5. Alabama Crimson Tide
A number five ranking may seem a little low for Nick Saban’s group, but there are a few question marks at key positions, obviously starting at quarterback. A.J. McCarron is gone and Jacob Coker is a virtual unknown. To just assume that ‘Bama will pick up where they left off seems like a bit of a stretch.
Offensively, Coker will have one of the best wide receivers in the nation to throw to in Amari Cooper and a great set of backs in T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry…..Defensively, the Tide will have to replace two first-round picks in C.J. Mosley and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, but nobody in the country is better at replacing talent with more talent than Nick Saban and Alabama.
Alabama’s schedule doesn’t seem all that arduous as their toughest non-conference game is against West Virginia and that’s at a neutral site. ‘Bama has the minimum four true road games and those consist of trips to Ole Miss and Arkansas in consecutive weeks in October, then they play Texas A & M at home before taking to the road again at Tennessee and LSU. It’s conceivable to think that the Tide could slip up with four road games in five weeks. ‘Bama will host the Iron Bowl as they look for revenge against Gus Malzahn’s Auburn Tigers.
4. Auburn Tigers
Auburn certainly isn’t going to surprise anyone this season following their improbable SEC title run in 2013. Gus Malzahn has his young quarterback Nick Marshall back but they will have to replace two key cogs on their offense after losing second-overall NFL draft pick Greg Robinson and Heisman finalist Tre Mason. Defensively, the 86th ranked unit in the FBS lost Dee Ford and Chris Davis.
Auburn has a lot of returning talent including first-team all-SEC wide receiver Sammie Coates as well as four returning starters on the offensive line….Defensively, they were bad last year but should be improved as Ellis Johnson has another year to coach his unit. Sophomore Carl Lawson figures to be the team’s best pass rusher after collecting four sacks a season ago.
Auburn’s schedule is far from soft and many of their tough games are on the road. They have a non-conference clash at Manhattan, Kansas when they take on K-State in one of the SEC’s few true non-conference road games. Auburn will travel to both Mississippi schools who figure to be improved, a game between the hedges at Georgia who will be looking for revenge. Home games against LSU and Texas A & M could prove to be stumbling blocks.
3. Oklahoma Sooners
Bob Stoops’ Oklahoma Sooners enter 2014 with momentum after defeating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and potentially discovering their next star quarterback in sophomore Trevor Knight. Knight will hand the ball to fellow sophomores Alex Ross and Keith Ford and freshman Joe Mixon will also be vying for carries as well.
Defensively, the Sooners are stout up front with all-Big 12 selection Charles Tapper lining up at defensive end. Linebacker Eric Striker leads a talented corps and Zack Sanchez is the best returning starter in the secondary.
Oklahoma has what we would call a very manageable schedule. Their only non-conference road game is in-state at Tulsa, where there figures to be more Sooner fans in the building anyway, and they have a nice home game against Tennessee. Their toughest road trip figures to be at Texas Tech. Oklahoma’s toughest games are all at home (Baylor, Oklahoma State) and they have Texas on a neutral site (Red River Rivalry).
2. Oregon Ducks
It’s likely that head coach Mark Helfrich has worked some of the kinks out from last season’s “disappointing” 11-2 campaign. The guy deserves a hefty raise just for convincing quarterback and top prospect Marcus Mariota to return. Oregon returns a 1000-yard rusher in running back Byron Marshall and the team has all five starters from last year’s offensive line back.
Defensively, it’s all about breaking serve for Oregon, as they figure to have one of the most prolific offenses in the nation once again. DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead and Alex Balducci figure to be starters on the defensive line and they are have been bulking up to make sure they don’t get manhandled by Stanford again.
The Ducks’ schedule is favorable as they have just one true road test against an elite team at UCLA and a neutral site game against Michigan State. They host the two teams that defeated them last year in Arizona and Stanford but will have to make the trip to Corvallis in their rivalry game against Oregon State.
1. Florida State Seminoles
The defending national champions should be in great shape again as they return Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston and an elite set of wide receivers and running backs around him. Rashad Greene should be his leading receiver now that Kelvin Benjamin is gone, and Karlos Williams is a very explosive running back with a quick first step. Nick O’Leary figures to be one of the most productive tight ends in the nation.
Defensively, the ‘Noles need to replace Timmy Jernigan, as well as five of their top six tacklers from a season ago. Mario Edwards should be the next FSU defensive line star and Terrance Smith is the only returning linebacker, but he can surely be expected to pull his weight. Jalen Ramsey will help mitigate the loss of Lamarcus Joyner.
FSU has the toughest non-conference schedule in the nation as they open with a neutral site game at Cowboys Stadium against Oklahoma State, followed by a blood-letting against the Citadel. Later in the year they host Notre Dame before finishing the regular season against Florida. Their ACC schedule should be somewhat of a breeze as Clemson is rebuilding and their road games at N.C. State, Louisville and Miami appear to be mismatches in their favor.