We are already a few days removed from the 2014 college football season, which means it is ancient history. That means that now, of course, is the time to start thinking about the 2015 season, arguing the merits of returning starters and feeling slighted about early playoff projections.
There should be little debate about No. 1. Ohio State just won a national title, and while repeating is extremely difficult -- remember how confident we all were about Florida State last summer? -- it has so much talent returning that it is a clear choice, no matter which of three quarterbacks ends up starting. Beyond the Buckeyes, things can get messy. A very, very early view sees a season that may have a good deal of parity, especially with heavyweights Oregon (losing Marcus Mariota) and Alabama and Florida State (losing a ridiculous amount of NFL talent) facing major questions.
A lot is bound to change over the long offseason, but here's an early look at how the college football landscape might stack up in the 2015 season.
1. Ohio State. Next season was supposed to be the time for a national championship, especially after Braxton Miller's August injury. Instead, Ohio State has already claimed the first College Football Playoff national championship, and it's hard to imagine anyone else opening 2015 as the No. 1 team. Regardless of who plays quarterback -- Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett or Braxton Miller, in the sport's best "problem" ever -- the Buckeyes are in good hands with a proven player, and the quarterback(s) will be surrounded by improving talent. After losing four starters last year, the offensive line will return four starters in 2015, and Ezekiel Elliott, Jalin Marshall, Dontre Wilson, Michael Thomas, Corey Smith and Curtis Samuel will form one of the nation's best skill-position groups. We haven't even yet touched the defense, which will feature stars like Joey Bosa, Adolphus Washington, Darron Lee and Vonn Bell, plus rising players like Eli Apple and Raekwon McMillon. Urban Meyer has raised the bar in Columbus, and while the threat of Jim Harbaugh at Michigan looms, this has the early look of an untouchable team in the Big Ten.
2. Baylor. The Bears lose a productive quarterback in Bryce Petty, but for as good as he has looked at times, the Bears haven't skipped a beat on offense under Art Briles, even after losing prolific passers. Junior Seth Russell has some playing experience, and if he wins the job he'll be surrounded by a wealth of talent at receiver, with Corey Coleman, KD Cannon, Jay Lee and Davion Hall returning. All-American left tackle Spencer Drango and defensive end Shawn Oakman both chose to return for their senior seasons, and rising stars like defensive tackle Andrew Billings and linebacker Taylor Young give Baylor ample talent to work with despite breaking in a new quarterback. Even with offensive coordinator Phillip Montgomery gone to Tulsa, the Bears will undoubtedly score a ton of points, and this looks like a team that could dominate along both the offensive and defensive lines.
3. USC. OK, I fell for it last year and thought the Trojans might win the Pac-12. But depth should keep improving another year removed from sanctions, and despite a 9-4 record, the Trojans were hardly lacking talent in 2014. QB Cody Kessler has been called underrated so many times that he's no longer underrated, and he'll be playing behind an offensive line that gets everyone back. With LB/S Su'a Cravens, CB Adoree Jackson and WR JuJu Smith, there's plenty to build around here. It's just a matter of that depth actually improving, of USC surviving what should be a loaded Pac-12 South and of Steve Sarkisian finally hitting high expectations.
4. Alabama. Alabama has opened the season No. 1 or 2 in the AP poll each of the last five years, and it is on the verge of signing its fifth straight No. 1 recruiting class, according to 247Sports. It will continue to be an SEC contender, and it will continue to be a national contender. If any season is going to feature a lull -- by the Crimson Tide's standards, a lull means 10 wins, like in 2010 -- it might be 2015. The young talent is obviously still there, and the defensive front will be dominant, but the amount of attrition the last couple years could potentially catch up with the Tide. They'll start another new QB in 2015, while replacing players like Amari Cooper, T.J. Yeldon, Arie Kouandjio, Trey DePriest, Landon Collins, Xzavier Dickson and several other key contributors. And they'll do it against a brutal schedule that features Wisconsin, Georgia, Auburn, Texas A&M and Mississippi State away from home. Then again, read the first sentence again. Nick Saban's still here too.
5. Auburn. The Tigers struggled through a frustrating finish to this season, dropping four of their final five games to finish 8-5 with a brutal schedule. For a team with aspirations of getting back to the national championship game, it was an overwhelming disappointment. Gus Malzahn brought in Will Muschamp to fix the defense now, and it isn't hard to see the Tigers making big gains on that side of the ball. Top pass rusher Carl Lawson will return from a torn ACL, and the front seven should be loaded when teaming him with tackle Montravius Adams and linebackers Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost. On offense, there's little reason to believe we'll see much of a drop off from Nick Marshall to Jeremy Johnson at quarterback, especially with receiver Duke Williams returning. This will be a very well coached team with a ton of talent, and it can absolutely challenge for the SEC title and a playoff bid.
6. TCU. The Horned Frogs threw out what wasn't working in 2013, re-invented their offense and watched quarterback Trevone Boykin move from possible position switch to star quarterback and 2015 Heisman frontrunner. The offense returns almost everyone, which is a scary thought for a team that averaged 46.5 points per game, beat Ole Miss 42-3, scored 82 against Texas Tech and scored 58 points in its only loss of the season. Despite a few hiccups, Gary Patterson's defense was excellent again in 2014, and while the units top players -- Paul Dawson, Sam Carter, Chucky Hunter, Kevin White -- are all leaving, there's rarely been any doubt about the preparedness of a TCU defense. TCU's aggressive rise was a revelation in 2014, and the Frogs aren't going away.
7. Florida State. Now comes the biggest test of the Jimbo Fisher era at Florida State. He has recruited brilliantly, but now he encounters a mass exodus of top talent that won a national championship in 2013 and made the playoff this season. Jameis Winston will go to the NFL early, as will defensive linemen Eddie Goldman and Mario Edwards and cornerbacks P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby. Four offensive line starters were seniors, as were Winston's top targets, receiver Rashad Greene and Nick O'Leary. Beyond safety Jalen Ramsey, almost every key player from the 2013 team will be gone in 2015, meaning attention now shifts to the wealth of young talent bought in the last few years, including tailback Dalvin Cook, left tackle Roderick Johnson, linebacker Matthew Thomas and receivers Travis Rudolph and Ermon Lane. The ACC still lacks depth, and while this is a young team with a ton of question marks -- starting at quarterback -- there's little reason to think it will fall far, even if the Noles find themselves outside the playoff.
8. Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish were a pass interference penalty away from being midseason playoff favorites, but they lost to Florida State, then spiraled out of control to a 7-5 record before beating LSU in the Music City Bowl. The good news is that next year's team should be much deeper after injuries and suspensions decimated the 2014 squad. OT Ronnie Stanley and DE Sheldon Day are returning for their senior seasons, LB Jaylon Smith is back for another year and suspended CB KeiVarae Russell and DE Ishaq Williams are expected to rejoin the team. Figure out what's going on at quarterback between Everett Golson and Malik Zaire, and this team could achieve an impressive turnaround.
9. Oregon. Let's not overreact to the national title game and act like Oregon was some sort of fraud, or question the entire direction of its program, just because it lost the battle at the line of scrimmage to Ohio State. The program is still in excellent shape; it will just have to go through a transition year with Marcus Mariota leaving, on top of the departures of key players like cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, center Hroniss Grasu, tackle Jake Fisher, safety Erick Dargan and defensive end Arik Armstead. The focus of the offense will shift back to running back, a position in great hands with Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner, and a healthy receiving corps could develop into one of the nation's best.
10. LSU. After getting slammed by early draft entries the last two years -- more than any team ever -- 2015 feels refreshing, even if it appears that LSU will lose three players (DE Danielle Hunter, CB Jalen Collins, LB Kwon Alexander) early. The biggest loss, however is the unexpected departure of defensive coordinator John Chavis to division rival Texas A&M. When combined with the continued problems at quarterback, there are plenty of reasons to doubt LSU. Still, there's room for QB Brandon Harris to grow as a sophomore and assert himself atop the depth chart, and beyond that there is a ton of rising talent here, led by budding superstar tailback Leonard Fournette, plus LB Kendell Beckwith, DT Davon Godchaux, DB Jamal Adams, CB Tre'Davious White and receivers Travin Duval, Malachi Dupre and John Diarse. Les Miles always recruits well, and while the loss of Chavis throws some doubt into the defense, the Tigers can still be players in the SEC West.
11. Ole Miss. A great season for Ole Miss ended on a sour note with the embarrassment at the hands of TCU in the Peach Bowl, which came only a couple games after a 30-0 loss to Arkansas. Still, there's a lot to like about the Rebels, as the great recruiting class of 2013 has gained experience, with OT Laremy Tunsil, DT Robert Nkemdiche, WR Laquon Treadwell and CB Tony Conner set to form the foundation of the team as juniors. Treadwell will return from a leg injury to inject life back into the offense, one that will have a new QB with Bo Wallace gone. The Rebels have the talent to re-capture some of that early 2014 magic and perhaps sustain it for an entire season.
12. Georgia. With the departure of unfairly criticized offensive coordinator Mike Bobo to Colorado State, the Bulldogs strangely brought in Brian Schottenheimer for the position. His mission in 2015 should be clear, though: Get the ball to Nick Chubb as much as possible. With another new QB, the offense will again revolve around Chubb, like it did in the second half of the 2014 season. What makes Georgia the early favorite in the SEC East beyond him is what should be a much-improved defense in year two under coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, led by the return of linebackers Leonard Floyd and Lorenzo Carter.
13. Texas A&M. The SEC West was probably a little overrated midway through the season, when it ruled the world, but its demise was also overstated because of a bad bowl season. It's time to get the hype rolling again for 2015, a season in which it seems impossible to pick anyone to finish seventh (maybe Mississippi State, which returns Dak Prescott but loses a talent in the trenches). Texas A&M has undergone wild swings, from rebuilding to sudden playoff favorite back to rebuilding over the course of six or seven weeks to start the 2014 season, but it's OK to be confident in this team again, if a little cautious. Kevin Sumlin has recruited well and, he stole defensive coordinator John Chavis from LSU. QB Kyle Allen, DE Myles Garrett, S Armani Watts and WR Speedy Noil all have big-time potential after contributing as freshmen, and this is a team that could starting getting really good in a hurry.
14. Michigan State. Most of the key players from the 2013 Rose Bowl run will be gone, along with defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, but the Spartans remain in good position for another year in the top two of the Big Ten after the big Cotton Bowl win to end the 2014 season. While CB Trae Waynes jumped to the NFL, QB Connor Cook, DE Shilique Calhoun and OT Jack Conklin are all returning, giving the Spartans a strong base to work around, even with guys like WR Tony Lippett, RB Jeremy Langford, DE Marcus Rush and S Kurtis Drummond departing. It won't have quite the same hype as last September, but look out for Oregon's Sept. 12 visit to East Lansing with a new quarterback.
15. Arizona State. It's nice to know that a new quarterback can be more than capable of succeeding. Mike Bercovici got plenty of playing time after a Taylor Kelly injury in 2014, meaning the Sun Devils should be fairly confident in the position despite losing a multiyear starter. Bercovici won't have Jaelen Strong to throw to, but D.J. Foster and Demario Richard form an impressive one-two punch at running back. Perhaps most importantly, what was a very young defense this season could develop into one of the Pac-12's strongest units.
16. Clemson. It'll be hard to catch Florida State in the current cycle that Clemson is in, but its consistent run of solid success should continue. After losing nearly the entire offense last year, it's the defense's turn, with Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett, Stephone Anthony, Corey Crawford and four other starters leaving what might have been the nation's best defense. The good news is that the Tigers retained coordinator Brent Venables, signing him to a lucrative extension. They also lost offensive coordinator Chad Morris, but there should be plenty of optimism about an offense that will feature three players who had breakout freshman seasons: QB Deshaun Watson, RB Wayne Gallman and WR Artavis Scott. The offense has a ton of potential, assuming Watson -- a potential Heisman candidate -- can get back healthy after tearing his ACL late in 2014.
17. Arizona. Beyond WR Austin Hill and some key parts of the offensive line, the core of the Pac-12 South champions returns, making Arizona a good bet to keep rolling as a threat in the Pac-12. Nick Wilson was overshadowed by other star freshman tailbacks, but he'll be one of the nation's best, forming an excellent backfield with QB Anu Solomon. The skill positions are loaded for Rich Rodriguez, and the defense gets another year of do-everything LB Scooby Wright.
18. Wisconsin. It's been a strange couple months for Wisconsin: Melvin Gordon nearly broke the FBS single-season rushing record but didn't win the Heisman. The Badgers won the Big Ten West but lost 59-0 to Ohio State and lost coach Gary Andersen to an inferior job at Oregon State. Then, after they made a predictable hire in former offensive coordinator and Pitt coach Paul Chryst, they rebounded by beating Auburn in the Outback Bowl. Mostly, despite another new coach and despite the loss of Gordon, it's hard to imagine anything but business as usual in 2015: Assuming three offensive line starters can be adequately replaced, this is the Big Ten West favorite behind what will be an improved defense, but that could end up leading to another blowout at the hands of Ohio State and another solid Florida bowl game.
19. UCLA. The departures of QB Brett Hundley and LB Eric Kendricks will leave the Bruins without two cornerstones of the Jim Mora era, but most of the other key pieces of a solid but underperforming 2014 team will return. The Hundley-less offense will likely revolve around tailback Paul Perkins, who broke out this season, and LB/RB Myles Jack, with the entire offensive line set to return too. This is an enigmatic team that has relied heavily on Hundley, meaning it's hard to be too confident in the Bruins as a Pac-12 frontrunner, but this will be a deeper, more experienced team in 2015 than it was when it had enormous expectations this past season.
20. Boise State. We have to be careful not to overreact to the Fiesta Bowl win, especially with RB Jay Ajayi and QB Grant Hedrick gone. Still, almost everyone else returns -- the entire offensive line, the top two receivers, seven of the top eight tacklers -- to a team that got better and better over the course of Bryan Harsin's first season on its way to securing the Group of Five's major bowl bid. The Broncos are in a familiar position now, as the clear favorites to secure a major bowl again.
21. Oklahoma State. As always, it's never smart to get too caught up in how a team looked at the end of the season, but the Cowboys were very, very young in 2014 and dealt with injury problems too. They showed some progress late behind promising young quarterback Mason Rudolph, a touted recruit who will enter the offseason as the starter. The dismissal of all-purpose star Tyreek Hill hurts, but DE Emmanuel Ogbah announced that he'll return for his junior season, and the offensive line can't do anything but improve 2015. It's easy to see Oklahoma State back on the upswing.
22. Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets had an excellent second half of the season, capped by an Orange Bowl win, as their option offense began working to near perfection. QB Justin Thomas will be a junior in 2015, giving Georgia Tech an excellent building block. Repeating as ACC Coastal champions will require some quick rebuilding, though, as nearly all the backs and receivers are gone, as is All-American guard Shaquille Mason.
23. Oklahoma. It's hard to tell just where Oklahoma is going. A staff shakeup brought in East Carolina's Lincoln Riley as the new offensive coordinator, and he'll be charged with finding some consistency in the passing game, whether it's with incumbent Trevor Knight or Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield. Regardless, we know the offense will at least be able to run behind Samaje Perine and a deep backfield. The real pressure is on the inconsistent defense under Bob Stoops' brother, Mike, as the individual talent hasn't translated into the level of success that it should have. LB Eric Striker and CB Zack Sanchez lead a group that will again give the defense plenty to work with, and a level of uneasiness has been built after such a disappointing 2014 season that went from a preseason top-five ranking to an 8-5 record.
24. Tennessee. The Vols have a little Texas A&M in them with a ton of promising young talent that wasn't ready to carry the team yet. The last thing anyone should do is overreact to a dominant win over Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl, because read that sentence again, but brutal schedules have made on-field progress look slow over the last two years. There is talent here under Butch Jones, with DE Derek Barnett, RB Jalen Hurd and WR Marquez North leading the way. It helps that an answer at quarterback may have finally emerged in Joshua Dobbs. Actually competing for the SEC East will require improvement from the offensive line.
25. Michigan. Ah, why not? Recruiting was not Brady Hoke's big problem, so there is actually some potential to work with for one of the best coaches in all of football. Jim Harbaugh can't reasonably expect to stand toe to toe with Urban Meyer and Ohio State yet, but it doesn't mean he can't quickly get Michigan trending upward again and push for nine or so wins. A quickly improved Michigan would make for a much more interesting Big Ten too.
Also considered: Arkansas, BYU, Florida, Kansas State, Louisville, Miami, Mississippi State, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina State, Stanford, Texas, Virginia Tech, West Virginia