Nobody can ever be sure why being ranked in the top 10 or even the top 25 alters the expectations of a football program’s fan base, but there is a certain placebo effect at work. It’s completely subjective, but it’s also an infusion of pride. Twelve is the number that holds more weight. Claiming a conference championship and finishing in the top 12 is what matters most to the BCS’ automatic king making machine.
However, for these programs, a national championship is the ultimate goal. They are not satisfied with the Sugar, Orange, Rose or Fiesta Bowls. This is the time of the year that passion buckets start overflowing as quickly as college stadiums on Saturday nights.
Boasting to your boss from Tuscaloosa that your alma mater is A&M is grounds for a demotion. Florida State sent its second quarterback in three years to the first round of the NFL Draft and replaced him with the most exalted redshirt freshman in program history. Johnny Manziel avoided any disorderly conduct arrests this summer and dodged a fight with the NCAA. Oregon dodged a bullet from the NCAA, but at the cost of a head coach. Meanwhile Alabama continued marching along as if they’ve been frozen in time since January 7th.
#1 Alabama Crimson Tide
Tides are supposed to rise and fall. However, Alabama is poised once again to engulf the entire nation even after starters Dee Milliner, Chancer Warmack, D.J. Fluker and starting tailback Eddie Lacy departed for the NFL Draft. The Tide are on the doorstep of college football’s first three-peat in nearly 80 years, and the offense may be a battering ram that pushes them through the front door. A.J. McCarron is looking for a fourth national championship and third as a starter. T.J. Yeldon takes over the vaunted halfback position, (and he’ll be spelled by freshman Derrick Henry) while sophomore Amari Cooper leads a deep receiving corps.
#2 Oregon Ducks
The Ducks won’t experience much of a drop-off from Kenjon Barner to sophomore Bryon Marshall. It remains to be seen if the same can be said for their head coaching change. Mark Helfrich has one hell of a chip on his shoulders. Chip Kelly is gone, but the Tee Martin Principle applies here. Back in year one of the BCS, Martin led the Tennessee Vols to a national championship in his first season as a starter, doing what his immediate predecessor Peyton Manning could not. History repeated itself during the first season of the Butch Davis to Larry Coker transition at Miami. The Ducks have more than just history on their side, they’ve got a Heisman Trophy contender in Marcus Mariota and a defense anchored by sophomore pass rusher Arik Armstead.
#3 Stanford Cardinals
Stanford goes against the grain in the finesse Pac-12. Gradually, Shaw’s Cardinals have transformed into Ivy League Alabama. The Cardinals old-school, two-tight end power scheme has received much of the credit for their Pac-12 success in recent years, but it’s their zone-read option killing defense which has them back in the top 5 saddle.
On the other side of the equation, outside linebacker Trent Murphy is the spark plug of a defense that ranked fifth in rushing defense and first in sacks. If you didn’t pay attention to quarterback Kevin Hogan burnishing his reputation as a capable dual threat leader last year, you have a whole season to catch up to speed.
#4 South Carolina Gamecocks
In a conference that prides itself on churning out defensive legends, Jadeveon Clowney is a tall tale. If South Carolina can’t climb the mountain and plant their flag atop the SEC’s peak in Clowney’s farewell romp, this season will be considered a minor disappointment. Mike Davis, the younger brother of C.J. Spiller’s former Clemson backfield mate, James Davis, picks up where Marcus Lattimore left off. It’s weird to think that it’s come to this for a Steve Spurrier-coached team, but quarterback Conor Shaw may have to give the offense a little extra charge for the Gamecocks to finally get over the hump in the SEC. If he doesn’t meet Spurrier’s declining expectations for a starting quarterback (compared to his Fun & Gun heyday), Dylan Thompson is looming over his shoulders.
#5 Ohio State Buckeyes
First impressions are crucial. Second impressions are a window of truth. From Bowling Green to Utah and Florida, it’s a proven fact that Urban Meyer usually reserves his magic for the second year. Braxton Miller captains the offense and should make significant strides passing the football. Lightning-quick freshman running back Dontre Wilson, originally a Chip Kelly prospect, may take the conference by surprise. He’ll be an additional offensive weapon stocked in the Buckeyes repository, while pass rushers Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington should become All-Conference disrupters on the defensive side.
#6 Georgia Bulldogs
Aaron Murray was named first-team All-SEC and is on pace to shred the NCAA record books. As great as those accomplishments sound, Murray has his sights set on some real hardware after last December’s heartbreaking SEC championship defeat. First-team SEC tight end Arthur Lynch and third-team receiver Malcolm Mitchell will assist Murray’s record-breaking pursuit. All-conference running backs Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley are riding shotgun to keep defenses honest.
Mass exodus on the defensive end will hinder UGA’s plans for SEC vengeance. Jarvis Jones’ void creates an opportunity for Jordan Jenkins to step up and new stars always emerge along the Bulldogs defense. We’ll quickly find out whether the Bulldogs are pretenders or contenders when they open the season against…
#7 Clemson Tigers
There’s no questioning the offensive potency led by Tahj Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins. However, the Tigers’ defensive identity is still a lingering mystery. The defense has lacked claws lately, but improved slightly in its first season under the stewardship of coordinator Brent Venables. However, there are a lack of playmakers on that side of the football, something which the Tigers aren’t historically familiar with. For Clemson, losing out on Robert Nkemdiche and Jadeveon Clowney in recent years has been like swallowing their own teeth.
#8 Texas A&M Aggies
Johnny Football snuck up on the nation last season. This fall, we’ll find out whether Manziel can avoid a sophomore slump or if defensive coordinators have successfully concocted a few schemes to keep him wrapped up. Also of note is the return of O-lineman Jake Matthews, who gives Manziel another personal bodyguard protecting his blindside. Unfortunately, the defense suffered a few losses via the draft and as a result of suspension. After Alabama, their schedule softens up considerably and could give them a clear path to the SEC West title.
#9 Louisville Cardinals
Teddy Bridgewater may sound like the stage name for a solo jazz artist, but he’s actually the conductor for a 22-man orchestra. The Cardinals are deeper than just Teddy Ballgame. Receiver Eli Rogers has been rockin’ with Bridgewater since high school and Devonte Parker is one of the most sure-handed receivers in the nation. Michael Dyer’s addition to the backfield gives their offense the baritone it needs.
#10 Florida State Seminoles
Perhaps this is expecting too much and too soon from redshirt freshman Jameis Winston. If he lives up to a quarter of the Tebowesque hype surrounding him, the Seminoles have enough returning talent around him to keep the ACC in their pocket. DEs Mario Edwards and Timmy Jernigan lead a devastating defense. A national championship run with a freshman quarterback is extremely rare, but isn’t all that farfetched after Notre Dame pulled off the feat.