It’s been a weird summer. Temperatures here in West Virginia seemingly hovered in the 70’s much of the past few months and it has rained every other day. The kids started back to school in mid-August so we’ve kind of been in autumn mode already. So be it. Fall means football and football has always been my favorite season, although to be honest I feel that changing ever-so-slightly. Watching NFL pre-season games has been an exercise in frustration the past two weeks for reasons that I’ll explain when we do the NFL preview soon. For now it is enough to say that I am glad that Roger Goodell hasn’t yet figured out a way to seize power of the NCAA and ruin the collegiate game the way he is bastardizing the pro game. Anyway, as always I must remind my dear citizens of The Manoverse that I do not encourage wagering and I am not really all that good at this so please don’t head to Vegas and risk your kids’ college fund on these predictions.
Last Season: 12-1
Key Game: 10/26 vs. UCLA
The biggest loss the Ducks suffered after a stellar 2012 season was their head coach Chip Kelly to the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles. Usually that’d be enough to dissuade me from picking a team anywhere close to this high. However, my vibe is that new coach Mark Helfrich…the former offensive coordinator…will keep this train rolling forward just fine. Oregon has played in a big January bowl game the past 4 years and I believe they have a great chance to outlast the always stiff competition in the Pac 12 to make what will be the final BCS title game on January 6, 2014.
2 Ohio State
Last Season: 12-0
Key Games: 9/28 vs. Wisconsin, 11/30 at Michigan
The Buckeyes went undefeated last season but it didn’t matter because they were on probation and weren’t allowed to play in the post-season. With all of that craziness now in the rear view mirror head coach Urban Meyer can now get down to business. Is junior QB Braxton Miller the real deal?? Most people seem to think so. I see no reason why Ohio St. shouldn’t easily roll thru the early part of their schedule until running into Wisconsin…and that game will be in the friendly confines of The Horseshoe in Columbus. Whether or not the season ends in Pasadena on January 6th could very well be determined at the end of November when the Buckeyes travel to The Big House to face the Michigan Wolverines.
Last Season: 13-1
Key Games: 9/14 at Texas A&M, 11/9 vs. LSU
The Tide has won back-to-back national titles and 3 out of the last 4. Most pre-season polls have them ranked #1. But since A) I am a non-conformist and B) I just think the SEC is too tough to assume that anyone can go undefeated I can’t quite pull the trigger on ranking ‘Bama #1. Having said that a quick glance at their schedule doesn’t really raise any eyebrows. At this point who knows if Texas A&M will even have their Heisman winning, autograph signing, NCAA rules violating QB Johnny Manziel, and even if they do one has to logically believe that Alabama will be geared up to avenge last year’s 29-24 loss to the Aggies. Can LSU go into Tuscaloosa and pull off a November surprise?? Possibly. Or maybe the only thing standing between ‘Bama and yet another trip to the national title game is whoever they face in the SEC Championship game…likely either Georgia, Florida, or South Carolina. But one loss might be all it takes this year to knock the defending champs out of contention…and I am guessing some team will do just that at some point in 2013.
Last Season: 9-4
Key Games: 9/7 at BYU, 10/12 vs. Oklahoma, 11/16 vs. Oklahoma St.
After nine straight seasons of 10 or more victories the past three seasons have been somewhat…lean…in Austin. It seems odd that a 9-4 record in 2012 would be considered disappointing (especially after going 5-7 just two years earlier), but that’s just how these elite teams roll. I think the Longhorns are finally primed to re-ascend to the top of The Big 12 and possibly contend for a national championship. The conference is solid but not all that spectacular with only two other legit contenders for the crown. Texas has both of those games…against Oklahoma & Oklahoma St…at home. An early season contest in Provo against BYU might be interesting.
5 South Carolina
Last Season: 11-2
Key Games: 9/7 at Georgia, 11/16 vs. Florida, 11/30 vs. Clemson
The Gamecocks have a very good defensive end that you may have heard of named Jadeveon Clowney. Now I don’t know whether or not he’ll live up to the hype in the NFL, but the fact that he’s seen as a combination of Lawrence Taylor & Reggie White makes him a singular collegiate talent…even in the elite SEC. An early season contest in Athens against the Bulldogs might go a long way in deciding the SEC East and become a significant factor in determining who will face Alabama for the conference championship. An in-state rivalry game against the ACC’s Clemson Tigers isn’t likely to decide anything except poll position and bowl placement but since those are kind of a big deal it’ll be a fun game to watch.
Last Season: 11-2
Key Games: 12/5 at Cincinnati
The Big East is gone, replaced by the American Athletic Conference. Either way it’s a last hurrah and most likely the last time anyone outside of the top teams in the power conferences (SEC, ACC, Big 12, Pac 12, Big 10…oh…and Notre Dame) will have the opportunity to sniff a top tier bowl unless they buy a ticket. Not that it matters to the Cardinals since they are heading to the ACC in 2014 anyway. Fortunately for Louisville they just happen to have a junior QB who’s also a projected 1st round NFL talent. Serendipity indeed. Because of their current conference affiliation and the perceived lack of respect for it I believe that the Cardinals will have to go undefeated to finish this high in the rankings even if they can still go to a BCS bowl just by winning the conference, and I think they have a really good shot at doing just that.
Last Season: 8-5
Key Games: 9/7 vs. Notre Dame, 11/2 at Michigan St., 11/9 vs. Nebraska, 11/30 vs. Ohio St.
Coach Brady Hoke is 19-7 in his first two seasons in Ann Arbor…but he is 14-0 at home. That bodes well for home contests against Notre Dame, Nebraska, & Ohio St. The Wolverines will probably need to win 2 of those 3 to have any shot at a Top 10 finish. QB Denard Robinson is gone and now trying to make the roster of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars. However, Michigan still has junior Devin Gardner, who actually saw significant time at quarterback last season, and it might be a blessing in disguise. It always felt like there may have been too much of a concerted effort to put Robinson in the spotlight…sometimes at the expense of the team. In 2012 Michigan lost 2 of its first 4 games to Alabama & Notre Dame. I don’t think The Irish will be quite as good in 2013 so I’d be surprised if Michigan doesn’t go 7-0 pretty effortlessly before facing the Spartans in East Lansing at the beginning of November. The annual Michigan-Ohio St. rivalry battle is in Ann Arbor this season, and while I don’t think Michigan will be in contention for the national championship they’ll be jacked to have the chance to cost the Buckeyes a title opportunity.
8 Florida State
Last Season: 12-2
Key Games: 10/19 at Clemson, 11/30 at Florida
The ACC is on the verge of becoming the new Big East…still one of the big boys but certainly on the bottom rung of the ladder. That could change if newcomers (in 2014) Pitt, Syracuse, & Louisville emerge…or re-emerge…as legit football powers. At any rate, regardless of the mediocrity of teams like Boston College, Georgia Tech, NC St., & Maryland or the even worse ineptitude of Duke & Wake Forest, the Seminoles have long been college football royalty. And while the ghost of Bobby Bowden will never completely go away Coach Jimbo Fisher (a Clarksburg, WV native and fellow alumnus of the Liberty High School) seems to be settling in quite nicely at the beginning of his 4th season at the helm in Tallahassee. A mid-season clash at Clemson will probably decide who wins the Atlantic Division of the conference, while the annual in-state rivalry game against the Florida Gators at the end of the season may have broader implications.
Last Season: 10-4
Key Games: 9/14 vs. UCLA, 11/9 at Michigan, 11/16 vs. Michigan St.
The Cornhuskers transition from The Big 12 (which has ten teams) to The Big 10 (which has 12 teams) has been seamless the past two seasons and I see no reason why 2013 should be any different. Two of their key games (one is a non-conference clash with UCLA) are in Lincoln and they do not play Ohio State at all (unless it’s in the conference title game…a distinct possibility). Games against the two Michigan schools will decide the division crown. QB Taylor Martinez returns for his senior year and has become a legit dual threat…a competent passer and a constant threat to run the ball. I’m not sure if he’ll be considered a big time NFL prospect, but at this level he’s a star.
Last Season: 12-2
Key Games: 10/19 vs. UCLA, 11/7 vs. Oregon, 11/16 at USC, 11/30 at Notre Dame
Stanford fared just fine in 2012 without star QB Andrew Luck who had left for the NFL. A tough overtime loss to Notre Dame in South Bend and an inexplicable defeat at the hands of the very average Washington Huskies were the only blemishes on their record. I foresee a very similar season in 2013. I think they’ll certainly lose to Oregon, and after that two questions arise. First, can they win atleast 2 out of 3 of their other key games against UCLA, USC, & Notre Dame?? Secondly, will there be another curious loss to a lesser yet not terrible team like Oregon St. or Arizona St.??
Last Season: 12-2
Key Games: 8/31 at Clemson, 9/7 vs. South Carolina, 9/28 vs. LSU, 11/2 at Florida
Last year I overlooked the Bulldogs. My rationale was simply that in a tough SEC someone had to be the odd man out, and I chose to endorse the likes of Tennessee, Auburn, & Arkansas (in addition to safe picks like Alabama & LSU) instead of Georgia. Oops. I will not make that same mistake this time, although I am a bit trepidatious because instead of starting out the season with 2 or 3 cupcakes like most teams seem to these days Georgia will begin 2013 against the likes of Clemson then South Carolina. If they can split those two contests they’ll get a one week break against an inferior opponent before hosting LSU. I don’t know who makes the schedule in Athens but I think they may need to be fired. That being said I think the worst case scenario for this team is 9 wins. 10 or more victories will almost certainly secure a Top 10 finish. Senior QB Aaron Murray will get an early Heisman push and is a solid NFL prospect.
Last Season: 11-2
Key Games: 8/31 vs. Georgia, 10/19 vs. Florida St., 11/30 at South Carolina
Clemson returns both QB Taj Boyd and WR Sammy Watkins, which is a huge reason why they are getting so much pre-season love. On the flip side the offense did lose key contributors RB Andre Ellington and WR DeAndre Hopkins to the NFL. 2 of the 3 key games noted above will be at home. Opening the season against the Georgia Bulldogs is an undeniably tough mountain to climb and makes things a bit unpredictable because so much will depend on what each team has been able to accomplish in the spring and in the past few weeks of late summer practice. I don’t think the loser of that contest is necessarily toast for the remainder of the year, but they will be behind the proverbial 8-Ball. If the Tigers can steal 2 of those key games they are almost assured of a Top 10 finish.
Last Season: 10-3
Key Games: 9/28 at Notre Dame, 10/5 vs. TCU, 10/12 vs. Texas, 12/7 at Oklahoma St.
The Sooners will be starting a freshman at QB which makes me just a little bit nervous. But I do like their schedule. This feels like another 10 win season for the Sooners. The question is where do the losses come?? An early season defeat at the hands of Notre Dame wouldn’t hurt nearly as much as losing at the end of the season to in-state rival Oklahoma St. I expect this year’s Red River Shootout (yes I still call it that…screw political correctness) against Texas will decide The Big 12 and possibly play a role in determining who plays for the national championship. QB Blake Bell…aka The Bell Dozer…may not have won the starting job but he’ll surely have an important part to play in the offense.
Last Season: 10-3
Key Games: 12/5 vs. Louisville
The Bearcats season boils down to one game. Whoever wins that game on December 12 will represent the American Athletic Conference in the final round of BCS bowls. The loser will be playing in the Russell Athletic Bowl in December even if they have 11 wins. A year from now Louisville will be another middle-of-the-road, largely forgotten about ACC team (see Miami, FL., Boston College, &, Georgia Tech), while Cincy remains on the deck of the Titanic hoping for a lifeboat. Former coach Butch Jones has moved on to Tennessee, but Cincinnati was…to the shock of many…able to lure new head coach Tommy Tuberville away from Texas Tech. Perhaps Tuberville knows something the rest of us don’t. At the moment it looks to be a two-headed monster situation at QB but personally I’m rooting for Munchie Legaux simply because that is a freakin’ awesome name.
Last season: 9-5
Key Games: 9/14 at Nebraska, 10/19 at Stanford, 10/26 at Oregon, 11/30 at USC
USC gets all the love, but there’s another team in Los Angeles that folks need to pay attention to. Once upon a time the UCLA Bruins…admittedly a school better known for its storied basketball team…had a fairly solid football tradition. Bruins alums include such names as Troy Aikman, Jonathan Ogden, Freeman McNeil, Floyd Reese, & Maurice Jones-Drew. They dominated the Pac 10 for much of the 1980s and have been to 12 Rose Bowls, the last being in 1998. However, they have been average at best for most of the past decade. That started to change last year with a 9-5 record under new head coach Jim Mora Jr. Here is how I see this going down. There is a fairly good chance that this team loses all three of the initial key games I’ve selected. If we assume they win the other 8 then that means the season comes down to the rivalry showdown with USC, and it is completely with the realm of possibility that a division crown and an opportunity to play in the conference championship game (likely against Oregon or Stanford) will be on the line. It’ll be nice to have the Battle of L.A. mean something again.
16 Oklahoma State
Last Season: 8-5
Key Games: 10/19 vs. TCU, 11/16 at Texas, 12/7 vs. Oklahoma
I believe The Big 12 will be a three horse race and Oklahoma St. will be in that conversation. The Cowboys are almost always an offensive juggernaut. In 2012 they score 35+ points nine times. One of their five losses was in overtime to in-state rival Oklahoma and another was by just 5 points to Texas. The Cowboys replace offensive coordinators more often than Van Halen changes lead singers but it doesn’t seem to matter all that much. My biggest concern is the defense. In those 5 losses last year Oklahoma St.’s defense gave up over 47 points per game. That has to change this season and I think it will. The October matchup against TCU is huge. I have gone out on a limb and predicted that the Horned Frogs will not be the Top 25 team that most other polls say they are so the Cowboys need to justify my logic by winning that particular game. Even if they lose to both Texas & Oklahoma they’ll still be in the hunt as long as they win their other 10 games.
17 Texas A&M
Last Season: 11-2
Key Games: 9/14 vs. Alabama, 11/23 at LSU
The most important question for the Aggies might be how many victories they have to vacate down the road when the NCAA finds that Heisman winning WB Johnny Manziel got paid to autograph memorabilia. However, since that issue is a complete wildcard we’ll just have to let that all take care of itself when the time is right and deal with what we think we know about the team. If we take Manziel at face value as a legit player who won’t be disqualified for being a filthy cheater…well…there are still issues. First of all I am not at all sure that he was deserving of that Heisman. Secondly, since winning the award Johnny Football has seemed to be just a bit too enamored with himself and his celebrity status. How will this affect his play and the team chemistry in 2013?? Obviously I don’t think it’ll be that big of a deal. Can the Aggies upset Alabama a second consecutive year?? I highly doubt it although the game is in College Station. But even with a loss there they should reach the end of November with a 9-1 record before heading to Baton Rouge to face LSU. That’ll be a huge game.
18 Fresno State
Last Season: 9-4
Key Games: 9/20 vs. Boise St.
Traditionally I have a shot-in-the-dark pick in these rankings. It doesn’t take much skill to put a bunch of SEC & Big Ten teams in a Top 25…it’s just putting them in the right order that’s tricky. But…contrary to what the TV people would have you believe…college football is more than just the 4 or 5 “power conferences”. They play some pretty decent football in the MAC, Mountain West, & C-USA. I have been a Fresno St. fan for awhile now. Their games are always entertaining and they have been a bowl team in 12 of the past 13 seasons. Senior QB Derek Carr is the younger brother of David Carr, who may not have had much of an NFL career but was the NCAA’s most prolific passer in 2001. There’s got to be something in the genes, right?? Much like the Cincinnati Bearcats the season for Fresno St. boils down to one big game. My vibes have led me to jump off the Boise St. bandwagon this year and this game on September 20th will…in the words of Billy Joel…have me walking away a fool or a king.
19 Notre Dame
Last Season: 12-1
Key Games: 9/7 at Michigan, 9/21 vs. Michigan St., 9/28 vs. Oklahoma, 11/30 at Stanford
A year ago I reluctantly ranked the hated Irish #21 and said that they “will almost certainly lose atleast 3 of the 4” key games I’d selected. Instead they went undefeated before screwing the pooch in the National Championship. Okay…so I am not always right. I’m honest about that fact. However, that being said I am once again ranking Notre Dame just a bit lower than most other polls. Sophomore Everett Golson is gone for the season after seemingly forgetting the “student” part of the student-athlete equation. Senior QB Tommy Rees isn’t a bad fallback option, but one has to believe that there is a reason he lost the starting gig to Golson a year ago. Oh yeah…now I remember. Rees was boozing it up at a party and got into a scuffle with the cops which led to a brief suspension therefore opening the door for Golson. Those Irish coaches sure can pick ‘em, huh?? At any rate, Rees now gets another opportunity. Linebacker Manti Te’o has moved on to the NFL (no word on the whereabouts of imaginary dead girlfriend Lennay Kekua), and RBs Theo Riddick & Cierre Wood are also gone. So why rank Notre Dame?? One reason…head coach Brian Kelly. He is undoubtedly one of the best coaches in college football and I believe in his football prowess & motivational skill. Notre Dame’s schedule is always always always brutal, but I still believe they’ll find a way to win 9 or 10 games.
Last Season: 11-2
Key Games: 10/12 at LSU, 11/2 vs. Georgia, 11/16 at South Carolina, 11/30 vs. Florida St.
The Gators are the 4th of 5 SEC teams in our countdown. Normally this would make me a bit skittish, but six SEC teams finished 2012 in the Top 25, and we all know that the talking heads love to fawn all over the SEC. Can they split the 4 key games noted above?? Florida has played in a bowl game for 22 consecutive years so it is difficult to fathom that they could ever be anything less than atleast pretty good. These are not the Steve Spurrier/Urban Myer Gators of Danny Wuerffel, Shane Matthews, Chris Leak, or Rex Grossman. Head coach Will Muschamp likes to run the ball and was able to do so effectively in 2012 with RB Mike Gillislee who has moved on to the NFL. I expect junior QB Jeff Driskel to grow considerably in that role this season. The biggest question will be the defense. It was a top 5 group in 2012, but several players, including DT Sharrif Floyd and safety Matt Elam, are now getting paid to play on Sunday. But Muschamp is a former defensive coordinator so he knows how to build a defense. The Gators will need to steal atleast 1 and preferably 2 of the key games noted above to secure a Top 25 ranking.
Last Season: 10-3
Key Games: 10/5 vs. Ohio St., 10/12 at Wisconsin, 11/2 at Nebraska, 11/6 vs. Michigan, 11/23 vs. Michigan St.
Northwestern is generally considered more of an academic school, but they have had some success on the football field, winning 8 or more games six times since 1995. I really like Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald, who I recall being a tough linebacker for the Wildcats in the mid-1990’s when they won two consecutive Big Ten titles. Fitzgerald has led his team to 5 straight bowl games. If Northwestern can win just 2 of their 5 key games (easier said than done) and win the other 8 games that they should win this could very well be a 9 or 10 win team.
22 Michigan St.
Last Season: 7-6
Key Games: 9/21 at Notre Dame, 11/2 vs. Michigan, 11/16 at Nebraska, 11/23 at Northwestern
I know I have mentioned this before but I’m not at all fond of using multiple quarterbacks. You pick a guy and go with him until he gives you a reason to make a change. But as of this writing my intel says that there are 3 or 4 guys who could take snaps for the Spartans. I actually had this team ranked significantly higher until I read that. At any rate, games at Notre Dame and Nebraska could make or break the season for Michigan St. And of course the annual in-state rivalry clash with the Wolverines is always big…and in 2013 it’s in East Lansing. You may be intrigued that I consider Northwestern to be an important game. The way I see it The Big Ten (which has 12 teams) has the potential to have 5 or 6 pretty good teams. Ohio St., Michigan, & Nebraska are legit Top 10 programs. The second tier consists of Wisconsin, Michigan St., & Northwestern, making the Spartans-Wildcats late November matchup likely a deciding factor when it comes to poll position and bowl bids.
Last Season: 10-3
Key Games: 8/31 vs. TCU, 9/28 at Georgia, 10/12 vs. Florida, 11/9 at Alabama, 11/23 vs. Texas A&M
It won’t take long for us to find out exactly what the Bayou Bengals are made of in 2013. The TCU Horned Frogs are a team that I am overlooking, but most other pre-season polls seem to believe they are a solid Top 25 team. I expect LSU to defeat them, but there’ll be more to it than simply who wins and who loses. If LSU handles their business and beats TCU effortlessly it could bode well for the remainder of the year. However, if LSU struggles mightily and merely ekes out a victory it could portend future doom in the stacked SEC. The best thing I can say about a murderous schedule is that atleast LSU gets two weeks to prepare for tough games against Alabama and Texas A&M. Winning just two of the 5 key games I’ve listed should mean a 9 win season and solidify a Top 25 ranking.
Last Season: 11-3
Key Games: 9/14 at Oklahoma, 11/14 vs. Marshall
The defending Conference USA Champions are unlikely to take anyone by surprise this year but that’s okay. I see no reason why they can’t again win a revamped conference (their last in C-USA before joining the American Athletic Conference in 2014). I don’t expect them to defeat Oklahoma in mid-September, but that game could tell us a lot. If Tulsa gets blown out by 50 points then they are unlikely to sniff the Top 25 even if they win the conference. However, if they can be somewhat competitive against the Sooners…maybe a 38-21 type of contest…and win the remainder of their games then maybe they can sneak into the rankings.
Last Season: 8-5
Key Games: 9/7 vs. Texas, 10/25 vs. Boise St., 11/9 at Wisconsin, 11/23 at Notre Dame
I seem to have an odd BYU fetish. For two straight years I have had them ranked #10 in this pre-season poll. In 2011 they won 10 games but finished unranked and in 2012 they went 8-5. The schedule is undoubtedly brutal. Winning even one of the key games noted above will be a difficult task…winning 2+ will be darn near impossible. So let’s be generous and say the Cougars go 1-3 in these games and even go a step further by predicting that they won’t get completely destroyed in the losses. Then it becomes atleast within the realm of possibility that they could win 8 or 9 games. And any team that could achieve that level of success under such demanding circumstances would deserve to be ranked.