1. Alabama: The Tide lost their annual share of talent to the NFL Draft in April, but this isn’t anything new. AJ McCarron — the nation’s most efficient quarterback — returns as the leader of what has potential to statistically be the best offense in Alabama history; along with standout sophomores TJ Yeldon and Amari Cooper. The defense will be lead by Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and All-American linebacker CJ Mosley. It’ll be three straight national championships for Alabama this year.
2. Louisville: Your eyes are not deceiving you. Head coach Charlie Strong was pursued by several programs this offseason, but elected to stay at Louisville. Strong has nine starters returning to a defense that helped defeat the Florida Gators in the Sugar Bowl. But most importantly, the Cardinals are lead by the best quarterback in America, Teddy Bridgewater. This kid is the real deal. Former Auburn tailback Michael Dyer will join the program, and be eligible to play this season. That acquisition, coupled with Bridgewater’s top two receiving targets returning, could position Louisville for a record offensive year.
3. Georgia: Look for the Bulldogs to win the SEC’s Eastern Division for the third straight year. Georgia has a challenging schedule, although they host both South Carolina and LSU at home this season, and play Florida off a bye — so give them the edge. In addition to standout quarterback Aaron Murray, the offense returns all five linemen, and ten starters total. A rematch in the conference championship, with Alabama, seems to be the only roadblock to Pasadena for Mark Richt and his team.
4. Ohio State: Urban Meyer set the new standard of his program, and conference, in just his first year as the Buckeyes head coach — going 12-0. Even though they didn’t lose a game, the Buckeyes played very sloppy at times. Nonetheless, their knack of finding a way to win speaks to the resilience of this team, and their coaching staff. The offense returns quarterback Braxton Miller — a preseason Heisman favorite — and four of his starting linemen. True freshman tailback Dontre Wilson is a special talent. Keep your eyes on him, as he has the potential to be a game changer. Christian Bryant and Bradley Roby lead a defense that lost a lot of talent, but if the Buckeyes can eliminate the boneheaded errors of 2012, there’s no reason why they can’t run the regular season table again. Ohio State is the Big Ten’s brightest and best, and it’s not even close.
5. Clemson: Dabo Swinney has a lot of people drinking the Tigers’ sweet tea, and I’m one of them. Although they lost Andre Ellington and “Nuk” Hopkins, the offense returns four linemen, Heisman darkhorse quarterback Tajh Boyd and All-American receiver Sammy Watkins. The defense is lead by end Vic Beasley, and Swinney has this unit believing they’re elite; which could lead to a dominating 2013. This is the year the Tigers finally dethrone the Gamecocks’ Palmetto reign.
6. Stanford: The Cardinal offense loses their top two receivers — most notably Zach Ertz — but look for junior wideout Ty Montgomery to have a breakout season. Quarterback Kevin Hogan enters as the starter, after winning some big time games in 2012. Stefan Taylor is now a pro, but there seems to be a lot of excitement surrounding redshirt freshman Barry Sanders, Jr. at tailback. Safety Ed Reynolds and linebacker Shayne Skov highlight a sensational defense that will wreak havoc on their conference. The schedule is a gauntlet, but this squad seems poised for another Rose Bowl run.
7. Texas: It’s been a brutal stretch since that 2010 national championship loss to Alabama, but this is the year Mack Brown and the Longhorns return to relevance. A grueling schedule lies ahead, but the program returns roughly 20 starters, so inexperience is a thing of the past. Quarterback David Ash leads an offense that features blazing receivers Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley. All-American end Jackson Jeffcoat leads a loaded defensive unit, along with backs Adrian Phillips and Quandre Diggs.
8. Louisiana State: LSU has arguably the toughest schedule among top ten teams, as they travel to Athens, Oxford and Tuscaloosa this season. However, home games versus Florida and Texas A&M could result in wins — especially at night. The Tigers experienced a routine exodus of defensive talent to the NFL, though being led by coordinator John Chavis — and returnees such as lineman Anthony Johnson and backs Jalen Mills and Craig Loston — it will be business as usual for the Tigers defense. Not since he arrived in Baton Rouge has there ever been a Les Miles led ball club in which the offense was the focal point of their preseason hype, and rightfully so. Quarterback Zach Mettenger scored Cam Cameron as his new offensive coordinator, and has his top three receivers returning as well.
9. Oregon: The Ducks return fifteen total starters, most notably quarterback Marcus Mariota and tailback De’Anthony Thomas; and the returning defensive backfield is arguably as talented as its ever been. But there are those who feel that the departure of Chip Kelly will be detrimental; however, Mark Helfrich will flourish at the helm of this program. A November visit to Stanford will determine the fate of the Ducks’ season.
10. South Carolina: Jadaveon Clowney is revered, yes (and more than likely the only reason USC cracks the top 10) — but he can’t run the ball, as Marcus Lattimore’s absence will continue to be felt in Columbia. The Gamecocks have two serviceable quarterbacks in Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson returning, and wideout Bruce Ellington highlights the receiving corp. An early trip to Athens may likely result in a loss, but look for Steve Spurrier’s squad to get revenge on the Gators in November, coming off a bye.
11. Oklahoma State
12. Notre Dame
14. Ole Miss
15. Florida State
16. Texas A&M
21. Arizona State
23. Oregon State
25. Michigan State