11. South Carolina Gamecocks
These are heady days for college football fans in the Palmetto State: Clemson is the favorite to win the ACC, and South Carolina has seemingly legitimized itself as a true SEC powerhouse. Which is pretty darn remarkable when you think about it. I mean, this is South Carolina we’re talking about, and yet because of the incredible work of Steve Spurrier—and such transcendent talents as Jadeveon Clowney—we don’t think twice these days about talking about the Gamecocks in the same breath as the LSUs and Floridas and Georgias of the world. Strange times, indeed.
12. Florida Gators
An otherwise wonderful season in the 2012 was somewhat ruined by that dreadful bowl performance against Louisville, but it would be a mistake to write off this bunch based on their bowl letdown alone. The fact that the Gators improved from 6-6 in 2011 to 11-1 last season speaks well to Will Muschamp’s ability to survive and thrive in the SEC; so, too, did his performance on the recruiting trail. With plenty of returning talent and a promising crop of freshman, including a couple of kids who might make an immediate impact, Florida will certainly push Georgia in the SEC East.
13. LSU Tigers
The Tigers have been hanging around the Top 5 rather consistently of late, but all signs point to what may be termed a rebuilding year in 2013. Les Miles saw a slew of juniors depart for the NFL, and given the ridiculous powerhouse that Nick Saban has built up in Tuscaloosa, it’s very hard to see this team mounting a serious challenge in the SEC West. Ten wins are possible. But given the schedule, this bunch could win as few as eight.
14. Boise State Broncos
It just wouldn’t be a preseason Top 25 without Boise State. After a “disappointing” 11-2 season in 2012, the Broncos appear to have at least a chance of making some noise as a potential BCS buster in 2013. The Mountain West Conference is fairly weak, which means a season-opening win against tough-to-figure Washington could be the only game standing between Boise and perfection. That sound you hear is the entire Southeast growing indignant.
15. UCLA Bruins
Look, I was as skeptical as anyone when UCLA hired NFL castoff Jim Mora to take over the struggling Bruins program in 2011, but my oh my, has this guy been impressive. There was a time there, near the end of the Rick Neuheisel era, when it seemed as though UCLA would never return to national relevancy; USC was piling up the talent across town, Oregon was building a powerhouse up in the Northwest and, there wasn’t much reason at all to get excited about the prospects for football in Westwood. But Mora has turned this thing around. He’s recruiting well, and he’s got this bunch playing with a sort of physicality that hasn’t been seen there in some time. It’s amazing but true: The Bruins are the kings of L.A.
16. Kansas State Wildcats
From one phenomenal coach to another. When all is said and done, Bill Snyder probably should go down as one of the Top 10 coaches in the history of college football, because to be quite frank, what he’s done at Kansas State (twice) is nothing short of unbelievable. Yeah, Collin Klein is gone, but hey, it’s Bill Snyder. He’ll find a way to win.
17. Oklahoma Sooners
I’ve written it time and time again over the past few seasons, but it bears repeating once more: Oklahoma under Bob Stoops has hit a plateau. And I just don’t see this program getting back to where it was any time soon; at the very least, next season should be a mild step back. Landry Jones is gone and a porous defense remains.
18. Louisville Cardinals
In an increasingly weak Big East, the Cardinals stand out as the obvious favorites to win the league title in 2013 … before gracefully bowing out and moving over to the ACC the following season. A season-ending beatdown of Florida in the Sugar Bowl has lots of folks really excited about this bunch—and with quarterback and potential Heisman candidate Teddy Bridgewater returning, sure, that excitement makes sense—but the reality is this program is at least a few steps below the nation’s true powers. They may win 11 games and they may even win 12, but if and when they get paired up against an Alabama or an Ohio State or an Oregon, the gap in talent will be obvious. That’s not anti-Big East snobbiness. It’s just reality.
19. Texas Longhorns
I suppose we’re now past the point where we can actually expect Texas to start being Texas again. The powers-that-be down in Austin seem content with mediocre results on the field, so long as the cash keeps pouring in. And yeah, the cash seems to be pouring in. How odd for us to have reached a point where Texas A&M is so clearly better than Texas. Enjoy another 8- or 9-win season, ‘Horns fans.
20. Vanderbilt Commodores
Hey, Vandy is pretty darn good all of a sudden. James Franklin is now justifiably recognized as one of the best coaches in the country—it’s a wonder Maryland didn’t realize this, but hey, so it goes—and as we look ahead to 2013, it’s not impossible to believe this team could replicate its remarkable 9-win season of 2012. Fourteen starters are back. So is Franklin.