The streak is over.
After seven long years, the SEC’s grip on the world of college football was finally broken by the Florida State Seminoles. By beating Auburn in the 2014 BCS National Championship Game, the ‘Noles won their third national title and, perhaps just as notably, proved to the rest of the nation that, yes, the SEC is beatable, after all.
But will the SEC be beatable again in 2014?
We explore that question here, in our Preseason Top 25 for the 2014 college football season.
Yes, the Tide fell short of the national title in 2013. Yes, they absolutely blew it in the most sensational fashion possible against Auburn. And yes, they looked a great deal more mortal through much of the ’13 season than they had in the years previous. But Nick Saban remains the best coach in college football, and from top to bottom, the Tide still have more talent on their roster than anybody else. Quarterback AJ McCarron needs to be replaced and it’s never easy to win in the brutal SEC West. But even still, if you had to bet on anybody to emerge from that division victorious, the Tide would be the obvious pick. As usual.
2. Florida State Seminoles
They’ve got he best player in college football in quarterback Jameis Winston, a vastly underrated coach in Jimbo Fisher, talent pretty much across the board and, perhaps most importantly, a relatively easy path to the national title game, courtesy of their membership in the comparatively weak ACC. In other words, yeah, the ‘Noles will be right back in the mix in 2014. And very likely, the year after that, too.
No, the Tigers did not get “lucky” in 2013. Sure, they caught a break against Georgia. And sure, they caught Alabama napping to win the Iron Bowl in the most spectacular fashion possible. But to write off that incredible season as a function of mere good fortune is to ignore the incredible job that Gus Malzahn did in his first year with the Tigers. His offense is relentless and at times downright unstoppable, and if he was able to post those ridiculous numbers with somebody else’s players, imagine how good this program will be when Malzahn has a couple of years to bring in his own guys.
Everyone is writing off the Buckeyes, and from what I can tell there are two reasons why: 1. They lost in mildly embarrassing fashion to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game, blowing a late ten-point lead on the biggest stage of the season; 2. Cornerback Bradley Roby and linebacker Ryan Shazier are off to the NFL, further depleting a defense that was mediocre at best for much of 2013. But may I remind the college football world of the following?: 1. Braxton Miller returns, and he’ll again be the best offensive player in the Big Ten; 2. Urban Meyer is still running the show. The Buckeyes will make a run at an undefeated season again.
The Spartans were one of the true feel-good stories of the 2013 season. At a time when so many coaches seem so very eager to move on to “better” programs at the earliest opportunity, Mark Dantonio has stuck around in East Lansing with the singular goal of turning the State into a true Big Ten powerhouse. That’s exactly what he’s done, crafting a borderline elite program built on good old-fashioned fundamental football—suffocating defense, smart and physical offense, mistake-free special teams. The Spartans are here to stay.
A tough loss at the hands of Michigan State in the Rose Bowl should not overshadow the fact that Stanford has established itself as the power program of the Pac-12. Oregon fans may not like to hear that, but the reality is that Stanford’s “system” is a great deal more battle-tested, and a great deal less risky, than Oregon’s. In a big-game situation, against a big-time power opponent from the SEC, I’d be a lot more comfortable taking Stanford than Oregon. And until Oregon proves they can beat one of those power teams—they’ve had chances, and they haven’t delivered—I’m not going to change my mind on that.
7. Oklahoma Sooners
We remember the Sooners’ stunning season-ending win over Alabama, of course. And we forget the fact that, until that big win, Bob Stoops’ bunch had been fairly pedestrian in big games before that. Regardless, in the power vacuum that is the Big 12, there’s no reason why the Sooners can’t be challenging for league titles on an annual basis. That’s what they figure to do once again in 2014.
8. Oregon Ducks
My standing issue with the Ducks is that they simply haven’t proven that they can beat the big boys when they have to. They have failed on the biggest of stages against the likes of Ohio State, LSU and Auburn, and recently, it seems that Stanford has taken over the mantel of the ‘the Pac-12’s best team.’ So, yeah, I’m dubious that this program, as currently constructed, is really capable of winning a national title. Then again, much the same could be said about a lot of really great programs, and while a national title may currently be our of reach, being a perennial Top 10 program isn’t so bad, is it?
9. UCLA Bruins
Jim Mora has done a remarkable job in Los Angeles, and in the course of his still relatively young tenure at UCLA turned this program from a Pac-12 weakling into a legit Top 15 power. With Brett Hundley coming back for another year to the Pac-12’s most potent offense outside of Eugene, the Bruins will push for league honors in 2014. Mora is building something special in Westwood.
10. LSU Tigers
LSU of late hasn’t quite been the elite LSU that we had grown accustomed to in years past, but one thing you can always be sure about when it comes to the Tigers is the fact that they will have talent—lots of it. Les Miles brought into another elite recruiting class in February, and those blue chippers will join a roster that sees four offensive lineman and promising quarterback Anthony Jennings return. The SEC West is brutally difficult, as always, but the Tigers will be a force to be reckoned with. A trip to the SEC title game isn’t out of the question.