And so ends the BCS era. Florida State has been crowned national champions, the SEC's streak is finished, the College Football Playoff is real and the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl is no more. The 2014 season will be a year of change for college football, hopefully for the better, and with the Seminoles' title wrapped up, it's never early to start looking ahead to August and the start of something new.
In many senses, the 2014 landscape will look familiar, with Jameis Winston and Florida State staying on top and many other established faces contending, but as always prepare for many surprises. Nobody had Auburn near the top of this list a year ago, and one of the most compelling parts about following the sport is watching as teams come from nowhere to upset everything we thought we knew to be true. For now, though, with many NFL draft decisions already made and several more to come, here's a best guess at 2014 based on what we know now.
1. Florida State. The national champions are bound to get hit hard by early NFL losses, but it may not matter. Jimbo Fisher has turned the Seminoles into a sustainable juggernaut with consistently strong recruiting classes, and even last year they lost a bunch of key defenders and reloaded anyway. Repeating is not easy, of course, and reloading on defense again will be a steep challenge without players like Lamarcus Joyner, Christian Jones, Telvin Smith and probably Timmy Jernigan, but with solid young building blocks like cornerback Ronald Darby and defensive end Mario Edwards, they should be just fine. And, oh right, they get Heisman-winning quarterback Jameis Winston for another season. Florida State isn't going anywhere.
2. Oregon. De'Anthony Thomas may be leaving, depriving the Oregon offense of two key playmakers with senior wideout Josh Huff gone too, but otherwise the Ducks got some of the biggest positive NFL draft news: quarterback Marcus Mariota, center Hroniss Grasu and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu are all returning to Eugene. Oregon had a somewhat disappointing 2013 season, but it still finished 11-2 in Mark Helfrich's first year, and the building blocks are in place to take another run at beating Stanford and another run at a national title before Mariota leaves as a possible top overall draft pick. Expect Mariota to be the preseason Heisman frontrunner, given the difficulty Winston will face in repeating.
3. Alabama. They may have had an unexpected hiccup in New Orleans, but the Crimson Tide aren't going away. It simply seems like a shift in eras, from the AJ McCarron-C.J. Mosley dynasty to a new-look team led by a still-unknown new quarterback. Otherwise, just about everything is in place to keep the machine churning. We saw the carnage running back Derrick Henry is capable of creating in the Sugar Bowl, and along with an O-line that was young in 2013, plus running back T.J. Yeldon and receiver Amari Cooper, it shouldn't take long for the new quarterback to feel comfortable. As always, the defense will be stellar, especially if upgrades at cornerback can be found.
4. Auburn. The Tigers came up short in Pasadena, but the quick turnaround under Gus Malzahn has been remarkable, and the pieces are in place to continue to hang around near the top of the polls. Nick Marshall will likely become a Heisman candidate at quarterback behind a strong offensive line (even with star tackle Greg Robinson leaving early), while we running back job will likely fall to Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant with Heisman finalist Tre Mason declaring for the draft. The national title game showed that the Tigers defense will sorely miss end Dee Ford, but otherwise Auburn has plenty of young talent to build around, including end Carl Lawson and tackle Montravius Adams.
5. Ohio State. Quarterback Braxton Miller announced he's returning, which means Ohio State just needs to find someone to cover an opposing receiver. Losing running back Carlos Hyde won't be easy, of course, and neither will be losing much of the offensive line, but the offense will surely be fine around a senior in Miller, while the defense has the makings of a dominant line to ease the pain from losing linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby. With Urban Meyer recruiting to Columbus, there's no reason to think the Buckeyes can't maintain a top-10 caliber level of play.
6. Stanford. A sudden model of consistency, the Cardinal has gone to four straight BCS games, as David Shaw maintains the foundation built by Jim Harbaugh. Next year's team will need a bit more from the offense, with the defensive front experiencing significant attrition (Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov, Henry Anderson, among others), but as always Stanford will have a great offensive line, and quarterback Kevin Hogan should take another step forward as a more consistent playmaker.
7. Oklahoma. The Sooners' shocking win over Alabama surely makes them a prime candidate for the biggest bowl bump of the season, but it isn't exactly far-fetched to place them in the top 10 anyway. They actually finished No. 6 in the USA TODAY Sports coaches poll, thanks to the win over Bama, and that game finally showed the potential of the offense, with mobile quarterback Trevor Knight enjoying a breakout game on a big stage against a good defense. Even with attrition at receiver and defensive back, Oklahoma has a lot of talent in place, and it's possible it can ride improved play by Knight and an aggressive defensive front led by Eric Striker to big things in 2014.
8. Georgia. Well, there's no way the offense will have to deal with as many injuries as it did in 2013, so there's that. The torch was passed from Aaron Murray to Hutson Mason late in the season, and his transition shouldn't be too difficult with a healthy Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall at running back, along a presumably healthier receiving corps. Plus, what was a young defense should be more formidable behind players like linebacker Leonard Floyd and safety Tray Matthews, making the Bulldogs possible favorites in the SEC East despite losing the stability of Murray, one of the most productive quarterbacks in conference history.
9. UCLA. Obviously, it's a lot easier to build when you have a quarterback, and it's possible no quarterback means more to his team's 2014 outlook than Brett Hundley. When Hundley decided to return for his junior season (on top of coach Jim Mora staying put), he solidified the Bruins as a potential top-10 team, with a young core around him surely getting better and the sky-high potential of Pac-12 offensive AND defensive freshman of the year Myles Jack at linebacker and/or running back.
10. Michigan State. Somehow, as of Jan. 7, defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi remains in place on Mark Dantonio's staff, not taking a head coaching job elsewhere yet. While the development of the Spartans offense allowed the team to win a Big Ten title and beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl, the dominant defense laid the foundation, as the Spartans finished the season ranked first in yards per play allowed. Maintaining that pace will be difficult without cornerback Darqueze Dennard, safety Isaiah Lewis and linebackers Denicos Allen and Max Bullough, among others, but talented players, led by Shilique Calhoun, and talented coaches remain. The defense will take a step back, but the offense is on the upswing behind quarterback Connor Cook and a solid running game, so the Spartans can compete with Ohio State for another Big Ten title, out of the same division now.
11. Baylor. With coach Art Briles staying and quarterback Bryce Petty returning, there's reason to believe the Bears will continue blowing out almost every opponent. Shock Linwood showed what he can do as a replacement for Lache Seastrunk at running back already, and the receiving corps is in solid hands with Antwan Goodley, Levi Norwood and Robbie Rhodes. That means the biggest loss is actually along the offensive line, where guard Cyril Richardson played a huge role in opening holes for the running game. Still, Briles will undoubtedly have the Bears scoring 40-50-60 points every game again.
12. Arizona State. The Sun Devils showed against Stanford (twice) and Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl that they weren't quite ready to make a leap into the top tier of college football, but an ugly bowl loss doesn't change the trajectory of the program. Todd Graham has the Sun Devils on the rise, with a speedy roster attempting to improve its depth. The offense could be special next year with quarterback Taylor Kelly, receiver Jaelen Strong and running back D.J. Foster moving into the full-time starting role with Marion Grice gone.
13. LSU. Perhaps it's not as bad as last year, but once again the Tigers are getting hammered by early departures, losing arguably the nation's top receiver duo, Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, and arguably the top defensive tackle duo, Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson. Throw in quarterback Zach Mettenberger, and there is a whole lot to prove. Still, few have recruited as well as Les Miles over the last decade, and if running back Jeremy Hill and offensive tackle La'el Collins return*, the Tigers could have a dominant running game, with star true freshman Leonard Fournette set to join the mix next fall too.
*Hill decided to leave for the draft, meaning Fournette could be poised for a significant role as a freshman alongside Terrence McGee and Kenny Hilliard.
14. USC. The Trojans went 7-2 without Lane Kiffin despite a roster thinned by NCAA sanctions, and while it's debatable whether Steve Sarkisian is the savior of the program, it's not as if Kiffin was a bad recruiter. Sarkisian has talent to work with immediately, with Leonard Williams and Su'a Cravens among the rising stars on defense, and the bulk of the offense returning aside from Marqise Lee and Silas Redd. Prepare to see a more up-tempo attack under Sarkisian, with redshirt freshman Max Browne taking aim at Cody Kessler's starting quarterback job in the spring.
15. South Carolina. South Carolina has yet to actually get to a BCS game, but Steve Spurrier has built a once-hapless program into a consistent contender, going 11-2 in three straight seasons. Continuing that run will be difficult without Jadeveon Clowney, Connor Shaw, Bruce Ellington and Kelcy Quarles, but the Gamecocks have players with some experience ready to step up, from quarterback Dylan Thompson to receiver Shaq Roland. Mostly, though, they have Mike Davis, who may end up being the best running back in college football.
16. Notre Dame. Welcome back, Everett Golson. The Fighting Irish's ascent under Brian Kelly took a detour in 2013, with Golson's suspension giving the starting quarterback job back to Tommy Rees, and the loss of Manti Te'o and injuries on the defensive line causing the defense to take a significant step back. It's highly unlikely that Notre Dame will revert back to 2012 levels with Golson -- again, the defense has a lot of work to be done, especially with Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix heading to the NFL -- but Golson's versatility allows Kelly to commit to the up-tempo spread scheme that he's always wanted on offense.
17. Ole Miss. The Rebels made some progress in Hugh Freeze's second season, but now it's time to take a leap forward, building on their success on the recruiting trail. Running back Jeff Scott and receiver Donte Moncrief will certainly be missed, but otherwise the Rebels have stockpiled young talent around senior-to-be quarterback Bo Wallace, with Laquon Treadwell a rising star at receiver, and the Nkemdiche brothers poised for big things on defense.
18. Texas. So when can we actually start believing that Texas will live up to the potential of its talented roster? Many chose to last season, but the Longhorns flopped with losses to BYU and Ole Miss early, injuries took their toll and now Mack Brown will be replaced by Louisville's Charlie Strong after an 8-5 finish. Strong went only 7-6 in his first two seasons at Louisville, but the Longhorns' situation is hardly the same. This is a team, despite its poor play, that can win now, and maybe Strong is the one to do it. He's a defensive guy who should have that unit on more sound ground, while the one big mystery is what happens on quarterback, where David Ash's future is up in the air because of his concussion problem, meaning Tyrone Swoopes could get a shot after a wasted freshman season. If Strong can somehow deal with the endless nonsense surely on tap from Longhorns boosters, the Longhorns' turnaround shouldn't take long.
19. Wisconsin. Gary Andersen picked up right where the Barry Alvarez and Bret Bielema eras left off: The Badgers steamrolled opponents with a big offensive line and a collection of productive running backs. Sophomore Melvin Gordon, who averaged 7.8 yards per carry, opted to return to school, which means the Badgers will still have Gordon and Corey Clement, who averaged 8.2 yards per rush with three 100-yard games as the third-string back. The run game is almost always a certainty, of course. To be Big Ten contenders, though, the Badgers need to do significant rebuilding in their passing game, where Jared Abbrederis and Jacob Pedersen are gone, and the defensive front, where several starters headlined by Chris Borland are gone. The path to the Big Ten title game will be easier, though, as the East/West configuration has them opposite Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Penn State.
20. Missouri. After breaking out as a national contender in their second year in the SEC, the question now becomes sustainability for the Tigers. Players like quarterback Maty Mauk, wideout Dorial Green-Beckham and running backs Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy certainly give the offense enough juice to keep succeeding, although the defense -- which is still recovering from the Auburn debacle -- has to replace its three foundation pieces: cornerback E.J. Gaines and ends Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.
21. Washington. Despite the loss of coach Steve Sarkisian and players like quarterback Keith Price, running back Bishop Sankey and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, there's a good chance the Huskies will be better in 2014. They pulled off a rare coaching upgrade despite losing theirs to a bigger program, hiring Chris Petersen from Boise State. And Petersen has a solid core of talent to work with, particularly on defense, where the Huskies ranked 20th in yards per play allowed and return almost everyone, including linebacker Shaq Thompson, end Hau'oli Kikaha and cornerback Marcus Peters.
22. Oklahoma State. The Cowboys' 2013 season ended in disappointment, with losses to Oklahoma to keep them out of the BCS and Missouri in the Cotton Bowl, but they've developed into a consistently strong program under Mike Gundy. That won't change in 2014, even without several key players, including cornerback Justin Gilbert and quarterback Clint Chelf. Chelf's replacement, J.W. Walsh, has plenty of experience and won't have to worry about competing with Chelf anymore, and an erratic offense may be more dependable in the second year under coordinator Mike Yurcich. The key is avoiding too much regression on defense.
23. Clemson. Keeping offensive coordinator Chad Morris will be key, because the Tigers have a lot of talent to replace, headlined by quarterback Tajh Boyd, receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant, running back Roderick McDowell and probably defensive end Vic Beasley. Still, the cupboard is hardly bare, with the defense still on the rise under Brent Venables, and some decent options on offense to pick up the pieces. Dabo Swinney is a strong recruiter, and the creative Morris could have an exciting new option to work with if blue-chip quarterback Deshaun Watson, who's already enrolled, lives up to the hype.
24. Kansas State. Bill Snyder's Wildcats quietly went through a rebuilding season in 2013, losing to FCS champion North Dakota State, then finishing, as expected, in the middle of the pack in the Big 12. Snyder is a miracle worker, of course, and now, while they again lose a decent number of starters, they have a core in place -- led by receiver Tyler Lockett and quarterbacks Jake Waters and Daniel Sams -- to find more life on offense and surprise some people again.
25. Michigan/Florida. Ok, chances are good that one of them won't be terrible in 2014. They should both be good, but the 2013 season threw all that out the window. Florida's offense remained miserable, forcing Will Muschamp to fire Brent Pease and hire Duke's Kurt Roper, and unable to overcome a significant number of injuries, while Michigan was one of the most unpredictable teams in the country, often employing baffling power football philosophies under coordinator Al Borges* despite significant offensive line issues. Florida's offense can't get any worse, at least, and it will surely stay healthier with a solid group of running backs, while the defense has young talent to build around headlined by cornerback Vernon Hargreaves. Michigan, for better or worse, gets several key pieces back, so it's up to quarterback Devin Gardner to overcome the mistakes that hampered his 2013, and the offensive line to get in order and pave the way for a possible breakout season from running back Derrick Green.
*On Wednesday, Brady Hoke fired Borges, replacing him with Alabama's Doug Nussmeier, according to CBSSports.com.
Next Up: Texas A&M, Nebraska, Texas Tech, Miami, North Carolina, Iowa, Duke, Marshall, Virginia Tech, Louisville, Utah State, East Carolina, BYU, Minnesota, Louisiana-Lafayette.