11. South Carolina Gamecocks
In recent years I’ve come to the conclusion that Steve Spurrier simply isn’t given the respect he deserves. Besides, when it comes to a debate about ‘the best coaches in the country,’ discussion inevitably turns to Nick Saban, and to Les Miles, and to Urban Meyer, and perhaps one or two others. Rarely, however, is Spurrier’s name mentioned. Which is quite ridiculous when you think about it. This is a guy, after all, who not only dominated the SEC during his time at Florida—and revolutionized the way offense is played down there—but has since gone on to build a consistent winner at South Carolina, of all places. Make no mistake: Spurrier has brought to Columbia the greatest football years in the program’s history. Even with the loss of Jadeveon Clowney and Connor Shaw, the good times figure to continue in 2014.
12. Baylor Bears
As a longtime college football watcher, I still have a hard time digesting the fact that Baylor—Baylor!—actually won the Big 12 title last season. For decades, this program was one of the worst, and seemingly most hopeless, in all of college football. And yet, in just a matter of years, coach Art Briles managed to turn the Bears into champions. It’s darn near miraculous, is what it is. And here’s the thing: The Bears figure to be pretty good in 2014, too. Quarterback Bryce Petty returns; perhaps more importantly, so does Briles—and his incredibly effective system.
13. Clemson Tigers
Sure, quarterback Tajh Boyd is gone, and sure, he’s going to be tough to replace. But offensive coordinator Chad Morris—probably the hottest assistant coach in the business these days—returns for another season in Death Valley, and he’ll be looking to prove to potential suitors that he can deliver results even without Boyd running the job. It will be very interesting to see, for instance, what Morris can do with true freshman Deshaun Watson, who was ranked by some recruiting services as the No. 1 quarterback prospect in the nation. Everyone wanted this kid, but Clemson got him; with Boyd on his way out, it seems a perfect situation for Watson to make his mark early.
14. USC Trojans
Speaking of Sarkisian … the former Washington coach has returned home to USC, where will be charged with saving the program from the general indignities of the Lane Kiffin Era. As always, there is talent on this roster, and with the NCAA sanctions now mostly behind this program, Sarkisian has a great chance to get the Trojans back to where they should be—near the top of the college football world. They won’t get there this year, but Sarkisian will be expected to deliver nine or ten wins. He has a great chance of doing precisely that.
15. Washington Huskies
Chris Petersen at long last has left Boise State behind. The man most responsible to turning Boise (for a time) into one of the nation’s best programs has now made the leap to the big-time—and it will be very, very interesting to see how well he does. There’s no denying that Boise was slipping in Petersen’s last years there, so it’s an open question as to whether he can find the magic again now that he’s moved to Seattle. He does inherit a fairly talented roster, thanks to the efforts of former coach Steve Sarkisian, but he’ll need to put in some work if he hopes to get the Huskies on the level of Pac-12 powers Stanford, Oregon and UCLA.
16. Texas A&M Aggies
And so departs Johnny Manziel, perhaps the most exciting player to ever put on an Aggie uniform. But even with Manziel’s departure, all is not lost for Aggie Nation. Indeed, coach Kevin Sumlin has quickly built a solid foundation in College Station, and while the offense loses some serious talent, the defense returns almost everybody (and, yeah, I know that unit wasn’t particularly great last year, but I figure they’ve got to improve … right?).
17. Wisconsin Badgers
Here’s what we know about the Big Ten: We know that Ohio State and Michigan State are really good—Top 10 quality, and perhaps even Top 5 quality. We know that Penn State has a dynamic new coach and loads of potential—but still carries the burden of those crushing NCAA sanctions. We know Michigan should by all rights be on its way to elite status once more—but can’t seem to put it all together. We know Nebraska isn’t what it was once, we know Iowa is perennially average, and we know pretty much everyone else is useless. Then there’s Wisconsin, a program that stubbornly hangs around the Top 20 each and every year with a pragmatic and quite simple formula: Huge offensive lineman, bruising backs and bruising defenders, and just enough skill position talent to make it all work. This program will never be an annual league contender—it will never, for instance, be Ohio State—but there’s no reason the current run of success can’t continue.
18. Ole Miss Rebels
Hugh Freeze has done a commendable job so far in his young tenure in Oxford, and last year delivered an 8-5 season that hinted at better things to come. Quarterback Bo Wallace returns after turning in a breakout performance in 2013, and he’ll be joined by a host of talented sophomores, headlined by defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, that made impressive debuts last season. Structurally speaking, Ole Miss is always operating at a decided disadvantage in the SEC West, but I’ve always believed a savvy coach could build a consistent Top 20 program there, given enough time (and enough resources). Freeze just might be that guy. Ole Miss in the SEC title game? Maybe, folks. Maybe. (Someday.)
19. Georgia Bulldogs
What to make of Georgia these days? It’s been years since the Dawgs could be called a legitimately elite program—you have to go all the way back to the early days of the Mark Richt Era for that—and last season’s 8-5 record didn’t exactly hint at great things to come, either. I mean, really, Georgia? Losing to Nebraska in your bowl game? While it’s true that there is talent here (there always is) and while it’s true that many experts have this team pegged for a big jump forward in 2014, I remain dubious. Richt isn’t what he once was and this program is miles away from competing with the true SEC elites. (And, no, Bulldogs fans, I don’t want to hear the ‘injuries’ excuse.)
20. Michigan Wolverines
OK, this is a leap of faith. I admit that. But I just don’t believe that the Michigan we saw in 2013 is the Michigan that Brady Hoke will ultimately deliver. After a couple years of solid success in Ann Arbor, Hoke saw his team struggle last season, and a poor performance on the recruiting trail has not exactly helped brighten the mood in Big Blue Nation. A Week 2 showdown against Notre Dame figures to serve as a referendum on the state of Hoke’s program. A loss there, and you might start hearing ‘hot seat’ talk. But you know what? I think he’ll get a win there—and I think we’ll see a much better Michigan in 2014.