By Joshua Pickering
Here is our 2015 college football preseason Top 25 rankings, led of course by the defending national champion Ohio State Buckeyes.
No. 1: OHIO STATE
An easy choice for No. 1 in the nation, the Buckeyes are coming off a National Championship rout over Oregon. Ohio State enters the 2015 season accompanied by returning stars such as junior running back Ezekiel Elliot and junior defensive end Joey Bosa. Also returning to the horseshoe is all three star quarterbacks in senior Braxton Miller, sophomore J.T. Barrett and title game hero, junior Cardale Jones. Although this makes the Buckeyes favorites to repeat, managing all those egos in the quarterback room may be the catalyst that derails an Ohio States run to a second straight title.
No. 2: ALABAMA
No. 2 has to be Alabama. Whether you like it or not, the Crimson Tide are in the running for the national title seemingly every year, and although there is a question at the quarterback position, that is not their identity. The Crimson Tide are known for running the ball down your throat and playing suffocating defense, and I believe they have that again this year. With running back Derrick Henry being my pick for the Heisman trophy in 2015, the Tide are sure to put up a serious challenge for the natiobnal title.
No. 3: TCU
With one of the stingiest defenses in all of college football last year, I have to give the No. 3 spot to Texas Christian. The Horned Frogs ranked ninth in the nation against the run and second on third down defensive efficiency last season. That, combined with an 11-1 record and Peach Bowl romp against then-No. 9 ranked Ole Miss, 42-3, I believe TCU fully deserves this high of a ranking.
No. 4: CLEMSON
Offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships, as the old saying goes. The Clemson Tigers ended the 2014 season with the best defense in the country, while boasting a very respectable 10-3 record and Russell Athletic Bowl victory over the Oklahoma Sooners by the score of ... wait for it ... 40-6. The Tigers achieved this all the while having one of the toughest schedules in college football. Clemson was in the vaunted ACC, which included in-conference fixtures such as top-ranked Florida State away, in which it lost in overtime, 23-17, and the Louisville Cardinals, which it won 23-17 at home. Clemson also faced South Carolina out of conference and devastated the Gamecocks, 35-17, in Death Valley. All in all, the Tigers have a lot to be optimistic about this coming season.
No. 5: LSU
At No. 5 I have a huge surprise to many and my favorite to knock off Ohio State in next season’s national title game. The Louisiana State Tigers. Defense has been prevalent in my top five teams, and with the ninth-ranked defense a year ago, LSU is no different. But the Tigers have offense as well. LSU has a star in the making, and already a Heisman finalist coming into this season, in sophomore running back sensation Leonard Fournette. He burst onto the scene a year ago, gaining over 1,000 yards on less than 200 carries and averaging five and a half yards per rush, while scoring 10 touchdowns. With that potent running game to go along with a stout defense, combining with a coach in Les Miles who has a knack for getting the most out of his players, LSU is poised to make a serious run at the title the way it did four years ago.
No. 6: OREGON
Now, there are a couple of reasons why I have the national title runner-up and reigning Rose Bowl champions all the way down at the six spot. One glaring reason is the departure of Heisman trophy winner Marcos Mariota to the NFL. Granted he wasn't the only player on a team last year that went 13-2, and Oregon already might have another gifted signal caller ready to fill the gigantic shoes Mariota left when he got picked No. 2 overall in the NFL draft, still, I have reason to doubt an Oregon unit that looked like it was the little kid getting picked on by his big brother in the national championship loss to Ohio State, 42-20. Those doubts drop the Oregon Ducks to six.
No. 7: MISSISSIPPI STATE
Many might say I'm reaching a little bit here with Mississippi State, wondering, what is the method behind the madness? Two words: Dak Prescott. This phenom ran roughshod over opponents, especially in the first half of last season, when his Bulldogs started 9-0 before they, and eventually he, tailed off, losing three out of their last four games, including an Orange Bowl loss to Georgia Tech, 49-34. With wins early at LSU and against Texas A&M and Auburn vaulting the Bulldogs to No. 1 in the nation and becoming a serious contender last year, that success may well carry over and allow them do so some damage in the SEC this coming season.
No. 8: Baylor
Heading into the Cotton Bowl, I thought Baylor was a better team than Michigan State, and after the game in which the Spartans defeated the Bears, 42-41, in a contest that could have gone either way, I’m sticking with the courage of my convictions and have Baylor one spot ahead of Michigan State. Of course, strength of schedule has a lot to do with it. Baylor beat TCU, Kansas State, Oklahoma and Texas on its way to an 11-2 record, while the 11-2 Spartans' only win against a Top 25 team before Baylor was against Nebraska, which finished the year 9-4 and out of the Top 25 altogether.
No. 9: MICHIGAN STATE
Now truthfully, I don’t fully believe in Michigan State. The Spartans lost to the only two teams of legitimacy on their schedule last year until the Cotton Bowl victory, dropping games to Ohio State, 49-37, and to Oregon, 46-27, in a second-half beatdown. MSU's biggest wins came against Baylor and scraping out a victory against an overrated Nebraska team, 27-22, in East Lansing. Michigan State has the talent to build something promising, but I just don’t see the Spartans getting to the College Football Playoff this season.
No. 10: GEORGIA TECH
With wins at Virginia Tech and Georgia and against Miami and Clemson, plus an Orange Bowl victory against Mississippi State, I have the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets rounding out the Top 10, just ahead of Florida State, who Georgia Tech lost to in the ACC championship game, 37-35. The reasoning stems from wins against quality opposition, including an Orange Bowl victory against Mississippi State, 49-34, for the Jackets, compared to a Florida State Rose Bowl defeat at the hands of Oregon, 59-20.
No. 11: FLORIDA STATE
Placing Florida State was a tough one, as it has lost just once in the last two years, have several returning stars, especially on both sides of the line, and were one win away from a second straight national title game appearance. But quarterback Jameis Winston has gone to the NFL, along with the best receiver in Florida State history, Rashad Greene, and the Seminoles went from having one of the best defenses in the country in 2013 to one of the worst last year. The Seminoles still have a coach in Jimbo Fisher who has the ability to keep this team at the top, but it will be tough to withstand losing two of the best players in program history to the NFL.
No. 12: GEORGIA
This might be a little high for the Bulldogs, but with how they were able to win without running back Todd Gurley, who tore his ACL in a 34-7 win against Auburn late in the year, was beyond impressive. Georgia finished the year 11-3, capped off with a 37-14 win over Louisville in the Belk Bowl. The Bulldogs have a tough schedule in 2015, facing big name schools South Carolina, Florida, Auburn and Alabama. If they survive some of those challenges, they will have a good chance to, at the very least, battle for an SEC championship.
No. 13: ARIZONA STATE
The Sun Devils are coming. On their way to a 10-3 record and 36-31 Sun Bowl win over Duke, Arizona State defeated an abundance of Top 25 teams, including USC, Notre Dame and Stanford. The Sun Devils never excelled in any specific area this past season, which does give cause for pause, although it also ignites confidence as they played excellent as a well-balanced unit. Arizona State won’t go quietly into the night after a stellar season last year and I have it making some noise in the Pac-12.
No. 14: MICHIGAN
After an abysmal year, the Michigan Wolverines should have no right being ranked this high, right? Wrong. Michigan began the year terribly, losing four of its first six games, but then hit its stride for a spell, beating Penn State, Indiana and Northwestern, before ultimately slumping again, losing to Maryland and eventual national champion Ohio State. Although the year was ultimately a bust, there is one main reason why the Wolverines are at 14. Jim Harbaugh is the new head football coach. Seeing what Harbaugh has done at Stanford and then in San Francisco with the 49ers, there is reason to believe he will turn this school around and fans will once again be chanting Michigan’s name in the Big House.
No. 15: OLE MISS
Ole Miss is a tough one, as I want to put it higher in the sense I believe it has an opportunity to do some real damage in the SEC in 2015, but with the way last season ended, there is no momentum with these Rebels. After starting the year 9-0, beating Alabama (23-17) along the way, the Ole Miss Rebels plummeted, losing four of their last six games, including a 42-3 drubbing at the hands of TCU in the Peach Bowl, which left a bad taste in the mouths of fans coming into this season. Ole Miss will have to rally and arrive at Opening Day ready if it wants to improve on last year’s once-promising season.
No. 16: USC
With a 9-4 record, including big game wins at Stanford, Oregon State and Arizona, along with a Holiday Bowl victory over Nebraska, I have the USC Trojans coming in at 16. Losing players like Leonard Williams to the NFL draft will definitely impact Steve Sarkisian’s squad this upcoming season, but with a strong recruiting class the Trojans have a good chance of contending for the Pac-12 title.
No. 17: MISSOURI
Missouri will arrive at the beginning of this season with the mantra of now or never. Having come off a stellar year where the Tigers had an 11-3 record and a Citrus Bowl victory over Minnesota, the sting remains from losing two straight SEC championship games. Gary Pinkel’s unit will have high expectations heaped upon them by the Tiger faithful to finally get over the SEC hump and into the Playoff.
No. 18: OKLAHOMA
After an underwhelming 2014 campaign, coach Bob Stoops and the Sooners will hope to bounce back this year. Oklahoma ended last season in horrific fashion, losing two of its last three games at home, to Baylor, 48-14, and to rival Oklahoma State, 38-35 in overtime. The Sooners were trounced by Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl, 40-6, which dropped them to an abysmal 8-5 for the year. Despite this, Oklahoma plans to get back to the form that two seasons ago saw it defeat favored Alabama in the Sugar Bowl on its way to an 11-2 record.
No. 19: AUBURN
One year removed from a national championship appearance and 12-2 record under first-year head coach Gus Malzahn, the Auburn Tigers proved college football each year brings new and more difficult challenges, laying the proverbial egg in 2014 with a somber 8-5 record, including an Outback Bowl loss to overrated Wisconsin, who itself went into the game coming off a 59-0 shutout in the Big 10 championship game to Ohio State . Even still, I have the Tigers doing big things in the SEC this season and having yet another bounce back year.
No. 20: BOISE STATE
At number twenty I have the 12-2 Boise State Broncos. Boise had another fantastic year in 2014 winning a Fiesta Bowl title over Arizona. Although despite this seemingly great season I see significant flaws in the Broncos. For starters they lose their captain and best player to the NFL Draft in Jay Ajayi, then I look at their 2014 schedule. Boise State played the easiest regular season schedule out of all the final top-25 ranked teams in 2014, and finally I have to look at the Bronco defence this season. In nine of their fourteen games Boise State conceded twenty or more points and thirty or more in five games including an opening day defeat against the only top-25 team they faced Ole Miss 35-17 at home. For all these reasons I place the 12-2 Broncos at number twenty.
No. 21: TEXAS
The college football world witnessed a revival in Austin under first-year coach Charlie Strong. He arrived from Louisville where he led the Cardinals to four consecutive winning seasons and four straight bowls. Despite his pedigree, 2014 began rough for the Longhorns, losing four of their first six games, including a 31-26 loss at the hands of bitter rival Oklahoma. Fortunately for Strong and Texas, the Longhorns rallied, winning four of their next five games, and three in a row, beating ranked opponents West Virginia and Oklahoma State along the way. Ultimately, Texas finished with a 6-7 record, but there was great improvement under Strong. One big point of emphasis the Longhorns can bring into the new season is their dominant running game combined with a much-improved defense, ranking in the top 50 in the nation in both categories.
No. 22: KANSAS STATE
Kansas State came into last season with one goal, to win the Big 12 title. Unfortunately, the success of two years ago that saw it reach the Fiesta Bowl did not roll over into last year's campaign. Instead, after starting the year 7-1 with a spot in the four-team College Football Playoff a real possibility, the Wildcats unravelled, losing three of their last five games, ending with an Alamo Bowl defeat and a 9-4 record. Kansas State will enter the upcoming season with a chip on its shoulder and one goal in mind, win the Big 12 title.
No. 23: FLORIDA
With the toughest schedule in the nation last year, the Florida Gators toughed it out early, winning three of their first four games, before running out of steam late, playing .500 ball over their last eight games, eventually capturing a Birmingham Bowl victory and 7-5 record. Unfortunately for those in the Swamp, the road doesn’t get any easier this year, facing powerhouses like Ole Miss, Missouri, LSU, Georgia and Florida State. Still, I see light at the end of the tunnel for the Gators after an outstanding recruiting season led by first-year head coach Jim McElwain, handing Florida the tools it needs to make a push in the SEC.
No. 24: MARSHALL
Creeping in at 24 are the mighty Thundering Herd. With a fabulous 13-1 record in 2014, Marshall forced the country to take notice, winning the Boca Raton Bowl and having its only loss coming at the hands of Western Kentucky in a nail biting 67-66 finish. The Herd began the season 11-0, dominating every team they faced, having only one of the 11 games won by 10 or fewer points. Due to their unchallenging schedule, with Purdue being the biggest name on the docket, the Herd had to be near the bottom of our rankings. Marshall will most likely suffer the same fate this year as they did last, commanding very little national respect due to that fact.
No. 25: TEXAS A&M
After the sensation that was Johnny Manziel for two years, many thought Kevin Sumlin’s side would collapse and become one of the bottom feeders of the SEC. Aggie nation witnessed mind-blowingly great offenses over the past three seasons, complimented by maybe one of the worst defences in FBS history. Last year, A&M shocked college football in Week 1 when it went into South Carolina and thumped the Gamecocks 52-28 behind sophomore quarterback Kenny Hill. That was the beginning of a five-game winning streak, with the Aggies looking like they hadn’t missed a step despite Manziel's departure. By Week 6, however, the abysmal A&M defense of years past made its appearance, giving up 48 in a loss at Mississippi State, 35 in a loss at home to Ole Miss and 59 in a shutout drubbing in Tuscaloosa against Alabama. Texas A&M ended the year in positive fashion, winning the Liberty on its way to a respectable 8-5 record. In 2015, expect a similar turn out for the Aggies.
Notable teams left out: Wisconsin (11-3), Nebraska (9-4), South Carolina (7-6), Oklahoma State (7-6).