Rarely is there ever no room for disagreement in college football, but entering the 2014 season, there really is no good reason not to have Florida State atop the polls. The Seminoles headline both the preseason AP and coaches' polls, and they do so because they're the defending national champions with a Heisman-winning quarterback, a veteran offensive line, a star-studded defense and an impressive recruiting track record. They are No. 1 until further notice.
As the College Football Playoff era begins, though, being No. 1 isn't all that matters. What matters is getting into the top four by the end of the season, and for that we should be poised for a wide-open race, starting Thursday night, featuring a deep roster of SEC and Pac-12 teams, as well as worthy contenders from the Big 12 and the Big Ten. Here's a look at the teams chasing the Seminoles.
1. Florida State
The buzzword for Florida State will be "complacency." Other than a Florida-like flood of injuries, it may be the only thing that can derail the Seminoles before the College Football Playoff. It is very, very difficult to go undefeated once, let alone twice, and if the Seminoles carry an undefeated record through the season and the playoff, that means their win streak will reach 31 -- something that's tough to reach, especially with a target on their backs. It's hard not to have a bad week at some point. But if anybody can do that, and if for any team a "bad week" means winning by 10 instead of 28, it's probably this version of Florida State.
Heisman winner Jameis Winston returns to lead an experienced team that has five senior starters on the offensive line; All-America candidates at running back (Karlos Williams), wide receiver (Rashad Greene) and tight end (Nick O'Leary); a dominant defensive end who will need extra attention (Mario Edwards); and the deepest secondary in the country. Yes, there are voids to fill, especially with defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan and defensive back Lamarcus Joyner gone, but Jimbo Fisher has recruited well and built a sturdy foundation filled with NFL prospects. Next year may be a better test of how quickly Florida State can reload. For now, it is a nearly unanimous preseason No. 1, and deservedly so.
Trevor Knight can put Oklahoma over the top, but it's the defense that puts the Sooners in a position where they can compete for a national title. Bob Stoops and his brother, Mike, have reinvented the Sooners defense as a versatile, aggressive, athletic unit that uses players like Eric Striker, Geneo Grissom, Charles Tapper, Chuka Ndulue and Dominique Alexander to attack backfields at all angles. The Sooners were inconsistent last year and still have something to prove against power running teams -- although returning a healthy Jordan Phillips at tackle helps -- but the foundation is there to be the Big 12's best defense, and maybe one of the best in the country.
On offense, Knight has high expectations to live up to after the Sugar Bowl, and he can meet them. He's a multi-dimensional playmaker at quarterback behind a solid offensive line with some talented young players around him. Obviously, a successful request for immediate eligibility for Dorial Green-Beckham would have helped, but even with the NCAA denying that, Stoops has recruited well enough to give Knight options, from a proven player like Sterling Shepard at receiver to players to watch like RB Keith Ford and WRs Durron Neal and Derrick Woods. Even with frustrating inconsistency, Oklahoma entered the Sugar Bowl ranked 11th with a 10-2 record last season. It wasn't that far away. Solidify the defense and get a star turn from Knight, and an undefeated season is in the cards.
I will accept the argument that Alabama has shown some leaks. It's possible that Alabama will not win another national championship under Nick Saban; it's even possible that Alabama will not win another SEC championship under Saban. But here's the thing: For as dominant as Alabama has been over the last several years, only once has it been perfect, the label it sometimes falsely gets ascribed as the superpower of the end-of-the-BCS era. The Crimson Tide went 14-0 and won the SEC title in 2009. Since then, they have lost at least one game each of the last four seasons, including their 2011 and 2012 national championship runs. At Alabama, Saban has fewer SEC titles (only two) than national titles (three).
So Alabama has always been capable of being beaten, and it remains that way. Saban admits to a constant battle against that complacency Florida State is trying to avoid. Still, Saban has signed the No. 1 recruiting class every year since 2010, when it ranked merely fifth, according to 247Sports. The talent level remains very, very high, with the best group of running backs and receivers in college football. No, the offensive line wasn't perfect last year, and issues linger at cornerback, and we still don't know if Florida State transfer Jacob Coker is actually the answer at quarterback (he still hasn't beaten out Blake Sims). But nobody can throw five-star talent at potential holes like Alabama. Maybe the Crimson Tide will lose a game, or maybe even two. There is no sure thing in this sport. Alabama still remains as close as there is to that on a consistent basis.
Luck? Sure, plenty of it. But by the end of last season, no offense was more dominant than Auburn's. Even without RB Tre Mason and OT Greg Robinson (and injured G Alex Kozan), Auburn could find itself in a debate with Baylor for the most difficult-to-defend offense nationally. The Tigers running game averaged 6.3 yards per carry last season, a mark it should be able to continue, as a combination of Cameron Artis-Payne and the explosive Corey Grant, plus redshirt freshman Peyton Barber, gives Auburn plenty of options around dynamic QB Nick Marshall. Marshall ran for 1,068 yards last season, and he should continue to develop as a passer, especially since he has what could be one of the nation's best receiving corps at his disposal with Sammie Coates, Ricardo Louis and touted juco transfer D'haquille Williams.
Offseason injuries to Kozan and DE Carl Lawson are big blows to a team that still doesn't quite have the all-around depth of its top national competitors, but the defensive front should still be improved, especially if tackle Montravius Adams breaks out as expected. Gus Malzahn is the brightest offensive mind in the country, and while Auburn plays a brutal schedule that could make getting to the playoff very, very difficult, it remains to be seen if someone can actually figure out how to slow down the Tigers.
It's impossible to ignore that, yes, the Georgia secondary was a mess last year, and, yes, starting safeties Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons have been dismissed. New defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt -- who comes over from Florida State -- has a lot of work to do, much, much more so than in Tallahassee last season. Still, this is a Georgia team loaded with game-changing playmakers, on both sides of the ball. Todd Gurley is the nation's best all-around running back. If back to 100 percent, Keith Marshall is one of the best backups, capable of starting just about anywhere. The receiving corps is filled with solid, experienced players. And the defensive front can be scary good, with all four starting linebackers strong All-SEC candidates, and possibly better.
Really, Georgia has some similarities to Alabama, only it has its new quarterback in senior Hutson Mason, and its secondary is much more of a work-in-progress. This is a team with a ton of upside, though, and if the injury luck turns around after a season with four close losses, Georgia can compete for the SEC title and a playoff spot. We'll find out a lot in a hurry, as the Bulldogs face Clemson and South Carolina in their first two games.
6. Michigan State
Proven quarterback? Check. Talented pass rushers? Check. Shutdown cornerback? Check. Chain-moving running back? Check. Michigan State may only have a few key players from last year's dominant defense, but that doesn't mean the Spartans aren't ready to reload and sustain that success for a bit longer, especially with defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi staying in the fold for another season under Mark Dantonio. There's still a lot of NFL-worthy talent remaining on the defense -- particularly Shilique Calhoun, Trae Waynes and Kurtis Drummond -- and while the defense is bound to undergo some regression, the offense has taken a step forward under Connor Cook to where it can push the envelope a bit and not necessarily play things conservatively. They've come a long way since the beginning of last season, when the defense was scoring more than the offense. With Braxton Miller out for the season at Ohio State, this is, again, the best team in the Big Ten, and a Week 2 trip to Oregon could be one of the most important games of 2014.
If USC experiences a rash of injuries, this isn't going to happen. Scholarship restrictions still render depth a problem for the Trojans, particularly on the offensive line. But if everyone holds up OK, USC can stand toe-to-toe with just about anyone. Forget the problems of the Lane Kiffin era; while Steve Sarkisian wasn't the most inspired hire, he brings a different atmosphere to the Trojans, who are still talented across the board, because if nothing else, Kiffin could recruit. Sarkisian will push the tempo and spread the ball around, which is good news for QB Cody Kessler, who's surrounded by top-notch talent, led by WR Nelson Agholor and RB Javorius Allen. Throw in the Pac-12's best defense, and USC is capable of beating everyone on its schedule and pulling off a surprise to win a deep conference.
The Ducks have already had some bad injury luck with LT Tyler Johnstone and top WR Bralon Addison sidelined, but there's still an excellent core to work with. Obviously, it all starts with explosive and prolific junior quarterback Marcus Mariota, a frontrunner for the Heisman who leads a deep backfield and at least has All-American center Hroniss Grasu still blocking for him. Oregon needs to find a way to keep Mariota healthy after knee issues limited him toward the end of the 2013 season, and it needs to find some production up front on defense as it transitions from longtime defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti to Don Pellum. Two years removed from the Chip Kelly era, this will still be a high-powered offense that frequently pushes 50 points per game under Mark Helfrich and Scott Frost, but the grind of this year's Pac-12 schedule may again cause Oregon to come up short and leave lingering questions heading into a post-Mariota era.
If you're a general college fan who is looking to maximize entertainment, then this is your team. The Bears operated at an astonishing scoring pace for much of last season, and they're set to do so again with QB Bryce Petty returning, surrounded by playmakers like WR Antwan Goodley and RB Shock Linwood. Art Briles gets the most out of his offense, using every available inch of space to create favorable matchups and create opportunities for talented players to make explosive plays. Like last year, Baylor should have no problem blowing the doors off its nonconference opponents. The real test will be seeing if a rebuilt defense can hold up enough to get through the nine-game Big 12 schedule and fend off Oklahoma for a second straight conference title. Either way, with this offense and a beautiful new stadium on the Brazos River, it's a great time to be a Baylor fan.
10. South Carolina
With no more Jadeveon Clowney Watch every play of every game, South Carolina suddenly becomes less interesting. That doesn't mean that, after an 11-2 season, the Gamecocks won't be as good. Despite losing a few standouts like Clowney and QB Connor Shaw -- cornerstones of Steve Spurrier's recent success -- a deep, experienced team returns, and the Gamecocks' upside may be in the hands of the development of senior QB Dylan Thompson and a rebuilt defensive line. Otherwise, the offense has playmakers working around a good offensive line (assuming RB Mike Davis is healthy), and Spurrier has so successfully altered the atmosphere around the program that a fourth straight double-digit-win season seems almost like a foregone conclusion. Finally capturing an SEC championship may be another story.
The trendy pick out of the Pac-12, UCLA does have plenty going in its favor: Brett Hundley returns for his third year as starting quarterback, even though he would have been a first-round pick, and sophomore linebacker Myles Jack gives the Bruins defense a star to build around -- not to mention a capable option at running back. UCLA loses a few standouts (LB Anthony Barr, G Xavier Su'a-Filo, WR Shaq Evans) but overall it returns 16 starters to a 10-3 team. Jim Mora has given the Bruins a significant boost entering his third season as coach, and now he's depending on Hundley to carry the load and try to win UCLA's first conference title since 1998. Mostly, that will depend on a healthy Jordon James stepping up alongside Hundley at running back, and the offensive line making sure Hundley stays upright more often. The schedule is very tough, but Oregon and Stanford both come to Los Angeles.
12. Ohio State
After the initial panic, everyone has shifted into acceptance mode at Ohio State: Braxton Miller will not be available this season after re-injuring his shoulder, meaning this is redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett's show (or is it sophomore Cardale Jones'?). Ohio State's QBs did get plenty of reps in the offseason with Miller sidelined in the spring too, so while that creates a more comfortable situation, the loss of four starters along the offensive line does not. Ohio State's offense will look a bit different this year, and not just because it no longer has Miller and the explosive running that goes with him. To compensate for the O-line uncertainty, the quarterback will be a distributor, quickly getting the ball out to a promising group of playmakers, from the experienced (WR Devin Smith, TE Jeff Heuerman) to the rising hopeful stars (RB Ezekiel Elliott, the versatile Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall). Ultimately, Ohio State will be OK, facing a beatable schedule with an influx of young athletes, plus a potentially dominant defensive line (Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett, Adolphus Washington, Noah Spence) filled with All-America candidates. The playoff will have to wait, though.
Despite Les Miles' recruiting prowess and track record of success at LSU, it is hard to be confident in the Tigers' ability to contend this year after back-to-back winters in which they experienced mass NFL draft defections. The defense has been hammered by NFL losses, and the offense somehow loses a 3,000-yard passer (Zach Mettenberger), a 1,000-yard rusher (Jeremy Hill) and two 1,000-yard receivers (Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham) all at once. Not surprisingly, this means the Tigers will go young on offense, with blue-chip freshmen RB Leonard Fournette, WR Malachi Dupre and QB Brandon Harris all expected to play significant roles -- although Harris is still trying to beat sophomore Anthony Jennings for the starting job. This is still LSU, though. The offensive line is experienced, anchored by La'el Collins, and the defense has a lot of talent to build around, including DE Danielle Hunter, LB Kwon Alexander and CB Tre'Davious White. LSU may not be a top contender for the SEC title, but it's still capable of making life difficult for everyone in the conference and pushing for 10 wins yet again.
Clemson has some obvious similarities to LSU, as it says goodbye to QB Tajh Boyd, RB Roderick McDowell and WRs Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant in an exodus of talent for a high-powered offense that has won 32 games over the last three seasons. That shifts the focal point of the team to the defense, where the front should be as good as any in the country thanks to All-American DE Vic Beasley, plus DT Grady Jarrett, DE Corey Crawford, LB Stephone Anthony and others. Ordinarily, the Tigers might be able to allow their defense to carry them early, until coordinator Chad Morris' offense gets more comfortable, but the schedule isn't so kind: Three of Clemson's first four games are against Georgia, Florida State and North Carolina, leaving little time for everyone to get acclimated to new roles. Young skill-position players will have to grow up in a hurry, around what will likely be a two-QB system with senior Cole Stoudt and athletic true freshman Deshaun Watson, who could emerge as an impact player by the end of the season.
Continuing the trend of offenses that lose key core players, Washington says goodbye to QB Keith Price, 1,800-yard rusher Bishop Sankey, TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins and WRs Kevin Smith and Damore'ea Stringfellow. Yet new coach Chris Petersen still inherits a ton of talent, and he gets a chance to prove himself in the Pac-12 after achieving such incredible success at Boise State. Washington has promising prospects at QB, with Jeff Lindquist slated to start the opener at Hawaii and Cyler Miles capable of getting back in the mix after his one-game suspension. Whoever starts in the long run has a veteran offensive line with everyone returning, plus a pair of quality receivers in Kasen Williams and Jaydon Mickens. Most importantly, Washington is loaded defensively, returning a core that had a solid season last year, with the Pac-12's best defensive line and a pair of All-America candidates in the back seven in LB Shaq Thompson and CB Marcus Peters. The Huskies lost their four games against the Pac-12's best last season, but they're capable of making things interesting, as they're on the rise in a deep, talented conference, with a creative new coach who gets the most out of his talent.
Stanford has unexpectedly become a consistent power, capturing back-to-back Pac-12 titles and going 46-8 over the last four seasons. David Shaw has taken what Jim Harbaugh built and sustained it, and while the rest of the Pac-12 is rising, it's still hard to push Stanford down this far. Even with cornerstones of the defense like Shayne Skov, Ed Reynolds and Trent Murphy gone; even with defensive coordinator Derek Mason gone to Vanderbilt; even with All-America offensive lineman David Yankey gone; and even with workhorse, chain-moving running back Tyler Gaffney gone; is Stanford really going to take a noticeable step back? Its three losses last year were by a total of 13 points, and it still returns a strong defensive core, an NFL-caliber left tackle in Andrus Peat and a pretty good set of weapons, led by Ty Montgomery, for senior QB Kevin Hogan to work with. Undoubtedly, Stanford is still a threat to win every game it plays. Contending for a playoff spot may be too much to ask, though, with road games against Washington, Notre Dame, Arizona State, Oregon and UCLA.
17. Kansas State
There's really no good reason to count out Bill Snyder at this point. No, this team probably can't match the heights it reached two years ago when Collin Klein carried the Wildcats to a No. 1 ranking into November, but still, they are capable of being the good type of Kansas State team we've come to expect: They will methodically keep opponents off-balance and they won't beat themselves. After recording a plus-20 turnover margin in 2012, Kansas State naturally underwent regression in that area -- plummeting all the way to even for the season. With a year of starting under Jake Waters' belt at QB, that number should improve again, assuming the Wildcats find a steady presence at running back. Snyder has some great pieces to work with, though, as Waters quietly averaged 9.5 yards per pass attempt (equaling Marcus Mariota) with the help of explosive receiver Tyler Lockett. The defense has some rebuilding to do, but end Ryan Mueller and safety Dante Barnett put Kansas State in a good position to act as spoiler to opponents Auburn, Oklahoma and Baylor, and maybe even contend for the Big 12 title.
18. Ole Miss
Given that Ole Miss went 2-10 the year before Hugh Freeze arrived, his 15-11 record over two years, along with impressive recruiting hauls, is unquestionably a success, especially in the SEC West. Now, we wait to find out if the Rebels can turn uneven results into more tangible success. Bo Wallace is the most experienced returning quarterback in the SEC, and he's surrounded by talented young players, headlined by WR Laquon Treadwell, LT Laremy Tunsil and TE Evan Engram. This may be an offense that got shut out by Alabama and only scored 10 points against both Missouri and Mississippi State, but there are quality players to build around. Same goes for the defense: Senior Cody Prewitt is sturdy at safety, and Robert Nkemdiche is poised to break out at tackle. Ole Miss ranked fourth in the SEC in yards per play allowed last season, and just about every player returns. With a favorable schedule (Vanderbilt and Tennessee from the East, Auburn and Alabama at home), the Rebels can at least make some noise in the SEC West race.
19. North Carolina
The Tar Heels are sort of the Ole Miss of the ACC: decent the last couple years, showing signs of life, seemingly ready to make a move forward. By no means is North Carolina a sure bet in 2014, but it avoids Florida State in the regular season and it boasts an offensive core with very high upside. It's just a matter of whether the youth can come through now, or if bigger things will have to wait until 2015. Mobile junior Marquise Williams (the leading returning rusher) and redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky are still battling for the QB job, and the winner will be surrounded by promising playmakers, including sophomore RB T.J. Logan and junior WR Quinshad Davis, among others.
Wisconsin has a lot of questions to answer after losing its entire front seven, not to mention having a passing game that loses its only three reliable targets (WR Jared Abbrederis, TE Jacob Pedersen, RB James White) and switches from the uneven Joel Stave to the mobile Tanner McEvoy, who played defense last season. As always, the Wisconsin offensive line is strong, and RBs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement are poised for big seasons. McEvoy's athleticism should at least give the Badgers a bit more flexibility on offense, especially if the receiving corps struggles. The good news is that, after opening with LSU, Wisconsin doesn't have to play much of anyone, with its two toughest opponents being Nebraska and Iowa in November. The unproven front seven may not turn out to be a big issue, beyond the opener against the Tigers.
Which Michigan will show up in 2014? The one that looked great against Notre Dame and came within a two-point conversion of beating Ohio State? The one that struggled to score in losses to Michigan State, Nebraska and Kansas State? The one that nearly lost to Akron and Connecticut? Last year was a bizarre time for the Wolverines, who swept offensive coordinator Al Borges out the door and brought in Alabama's Doug Nussmeier to fix a problematic offensive line and try to better manage QB Devin Gardner, whose production was volatile thanks to a turnover problem. If the offensive line can suddenly start to gel, the offense will settle in a bit and could actually be quite potent. We know that Gardner is a good athlete, and we know he can make big plays as a passer. He just needs to get much, much more consistent. An offensive line that can get any sort of push would be a nice start, and would do a lot toward easing the pressure on head coach Brady Hoke.
22. Notre Dame
The world has not ended, although it's hard not to be wary of Notre Dame's chances this season if the four players under investigation for academic fraud -- CB KeiVarae Russell, WR DaVaris Daniels, DE Ishaq Williams, LB Kendall Moore -- cannot play. The Fighting Irish face a very tough schedule filled with top-40 teams (including heavyweights like Florida State, Stanford and USC), and while they get Everett Golson back at QB, there are a lot of young spots on this team. The running game will be much-improved, and there are some promising players at receiver, so this will be a competitive team capable of beating most of the teams on that schedule. Still, that could simply mean the Irish end up in territory similar to last year, when they finished a solid but unspectacular 9-4.
It's easy to dismiss UCF after losing QB Blake Bortles and RB Storm Johnson, but almost everyone else is back for a deep, athletic team that could end up being dominant defensively in the American Athletic. The UCF schedule is hardly challenging, but there enough tests here to make this season interesting, as the Knights open against Penn State and Missouri, host BYU in October and also get East Carolina and Houston in conference play. Other Group of Five teams have easier roads to big seasons and may have an easier time getting the automatic major bowl bid, but UCF is still the most talented of the bunch.
Exciting? Well, no, Iowa offenses are rarely exciting. The Hawkeyes also loses three experienced linebackers who all cracked the 100-tackle mark, so maybe there's reason to be concerned. Still, the Hawkeyes have enough talent, headlined by DT Carl Davis and OT Brandon Scherff, to emerge relatively unscathed through a very weak schedule. Trips to Pitt and Maryland will be tricky, but Iowa's biggest tests won't come until the final two weeks of the season, when Big Ten West rivals Wisconsin and Nebraska both have to come to Iowa City. If QB Jake Rudock makes a solid progression in his second year as starter, the Hawkeyes can win the division.
25. Texas A&M
Even with Johnny Manziel, the Aggies lost four games last year. Now, they must move on without their Heisman winner, and with a vulnerable defense that was largely responsible for that somewhat disappointing record. Manziel or not, the Aggies are a rising young team thanks to Kevin Sumlin's recruiting prowess, and sophomore QB Kenny Hill steps into a situation in which he can have immediate success, behind a great offensive line, and with a deep pool of skill players around him -- although, again, many of them are young too. The Aggies aren't a threat to win the SEC West, but by the second half of the season (when they play Alabama, Auburn and LSU) the offense should be in gear enough to make things interesting.