Quarterback AJ McCarron and Alabama will seek their third consecutive national title in the 2013 season.
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images
Though many of these teams were in similar spots when I wrote the Way-Too-Early Top 25 in January, I didn't notice how nerdy the rankings had become until putting together this post-spring edition. But that's OK. As any A Song of Ice And Fire reader-turned-Game of Thrones viewer will attest, nerds are very cool these days.
I have Vanderbilt and Northwestern just inside the Top 25, but considering how little respect those programs usually get -- especially Vanderbilt -- that's a major step forward. Meanwhile, I have Stanford at No. 3 and Notre Dame at No. 5. The Cardinal showed this spring that the renaissance started by Jim Harbaugh and continued by David Shaw can extend indefinitely if Stanford keeps recruiting at a high level. That's certainly possible, and here's why.
While a large segment of the pool of blue-chip recruits will make strictly a football decision when choosing a school, a not-insignificant number will seriously consider academics. At the moment, the Cardinal can offer recruits the top-ranked education in the FBS and a legitimate chance to compete for the national title. That last part is the key, but that first part is really tough to recruit against. This is an incredibly appealing package -- one that a player who qualifies for admission to Stanford would have a difficult time turning down. Notre Dame, another highly ranked academic institution, just played for the national title, giving the Fighting Irish a similar cachet. (Notre Dame can still trade on its tradition somewhat, but today's elite recruits are a different breed than the ones who flocked to South Bend when last the Irish were perennial contenders. Now Brian Kelly can really sell.)
Meanwhile, Pat Fitzgerald has quietly built Northwestern into a program that in no way resembles the Big Ten doormat it used to be. James Franklin seems to be doing the same thing at Vanderbilt in spite of the ferocity of the SEC. If these coaches can string together a few more successful seasons, the academics/athletics combo becomes a more potent recruiting tool. Elite players do want a great degree, but not at the expense of winning. If Northwestern and Vandy keep proving they can win, they could join Stanford and Notre Dame in the upper reaches of the rankings.
So to the nerds taking over the Top 25, we serenade you and ask that you remember this kindness when you inevitably become our bosses.
Alabama Crimson Tide
2012 record: 13-1 (7-1 SEC)
Key returnees: QB AJ McCarron, OT Cyrus Kouandjio, OG Anthony Steen, RB T.J. Yeldon, WR Amari Cooper, LB C.J. Mosley, S Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix, LB Adrian Hubbard, DE Ed Stinson, CB Deion Belue
Key losses: OG Chance Warmack, C Barrett Jones, RB Eddie Lacy, CB Dee Milliner, LB Nico Johnson, DT Jesse Williams, S Robert Lester
Spring star: C Ryan Kelly
The Crimson Tide remain loaded, so there's nothing left to do but leave Alabama No. 1 and FREAK OUT OVER THE THREE OPEN SPOTS ON THE OFFENSIVE LINE!!! Some of that is going on in Alabama these days, but not out of genuine concern. It's May, and any respectable Southern football fan needs something to fret about into the summer. Even the demanding folks in crimson understand it will be hard to top last year's line, which was among the best in college football history. But given Alabama's recent recruiting track record and the hiring of Mario Cristobal to coach the group, the 2013 line probably won’t represent too much of a dropoff. Kouandjio is set at left tackle and Kelly is set at center, but the other three spots are open. One probably will go to Steen, who started at right guard last year but could wind up moving to left guard this season. Arie Kouandjio, the older brother of Cyrus, is in the mix for a guard spot along with Austin Shepherd and Chad Lindsay. Juco transfer Leon Brown and freshman Brandon Hill are competing at right tackle. The lineup remains fairly fluid, if for no other reason than to keep the players motivated while strength coach Scott Cochran works his magic these next three months.
Texas A&M Aggies
2012 record: 11-2 (6-2 SEC)
Key returnees: QB Johnny Manziel, OT Jake Matthews, OT Cedric Ogbuehi, RB Ben Malena, WR Mike Evans, DT Kirby Ennis, LB Steven Jenkins, CB Deshazor Everett
OT Luke Joeckel, C Patrick Lewis, WR Ryan Swope, LB Jonathan Stewart, LB Sean Porter, DE Damontre Moore
Spring star: RB Brandon Williams
Manziel and Alabama quarterback McCarron's hinted-at-on-Twitter vacation has become the college football players' version of Jimbo Fisher-and-Will Muschamp-share-a-beach-house, but this friendship could pay dividends for the Aggies. No player in America has endured as many Haterz with as much ease as McCarron, and the guy who has led his team to the past two national titles can give the Heisman winner plenty of advice about how to handle the inevitable deluge of vitriol -- yes, it will get worse -- as America reaches Johnny Football critical mass come August. What will help more? The development of an inexperienced front seven on defense. We know the Aggies can score, but to win the SEC West, they'll have to defend as well. The secondary is talented and seasoned, but the rest of the unit will have to grow up quickly. The emergence of Nate Askew, a former receiver, at strongside linebacker gives the Aggies a boost in athleticism. The fact that Askew had to move because of the talent backlog at receiver suggests the young defenders could have a decent scoreboard cushion as they find their way, but with Alabama coming to College Station on Sept. 14, they won't have much time to develop before their first true test.
2012 record: 12-2 (8-1 Pac-12)
G David Yankey, QB Kevin Hogan, RB Anthony Wilkerson, C Khalil Wilkes, LB Trent Murphy, DE Ben Gardner, LB Shayne Skov, S Ed Reynolds
RB Stepfan Taylor, TE Zach Ertz, TE Levine Toilolo, C Sam Schwartzstein, LB Chase Thomas
Spring star: TE Luke Kaumatule
Don't know Luke O'tutulupeatau Saokai Kaumatule? Learn the name. OK, maybe just the first part and the last part. Who is Kaumatule? He could be the next great tight end in an offense that cranks out monster tight ends. With Ertz and Toilolo off to the NFL, the 6-foot-7, 260-pound sophomore from Honolulu will have to carry the torch this year. But don't expect defenses to be able to key on Kaumatule. Hogan will have several less massive targets this fall. Junior receiver Ty Montgomery, who struggled with injuries in 2012, should be back to his freshman form. Meanwhile, sophomores Michael Rector and Kodi Whitfield (son of former Stanford and NFL offensive tackle Bob Whitfield) also should help the Cardinal stretch the field. Wilkerson looks ready to take over for Stepfan Taylor, and the return of Tyler Gaffney from professional baseball gives Stanford yet another playmaker in the backfield. Combine that offense with eight returning defensive starters and the Cardinal look like the favorite in the Pac-12.
Ohio State Buckeyes
2012 record: 12-0 (8-0 Big Ten)
QB Braxton Miller, CB Bradley Roby, LB Ryan Shazier, RB Carlos Hyde, OT Jack Mewhort, C Corey Linsley, S Christian Bryant
Key losses: DT Johnathan Hankins, DE John Simon, CB Travis Howard, LB Etienne Sabino, DE Nathan Williams, OT Reid Fragel, WR/TE Jake Stoneburner
DE Noah Spence
Kevin Miller, the father of Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller, told Doug Lesmerises of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer that 2013 will be the first season since the younger Miller was a sophomore in high school that he'll have the same offensive coordinator in consecutive seasons. That's a scary thought for opposing Big Ten defenses, because a more developed Miller with a firm grasp of the offense he's running will be incredibly difficult to stop. "Being in your second season in the offense, you pick up more things and what other people are doing, compared to your first year when you're just learning," Kevin Miller told Lesmerises after Ohio State's spring game. "You're not out there just winging it and doing it all on athletic ability. You can know what you're actually doing and where people are at and get them involved." Here's another scary prospect. Ohio State's offensive assistants visited Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris during the winter. Morris was last spotted running 100 plays against LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. If the Buckeyes add an up-tempo package to their regular offense, they could be even tougher to stop. That likely will depend on the development of the defense, which must replace seven starters. Urban Meyer's offense has always bled the play clock, and that likely will continue if the defense struggles early. Sometimes, the best defense is an eight-minute touchdown drive.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
2012 record: 12-1
QB Everett Golson, RB George Atkinson, DT Louis Nix III, DE Stephon Tuitt, LB Prince Shembo, CB Bennett Jackson
Key losses: LB Manti Te'o, TE Tyler Eifert, C Braxston Cave, RB Cierre Wood, S Zeke Motta
Spring star: TE Troy Niklas
Maybe Notre Dame's offense struggled so much against Alabama in the BCS title game because Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly was keeping the Wild Chocolate under wraps. After Notre Dame's spring game, all opposing defenses should quake if nose tackle Nix makes another appearance as the triggerman in the Irish offense. "That's what all teams need to be scared of. Everybody needs to be scared of Irish Chocolate," the 340-pound Nix told reporters after his successful two-point conversion. Opponents need to be scared of Nix, period. With Nix, defensive end Stephon Tuitt and Trick Shot Monday master (and cornerback) Bennett Jackson returning, Notre Dame's defense shouldn't miss a beat despite the loss of Manti Te'o.
2012 record: 12-1 (8-1 Pac-12)
QB Marcus Mariota, RB De'Anthony Thomas, TE Colt Lyerla, WR Josh Huff, CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, S Avery Patterson, DE Taylor Hart
RB Kenjon Barner, LB Kiko Alonso, LB Michael Clay, LB Dion Jordan
RB Byron Marshall
Any concerns that Oregon would change appreciably after Chip Kelly handed off to Mark Helfrich were put to rest when the Ducks' offense quickly racked up 802 yards in the spring game. If anything, this group might even play faster than last year's group. Marshall made his case this spring to be Oregon's workhorse back. He'll have to fend off star recruit Thomas Tyner in preseason camp, but the Ducks can rest assured they have a back capable of gaining big yards between the tackles -- which will make life easier for Mariota and Thomas when they carry.
South Carolina Gamecocks
2012 record: 11-2 (6-2 SEC)
Key returnees: DE Jadeveon Clowney, QB Connor Shaw, QB Dylan Thompson, WR Bruce Ellington, OG A.J. Cann, DT Kelcy Quarles, CB Victor Hampton
Key losses: RB Marcus Lattimore, WR Ace Sanders, LB Devonte Holloman, LB Shaq Wilson, DE Devin Taylor
RB Mike Davis
Remember, the Gamecocks began life without Lattimore in early November. Kenny Miles carried the load to close his college career, but Steve Spurrier slipped a few carries to then-freshman Davis. Davis truly took hold of the running back job this spring, impressing teammates with his speed, power and blocking in pass protection. When the Gamecocks last played for real, Thompson replaced an injured Shaw on the final drive of the Outback Bowl and threw the game-winning touchdown pass to Ellington. Shaw missed spring practice after foot surgery, giving Thompson a chance to command the offense. Spurrier has said Shaw will keep his starting job, but given Shaw's damn-the-torpedoes running style, the Gamecocks probably will need to call upon Thompson on occasion come fall. He should be ready.
2012 record: 11-2 (5-2 Big East)
QB Teddy Bridgewater, OT Jamon Brown, WR Damian Copeland, S Calvin Pryor, S Hakeem Smith, LB Preston Brown, DE Marcus Smith
CB Adrian Bushell, C Mario Benavides, OT Alex Kupper
OT Abraham Garcia
The Cardinals bring back almost everyone from the team that won the Big East and crushed Florida in the Sugar Bowl last season, but when spring began, depth looked bleak at tailback. Jeremy Wright, last year's leading rusher, isn't enrolled in classes. Senorise Perry is still recovering from a torn ACL suffered last season. But Dominique Brown, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, returned at full strength this spring and appears ready to carry the load. Garcia, a sophomore offensive tackle from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is listed at 352 pounds, but when I met him while covering his 7-on-7 team in 2010, he wasn't a biscuit over 330.
2012 record: 11-2 (7-1 SEC)
QB Jeff Driskel, C Jonotthan Harrison, FB Trey Burton, CB/WR Loucheiz Purifoy, CB Marcus Roberson, DE Dominique Easley, DE Dante Fowler Jr.
DT Sharrif Floyd, S Matt Elam, LB Jon Bostic, LB Jelani Jenkins, RB Mike Gillislee
RB Matt Jones
The Gators' offense had a strange spring. The offensive line was supposed to be deeper and better with two transfers (Max Garcia and Tyler Moore) becoming eligible and sophomore D.J. Humphries maturing into a starting left tackle, but the group got so banged up that coach Will Muschamp had to scrap the spring game format and just hold a regular practice. So at the moment, we don't really know if Florida's line will be better. If it is, watch out. Florida's defense, which should get Ronald Powell (ACL) back as a hybrid linebacker/defensive end and could have a monster on its hands if Fowler continues to develop, should be able to weather some pretty talented departures. That defense and a capable running game should make Florida competitive in the SEC East. But to compete for titles, the Gators will have to develop the passing game. At the moment, the great hope in Gainesville is freshman receiver Demarcus Robinson.
2012 record: 11-2 (7-1 ACC)
QB Tajh Boyd, WR Sammy Watkins, OT Brandon Thomas, DE Vic Beasley, LB Stephone Anthony, K Chandler Catanzaro
C Dalton Freeman, WR DeAndre Hopkins, RB Andre Ellington, DE Malliciah Goodman, S Rashard Hall
Spring star: TE Jordan Leggett
How dedicated are the Tigers to winning their season opener? Their players are doing in-person scouting these days. In April, Boyd, Watkins and linebacker Quandon Christian tried to blend in with the spring game crowd at Georgia's Sanford Stadium. The players wanted to see what they'll face when they open the season against the Bulldogs on Aug. 31. "We were kind of incognito," Boyd told OrangeAndWhite.com. "I had a hat on, some shades -- threw on some red and kept it casual." Of all the teams in the ACC, the Tigers have the schedule that would give them the best shot of being the first team from the league to play for the BCS title since Florida State in the 2000 season. If they win their season opener and their regular-season finale (South Carolina), they'd probably qualify for the SEC East title. Of course, they'd still have to win the ACC, which isn't going to be that easy with Florida State reloading and Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Miami improving.
2012 record: 12-2 (7-1 SEC)
QB Aaron Murray, RB Todd Gurley, RB Keith Marshall, WR Michael Bennett, WR/CB Malcolm Mitchell, CB Damian Swann, LB Amarlo Herrera
LB Jarvis Jones, LB Alec Ogletree, S Baccari Rambo, S Shawn Williams, DT John Jenkins, DT Kwame Geathers, DE Cornelius Washington, CB Sanders Commings
Spring star: LB James DeLoach
Other than the Alabama guard who winds up replacing Chance Warmack, DeLoach may have the toughest replacement assignment in the nation. The 6-3, 270-pound sophomore from Millen, Ga., won the strongside linebacker job this spring, meaning he gets to replace Jarvis Jones. Jones led the nation in 2012 with 24.5 tackles for loss, and DeLoach will have to replace at least some of that productivity. But DeLoach won't be the only Bulldog who must replace a star. Mike Thornton may seem huge (6-1, 302 pounds) compared to the average human, but he's svelte compared to the 358-pound Jenkins. Even though he's 56 pounds lighter, Thornton will be expected to command the same double teams Jenkins did at nose tackle. If he doesn't, the Bulldogs' defense won't work as intended.
Florida State Seminoles
2012 record: 12-2 (7-1 ACC)
WR Rashad Greene, C Bryan Stork, RB James Wilder Jr., TE Nick O'Leary, LB Christian Jones, S Lamarcus Joyner
QB EJ Manuel, RB Lonnie Pryor, DE Bjoern Werner, DE Tank Carradine, CB Xavier Rhodes, LB Vince Williams
QB Jameis Winston
Aaaaargh, it's happening again. I swore I'd never do this again, but it feels as if some voice spends February through September whispering, "You've got FSU too low" into my ear. This time, that sneaking suspicion has more to do with something specific than some nebulous feeling like "that defense seems good." The ascension of Jameis Winston to the starting quarterback spot gives the Seminoles reason to be very excited about this season. I could be completely off base here, or I could get lucky and look prescient if Winston tears up the ACC the way Johnny Manziel tore up the SEC last year. Florida State has some outstanding receivers in Rashad Greene, Willie Haulstead and Kelvin Benjamin, and running back James Wilder Jr. is turning into the battering ram his high school highlight videos suggested he'd be. Add a quarterback who can fling it and occasionally run it -- unless Jimbo Fisher suddenly changes offensive philosophies, occasionally is the correct term -- and all those guys get even better. If first-year defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt can successfully replace Mark Stoops despite serious losses on his side of the ball, Florida State will be back in the mix for the ACC title. Because of the ACC's reputation and the fact that Florida State is missing a non-Florida out-of-conference showcase game for the second consecutive season, the Seminoles would probably have to go undefeated to dream about anything more.
2012 record: 10-3 (6-2 SEC)
QB Zach Mettenberger, WR Odell Beckham Jr., RB Alfred Blue, OT La'El Collins, DT Anthony Johnson, CB Jalen Mills, S Craig Loston, LB Lamin Barrow
LB Kevin Minter, DE Sam Montgomery, DE Barkevious Mingo, DT Bennie Logan, S Eric Reid, CB Tharold Simon, RB Michael Ford, RB Spencer Ware, OT Chris Faulk, C P.J. Lonergan, P Brad Wing
DE Danielle Hunter
New LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron inherited plenty of weapons, but one of the most effective ones might never take a snap in Cameron's offense. Tailback Jeremy Hill, who led the Tigers in rushing last year, is suspended in definitely following his arrest late last month on a simple battery charge for his role in a fight at a Baton Rouge bar. LSU coach Les Miles has said he'll wait for the legal process to run its course before making any decision, but the judicial process could make the decision for Miles. Hill is on probation after pleading guilty in 2011 to a misdemeanor charge of unlawful carnal knowledge of a minor following a 2010 incident with a 14-year-old classmate at Redemptorist High in Baton Rouge. In the most recent incident, police obtained video of Hill punching a man in the head before a second man, since identified by police as 20-year-old Robert Bayardo, knocked the man unconscious with another punch. If Hill is found to have violated his probation, he might have to serve the six-month prison term that was originally suspended in the earlier case. That would make Miles' decision easy.
Michigan State Spartans
2012 record: 7-6 (3-5 Big Ten)
LB Max Bullough, LB Denicos Allen, DE Marcus Rush, CB Darqueze Dennard, S Isaiah Lewis, OT Fou Fonoti, QB Andrew Maxwell
Key losses: RB Le'Veon Bell, TE Dion Sims, DE Will Gholston, CB Johnny Adams
CB Trae Waynes
If you read my Way-Too-Early Top 25 in January and don't remember seeing Michigan State listed, congratulations. Your memory does not deceive you. So why are the Spartans all the way up here now? Because after visiting with defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi and boring into the stats from 2012, it became clear that Michigan State had an elite defense, a terrible offense and a ton of bad luck last season. Since the Spartans bring back most of that defense and the offensive players have had time to mature, another double-digit win campaign -- as in 2010 and 2011 -- seems far more likely than a repeat of last year's .500 regular-season record.
TCU Horned Frogs
2012 record: 7-6 (4-5 Big 12)
DE Devonte Fields, CB Jason Verrett, QB Casey Pachall, S Sam Carter, S Elisha Olabode, RB Waymon James
WR Josh Boyce, OG Blaize Foltz, RB Matthew Tucker, DE Stansly Maponga
OG Jamelle Naff
Unlike opening opponent LSU, the Horned Frogs return almost everyone from a defense that found its way late last season. The biggest question remains on offense. Is Pachall is ready to retake the starting job he lost last October when he was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence? TCU coach Gary Patterson continues to insist publicly that Pachall and Trevone Boykin -- who was thrown into the starting job with little notice or preparation after Pachall's arrest -- are even, but if Pachall is anywhere near where he was immediately before his arrest, he's going to win the job.
2012 record: 8-5 (6-2 Big Ten)
Key returnees: OT Taylor Lewan, QB Devin Gardner, RB Fitzgerald Toussaint, WR Jeremy Gallon, S Thomas Gordon, CB Ramon Taylor, LB Desmond Morgan
QB Denard Robinson, S Jordan Kovacs, DE Craig Roh, DT Will Campbell, CB J.T. Floyd, WR Roy Roundtree, OG Patrick Omameh
DE Frank Clark
The emergence of Clark -- a 277-pounder who teammates say runs as fast as a receiver -- should take some pressure off a defense reeling from the knee injury linebacker Jake Ryan suffered in spring practice. Brennen Beyer has moved to linebacker to help account for the loss of Ryan, meaning Clark, who led Michigan in tackles for loss last season despite a part-time role, will have to play more snaps at rush end. Clark told MLive.com his 2012 arrest for stealing a laptop from a fellow student's dorm room was the wake-up call he needed to straighten out his on- and off-field life.
2012 record: 10-3 (8-1 Big 12)
C Gabe Ikard, FB Trey Millard, RB Damien Williams, CB Aaron Colvin, RB Brennan Clay, WR Jalen Saunders, WR Sterling Shepard, LB Corey Nelson
OT Lane Johnson, QB Landry Jones, WR Kenny Stills, S Tony Jefferson, DT Jamarkus McFarland, LB Tom Wort
CB Cortez Johnson
Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops tried thinking outside the (tackle) box in his first season back in the Big 12. With so many pass-happy offenses to stop, Stoops often loaded up on defensive backs and yanked his linebackers off the field. Many times, the Sooners came out with one or zero linebackers. The results were awful. How awful? Tavon-Austin-rushing-for-344-yards-even-though-he's-a-receiver awful. The good news is that Stoops -- likely with some urging from his brother and boss, Bob -- has seen the error of his ways and actually plans to play linebackers this season. "I think our scheme did a little bit of an injustice to our linebackers a year ago," Mike Stoops told the Tulsa World. "I sound redundant, but I don't know how else to say it. When you're going against four wideouts 70 percent of the game, that's extraordinary and it limits some of the things these guys can do. We're gonna try to keep two linebackers on the field as much as we can in each situation." So congratulations, Corey Nelson. You're one of the best players in the Big 12. Now you'll get to prove it.
2012 record: 9-4 (5-4 Big 12)
QB David Ash, RB Johnathan Gray, RB Joe Bergeron, RB Malcolm Brown, OG Mason Walters, CB Quandre Diggs, CB Carrington Byndum, DE Jackson Jeffcoat, LB Jordan Hicks
DE Alex Okafor, S Kenny Vaccaro, WR Marquise Goodwin
QB Tyrone Swoopes
According to the Texas spring prospectus, the Longhorns' position players have combined for 393 starts. Texas is not young. In fact, it is one of the most experienced teams in the country. Barring some unusual, unforeseen calamity that would prejudice the result, what Texas does on the field in 2013 is an excellent indicator of where Texas is as a program. In other words, if the Longhorns win the Big 12, then this is what Mack Brown and company have been building toward, and it probably vindicates Brown after several years of criticism. If they ride to another record not befitting the best-resourced program in college football, then there is only one place to put the blame.
Boise State Broncos
2012 record: 11-2 (7-1 Mountain West)
Key returnees: QB Joe Southwick, OT Charles Leno Jr., C Matt Paradis, WR Matt Miller, DE Demarcus Lawrence, DT Ricky Tjong-A-Tjoe, S Jeremy Ioane
CB Jamar Taylor, RB D.J. Harper, LB J.C. Percy
DT Deuce Mataele
Hey, remember when Boise State was going to start Big East play in 2013? That seems like an awfully long time ago. The Broncos won't even get their one-year taste of BCS automatic qualifying status, but that doesn't mean they can't bust the damn thing once more for old time's sake before the system gives way to the playoff/contract bowls/access bowls. The Broncos have to replace a bunch of starters for the second consecutive season, but unlike last year, they have enough veterans in key spots to make the transition easier. Southwick was exceptionally accurate this spring, and the defensive line combo of Lawrence and Tjong-A-Tjoe should make the Broncos tough to block. If they can beat Washington in their season opener, they'll have a shot at busting the BCS one last time.
2012 record: 8-5 (4-5 Big 12)
RB Lache Seastrunk, RB Glasco Martin, WR Tevin Reese, S Ahmad Dixon, LB Eddie Lackey, DE Chris McAllister, LB Bryce Hager
WR Terrance Williams, QB Nick Florence, DT Gary Mason, S Mike Hicks
QB Bryce Petty
The offense is going to put up obscene numbers with the thunder-lightning combo of Martin and Seastrunk and with Petty throwing to Reese, Antwan Goodley and Jay Lee. It will be up to the defense to keep opposing offenses from posting equally obscene numbers. To do that, defensive ends Javonte Magee and Penn State transfer Shawn Oakman will have to get pressure on the quarterback. Baylor's defense won't have to smother opponents the way Alabama's defense does, but it will have to help a little if the Bears hope to reach their not-unrealistic goal of a Big 12 title.
2012 record: 9-5 (6-3 Pac-12)
Key returnees: QB Brett Hundley, LB Anthony Barr, OG Xavier Su'a-Filo, LB Eric Kendricks, DE Cassius Marsh, WR Shaq Evans
RB Johnathan Franklin, DE Datone Jones, LB Damien Holmes, TE Joseph Fauria
WR Devin Lucien
UCLA's Jim Mora is ready to start a Heisman campaign. Not for quarterback Hundley, who plays the position favored by Heisman voters and who could certainly put up the numbers necessary to get an invite to New York. No, Mora is touting linebacker Anthony Barr for the award. And Mora is correct. Barr, who only moved to defense after Mora took over for Rick Neuheisel prior to the 2012 season, is one of the best pass rushers in the country. Barr and Arizona State tackle Will Sutton will duke it out for the title of best defender in the Pac-12, and don't be surprised if Barr -- who spent his first two years in an H-back role that Neuheisel called F-back -- is vastly improved from 2012, when he racked up 13.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss. If South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney can be considered a Heisman contender, then so should the 6-4, 245-pound Barr. (As well as Sutton.)
2012 record: 10-3 (5-3 Big Ten)
Key returnees: QB Kain Colter, QB Trevor Siemian, RB Venric Mark, C Brandon Vitabile, WR Christian Jones, DE Tyler Scott, S Ibraheim Campbell, CB Nick VanHoose, LB Chi Chi Ariguzo
OT Patrick Ward, G Brian Mulroe, DT Brian Arnfelt, LB David Nwabuisi
S Traveon Henry
Unlike South Carolina's Spurrier, who has two capable quarterbacks yet has named a starter and a backup, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald sees no need to send one of his quarterbacks to the bench for an extended period. Just as they did last year, the Wildcats will alternate between Colter and Siemian depending on the situation. Meanwhile, Fitzgerald thinks he has the most athletic defense he's coached since he took over the program in 2006 following the death of Randy Walker. Scott is the top returning pass rusher in the Big Ten, and the secondary is the fastest it has been in Fitzgerald's tenure.
2012 record: 9-4 (5-3 SEC)
WR Jordan Matthews, WR Chris Boyd, OT Wesley Johnson, RB Wesley Tate, CB Andre Hal, S Kenny Ladler, LB Chase Garnham
Key losses: RB Zac Stacy, QB Jordan Rodgers, OT Ryan Seymour, LB Archibald Barnes, CB Trey Wilson
DE Stephen Weatherly
Pop quiz time. Name the SEC team with the longest win streak. Alabama? Nope. Texas A&M? Nope. South Carolina? Nope. It's Vandy, which has won its past seven games. You can chalk that up to a fortuitous schedule draw if you'd like, but a few years ago, seven wins in a season would have sent the Commodores over the moon. Now, James Franklin has his team believing it can compete in the SEC East. Can it? That remains to be seen, but the progress this team has made in two years under Franklin is remarkable.
Northern Illinois Huskies
2012 record: 12-2 (8-0 MAC)
QB Jordan Lynch, C Andrew Ness, OG Jared Volk, LB Jamaal Bass, S Jimmie Ward
Key losses: WR Martel Moore, TE Jason Schepler, LB Tyrone Clark, DT Nabal Jefferson, DE Sean Progar
WR Tommylee Lewis
The Huskies are still smarting from their Orange Bowl loss to Florida State, and that's a good thing. They still believe they blew opportunities to be competitive in that game, and they worked all spring to correct those mistakes. With Lynch back behind a completely intact line, the offense should improve. The defense will have to replace much of its pass rush, but coach Rod Carey -- who reminded SI.com's Ben Glicksman that he has an 0-1 record -- is confident his roster has enough experience on that side of the ball to pick up the slack. The Huskies may have lost the Orange Bowl, but they feel like they can turn that loss into a positive. "What this experience did for us is it left a really hungry team," Carey said. "No doubt, Florida State had a really great team, and I take nothing away from them. But we were really pissed that we lost that game. We had opportunities, and we didn't take advantage of our opportunities."
Virginia Tech Hokies
2012 record: 7-6 (4-4 ACC)
QB Logan Thomas, LB Jack Tyler, CB Kyle Fuller, DE James Gayle, CB Antone Exum
OT Vinston Painter, WR Marcus Davis, LB Bruce Taylor, LB Alonzo Tweedy
Spring star: CB Brandon Facyson
Cornerback Exum had knee surgery in early February at the Gulf Breeze, Fla., clinic run by renowned surgeon -- and Alabama team physician -- James Andrews. Exum, who may not be recovered in time to play when the Hokies open their season against the Crimson Tide on Aug. 31 in Atlanta, didn't hesitate to let Andrews know who he thought would win the game. "He went up to my mom and was like, 'He's delirious in there. All he keeps saying is how he's going to be back for Alabama and they're going to beat Alabama,'" Exum told The Virginian-Pilot's Andy Bitter. "So I guess that was the first thing on my mind." The Hokies have a lot to prove in that game and throughout the 2013 season. Last year was one of the worst in the Frank Beamer era, and a program that has been a model of consistency probably won't be down long -- especially when it returns nine defensive starters. Beamer finally made changes on his offensive staff, but new coordinator Scot Loeffler will need to coax a great year out of Thomas to erase the stain left by the putrid offense he ran at Auburn in 2012. But on the Plains, Loeffler was trying to run a pro-style scheme with players recruited to run Gus Mahlzahn's spread. Now, he's working with a passer whose skill set is far more similar to -- and probably better than -- the quarterbacks Loeffler coached at Michigan from 2002-07.
Teams I might regret not including*: Arizona, Arizona State, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Oregon State
*But reserve the right to include in my preseason Top 25