It’s never too soon to look ahead at next season, and with just over 230 days until opening kickoff, we might as well get a first look at the Top 25 teams for the 2015 season.
#1 Ohio State Buckeyes
The Buckeyes are far and away the best team in the country heading into next season. Earlier in the 2014 season, when Urban Meyer said he thinks they are still a year away, he was being 100% honest. The departing players that were key to this team’s success (as of this writing) are seniors DT Michael Bennett and WR Devin Smith. With a loaded front seven and stud running back Ezekiel Elliot, the Buckeyes may just be getting started.
#2 TCU Horned Frogs
Think about this: a team quarterbacked by one of the most exciting players in the country, a defense that could potentially start ten seniors, and one of the best coaches in the country. Not to mention that the Horned Frogs are pissed off and going to play like it all season. The Peach Bowl was just the beginning for this TCU team.
#3 Alabama Crimson Tide
If you think Nick Saban is just going to fade into obscurity after losing to Urban Meyer and watching the first Championship game at home, I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news. The Crimson Tide have reloaded with the unanimous #1 recruiting class (which is being called one of the best class of the past two decades by many) and are going to be as motivated as ever. The early season will be tough, as they only return 2 starters on offense and open the season vs Wisconsin in Dallas.
#4 Oregon Ducks
The Ducks appear to be losing a lot of their best players next season, including Heisman winner Marcus Mariota, but the perennial contenders from the Pac-12 recruit well enough to withstand the exodus of their top-tier talent that appears to be coming. There’s no denying that Oregon is likely to take a step back next season, especially with their tough schedule. The Pac-12 isn’t going to be a cakewalk for the Ducks anymore.
#5 Michigan State Spartans
The Spartans are getting talent back on both sides of the ball, with QB Connor Cook and DE Shilique Calhoun, both of whom appeared to be heading to the NFL Draft, only to announce they’re returning for their senior seasons. The Spartans are losing a lot of talent in the defensive secondary but their biggest loss will be that of defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who accepted the head coaching job at Pitt.
#6 Baylor Bears
Art Briles and the Bears look to continue the success of their 2014 campaign, but that will be a tough task with little room for error. The offense should continue to fire on all cylinders, even with the loss of QB Bryce Petty, and the defense should improve. The Bears have a soft nonconference schedule and a tough November slate with road games at Kansas State, Oklahoma State, and TCU.
#7 Georgia Bulldogs
The addition of former St. Louis Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer should propel the Bulldogs to one of the best pro-style offenses in the country, which means look for sophomore Nick Chubb to be one of the most prolific runners in the country. The Bulldogs should be at the top of the SEC East next season, but if that’s not the case then head coach Mark Richt could find himself on the hotseat.
#8 USC Trojans
The Trojans have high expectations for head coach Steve Sarkisian’s second season, and rightly so. In 2014, junior QB Cody Kessler took a huge step in the right direction under Sark’s guidance, and, with the exception of wide receiver Nelson Agholor, the Trojans are returning nearly everybody on offense. If USC is able to finish games better in 2015, then they could be a dark horse for one of the four playoff spots.
#9 Florida State Seminoles
After a mass exodus of underclassmen, head coach Jimbo Fisher is going to have to prove his worth to the Seminoles. The good thing is FSU is still an ACC team, so they have an easy schedule. The bad thing is that easy schedule in 2014 should have been their downfall on several occasions, but the magic of Jameis Winston bailed them out and ended up winning games that the Seminoles had no business winning.
#10 Auburn Tigers
Other than Michigan hiring Jim Harbaugh, the biggest hire of this offseason was Auburn snagging former Florida head coach Will Muschamp to run the defense. Muschamp may not be able to run a team, but he sure as hell can run a defense. His fiery brand of coaching has built excellent defenses at his last several stops, which includes Florida, Texas, and LSU. Gus Malzahn should be able to run his offensive system fine, even with the loss of quarterback Nick Marshall and wide receiver Sammie Coates.
#11 LSU Tigers
Seemingly with no good quarterback on the roster, the Tigers will have to rely on sophomore running back Leonard Fournette to carry the offense, and honestly, that might be a good thing. Fournette looks like he may be the type of talent that only comes around once a decade, so he should be the focus of the offense. There have been whispers of Les Miles’ seat getting warmer and the loss of defensive coordinator John Chavis to Texas A&M turned those whispers to shouts. Chavis jumping ship will hurt at first, but should be offset by the addition of Alabama linebackers coach Kevin Steele as defensive coordinator and Ed Orgeron as defensive line coach. Orgeron is widely recognized as one of the best recruiters in the country and, assuming Les Miles and co. make it through this season, Orgeron could be the ace up Miles’ sleeve to return the Tigers to the top.
#12 Clemson Tigers
As long as sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson can return to form after his knee injury late in the 2014 season, Clemson will be tough to stop on offense. The Tigers have one of the deepest wide receiver groups in the country and a strong enough running game to keep opposing defenses honest. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables is one of the best in the country at his job, and even with the loss of outside linebacker Vic Beasley, don’t expect the front seven to miss a step. The Tigers’ schedule also sets up well, with their biggest games (against FSU and Notre Dame) being at home.
#13 Ole Miss Rebels
In 2014, the Rebels were one of the best teams in the country until wide receiver Laquon Treadwell went down with a gruesome leg injury in the fourth quarter of the Auburn game. Ole Miss will also get left tackle Laremy Tunsil back from injury. The defensive secondary may suffer with the loss of senior cornerback Senquez Golson and safety Cody Prewitt, but the front seven remains unchanged for the most part. Quarterback Bo Wallace is also gone, and should be replaced by JUCO transfer Chad Kelly, assuming he stays out of trouble. If he can take the starting job, Kelly may prove to be an upgrade over Bo Wallace.
#14 UCLA Bruins
After rumors of head coach Jim Mora bolting for the NFL were seemingly shut down, the Bruins look to 2015 with hopes of contending for the Pac-12 championship. The loss of key personnel such as quarterback Brett Hundley, linebacker Eric Kendricks, and defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa will hurt at first, but the Bruins are loaded with talent across the board. The defensive front seven was one of the best units in the nation for much of 2014 and continuing that success should not be difficult as they are legitimately two or three deep at every position.
#15 Arizona Wildcats
The Wildcats’ offense was led by two freshmen (quarterback Anu Solomon and running back Nick Wilson) in 2014, and the offense should only improve in 2015. As for the defense, the Wildcats have one of the best and most exciting players in the country in sophomore Scooby Wright III. In 2014, Scooby won the Chuck Bednarik and Rotary Lombardi awards, and took home the Bronko Nagurski Trophy as the best defensive player in college football. The arrow is definitely pointing up for Rich Rodriguez’s Wildcats.
#16 Mississippi State Bulldogs
Many recognize that there is little chance that Mississippi State can replicate the success that they found in 2014 long term, but don’t tell head coach Dan Mullen that. The Bulldogs will be a tough team in 2015 but they probably won’t contend for the SEC West title, even with quarterback Dak Prescott returning to school for his senior season. Who knows though, because this is college football and much weirder things have happened.
#17 Mizzou Tigers
Head coach Gary Pinkel expects his team to contend for a conference title every year, and they should in a weakened SEC East. Even with the loss of stud defensive ends Markus Golden and Shane Ray, the Tigers defense will reload and find more pass rushers just like they have the past several years after losing star players to the NFL.
#18 Arizona State Sun Devils
The Sun Devils are returning more than 8 players on both offense and defense, but they will miss wide receiver Jaelen Strong, who was arguably their best player in 2014. Running back D.J. Foster is an All American talent returning to school for his senior year. Quarterback Mike Bercovici, who has already proved to be a viable replacement, will take over the starting job from senior quarterback Taylor Kelly. The Sun Devils will not lack motivation to compete in a crowded Pac-12 South.
#19 Oklahoma Sooners
Oklahoma is tough to figure out, and has been for several years. Head coach Bob Stoops made several big staff changes this offseason in an effort to reenergize the program. If the changes have the desired effect, then the Sooners are right there with TCU and Baylor competing for the Big Twelve title. If the staff changes don’t have the necessary effect, then Oklahoma may be looking for a new head coach next offseason.
#20 Arkansas Razorbacks
Head coach Bret Bielema has the Razorbacks heading in the right direction. The players have bought into his smash mouth style and the results were beginning to show late in the 2014 season when they upset LSU, Ole Miss and narrowly lost to Alabama. Running backs Alex Collins and Johnathan Williams are both returning to school for their senior seasons, and the offensive line remains intact for the most part. Arkansas could cause all hell to break loose in the SEC West come next fall.
#21 Wisconsin Badgers
The Badgers and new head coach Paul Chryst will obviously miss Heisman finalist Melvin Gordon, but the drop off from Gordon to sophomore Corey Clement may not be as large as people imagine. Even though they open the season with Alabama, the Badgers have a favorable conference schedule next season as they avoid the heavy hitters in the Big Ten.
#22 Tennessee Volunteers
Just like at Arkansas, the players have bought into head coach Butch Jones and his system. The Volunteers have seemingly been one of the punching bags of the SEC for the last decade or so, but it appears that that is finally about to change. The Vols return 8 starters on defense and 10 starters on offense, including quarterback Joshua Dobbs. In addition to the returning starters, Tennessee also has the third ranked recruiting class in the country. If the Vols are going to make the jump back to national prominence, this is the year it needs to happen.
#23 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
There isn’t a more beautiful sight in football than when the triple-option offense is run to perfection. The Yellow Jackets nearly knocked off Florida State in the ACC Championship game last season. Then on New Year’s Eve, head coach Paul Johnson and Georgia Tech took Mississippi State behind the woodshed in the Orange Bowl. The Yellow Jackets return four of five offensive lineman and sophomore quarterback Justin Thomas will only improve in Paul Johnson’s offense.
#24 Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Many of the Fighting Irish’s fans are quickly souring on head coach Brian Kelly, but the 2014 season was a growing season for this team. They were one of the youngest teams in the country and return ten starters on both sides of the ball, including all five offensive lineman. The biggest issue with this team is the quarterback position and if Kelly doesn’t figure out how to solve it, he could find his seat warming next offseason.
#25 Texas A&M Aggies
Head coach Kevin Sumlin pulled a coup this offseason, stealing away longtime LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis from Les Miles. Since the Aggies entered the SEC, no defense has given Sumlin’s offense more trouble than John Chavis’s at LSU. Chavis is one of the best defensive coordinators in the country, and is entering his 21st season as an SEC coordinator (he was Tennessee’s defensive coordinator from 1995 until 2008). In 2015, Texas A&M may end up being one of the most improved teams in all of college football.