a different style. Barrett went 11-1 as a starter last year, finished No. 5 in Heisman voting and broke Drew Brees’s 16-year-old Big Ten record by accounting for 45 touchdowns. His fractured right ankle in the regular-season finale allowed Jones to step in and lead Ohio State to victories over Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, then Alabama and Oregon in the College Football Playoff. Along the way he established himself as an NFL prospect.

  • 2
    2Auburn Tigers
    2014 record: 8-5
    The last highly touted, 6' 5"-plus quarterback to stroll on to Auburn’s campus won both the Heisman Trophy and the national championship in 2010. So perhaps the comparison with Cam Newton isn’t fair to junior Jeremy Johnson, who has made only two starts on the Plains. “Cam is Cam, and not me,” Johnson says. “I don’t compare myself to Cam that much.” Still, it’s hard to ignore the Cam-like hype around Johnson, a Montgomery, Ala., native who is the primary reason the Tigers should return to playoff contention.

  • 3
    3TCU Horned Frogs
    2014 record: 12-1
    Co-offensive coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie arrived in Fort Worth last season and promptly turned Trevone Boykin, a former receiver, into a dual-threat dynamo. Now the 6' 2", 205-pound Boykin will look to improve on a year in which he passed for a school-record 3,901 yards, rushed for 707 and accounted for 42 touchdowns. Boykin says Cumbie and Meacham brought “an attitude and swag” to the offense, and Patterson notes that Air Raid attacks like the Horned Frogs’ often hit “another level” in the second season.

  • 4
    4Notre Dame Fighting Irish
    2014 record: 8-5
    Malik Zaire has thrown 35 passes as a Notre Dame quarterback. He nevertheless has a catchphrase: Third and long—not long enough. He first recited it in the huddle during a 35-point loss at USC last November, the Irish’s fourth straight defeat to end 2014. The meaning: There is no amount of yardage the offense can’t gain. “Whenever it’s an opportunity for us to take that next step,” Zaire says, “we can do that.” The 18 returning starters learned a lot from last year’s nosedive, and they’re eager to put that knowledge to use.

  • 5
    5Alabama Crimson Tide
    2014 record: 12-2
    For the second consecutive season Alabama enters fall camp with a quarterback competition. Senior Jake Coker, the Florida State transfer, will try to fend off freshman David Cornwell, a highly regarded drop-back passer. Coach Nick Saban has offered no timetable for a decision, so the winner might not be known until the first game. Whoever runs the offense, he’ll have to operate quickly and decisively: In their first year under coordinator Lane Kiffin, the Crimson Tide averaged 9.2 more plays than in 2013.

  • 6
    6Baylor Bears
    2014 record: 11-2
    The Bears bring back plenty of playmakers from the No. 1 offense in the nation last season: sophomore receiver KD Cannon (58 catches for 1,030 yards and eight TDs), senior wideout Jay Lee (15.4 yards per reception) and junior running back Shock Linwood (1,252 yards and 16 TDs on 251 carries). They’re also introducing a whole new dimension in 6' 7", 392-pound tight end LaQuan McGowan, who coach Art Briles points out has “slimmed down.” The unknown is at quarterback, where junior Seth Russell takes over for two-year starter Bryce Petty.

  • 7
    7Michigan State Spartans
    2014 record: 11-2
    Michigan State is a team with top-shelf players and top-end consistency worthy of championship expectations. Senior quarterback Connor Cook, a potential first-rounder next April, has thrown 32 more touchdowns than interceptions the last two years. Tackle Jack Conklin, a 6' 6", 317-pound junior who could have been drafted in round one last spring, anchors a line that allowed only 11 sacks in 2014. Defensive end Shilique Calhoun also returned, to boost a unit that has allowed just 18.3 points per game since 2010.

  • 8
    8USC Trojans
    2014 record: 9-4
    The Trojans’ hopes begin and end with senior quarterback Cody Kessler, a Heisman candidate. Last year the 6' 1", 215-pounder completed a school-record 69.7% of his passes, throwing for 39 touchdowns with only five interceptions. Kessler’s primary target will be sophomore wideout JuJu Smith (54 catches for 724 yards and five touchdowns), while junior Darreus Rogers (21 catches, 245 yards, four touchdowns) will see a major uptick in opportunities. But the offense’s secret weapon could be a defensive player: Adoree’ Jackson, a 2014 freshman All-America cornerback who took a one-yard pass from Kessler and turned it into a 71-yard touchdown in USC’s 45-42 Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska, will see more snaps at receiver.

  • 9
    9Florida State Seminoles
    2014 record: 13-1
    The offense was already in a major state of flux. The line has four new starters to break in. The receiving corps must replace Rashad Greene, who set almost every school record. The quarterback job is a battle between junior Sean Maguire and Everett Golson, a graduate transfer from Notre Dame. Sophomore tailback Dalvin Cook—who led the Seminoles with 1,008 yards rushing in 2014, caught 22 passes and bailed them out of deficits against Louisville and Miami—was the lone sure thing. That was, until his arrest in July on a battery charge for hitting a woman outside a bar.

  • 10
    10Oregon Ducks
    2014 record: 13-2
    Gone is Heisman-winning quarterback and three-year starter Marcus Mariota, and in his place steps … a graduate transfer from the FCS? Or a backup who has attempted 41 passes? If Vernon Adams Jr., who threw for 10,438 yards and ran for 1,232 in three years at Eastern Washington, can quickly learn the playbook, the job is most likely his. The other option is junior Jeff Lockie, who has played garbage time for two years with the exception of one meaningful snap in the 2013 Alamo Bowl—which he fumbled.

  • 11
    11Georgia Bulldogs
    2014 record: 10-3
    Georgia coach Mark Richt hasn’t won an SEC title since 2005, and in his 15th season in Athens he will have to integrate a new offensive coordinator and overcome uncertainty at quarterback. At least he has Nick Chubb. As a true freshman last season the 5' 10", 220-pound Chubb rushed for 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns in place of the injured Todd Gurley; he’s now the focal point of a backfield that includes a healthy Keith Marshall and Sony Michel.

  • 12
    12Clemson Tigers
    2014 record: 10-3
    A broken right index finger and a torn ACL in his left knee couldn’t prevent the arrival of quarterback Deshaun Watson. Despite missing nearly seven full games with injuries, he threw for 1,466 yards and 14 touchdowns as a freshman and looked every bit the five-star signee he was. Now healthy, Watson says, “I want to come back even better.” After leading the country in total defense last fall (4.0 yards per play), the Tigers have to replace All-America linemen Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett and two All-ACC picks, linebacker Stephone Anthony and corner Garry Peters. Still, coach Dabo Swinney says, the unit “is talented—maybe more talented.”

  • 13
    13Ole Miss Rebels
    2014 record: 9-4
    Junior offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil won’t face legal trouble after a fight with his step­father, Lindsey Miller, in July (each dropped the charges), but an ongoing NCAA investigation into alleged improper benefits could affect his eligibility. His loss would devastate an attack relying on his return from a broken right leg suffered in the Peach Bowl. Junior re­ceiver Laquon Treadwell (13.2 yards per catch) also broke his leg last year, but he has loaded his Instagram feed with videos showing how thoroughly he has recovered.

  • 14
    14UCLA Bruins
    2014 record: 10-3
    With 18 returning starters, UCLA packs much of the firepower from last year’s 10-3 squad, which missed out on the Pac‑12 title game only because of a 31-10 loss to Stanford in the regular-season finale. Yet for all that experience, there’s a critical piece missing: Brett Hundley, the Bruins’ three-year quarterback starter. Coach Jim Mora has yet to name his replacement, but Josh Rosen, the top-ranked QB recruit in 2015 who enrolled in January, is widely considered to be the favorite.

  • 15
    15Arizona Wildcats
    2014 record: 10-4
    Anu Solomon gained national attention after passing for 3,793 yards (and 28 TDs) as a redshirt freshman in 2014. But his coaches are focused on a different number: 85%, the rate of successful decisions, from deciphering cover­ages to the timing of handoffs, they expect their QB to make. “For me to tell you he was hitting 85—no, not last year,” co-offensive coordinator Rod Smith says. “We under­stood it because of the s­­­---storm he was in as a freshman [starter].”

  • 16
    16Boise State Broncos
    2014 record: 12-2
    Boise State’s strength is in the trenches. The entire offensive line is back, led by senior center Marcus Henry (6’ 3”, 296) and senior left tackle Rees Odhiambo (6’ 4”, 303), both All-Mountain West selections. On defense, 6’ 3”, 244-pound junior defensive end Kamalei Correa—who had 19 tackles for loss, including 12 sacks, in 2014—joins senior defensive tackle Tyler Horn to form a pass-rushing tandem that should keep opposing QBs off balance. The secondary should also be formidable with senior safety Darian Thompson and senior corner Donte Deayon, while the linebacking corps features junior Tanner Vallejo, the Fiesta Bowl’s defensive MVP.

  • 17
    17Arizona State Sun Devils
    2014 record: 10-3
    With fifth-year senior QB Mike Bercovici, a veteran defense and a new leader for special teams, coach Todd Graham aims to improve on last year’s 10-3 record, which included a 36-31 Sun Bowl victory over Duke. “We should be the best we’ve been,” says Graham, who’s entering his fourth year in Tempe. The Sun Devils scored more than 50 points three times in 2014. In Bercovici’s three starts—he totaled 1,243 yards and nine TDs—they averaged 182 more yards passing; twice he threw for more than 485.

  • 18
    18Stanford Cardinal
    2014 record: 8-5
    The Cardinal had just eight wins last season after averaging 11.5 the previous four, and the reason for the decline was clear: the lack of a dominant tailback. Stanford coaches expect sophomore Christian McCaffrey to be the bell cow this fall, rekindling memories of grinders Tyler Gaffney and Stepfan Taylor. The 6-foot McCaffrey, son of former NFL receiver Ed McCaffrey, bulked up to 205 pounds to become effective in pass protection and between the tackles. He can handle Stanford’s go-to inside power play, split out to the slot (14.8 yards per catch) and return kicks and punts.

  • 19
    19Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
    2014 record: 11-3
    The Yellow Jackets won three of their final four games, all against top 20 teams, including a 49-34 victory over Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl. This fall coach Paul Johnson wants to prove his team isn’t a two-month wonder. Johnson’s sneaky triple-option attack will again be led by junior Justin Thomas (5' 11", 189 pounds), who set the school’s quarterback rushing record with 1,086 yards last year and has four starters returning on the O-line.

  • 20
    20Missouri Tigers
    2014 record: 11-3
    After losing defensive ends Shane Ray and Markus Golden to the NFL, the Tigers seemed ready to rebuild their line with two more potential high draft picks: junior tackle Harold Brantley and sophomore end Marcus Loud. But Loud was dismissed from the team in May for an unspecified violation of team policies; a month later Brantley suffered myriad injuries in a car crash that will sideline him for the season. (He’s expected to return in 2016.) Suddenly, Missouri had two huge holes to fill in a D that led the SEC with 44 sacks.

  • 21
    21Oklahoma Sooners
    2014 record: 8-5
    While coach Bob Stoops has defended his program after a disappointing 8-5 season, he made eight changes to his staff, highlighted by the hiring of East Carolina offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. An Air Raid disciple, Riley won’t give up on the ground game—not with 5' 11", 237-pound sophomore Samaje Perine, who last year set an FBS record with 427 rushing yards against Kansas. After switching to a 3-4 defense in 2013, the Sooners will incorporate more 4-3 this year to cater to senior linebacker Eric Striker’s strengths. They have other effective run-stoppers in junior Dominique Alexander (107 tackles) and redshirt senior Frank Shannon (92 tackles in 2013, suspended for ’14).

  • 22
    22Arkansas Razorbacks
    2014 record: 7-6
    When coach Bret Bielema left Wisconsin for
 Arkansas in 2012, SEC watchers were doubtful that his grunt-and-grind, pro-style scheme 
would work against like-minded bullies LSU and 
Alabama. After shutting out the Tigers and coming within a fumble of beating the Tide last year, 
the Razorbacks turned many of those skeptics 
into believers. Arkansas finished 7-6 but had 
more heartbreaking misses than Dustin Johnson
 at the majors. Four starters are back on an offensive line that was the conference’s best, as are senior Jonathan Williams and junior Alex Collins, 
the country’s only tandem of 1,000-yard backs 
last year.

  • 23
    23LSU Tigers
    2014 record: 8-5
    After an impressive if inconsistent freshman season—six games with 52 yards or less rushing and five games of more than 100—Leonard Fournette will be one of the nation’s most exciting players. The 6' 1", 230-pounder will be the focal point of coach Les Miles’s offense, especially because the Tigers have yet to determine who will be under center. It helps that LSU has a veteran offensive line and one of the nation’s best young receiving units in 6' 3" sophomore Malachi Dupre, 6' 2" junior Travin Dural and speedy 6-foot sophomore slot receiver John Diarse.

  • 24
    24Wisconsin Badgers
    2014 record: 11-3
    Expect Paul Chryst to stick with Wisconsin’s run-oriented offensive identity. The Badgers lost record-breaking tailback Melvin Gor­don to the NFL, but junior Corey Clement is primed for a breakout. He gained 949 yards last year as the backup and spent the off-season improving his endurance in preparation for a bigger workload. To ensure defenses can’t key on Clement, Wisconsin will need consistency from a passing attack that ranked 12th in the Big Ten. Senior quarterback Joel Stave showed signs of improvement toward the end of 2014, and Chryst has been impressed by Stave’s approach this summer.

  • 25
    25Mississippi State Bulldogs
    2014 record: 10-3
    A 1-2 finish to the regular season and a 49-34 Orange Bowl loss to Georgia Tech dulled the buzz from the Bulldogs’ historic 2014 season, which began 9-0 and featured the school’s first No. 1 ranking. To try to ensure a happier ending in ’15, coach Dan Mullen cranked up the tempo of State’s offense this spring. The speedier approach exploits senior quarterback Dak Prescott’s command as a third-year starter who accounted for 4,435 yards and 41 touchdowns in 2014. It also helps mask the Bulldogs’ biggest weakness: an offensive line that lost three players who had combined for 113 career starts.

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