- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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The BCS era ended with No. 1 Florida State ending the SEC's streak of seven consecutive BCS national championships Monday night, winning its first national title since 1999 with a 34-31 victory over No. 2 Auburn in the VIZIO BCS National Championship at the Rose Bowl.
With Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston and a plethora of starters returning this coming season, FSU will be the team to beat again in 2014. FSU is the No. 1 team in the first edition of the 2014 Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25 poll.
The Seminoles will be a popular choice to win back-to-back national titles in 2014, the first season of college football's new four-team playoff.
Here's the Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25 poll:
The Seminoles are starting to resemble what former FSU coach Bobby Bowden built during the 1990s. The defending BCS national champions have stockpiled NFL-type talent under coach Jimbo Fisher and his staff, and they might bring back eight starters on offense and six on defense in 2014. FSU will have to wait to see whether a few underclassmen such as left tackle Cam Erving, wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin and tight end Nick O'Leary return to school or enter the NFL draft. But Winston is coming back, along with a stable of capable tailbacks and a plethora of big-play receivers. The biggest personnel losses will occur on defense, where the Seminoles will have to replace linebackers Christian Jones and Telvin Smith, cornerback Lamarcus Joyner and safety Terrence Brooks. However, the Seminoles figure to be even better in their second season in defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt's 3-4 scheme. FSU's schedule will be more challenging next season; it opens against Oklahoma State in Arlington, Texas and also plays Notre Dame (home) and Louisville (road), which joins the ACC next season.
The Crimson Tide finished the 2013 season with consecutive losses, and their 45-31 loss to Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl exposed concerns about their offensive line and secondary. But Alabama might bring back eight starters on both offense and defense, although offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix are deciding whether to enter the NFL draft. Undoubtedly, the biggest losses are quarterback AJ McCarron, who had a 36-4 record as a starter and guided the Tide to two BCS national championships, and star linebacker C.J. Mosley. Rising senior Blake Sims, incoming freshman David Cornwell and others will battle for the starting quarterback job in 2014. Also, FSU backup quarterback Jacob Coker might be eyeing a potential transfer to Alabama as well. The Tide might bring back four starting offensive linemen and their top three tailbacks, so they figure to have a high-powered offense, regardless of who starts under center. The Tide play only four true road games this coming season and open the season against West Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta. They'll face Florida, Texas A&M and Auburn at home in SEC play.
3. Oregon Ducks
Sure, the Ducks suffered disappointing losses to Stanford and Arizona that knocked them out of the national championship race. But Oregon still finished 11-2 under first-year coach Mark Helfrich, and the Ducks looked like one of the country's best teams when quarterback Marcus Mariota was healthy. Oregon might bring back nine starters on offense in 2014, including Mariota, who figures to be one of the leading Heisman Trophy candidates. Tailback De'Anthony Thomas, a big-play threat whenever he touches the ball, is leaving for the NFL draft, and the Ducks also will have to replace as many as six defensive starters (including all but one defensive back after junior cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu announced he was returning to school), as well as longtime defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, who announced his retirement before the Ducks defeated Texas 30-7 in the Valero Alamo Bowl. Oregon plays a nonconference game against Michigan State at home, but it will miss USC and Arizona State during Pac-12 play.
Suddenly, Stanford has become the most dominant program on the West Coast. The Cardinal have won back-to-back Pac-12 championships, played in four straight BCS bowl games and won 34 games in coach David Shaw's three seasons. As long as Shaw remains on the Farm -- and he has made it clear he isn't going anywhere in the near future -- the Cardinal figure to be in the Pac-12 title mix every season. Stanford will have to rebuild its dominant offensive line, especially if junior All-American guard David Yankey and junior offensive tackle Cameron Fleming enter the NFL draft. Senior center Khalil Wilkes and guard Kevin Danser also are departing. But Stanford has recruited offensive linemen better than any program in the country, and future NFL players such as Kyle Murphy, Johnny Caspers and Joshua Garnett are waiting in the wings. The Cardinal might bring back seven starters on defense, but linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov will be difficult to replace. The Cardinal will face a daunting road slate in Pac-12 play this coming season with road contests at Arizona State, Oregon, UCLA and Washington.
If the Tigers were able to win an SEC championship and reach the BCS National Championship in their first season under coach Gus Malzahn, how good can they be in Year 2? Everything seemed to fall in place during Auburn's magical season in 2013, but it might be loaded for a repeat this coming season. The Tigers might bring back 10 starters on offense, including quarterback Nick Marshall and tailback Tre Mason (who might enter the NFL draft). Auburn started two freshmen and a sophomore on the offensive line this season, though the unit figures to take a hit with Greg Robinson heading to the draft. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson will have to do a little more work in the offseason, with five starters departing, including defensive end Dee Ford and cornerback Chris Davis. Auburn also will have to replace kicker Cody Parkey and punter Steven Clark. The Tigers will have to navigate their way through a few difficult road games in 2014, including trips to Kansas State, Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama.
The Spartans' 24-20 victory over Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO might propel them to even bigger things in 2014. MSU also upset then-No. 2 Ohio State to win its first outright Big Ten championship since 1987, and it figures to battle the Buckeyes again for supremacy in the conference this coming season. Michigan State loses three starters on the offensive line and six more on defense, including star linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen and All-American cornerback Darqueze Dennard. MSU coach Mark Dantonio might have to ask a little more from his offense, which improved as first-year quarterback Connor Cook and tailback Jeremy Langford became more comfortable. Keeping defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who turned down Connecticut's head-coaching job, was a major coup. MSU plays a nonconference game at Oregon on Sept. 13 and will play the majority of its difficult Big Ten games at home. The Spartans host Nebraska, Michigan and Ohio State and won't play Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota or Northwestern in the league's new scheduling format.
7. UCLA Bruins
UCLA's administration finally decided it wanted to get serious about supporting its football program, and coach Jim Mora already has provided some nice returns, winning 19 games in his first two seasons with the Bruins. Quarterback Brett Hundley announced he is returning for his junior season, and the Bruins might be poised to play in their first Rose Bowl since 1998 -- or even a spot in the four-team playoff. UCLA might bring back eight starters on offense; junior tackle Xavier Su'a-Filo announced he's entering the NFL draft. UCLA still expects to bring back four starting offensive linemen, which is always a good recipe for success. Seven starters might be back on defense, but the Bruins will have to replace All-American linebacker Anthony Barr and linebacker Jordan Zumwalt. The Bruins will play Texas in Arlington on Sept. 13 and get Oregon, Stanford and USC at home during Pac-12 play.
The Sooners are headed back in the right direction, finishing 11-2 and upsetting Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Rising sophomore Trevor Knight finally looked like the quarterback everyone thought he could be against Alabama, throwing for 348 yards and four touchdowns. The Sooners have to get more production out of their passing game in 2014, especially with top tailbacks Brennan Clay and Roy Finch departing. The Sooners also lose center Gabe Ikard, guard Bronson Irwin and receivers Lacoltan Bester and Jalen Saunders on offense. Nine starters might return on defense, and the Sooners were much better in coordinator Mike Stoops' second season back with the program. Oklahoma's schedule might set up favorably this coming season; it plays Texas in Dallas and Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma State at home during Big 12 play.
The Buckeyes fell just short of going undefeated in two consecutive regular seasons under Urban Meyer, but then finished the season with consecutive losses against Michigan State and Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl. Now Meyer will have to rebuild much of his offense, even with quarterback Braxton Miller returning for his senior season. OSU will have to replace four starting offensive linemen, tailback Carlos Hyde and H-back Philly Brown. The Buckeyes might bring back seven starters on defense; safeties Corey Brown and C.J. Barnett, junior cornerback Bradley Roby and junior linebacker Ryan Shazier are the only starters leaving. OSU opens the season against Navy in Baltimore and plays Virginia Tech and Cincinnati at home in nonconference games. The Buckeyes won't play Iowa, Nebraska, Northwestern or Wisconsin during Big Ten play, and their most difficult league road games seem to be at Penn State and Michigan State.
10. LSU Tigers
There will be a lot of eyes on LSU's underclassmen, as there might be a mass exodus for the NFL draft for the second season in a row. Defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson have already announced they're turning pro, as well as top receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, Junior tailback Jeremy Hill and left tackle La'el Collins are reportedly leaning toward leaving school, too.The Tigers still have a chance to be very explosive on offense, even without departing quarterback Zach Mettenberger and his top receivers. Rising sophomore Anthony Jennings guided LSU to a 21-14 victory over Iowa in the Outback Bowl after Mettenberger suffered a season-ending injury and is the favorite to start under center in 2014. Four offensive linemen are coming back (if Collins leaves), along with tailbacks Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee. Senior safety Craig Loston will be a big loss on defense. The Tigers open the season against Wisconsin in Houston, but then play their next four games at home. They'll play SEC road games at Auburn, Florida, Arkansas and Texas A&M.
For more on how the Tigers will look in 2014, check out LSU's recruiting profileclass rankings.
11. Georgia Bulldogs
Nothing seemed to go right for the Bulldogs in the second half of the 2013 season, from myriad injuries to the final minutes of a crushing 43-38 loss to Auburn to a 24-19 loss to Nebraska in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl. But if there's a silver lining in UGA's disappointing 8-5 campaign, it's that a lot of injured players are coming back in 2014. The Bulldogs will have to replace record-setting quarterback Aaron Murray, but rising senior Hutson Mason performed pretty well in two starts after Murray suffered a season-ending knee injury. Georgia might bring back six starters on offense, along with top receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley and tailback Keith Marshall, who suffered season-ending injuries. The Bulldogs will have to replace three starting offensive linemen. UGA might have back 10 starters from its underperforming defense, which started six freshmen and sophomores in 2013. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham will be under fire to fix UGA's problems on that side of the ball. The Bulldogs open the season against Clemson at home and don't play Alabama, LSU or Texas A&M during SEC play.
12. Baylor Bears
With coach Art Briles committing to stay at Baylor, it will be the favorite to repeat as Big 12 champion in 2014. Quarterback Bryce Petty is coming back to run Briles' fast-paced spread offense, but tailback Lache Seastrunk is entering the NFL draft. Rising sophomore Shock Linwood ran well when Seastrunk and backup Glasco Martin were hurt late in the season. Baylor will have to replace three starting offensive linemen, including All-American guard Cyril Richardson, as well as wide receiver Tevin Reese. Baylor also will have to replace six starters on defense, including safety Ahmad Dixon and cornerbacks K.J. Morton and Demetri Goodson. Baylor's 52-42 loss to UCF in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl was further evidence that it still has a long way to go on defense. The Bears will play another soft nonconference schedule (home games against SMU and FCS foe Northwestern State and a road game at Buffalo), but they'll play difficult Big 12 road games at Texas and Oklahoma.
For everything Steve Spurrier has accomplished at South Carolina -- winning 77 games in nine seasons and guiding the Gamecocks to their first SEC East title in 2010 -- he's still searching for his first SEC championship there. If the Gamecocks are going to do it in 2014, they'll have to replace a lot of star power on both sides of the ball. Carolina loses underappreciated quarterback Connor Shaw, as well as defensive linemen Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles, who announced they're leaving for the NFL draft. Receiver Bruce Ellington and cornerback Victor Hampton also are turning pro. But South Carolina might still bring back eight starters on offense, including tailback Mike Davis and four offensive linemen. Rising senior quarterback Dylan Thompson gained plenty of experience over the past couple of seasons. While Carolina will have to rebuild its defensive line, the back seven might return intact, except for Hampton and senior cornerback Jimmy Legree. Carolina plays four of its first five games at home, including SEC contests against Texas A&M, Georgia and Missouri.
14. USC Trojans
New Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian inherits enough talent to produce a Pac-12 South contender this coming season. Sarkisian was able to retain USC offensive coordinator Clay Helton, and he brought in defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox from Washington. Quarterback Cody Kessler played well at the end of this past season, throwing for 345 yards and four touchdowns in a 45-20 rout of Fresno State in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl. Sarkisian figures to open up the quarterback competition, so Kessler will have to hold off Max Browne this spring. Junior receiver Marqise Lee is entering the NFL draft, but Nelson Agholor and tight end Xavier Grimble are coming back. There is also plenty of talent in the backfield, with Javorius Allen, Tre Madden and Justin Davis coming back. Eight starters might be back on defense, including end Leonard Williams and safety Su'a Cravens. The Trojans open the season against Fresno State at home and also play nonconference games against Boston College (road) and Notre Dame (home).
The Badgers went 9-4 in coach Gary Andersen's first season, dropping their last two games, 31-24 against Penn State and 34-24 against South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl. Wisconsin will have a chance to be as good or even better in 2014, especially after tailback Melvin Gordon decided to return for his junior season. Gordon ran for 1,609 yards with 12 touchdowns this past season. The Badgers will lose senior tailback James White, who ran for 1,444 yards with 13 touchdowns, but Corey Clement averaged 8.2 yards with seven touchdowns as a freshman. Quarterback Joel Stave is also coming back, but the Badgers lose their top four receivers, including Jared Abbrederis, who caught 78 passes for 1,081 yards with seven touchdowns. Wisconsin also will have to rebuild its defense, with each of its three down linemen and three of its four starting linebackers leaving. Here's what might give the Badgers their best chance at winning a Big Ten title in 2014: They won't play Michigan, Michigan State or Ohio State during the regular season.
16. Texas A&M Aggies
The bad news: The Aggies probably aren't going to have quarterback Johnny Manziel around to bail out their porous defense in 2014. The good news: Texas A&M's defense has to be better than it was this past season, when four freshmen or sophomores started on that side of the ball. Rising senior Matt Joeckel or sophomore Kenny Hill will inherit the unenviable task of replacing Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner, who is entering the NFL draft as a sophomore. Receiver Mike Evans, another draft-eligible sophomore, is also turning pro. The Aggies also will have to replace All-American left tackle Jake Matthews and receivers Travis Labhart and Derel Walker. But coach Kevin Sumlin has stockpiled a solid corps of running backs and receivers and four starting offensive linemen are expected to return. Only two defensive starters -- linebacker Steven Jenkins and safety Toney Hurd Jr. -- are expected to leave. The Aggies' nonconference schedule (home games against FCS foe Lamar, Rice and Louisiana-Monroe and a road contest at SMU) shouldn't be too challenging, but they'll play SEC road games at South Carolina, Alabama and Auburn.
The Tar Heels were one of the ACC's hottest teams in the second half of the season, recovering from a 1-5 start to win six of their last seven games, including a 39-17 win over Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl. In coach Larry Fedora's second season, UNC finally seemed to figure out the nuances of his spread offense, averaging 40.5 points in its last seven games. The Tar Heels were really young in 2013 -- 12 of their 22 starters in the Belk Bowl were freshmen or sophomores -- and they might bring back seven starters on both sides of the ball next season. Junior tight end Eric Ebron and center Russell Bodine are leaving for the NFL draft, and departing left tackle James Hurst is another big loss on offense. Fedora also will have to hire a new playcaller after offensive coordinator Blake Anderson left to become Arkansas State's coach. UNC will play ACC road games at Clemson, Duke, Miami and Virginia.
18. Clemson Tigers
The Tigers are going to be hard-pressed to match their success of the past three seasons, when departing quarterback Tajh Boyd guided them to 32 victories and a pair of BCS bowl games. The Tigers won't fall off the map, especially with offensive coordinator Chad Morris coming back for another season on Dabo Swinney's staff, but they'll have to replace their top playmakers. Along with Boyd, Clemson will lose leading rusher Roderick McDowell and receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant, who are turning pro. Morris will choose a new quarterback from among rising senior Cole Stoudt, sophomore Chad Kelly and incoming freshman Deshaun Watson, one of the country's most prized recruits. Clemson's defense performed much better this past season and eight starters might return to that side of the ball, although junior defensive end Vic Beasley might enter the NFL draft. The good news? The Tigers will avoid the top three teams from the ACC's Coastal Division (Duke, Miami and Virginia Tech) during the regular season in 2014.
Former Boise State coach Chris Petersen might not catch Stanford and Oregon in the Pac-12 North in his first season with the Huskies. But it wouldn't be a huge surprise if he does it in the near future. Petersen, who had a 92-12 record with the Broncos, inherits a much better UW program than Sarkisian did. Petersen will have to replace senior quarterback Keith Price and junior tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and tailback Bishop Sankey, who are leaving for the NFL draft, but the entire offensive line and a much-improved defense is coming back. Rising sophomore Cyler Myles looks like Price's successor under center, and Dwayne Washington ran for 332 yards with four touchdowns as a freshman. The UW defense was much improved this past season, and end Hau'oli Kikaha (13 sacks), cornerback Marcus Peters (five interceptions) and linebacker Shaq Thompson are coming back. The Huskies have to play at Oregon this coming season, but they'll host Arizona State, Stanford and UCLA.
20. Ole Miss Rebels
After going 8-5 this past season, Rebels coach Hugh Freeze can look forward to talented freshmen such as defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, safety Tony Conner and receiver Laquon Treadwell being older and wiser in 2014. Unfortunately, Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M aren't leaving the SEC West anytime soon. Ole Miss will have to replace three starting offensive linemen as well as junior receiver Donte Moncrief, who announced he's turning pro. Quarterback Bo Wallace is coming back for his senior season, after throwing for 3,346 yards with 18 touchdowns this past season. The Rebels might lose only two defensive starters: end Cameron Whigham and linebacker Mike Marry. Ole Miss opens the season against Boise State in Atlanta and they'll play Alabama and Auburn at home. The Rebels will play difficult SEC road games at Texas A&M and LSU.
21. Iowa Hawkeyes
The Hawkeyes' loss to LSU in the Outback Bowl took a little bit of the luster off what a solid turnaround season. But after going 7-6 in 2011 and 4-8 in 2012, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz has his program headed back in the right direction after an 8-5 record this past season. The Hawkeyes might bring back eight starters on offense and six on defense in 2014. Quarterback Jake Rudock played OK in his first season as a starter, but he'll have to cut down on his 13 interceptions. He might be pushed by backup C.J. Beathard during spring practice. Iowa also will have to rebuild its linebacker corps as each of its three starters (Christian Kirksey, James Morris and Anthony Hitchens) are departing, along with cornerback B.J. Lowery and free safety Tanner Miller. Iowa's schedule might set up very favorably in 2014; it doesn't play Michigan, Michigan State or Ohio State during the regular season.
The Sun Devils went 10-4 and won the Pac-12 South in coach Todd Graham's second season, but they finished the campaign with disappointing losses to Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game and Texas Tech in the National University Holiday Bowl. Quarterback Taylor Kelly is coming back after throwing for 3,635 yards with 28 touchdowns, but the Sun Devils will lose tailback Marion Grice and two starters on the offensive line. The defense will have to fill a lot of holes this coming season, as they'll lose star defensive tackle Will Sutton, three linebackers and three starting defensive backs. If junior linebacker Carl Bradford decides to enter the NFL draft, ASU will have to replace nine defensive starters in 2014. The Sun Devils will play nonconference games against FCS foe Weber State and Notre Dame at home, along with a road game at New Mexico next season.
Quarterback Everett Golson returns after missing the entire 2013 season because of academic reasons, and he'll have to be better than he was in 2012 (when he led the Irish to the BCS title game) if Notre Dame is going to survive one of the country's most demanding schedules. Next season, the Irish play Florida State (road), Stanford (home), Michigan (home), Arizona State (road), Louisville (home) and USC (road). Ouch. If nothing else, Golson's mobility figures to help the Irish's red zone scoring woes. The running game might be more consistent with freshman Greg Bryant returning from a knee injury to join a deep stable of tailbacks. Notre Dame expects to bring back eight starters on offense, but it will miss departing left tackle Zack Martin and top receiver TJ Jones. The Irish also will have to rebuild their defensive line with tackle Louis Nix III and end Stephon Tuitt leaving for the NFL draft. Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly lost both of his coordinators to head-coaching jobs, and he's reportedly bringing in former Georgia and Auburn defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.
24. UCF Knights
On the heels of their first 11-win season and big upset of Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl, the Knights should continue to dominate the AAC, especially with Louisville leaving for the ACC and Rutgers bailing for the Big Ten. The Knights might have been worthy of a preseason top-15 ranking this coming season – until junior quarterback Blake Bortles and junior tailback Storm Johnson announced they were leaving for the NFL draft. The Knights will bring back William Stanback, who ran for 443 yards with six touchdowns this past season. UCF will have to replace three departing starting offensive linemen, but it might bring back as many as 10 starters on defense. UCF will play a challenging nonconference schedule in 2014; it opens the season against Penn State in Dublin, Ireland and also plays Missouri (road) and BYU (home).
25. Florida Gators
After last season's 4-8 disaster, even occupying the final spot in the Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25 might seem like a stretch for the Gators. But after limping through UF's first losing season since 1979, embattled Gators coach Will Muschamp is promising big changes, particularly on offense. Muschamp fired offensive coordinator Brent Pease and replaced him with Duke's Kurt Roper, who is expected to install a more up-tempo attack. A fast-paced system would seem like a better fit for rising senior quarterback Jeff Driskel, who missed much of last season with a broken leg. In fact, 13 UF players suffered season-ending injuries this past season, and many of them are coming back. The Gators might have 10 starters coming back on defense, which might finally have an offense to help it. The Gators better show marked improvement in 2014 or Muschamp won't be back for another season.
2dSam Khan Jr.