published Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

Greeson: An all-too-early look at next season’s Top 25

Auburn's Nick Marshall runs for a touchdown during the first half of the NCAA BCS National Championship college football game against Florida State in Pasadena, Calif.
Auburn's Nick Marshall runs for a touchdown during the first half of the NCAA BCS National Championship college football game against Florida State in Pasadena, Calif.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

On this day a year ago, the BCS title game was the furthest thing from the minds of anyone involved with the Auburn football program. There was a better chance for the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus to catch the Easter Bunny eating Nick Saban's secret stash of Oatmeal Creme Pies than for anyone in Orange and Blue thinking a new coach could turn the 3-9 mess into a title shot.

For the Florida State Seminoles, losing 11 players to the NFL after the 2012 season meant there were serious holes.

So of course they met Monday night for the national championship. With that in mind, here's an all-too-early look at the prospective top 25 when college football starts back in August.

• 1. Florida State: The Seminoles are crazy-talented and in truth actually were built for next year, since 12 of their 22 starters are in their second or third year in the program, including redshirt freshman quarterback Jameis Winston, the Heisman Trophy winner. That said, no team has more undecided players who may leave for the NFL than FSU. Still, with Winston returning and the slew of recruits and waves of talent, the Seminoles will be the team to beat next year.

• 2. Stanford: There's a very real chance that the Cardinal could return 10 starters on each side of the ball. No wonder coach David Shaw repeatedly declined offers from interested NFL teams and any other offer this side of a free football phone with a Sports Illustrated subscription.

• 3. Ohio State: If Winston is the Heisman front-runner next year, then Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller is 1A. Plus a youthful defense that includes former Ridgeland High star Vonn Bell, who had a strong showing in the Orange Bowl loss to Clemson, returns almost everyone except linebacker Ryan Shazier, who has declared for the draft.

• 4. Oklahoma: The recent commitment of five-star running back Joe Mixon is huge for Bob Stoops' team, which is looking for some playmakers but is rock solid everywhere else. The Sooners thumped mighty Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and return nine defensive starters -- including all of the front seven -- and four offensive line starters and quarterback Trevor Knight, who torched the Tide secondary.

• 5. Alabama: Is there a more intriguing spring-practice question than who will be 'sAlabama quarterback? Whoever gets the starting nod for the Crimson Tide will have an impressive set of offensive toys to spread around, considering Derrick Henry, T.J. Yeldon and Amari Cooper are all sure-fire NFL first-rounders.

• 6. Oregon: If there is anyone who could wrestle the Heisman hype from Winston, it is Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. Dude returns -- and if he can stay healthy -- he will be the central piece to the nation's fastest-paced offense.

• 7. Auburn: Tackle Greg Robinson is likely to enter the NFL draft -- he's projected as a top-15 overall talent -- but the Tigers still will return nine offensive starters from a group that sprinted over, through and around the SEC. Somewhere Gus Malzahn smiles.

• 8. Wisconsin: There's a very real chance that the Badgers could return every starter from the team that took the field in the Capital One Bowl.

• 9. UCLA: The Bruins offense received a five-star injection when quarterback Brett Hundley decided to return, and there could be as many as 10 offensive starters back. Add a top-10 recruiting class and the double goodness of Myles Jack, who was the Pac-12 freshman of the year on offense and defense, and this ranking may be low.

• 10. Notre Dame: Everett Golson returns after taking a year off to study abroad ( which is football slang for getting his grades in order). His presence at quarterback instantly improves the Irish offense by a factor of at least five, and with a defense filled with young playmakers, Notre Dame's future is now.

• 11. Georgia: Hutson Mason becomes the new starting quarterback, and what better gift can a new starting quarterback get than Todd Gurley in the backfield? Add in super-recruits Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, and Georgia will not be worried about injuries to tailbacks next fall.

• 12. Michigan State: The big Rose Bowl win was led by a defense that must replace six seniors, but quarterback Connor Cook will be back after a monster effort in the win over Stanford.

• 13. Baylor: Bryce Petty and company will hardly sneak up on anyone this year.

• 14. Missouri: The combination of receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, running back Henry Josey and quarterback Maty Mauk may be the SEC's most experienced and talented trio.

• 15. Penn State: The new coach -- whoever it is -- will need to find some wide receivers, but quarterback Christian Hackenberg could be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 draft.

• 16. South Carolina: Dylan Thompson replaces Connor Shaw at quarterback, and if running back Mike Davis returns healthy, the Gamecocks will have some offensive options.

• 17. Miami: Al Golden is putting the pieces together, but replacing quarterback Stephen Morris is job No. 1.

• 18. Pittsburgh: Former Cleveland High star quarterback Chad Voytik has several underclassman playmakers to share the load.

• 19. LSU: The Tigers again lost a host of talented underclassmen -- including both starting wideouts and both starting defensive tackles -- and senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger.

• 20. Ole Miss: A supremely talented group of sophomores will complement quarterback Bo Wallace.

• 21. Oklahoma State: A slew of departed seniors will be missed, but Mike Gundy returns and he's a man -- he's almost 47.

• 22. Duke: David Cutcliffe worked miracles in 2013. Now can he match them?

• 23. Texas: Charlie Strong inherits more talent than he knew was possible at Louisville.

• 24. Arizona State: Quarterback Taylor Kelly returns but 12 senior starters must be replaced, including star defensive tackle Will Sutton and do-it-all running back Marion Grice.

• 25. Central Florida: Coming off the first BCS win in school history, the Knights will miss quarterback Blake Bortles, who declared for the NFL draft and will be a first-round pick. The offense could lose running back Storm Johnson, too, but the defense could return as many as 10 starters.

And crazier things have happened than Central Florida starting the year ranked higher than Florida.

Crazy like a 3-9 team from the previous year playing for the BCS title.

Contact Jay Greeson at jgreeson@timesfreepress.com and follow him on Twitter @jgreesontfp, and listen to him and David Paschall on "Press Row" weekdays 3-6 p.m. on ESPN 105.1 FM and in real time on timesfreepress.com.

about Jay Greeson...

Jay was named the Sports Editor of the Times Free Press in 2003 and started with the newspaper in May 2002 as the Deputy Sports Editor. He was born and raised in Smyrna, Ga., and graduated from Auburn University before starting his newspaper career in 1997 with the Newnan (Ga.) Times Herald. Stops in Clayton and Henry counties in Georgia and two years as the Sports Editor of the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal preceded Jay’s ...

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