Interesting takes by Steve Lassan of Athlon
1. Ohio State
With the postseason ban over, Ohio State is positioned to be Alabama’s biggest threat to another national title in 2013. The Buckeyes return 13 starters, including one of the front-runners to win the Heisman Trophy in quarterback Braxton Miller. Under coach Urban Meyer last season, Miller threw for 2,039 yards and 15 scores and rushed for 1,271 yards and 13 touchdowns. With the supporting cast improving, Miller won’t have as much pressure on his shoulders and should be a more polished passer in 2013. And the junior will be protected by a line that returns four starters and should rank among the best nationally. The biggest question mark for Ohio State is a defense that struggled at times last year. The Buckeyes ranked 76th nationally against the pass and sixth in the Big Ten in scoring and total defense. Only four starters are back on defense, and the defensive line is essentially starting over with the departure of four key players. Despite those concerns, linebacker Ryan Shazier is back, and the secondary should be much improved. Even though the line was decimated by departures, Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington are future stars in the Big Ten. Ohio State’s schedule isn’t too difficult, so another 12-0 season isn’t out of the question. If Miller stays healthy, the Buckeyes will be playing for a national title in January.
Chip Kelly left for the NFL, but the cupboard in Eugene is far from bare. Quarterback Marcus Mariota and running back De’Anthony Thomas lead an offense that should once again rank among the best in the nation. The receiving corps is deep with options, which should allow Mariota to throw more in 2013. While losing end/linebacker Dion Jordan and linebackers Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay is a huge setback for the defense, seven starters are back, including cornerbacks Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Terrance Mitchell. The Ducks have to play at Stanford on Nov. 7 but catch UCLA at home and won’t play Arizona State or USC in crossover play. New coach Mark Helfrich is unproven, but his familiarity with the returning talent should keep Oregon among the top five teams in the nation next season.
3. Georgia and 4. South Carolina
It may seem strange to have an SEC team on this list, but there are scenarios in which a team from college football’s top conference misses the title game or a team from the East pulls an upset in the conference title game. Assuming Alabama finishes 12-0, Georgia (or South Carolina) could be its biggest threat. If the Bulldogs or Gamecocks have one loss and beat the Crimson Tide in the SEC Championship Game, it’s unlikely Alabama could get back into the national title picture. Although Georgia and South Carolina are solid teams, neither appear to be as strong as Alabama. The Bulldogs will have one of the SEC’s best offenses, but the defense has to be rebuilt. The Gamecocks return a Heisman candidate in defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, along with two potential starting quarterbacks in Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson. Georgia and South Carolina both miss Alabama during the regular season, so the only chance both teams will have to try and knock out the Crimson Tide will be in Atlanta in early December.
2013 isn’t shaping up to be a banner year for the ACC, but Clemson is comfortably one of the top 10 teams in the nation. The Tigers lost only two games last year – Florida State and South Carolina – and return 13 starters from 2012. Tajh Boyd is one of college football’s top five quarterbacks and directs an offense that averaged 41 points a game last season. Boyd will have to find a new go-to target with DeAndre Hopkins leaving for the NFL, but Sammy Watkins is poised to regain his freshman form (82 catches) in 2013. The biggest question mark on offense is finding a new go-to running back, along with finding a dependable tight end after Sam Cooper was lost for the season with a torn ACL in the spring. The defense made strides late last year, and more should be expected in the second go-round under coordinator Brent Venables. The front seven is deep on experience, but the secondary needs to tighten up after ranking 71st nationally against the pass last year. Outside of Florida State, Clemson doesn’t have much to worry about in the ACC. With the Seminoles coming to Death Valley, the Tigers are an overwhelming favorite to win the conference. Of course, beating two SEC opponents – Georgia in the season opener and South Carolina on Nov. 30 – is the key to Clemson’s national title hopes.
The defending Pac-12 champs are loaded for another run at the national title. But the Cardinal will have to fill a few key areas, after the departures of running back Stepfan Taylor (4,300 yards), two of the nation’s top tight ends (Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo) and standout linebacker Chase Thomas. While the personnel losses are significant, Stanford does return quarterback Kevin Hogan, along with one of the nation’s top offensive lines. Center Sam Schwartzstein must be replaced up front, but the Cardinal aren’t hurting for talent in the trenches. Stanford’s defense should remain strong despite the departure of Thomas, especially with Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy returning to anchor the linebacker unit. The secondary is also in great shape, especially with rising star Alex Carter at cornerback. The schedule is manageable, as Stanford hosts Oregon on Nov. 7 and catches two of the top three teams in the Pac-12 South at home (Arizona State and UCLA). If there’s a question mark on this team, it’s a passing attack that lost two key weapons at tight end and has no proven playmakers at receiver.
7. Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish finished the regular season 12-0 last year but were thoroughly dominated by Alabama in the national championship game. Notre Dame caught a few lucky bounces last season, winning five games by a touchdown or less – including two overtime thrillers against Stanford and Pittsburgh. Despite losing linebacker Manti Te’o, the Fighting Irish could be a better team in 2013. The offense played better in the second half of the season, and quarterback Everett Golson is back for his second year as the starter. Running back is a concern with the departures of Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood, but USC transfer Amir Carlisle, George Atkinson III and incoming freshman Greg Bryant should be a capable trio. The defense is loaded in the trenches, as end Stephon Tuitt and tackle Louis Nix III are two of the best linemen in the nation. The schedule is challenging once again, but with a better offense, Notre Dame could make another run at the national championship.
8. Texas A&M
The Aggies could fire the first strike in knocking off the SEC from the top spot in 2013. Texas A&M hosts Alabama on Sept. 14 and hopes to repeat last year’s 29-24 upset win in Tuscaloosa. If the Aggies knock off the Crimson Tide, they would jump into the early driver’s seat for a spot in the national title game. And while Texas A&M could run the table and finish unbeaten, there’s also a good chance it loses at LSU. But are the Aggies a better team than last year? Probably not. Texas A&M must fill some voids on defense, as end Damontre Moore and linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart are gone. And now that the rest of the SEC has a full year of game tape and time to plan for quarterback Johnny Manziel, it may be tough to repeat last year’s success. However, the Aggies are still one of college football’s top 10 teams. If Texas A&M knocks off Alabama in early September, it could be the first chance for the rest of college football to keep the SEC out of the national championship, provided Ohio State and Oregon run the table and finish unbeaten.
With an easy schedule and one of the nation’s top quarterbacks under center, Louisville could have the most favorable path to a 12-0 mark in 2013. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater threw for 3,718 yards and 27 scores last season and had a standout performance in the Sugar Bowl win over Florida (266 yards, two touchdowns). Bridgewater will be throwing to one of the nation’s top receiving corps, but the offensive line must replace two key starters, including center Mario Benavides. The Cardinals ranked 23rd nationally in total defense last season but need to get tougher against the run after allowing 148 yards on the ground per game in 2012. Most of the defense returns intact, but cornerback Adrian Bushell is a big loss. Louisville doesn’t have a strong nonconference schedule, so winning and looking impressive in Big East play is a must.
10. Oklahoma State
Let’s be honest: It’s a longshot the SEC doesn’t win or at least play for the national title. And it could be an even bigger mountain for a team from the Big 12 to play for the championship in 2013. We list Oklahoma State as the very early front-runner to win the conference crown, but it’s really anyone’s guess with Texas, TCU and Oklahoma all having legitimate Big 12 title hopes. The Cowboys return 12 starters and should have one of the conference’s top offenses with the return of receiver Josh Stewart and running back Jeremy Smith. The defense has room to improve against the pass, and there’s very little in the way of proven depth at defensive end. With a favorable schedule, however, Oklahoma State seems to have the most favorable path to a Big 12 title. Make no mistake: It’s certainly a longshot that Oklahoma State can get to the title game this year. However, if Clint Chelf settles into the quarterback spot, a champion of the Big 12 can never be counted out of the national title picture.