Nick Saban spends only 48 hours celebrating a national championship before turning his attention toward next season, so we’ll follow the lead of the obsessive coach who has won three of the last four BCS titles. It’s really early -- more than seven months until kickoff of the 2013 season -- but not surprisingly Saban has the Crimson Tide poised to make a run for yet another title in Pasadena next January. Much can change as the offseason progresses, but here’s an early look at the Top 25 contenders for 2013, the final season before we finally get a playoff. Can anyone knock the SEC off its throne?
There is no other option. The Crimson Tide was vulnerable at times in 2012, losing to Texas A&M and needing late heroics against Georgia and LSU, but every other game was a rout -- including the 42-14 national title blowout of Notre Dame, four shutouts, a 41-14 win over Michigan. It doesn’t matter who goes pro, doesn’t matter that key seniors like Barrett Jones and Jesse Williams will be gone. For Nick Saban and The Process, it’s simply a matter of next man up.
Sports on Earth’s preseason No. 1 came up short, but the Ducks will be right back near the top after a 12-1 season. The biggest name to stick to college football and stay out of the NFL isn’t a player; it’s Oregon coach Chip Kelly. The Ducks are poised to make another run at a national title, with only a couple big losses (RB Kenjon Barner, DE Dion Jordan). They’re loaded across the board, but, of course, it all starts on offense with Marcus Mariota and De’Anthony Thomas forming the most explosive backfield in America. Someone please get Oregon and Texas A&M on the same field.
3. Ohio State
Urban Meyer, savior of Midwestern football. Notre Dame had its best season in decades, only to get embarrassed by Alabama in the title game. The SEC’s won seven straight championships -- two by Meyer at Florida -- but Ohio State could have helped end that streak in 2012 if it had been eligible for the postseason. Expectations will be enormous in Columbus after an unrecognized 12-0 season, but with Braxton Miller as the centerpiece, the Buckeyes will make a run at a repeat unbeaten record, this time with a chance to win the Big Ten and head to Pasadena, home of both the Rose Bowl and the national championship game.
4. Texas A&M
Get ready for an offseason of overreacting to every off-the-field move Johnny Manziel makes. On the field, he has the nearly impossible task of following up a 2012 season in which he became the first freshman Heisman winner, beat the national champs and put together an all-time great bowl performance against Oklahoma. Texas A&M will have to deal with some enormous losses, including All-American left tackle Luke Joeckel and defensive end Damontre Moore, but Kevin Sumlin still has plenty of talent to work with surrounding Manziel. The question isn’t how Texas A&M will adapt to the SEC; it’s how the SEC will adapt to Texas A&M.
So, Stanford wasn’t all about Jim Harbaugh, and it wasn’t all about Andrew Luck. David Shaw made it clear that the Rose Bowl champion Cardinal is built to sustain success as one of the most physical teams in the country on both sides of the ball. To make life more miserable for opponents, midway through the season he found his quarterback of the future in athletic redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan. Stanford has now played in three straight BCS games after failing to make any bowls at all from 2002-08, and the Pac-12 title should once again come down to the North showdown with Oregon.
6. South Carolina
Let the Heisman campaign for Jadeveon Clowney begin. The freakish pass rusher was a monster all season, and, well, he certainly made his presence felt in the Outback Bowl. The almost-certain No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft, Clowney leads one of the nation’s best defenses, one that held Clemson to 17 points and Georgia to seven. The Gamecocks just need to find some consistency on offense, where Marcus Lattimore is gone and QB Connor Shaw has struggled with injuries and will sit out the spring because of foot surgery.
The Bulldogs received big news when QB Aaron Murray announced he’d return for his senior season, helping to alleviate some of the pain from the departures of linebackers Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree, both likely first-round picks. The defense has a lot of rebuilding to do with key losses on each unit, but the offense behind Murray and the two-headed monster of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall at running back should be enough for the Bulldogs to challenge for the SEC crown again after falling just short of a national title.
It’s been quite a month and a half for the Cardinals, who accepted a bid to the ACC starting in 2014, beat Rutgers for the Big East title, kept head coach Charlie Strong despite interest from Tennessee and pulled off the biggest upset of the bowl season by dominating Florida in the Sugar Bowl. The Cardinals will lose only a handful of starters, and, most important, QB Teddy Bridgewater appears ready to take a step to stardom. They should breeze through their final Big East season.
The fate of Clemson’s 2013 season will be decided in the next few days as the Tigers wait for an official word on the draft status of QB Tajh Boyd* and WR DeAndre Hopkins. After all, Boyd accounted for 46 touchdowns this season, including eight in one game against N.C. State, and Hopkins joins Sammy Watkins in forming one of the best receiver tandems in football. The defense still has work to do, but the Chick-fil-A Bowl win over LSU can be built on, if Boyd and Hopkins stay in the fold, in a very winnable ACC.
*Boyd announced on Wednesday that he will return for his senior season.
10. Notre Dame
It took all of five minutes for Notre Dame’s dream season to be run over by a truck on the field in Miami against Alabama. But, no matter how embarrassing the national championship game was, Brian Kelly has still built something in South Bend, where Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt will anchor one of the best defensive lines in the country, and where Everett Golson has a bright future at quarterback. The Fighting Irish aren’t going to fade away anytime soon.
11. Oklahoma State
An early sleeper for 2013, not only did Oklahoma State play three quarterbacks last season, but two of them were freshmen. Sure, the Cowboys lost five games, but despite the inexperienced QB carousel, they still boasted the nation’s No. 3 scoring offense, putting up 45.7 points per game. Whoever starts at QB will have to deal with the loss of another offensive coordinator (Todd Monken took Southern Mississippi’s head job), but there’s a lot of talent here led by RB Joseph Randle* and WR Josh Stewart.
*Randle announced Thursday that he's entering the NFL draft, which does damage Oklahoma State's 2013 prospects. However, Jeremy Smith should be ready to step up and is in line for a breakout season as a senior if he can get past his injury problems.
It’s amazing how much a horrible bowl game can cast a shadow over a team. It was only one game, the Sooners’ Cotton Bowl debacle, but it’s a long offseason, one in which they’ll move on from the Landry Jones era and possibly utilize backup Blake Bell as more than just a goal-line runner. Oklahoma has won at least 10 games in 11 of the last 13 seasons, and Bob Stoops shouldn’t have much of a problem continuing that consistency.
Nobody loses four games quite like Bo Pelini. In five years in Lincoln, Pelini has posted the following records: 9-4, 10-4, 10-4, 9-4, 10-4. Three 10-win seasons are nice and all, but Cornhusker faithful are surely getting tired of the team not taking the next step. Remember, Frank Solich was foolishly fired after going 9-3. They should be Legends Division favorites again in 2013, especially with Taylor Martinez’s improvement as a passer, and I-back Ameer Abdullah proved to be more than capable as a replacement for Rex Burkhead.
Florida exceeded expectations by riding an elite defense to an 11-1 regular-season record, then threw away much of the goodwill in an awful performance against Louisville in the Sugar Bowl. The Gators will still be very good defensively in 2013, but with standouts Sharrif Floyd, Jelani Jenkins and Matt Elam leaving, they’ll need to get better production on offense, particularly out of the passing game, which ranked 114th nationally behind Jeff Driskel. Mike Gillislee won’t be around to carry the offense at running back anymore.
No team has been hit harder by early entries into the draft than LSU, which, after already losing Tyrann Mathieu before the 2012 season, says goodbye to DEs Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery, FS Eric Reid, DT Bennie Logan, MLB Kevin Minter, CB Tharold Simon, RBs Spencer Ware and Michael Ford, and even punter Brad Wing. LSU recruits and reloads as well as anyone in the country, but that’s a ridiculous amount of talent to lose, especially as the offense continues to struggle with mediocrity in a brutal division. The pressure is on QB Zach Mettenberger to emerge as a difference-maker.
The Horned Frogs struggled after losing QB Casey Pachall early in the season because of off-the-field problems. They were already young, and they get even younger with freshman Trevone Boykin forced into the starting role. Pachall could actually return, but, either way, TCU will be a threat in the Big 12 because of its defense, led by Devonte Fields, who had 10 sacks as a freshman.
17. Boise State
Ah, yes, Boise State’s “rebuilding” season, with Kellen Moore and 14 other starters gone, resulted in only a shared Mountain West title, an 11-2 record and a bowl win over Washington. The back-to-back-to-back Las Vegas Bowl champions are surely getting tired of their annual December trip to the desert and would like to get back into the BCS mix. They’re staying in the Mountain West, meaning they won’t get a chance to grab the Big East’s automatic bid in 2013, but Chris Petersen will surely have them in contention for a major January bowl again. Given its consistent success, Boise State finally gets respect from voters, meaning access to the BCS isn’t so much of an uphill climb.
18. Florida State
The Seminoles won with defense, but they’ll have to say goodbye to the 24 sacks from Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine. Plus, the offense takes a big hit with the loss of QB E.J. Manuel. They’re all key pieces to lose, in addition to defensive coordinator Mark Stoops (who took the Kentucky job), but Jimbo Fisher has recruited well enough to reload in a fairly weak ACC. Nobody in the league can match the Seminoles’ overall talent and depth, so now it’s just a matter of finding a quarterback.
Michigan lost five games in 2012, but all came against strong opponents -- Alabama, Notre Dame, Nebraska, Ohio State and South Carolina. Denard Robinson’s injury struggles gave Devin Gardner an opportunity to show what he can do at quarterback, and the Wolverines have made big strides on defense under Brady Hoke, giving up just 19.8 points per game last season, so the pieces are there to push for a Big Ten title.
After a strong start -- aside from the baffling loss to Cal -- UCLA fell off a cliff after beating USC, losing back-to-back games to Stanford and getting blown out by Baylor in the Holiday Bowl. Making matters worse going forward is the loss of star running back Johnathan Franklin, but Jim Mora has something to build on after the team’s best season since 2005, especially with talented QB Brett Hundley moving into just his second year.
After losing the national championship to Alabama in 2009, things have gotten stale at Texas under Mack Brown, with 5-7, 8-5 and 9-4 records the last three years. Perhaps most important, the Longhorns have been out-scored 118-38 in their last two games against Oklahoma. QB David Ash needs to take a step forward and become more consistent, while the defense needs to recover from a thoroughly disappointing season under Manny Diaz, with most of the talent returning aside from stars Alex Okafor and Kenny Vaccaro.
Now what? Last year’s preseason No. 1 won’t come anywhere close to that offseason hype after flailing its way through a 7-6 season, capped off by a bad Sun Bowl loss to Georgia Tech. In the eyes of America, Lane Kiffin enters 2013 squarely on the hot seat, with his father Monte Kiffin already out as defensive coordinator. Depth remains a concern for the Trojans, but, if nothing else, at least they still have superstar receiver Marqise Lee for another season, as the promising Max Wittek moves into the starting QB job full-time.
OK, so what if it was only Mississippi State? Northwestern beat an SEC team in the Gator Bowl, and the Big Ten has to take whatever it can get at this point. Amazingly, the Wildcats return one of the most dynamic backfields in the nation, with jack-of-all-trades QB Kain Colter and breakout RB/return man Venric Mark.
24. Oregon State
Mike Riley engineered a brilliant turnaround in Corvallis, as the Beavers went from 3-9 with an awful defense to a 9-4 record with an average of 21.6 points allowed per game, second in the Pac-12. Aside from receiver Markus Wheaton and cornerback Jordan Poyer, Oregon State doesn’t lose much, but we’ll have to see if either Sean Mannion or Cody Vaz can take full control of the starting quarterback job.
It’s January, so we might as well be somewhat bold with a team. James Franklin is a hot coaching name, but he stayed put after the Commodores finished with nine wins for the first time since 1915 and were ranked in the final AP poll for only the second time ever. (Plus, they blew out Tennessee.) Starting QB Jordan Rodgers is gone, but several key members of a defense that finished 15th nationally in points allowed return. The division is brutal, and they could fall right back to .500, but Franklin has done an amazing job with one of the biggest challenges in college football.