Herald-Leader sports columnist John Clay annually picks a preseason Top 25 in college football. Here is John's list for 2015:
1. Ohio State: This was the year that Urban Meyer’s team was supposed to reach the top of the college football mountain so the defending champions are already way ahead of schedule and already very, very scary. Meyer is so awash in a flood of talent that Braxton Miller, a Heisman candidate quarterback, will now take up residence at wide receiver where early reports say he has been dynamite. Of course.
2. TCU: The Horned Frogs ended up the odd man out of last year’s College Football Playoff, then took out their frustrations by routing Mississippi 42-3 in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. Quarterback and Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year Trevone Boykin is back to lead an explosive offense. Wide receiver Josh Doctson caught 1,018 yards worth of passes last year. TCU’s defense will need some work, but that happens to be head coach Gary Patterson’s specialty.
3. Michigan State: Two Big Ten teams among the nation’s top 10? It’s a whole different era. Mike Dantonio has built a program to last in East Lansing. The Spartans have won 11 games four of the last five years. Returning quarterback Connor Cook is a Heisman Trophy candidate. Sparty did lose defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi to Pittsburgh (head coach), but like TCU the head coach knows a thing or two about that side of the football.
Never miss a local story.
4. Alabama: The big summer controversy in Tuscaloosa was the unauthorized biography of Nick Saban, and Nick Saban likes to have control over everything. He also deplores distractions. After last year’s surprise loss to Ohio State in the CFP semifinals, Saban has to settle on a new quarterback and plug some holes on defense. Still, there’s a reason people want to read and write about Saban. He wins.
5. Baylor: Unlike TCU, the Bears didn’t suffer their College Football Playoff slight well. The Waco wizards blew a three-touchdown, fourth-quarter lead over Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl, which was record-setting quarterback Bryce Petty’s final game. Not to worry. Coach Art Briles has an able replacement in Seth Russell and more than enough speed to burn at the skill positions. The Bears might end up in the Final Four this year.
6. Auburn: Mastermind Gus Malzahn has found himself an able partner on the defensive side in new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, better known as “Coach Boom.” True, Muschamp turned out to be a dud as head coach at Florida, but there are few better at leading a defense. Jeremy Johnson takes over at quarterback with the help of a quarterback’s best friend — the best offensive line in the SEC.
7. Oregon: After reaching the College Football Playoff title game last year, the Ducks may finally come back to earth. Star quarterback Marcus Mariota now makes his name in Nashville where he will try to revive the Titans. Back in Eugene, Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams could end up running the famous Oregon spread offense. Job No. 1: Hand the ball off to Royce Freeman, who rushed for 1,365 yards a year ago.
8. USC: Add Cody Kessler’s name to the long list of great Southern Cal quarterbacks. As a junior, Kessler threw for 3,826 yards with 39 touchdowns and five interceptions a year ago. He also set a school completion percentage record at 69.7 percent. Second-year coach Steve Sarkisian needs to pump up the defense, which gave up 25.2 points per game last season.
9. Florida State: Jameis Winston’s departure might keep Tallahassee out of the off-the-field headlines, but Notre Dame transfer Everett Golson has his work cut out for him on the field. Golson has a bad habit of turning the ball over, something he’ll have to shake if the Seminoles can make another run at the Final Four. He’ll be helped by the fact Jimbo Fisher knows how to recruit. If he can keep his guys on the field.
10. Georgia: Longstanding Bulldogs coach Mark Richt got pretty much all his hair cut off this summer saying he was going with a cleaner look. He has the same hope for his team, meaning fewer mistakes, fewer bad losses. New offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, son of Marty, will surely make good use of sophomore running back Nick Chubb, who rushed for 1,547 yards last year as a true freshman.
11. Notre Dame: Others have pegged the Irish higher in their pre-season polls, but the jury here wants to see more of quarterback Malik Zaire, who replaces the departed Everett Golson. Zaire needs to get the ball to Will Fuller, who made 76 catches for 1,064 yards last year. Meanwhile, volatile coach Brian Kelly will surely make Notre Dame’s new Hard Knocks-style docu-drama on Showtime worth watching. Stay tuned.
12. Clemson: Though Dabo Swinney has garnered some criticism for tip-toeing the line between his religious beliefs and a public university, no doubt the head coach gives thanks for quarterback Deshaun Watson, who showed his five-star talent during a freshman year limited by injuries. Heralded offensive coordinator Chad Morris left to become head coach at SMU, but Watson will surely make the new man’s job easier.
13. Mississippi: The Rebels have had all summer to brood over the 42 points they allowed TCU in what was a 39-point butt-kicking in the Peach Bowl. The defense is better than that. The offense features star receiver Laquon Treadwell. Head coach Hugh Freeze hopes that junior-college transfer and former Clemson quarterback Chad Kelly reaches his potential during his time in Oxford.
14. UCLA: From 2008 through 2011, Rick Neuheisel was the Bruins’ head coach. In 2015, Nueheisel’s son Jerry could be the Bruins’ starting quarterback. Brett Hundley’s decision to go pro a year early left head coach Jim Mora, Jr. scrambling. He could go with star recruit Josh Rosen, who would be aided by star running back Paul Perkins, who rushed for 1,575 yards a year ago. Name to remember: UCLA defensive star Myles Jack.
15. LSU: The Tigers slipped to 8-5 last season. Defensive coordinator John Chavis bolted Baton Rouge for Texas A&M. There were more player scrapes with the law over the summer. Think the pressure is on in the Bayou? Head coach Les Miles cut back his players’ public and media availability during training camp. His team may go only as far as sophomore running back Leonard Fournette — 1,034 yards rushing as a true freshman last year — takes it.
16. Arizona: Considering Brady Hoke couldn’t get the job done either, maybe it wasn’t Rich Rodriguez’s fault in Michigan. Rich-Rod is 26-14 in his three years in Tucson. He took the Wildcats to the Pac-12 title game last season and expects bigger things this year with the return of quarterback Anu Solomon, who starred last year as a redshirt freshman. Linebacker Scooby Wright is a stud on defense.
17. Arkansas: Bret Bielema’s power run game offense is starting to pick up steam in Fayetteville. The Razorbacks won seven games last season, including a Texas Bowl win over Texas that Bielema described as “borderline erotic.” Running back Jonathan Williams may miss the season after suffering a left foot injury in fall camp, but Alex Collins can pick up the slack if Williams’ absence is longer than expected. Both Williams and Collins rushed for 1,000 yards last season.
18. Oklahoma: The Sooners slid to 8-5 last season so heads rolled. Head coach Bob Stoops kept brother Mike as defensive coordinator but sent his offensive staff packing. Former East Carolina assistant Lincoln Riley, a member of the “Air Raid” club, will run an offense that Stoops wants to return to OU’s wide-open days. Don’t forget running back Samaje Perine, who rushed for a record 427 yards against Kansas last season.
19. Arizona State: The Sun Devils are coming off back-to-back 10-win seasons under coach Todd Grantham, who called ASU his “dream job” when he left Pittsburgh after one season. Quarterback Mike Berkovici leads a potent offense. If Arizona State finds a way to beat USC and UCLA in its first two Pac-12 games it could end up in the league title game.
20. Boise State: The Broncos just keep on trucking. Bryan Harsin went 12-2 last year in his first season as head coach. Harsin has his entire offensive line back from the team that beat Arizona 38-30 in the Fiesta Bowl. Sophomore Ryan Finley is the favorite to take over at quarterback. He’ll be helped by a veteran defense, led by safety Darian Thompson.
21. Tennessee: The Big Orange faithful believes winning football is back on Rocky Top. More than 40,000 showed up at Neyland Stadium on a Saturday night for an open practice during fall camp. Butch Jones’ recruiting has been off the charts and the third-year coach found a quarterback in Josh Dobbs last season. Jalen Hurd rushed for more than 800 yards as a freshman and top wide receiver Von Pearson dodged a bullet when a summer assault charge was dropped.
22. Georgia Tech: Florida State and Clemson are all you hear about in the ACC, yet Georgia Tech has played in the league title game two of the last three years. Quarterback Justin Thomas returns after accounting for 26 touchdowns a year ago. Thomas threw for 18 and ran for eight. Linebacker P.J. Davis leads the defense. And head coach Paul Johnson is a master at running his throwback option offense.
23. Missouri: Want to know the most underrated football coach in America? Surely Mizzou’s Gary Pinkel leads the discussion. The Tigers have won back-to-back SEC East titles. They have enough offense to win a third with quarterback Maty Mauk and running back Russell Hansbrough returning. New defensive coordinator Barry Odom must find a way to replace pass-rush specialists Shane Ray and Markus Golden.
24. Mississippi State: Midway through the 2014 campaign, Mississippi State was ranked No. 1 in the nation and quarterback Dak Prescott was the favorite to win the Heisman. The Bulldogs faded down the stretch, losing three of their last four, including a 49-34 loss to Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl. Workhorse running back Josh Robinson will be hard to replace, but Prescott is back. Coach Dan Mullen hopes the wins return, as well.
25. Stanford: Senior quarterback Kevin Hogan returns to lead a team that finished 2014 strong with wins at California (38-17), at UCLA (31-10) and over Maryland (45-21) in the Foster Farms Bowl. David Shaw hopes to build on a defense that allowed just 16.4 points per game a year ago. And Stanford gets Oregon at home on Nov. 14.