The Tampa Bay Times preseason ranking as selected by staff writer Greg Auman, a voter in the Associated Press poll.
Even after putting three players among the top 11 of the draft, the defending national champ is still the team to beat. Undervalued quarterback A.J. McCarron is back, and watch for running back T.J. Yeldon to improve on a 1,100-yard debut last fall. Win in College Station, and the Tide might face only one other ranked team (home against LSU on Nov. 9) until the SEC title game.
Key game: Sept. 14 at Texas A&M
2. Ohio St.
In coach Urban Meyer's second seasons, he went 9-3 at Bowling Green, 12-0 and a Fiesta Bowl win at Utah and 13-1 and a national title at Florida. Considering he went 12-0 as a Buckeyes rookie last year, everything's in play. Braxton Miller threw for 15 TDs and rushed for 1,271 yards and another 12 scores. Can they beat the Wolverines in the regular-season finale and (potentially) Big Ten title game the following week?
Key game: Nov. 30 at Michigan
The Cardinal is this high because the defense might be the nation's best. Remember Stanford holding Oregon to 14 points last year, 35 below its average? Replacing running back Stepfan Taylor's production will be tough, but the defense, led by linebacker Trent Murphy, will keep the Cardinal in every game.
Key game: Nov. 7 vs. Oregon
Quarterback Tajh Boyd and the Tigers will be tested quickly in Saturday's opener against Georgia. Boyd's numbers in Chad Morris' offense the past two years — 69 touchdowns, 25 interceptions — should continue, even without receiver and first-round pick DeAndre Hopkins. The electric Sammy Watkins — 12 touchdown catches in 2011 — is the difference between a good Clemson team and an ACC champion.
Key game: Nov. 30 at South Carolina
Can the Ducks lose coach Chip Kelly and not skip a step? Mark Helfrich steps up with what still will be a prolific offense. But can the defense keep up? Running back De'Anthony Thomas' sheer speed will be a highlight reel all season, but their national title hopes go through Palo Alto.
Key game: Nov. 7 at Stanford
Plant High graduate Aaron Murray goes after his fourth 3,000-yard season, and his fifth touchdown pass of the season will be the 100th of his career. Win the first two games — at Clemson on Saturday and home against South Carolina on Sept. 7 — and it will pry a few No. 1 votes from Alabama. The SEC East is college football's best division.
Key game: Sept. 7 vs. South Carolina
7. Texas A&M
The single biggest game of the year looks to be Sept. 14 in College Station. If quarterback Johnny Manziel can beat No. 1 Alabama (again), his game will again put his off-field headlines on the back burner. The SEC West doesn't look so daunting. A win over 'Bama leaves one ranked team (Nov. 23 at LSU) remaining for the Aggies.
Key game: Sept. 14 vs. Alabama
You remember the Cardinals team that beat Florida convincingly in the Sugar Bowl. Do you remember the one that lost to Syracuse and Connecticut? Our gripe with Louisville is the schedule is so easy. At Kentucky (Sept. 14) is your nonconference challenge? Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater had to rally to beat USF last year. The Cardinals should be undefeated coming to Tampa this year.
Key game: Oct. 26 at USF
The Gators have four games against teams among our top 20 plus a Sept. 7 trip to Miami. Can coach Will Muschamp find a go-to running back or the playmaking receiver Florida has lacked for so many years? The Gators need the offense to take some of the burden off the defense, which lost key leaders to the NFL.
Key game: Nov. 2 vs. Georgia (at Jacksonville)
10. Florida St.
Is there a bigger wild card among the top 10 than Jameis Winston? Coach Jimbo Fisher lost EJ Manuel, the first quarterback taken in the draft, so Winston has big shoes to fill. The schedule comes down to two killer road games: Clemson (Oct. 19) and Florida (Nov. 30). Even a split would be a strong season for running back (and Plant High graduate) James Wilder and friends.
Key game: Oct. 19 at Clemson
11. Notre Dame
There are quarterback concerns, and the offseason silliness makes you forget how game-changing a player linebacker Manti Te'o was for the Fighting Irish. You'll know if they're still top-10 material on Sept. 7, at Michigan, with tough tests at home against Oklahoma (Sept. 28) and USC (Oct. 19) and at Stanford (Nov. 30).
Key game: Nov. 30 at Stanford
12. South Carolina
Tampa fans know all about end Jadeveon Clowney's hit in the Outback Bowl, and he is the most eagerly anticipated defensive player in the country. The Gamecocks come back to Florida to face UCF (Sept. 28) and get Florida in Columbia (Nov. 16). Connor Shaw gets lost in the SEC quarterback picture, but he's 17-3 as a starter.
Key game: Sept. 7 at Georgia
Coach Mack Brown is back in national relevance again, and the Longhorns get Oklahoma (Oct. 12) in Dallas and Oklahoma State at home (Nov. 16). But that season finale at Baylor (Dec. 7) will look tougher by November. David Ash completed 67 percent of his passes last year. Expect to hear more from him connecting with Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley.
Key game: Oct. 12 vs. Oklahoma (at Dallas)
If the Wolverines win Sept. 7 at home against Notre Dame, they can breathe — until a daunting November: at Michigan State, home to Nebraska, at Northwestern, at Iowa and home against Ohio State. How good can quarterback Devin Gardner be?
Key game: Nov. 30 vs. Ohio State
For the Sooners to get back to the national elite, their defense must do a lot better job of keeping those Big 12 offenses in check. OU gave up 49 and 48 points in wins last year, but the offense won't be as strong this time around. There's already a surprise with Trevor Knight jumping in as starting quarterback ahead of Blake Bell.
Key game: Dec. 7 at Oklahoma State
16. Oklahoma St.
How does a five-loss team — which gave up 40-plus points in all five losses — get ranked this high? Nearly everyone is back for coach Mike Gundy, who has a chance to show something in the Big 12. Just don't stumble in Saturday's opener, home against Mississippi State.
Key game: Nov. 16 at Texas
We cannot get past the sheer volume of talent the Tigers put into the NFL. That and a nasty schedule including at Georgia (Sept. 28) and home to Florida (Oct. 12) — a far tougher SEC East pairing than Alabama's Kentucky and Tennessee. They'll be battle-tested when they go to Tuscaloosa on Nov. 9, that's for sure.
Key game: Nov. 9 at Alabama
A nonconference tilt against UCLA on Sept. 14 will tell you plenty. Taylor Martinez — already a senior — is coming off a 1,000-yard rushing season that saw him throw for 23 touchdowns. The novelty of the Big Ten has worn off, but it must be nice to not have a road game until Oct. 12.
Key game: Nov. 9 at Michigan
Another team with expectations of major improvement, the Horned Frogs come off a 7-6 season and open Saturday with LSU at nearby Arlington, Texas. They have trips to Oklahoma (Oct. 5) and Oklahoma State (Oct. 19). Sweep those, and you can feel like you belong in the Big 12.
Key game: Saturday LSU (at Arlington, Texas)
Does anyone have a tougher road schedule than Jim Mora's team? It includes Nebraska (Sept. 14), Stanford (Oct. 19) and Oregon (Oct. 26) in consecutive weeks and USC (Nov. 30) to finish the year. You might be surprised to know Brett Hundley threw for 3,745 yards and 29 scores as a freshman in 2012.
Key game: Nov. 30 at USC
We like the Bears more than most. And it might be November before they get to validate this ranking. What a finish, though, including Oklahoma (Nov. 7), at Oklahoma State (Nov. 23), at TCU (Nov. 30) and Texas (Dec. 7) in one month's time. Speaking of strong finishes, look at what Lache Seastrunk did in his last four games of 2012: 637 rushing yards.
Key game: Nov. 23 at Oklahoma State
This might be the year coach Pat Fitzgerald gets the national love he deserves. It's an underdog story, but try not pulling for his team Oct. 5 at home against Ohio State. Improve the passing game for better balance, and this could be a dangerous team.
Key game: Oct. 5 vs. Ohio State
Here's an upset we'll call: Stay up late Saturday, and you'll see the Huskies beat Boise State at home. Learn the name Bishop Sankey. He rushed for 1,439 yards and 16 scores as a sophomore in 2012. Like UCLA, they get Stanford (Oct. 5 on the road) and Oregon (Oct. 12 at home) in consecutive weeks. But we'll be watching.
Key game: Oct. 5 at Stanford
24. Boise St.
There's so little to validate the Broncos if they don't win Saturday at Washington. Perhaps a win at Fresno State (Sept. 20) or at BYU (Oct. 25) will bring credibility. The defense will be strong again, but there aren't enough games that show us something on a national level.
Key game: Saturday at Washington
The Bearcats quietly went 10-3 last season and could be the team to beat in the American Athletic Conference in 2014. They can speed up that process if they upset Louisville in the regular-season finale Dec. 5 at home. That would avenge last year's overtime loss.
Key game: Dec. 5 vs. Louisville