2013 College Football Preview: The Power 10

Alabama and the Southeastern Conference (SEC) enter the final year of the BCS era on top of the college football world. The SEC has won the last seven BCS titles and Alabama, a program that has won three of the last four titles, will be looking to three-peat. All Alabama head coach Nick Saban has done since he came to Tuscaloosa before the 2007 season is put himself on the Mount Rushmore of college football coaches, joining John McKay, Frank Leahy, and Bear Bryant, the man whose shadow he is still under, as the only coaches to win four national titles in the modern college football era. 

But Alabama is vulnerable this year, and the three teams that could dethrone them--Stanford, Ohio State, and Oregon--have mobile quarterbacks that can be to Alabama gunslinger A.J. McCarron what Vince Young of Texas was to USC quarterback Matt Leinart in 2006, the last year a team from the SEC did not win the BCS title.

USC was also looking to three-peat that year. The Trojans had a coach in Pete Carroll that restored the program to its traditional powerhouse status like Saban has done at Alabama. The Men of Troy had Leinart and a multitude of high-powered weapons on offense, including Reggie Bush. But in the BCS title game at the Rose Bowl, where this year’s game will also be played, Texas and Vince Young did just enough--with the help of some costly USC mistakes--to get by the Trojans in one of the most dramatic games in the BCS era. 

Stanford, with quarterback Kevin Hogan and a nasty offensive line and defensive front seven that may be better than Alabama’s, is the top challenger on paper. Ohio State and Oregon have the offensive firepower to give Alabama’s defense trouble, but they are not as physical as Stanford is in the trenches. If Louisville sneaks into the title game, they have a quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater, the wide receivers, and a coach in Charlie Strong--a defensive mastermind--who has proven he can stymie SEC offenses that may put up a formidable challenge. 

But all this assumes Alabama will have a clear path to Pasadena. They don't. Though Alabama is loaded on offense, which may have to carry the team at times this year, they have many talented players on the depth chart on defense that are perhaps a year away from being great NFL prospects, which means there will be some missed assignments that will drive Nick Saban nuts and make Alabama vulnerable (remember that Johnny Manziel's heralded scrambling touchdown pass against Alabama in the first half of last season's upset to Ryan Swope only happened because Alabama defensive back Vinnie Sunseri thought Manziel had fumbled the ball and left his assignment to try to recover the fumble, leaving his area unoccupied).

Here are my top 10 teams to start the college football season, largely based on how they finished last season. I will not update this list until after the second week of the season, after each team has had some body of work.

1. ALABAMA

Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron could afford to be a game manager his first two seasons as a starter. Playmakers like Trent Richardson, an offensive line led by Barrett Jones and first-round draft picks galore, and a defense that also produced one first-round pick after another allowed McCarron to just “not lose” games. But McCarron is brash and was known as a gunslinger. He has the game to back it up. And this year, more than ever, he will have the firepower--and an offensive coordinator, who often, to the chagrin of traditional Alabama fans, tends to get creative--to put up huge numbers. One can also argue that the huge spotlight Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel put on himself this offseason may have benefited McCarron the most, allowing him to go under the radar as he gears up for a run at a third straight national title--with his all-world girlfriend who in her own right has rocketed to fame after last year's BCS title game--and the chance to become a college football legend. 

True sophomores Amari Cooper (WR) and T.J. Yeldon (RB) are first-round draft picks in waiting and will make life for McCarron easy. The only concern regarding Yeldon is that he fumbled twice last season in key moments against LSU and Texas A&M, something Alabama running backs rarely do. True freshman running backs Derrick Henry and Altee Tenpenny will get plenty of playing of time, and it may be important for Alabama to blow out some of their earlier opponents to get these freshmen some repetitions. 

Alabama will have a stout defense--with Brandon Ivory, Jeoffrey Pagan, Trey DePriest, C.J. Mosley on the front seven. Deion Belue, Vinnie Sunseri, and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix will roam the secondary and erase some mistakes that will be made. 

Special teams will remain a concern. Christion Jones is an exciting punt returner but has been known to take irrational gambles. Dee Hart may be the better option here. And Cade Foster, Alabama’s field goal kicker, will need to get off to a good start so that he does not lose his confidence. A bad start could make him spiral downward.

Jalston Fowler, who will spend some time at tight end, could be a wild card. The former fullback could provide McCarron with a safety valve. But because tight end is not his natural position, he could miss some assignments that could cost the tide when he is in the game. The offensive line also needs some time to gel after losing three players to the NFL, and McCarron may actually have to carry them, unlike during the last two years. But in the games that count later in the season, Alabama needs to remember that it is built around a power running game and is not playing in the Mountain West Conference. If remember this and balance McCarron's weapons down the field with an offensive line that will have gelled, and with three potential first-round draft picks in the backfield in Yeldon, Henry, and Tenpenny, Alabama could roll over every single opponent even if they had a Mountain West Conference defense. What should make Alabama opponents afraid, though, is in addition to the high-octane offense, Alabama not only has one of the best defenses in the country--even if it may not be up to par for Alabama's standards early in the season--it has two defensive gurus in Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart that know how to prepare, scheme and make in-game adjustments that have led the Tide to back-to-back national titles. 

Games they can’t overlook: 

Oct. 19 -- at Arkansas: The Razorbacks will be well adjusted to head coach Bret Bielema’s system by then and could be dangerous. 

Oct. 26 -- vs. Tennessee: Four years ago, Alabama nose tackle Terrence Cody’s paw allowed Alabama to go to Pasadena when he blocked a last-second field goal attempt (his second block of the game) against Tennessee that would have given the Volunteers a shocking upset in Tuscaloosa. That was Lane Kiffin’s first season at Tennessee. Four years later, the BCS title game will again be at the Rose Bowl, and Tennessee again has a new coach--Butch Jones. Tennessee looks to be a program on the rebound, and this game will be their national championship game. Traditional rivalry games are always dangerous, but this contest may be particularly precarious this year.

Game to watch:

Nov. 9 -- vs. LSU:  It will not be a surprise if this game once again is for the SEC and national titles, especially if Alabama wins its much-hyped rematch with Texas A&M on September 14. 

2. STANFORD

Stanford could have been in the national title game last year had they not lost to Washington and Notre Dame with a quarterback (Josh Nunes) who could not keep the offense on the field. Everything changed for Stanford when redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan took over at Colorado. He showed his accuracy and mobility in addition to grit and a knack for making the big plays. Stanford did not lose a game with Hogan at the helm, even going into Autzen Stadium and derailing Oregon’s chance to win the title. Some argued that Stanford coach David Shaw should have started the season with either Hogan or Brett Nottingham, who has since transferred, but Shaw has said Hogan was not ready to take the team over until the Colorado game. 

On defense, there will be more “parties in the backfield.”

Stanford has incredible depth and nastiness on the front-seven, which may be the best in the land. Defensive ends Henry Anderson, Ben Gardner, Aziz Shittiu will work great with linebackers Shayne Skov, A.J. Tarpley, Trent Murphy, James Vaughters, Kevin Anderson. All of these players will be playing on Sundays. Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards will roam the secondary as safeties, but the Cardinal may be vulnerable at the cover corner positions.  

Jordan Williamson, the kicker who missed what could have been the game-winning field goal against Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl two years ago, redeemed himself by making the game-winning field goal in overtime last year at Autzen. Stanford head coach David Shaw told Williamson that it was time for him to be a man, and he delivered.

Stanford has gone to three consecutive BCS bowls, something no team in the SEC has done, but this may be the most high-profile team in Stanford history that is expected to win all of their games except perhaps their showdown with Oregon. They will not be sneaking up on anybody. They will be targeted every game. Certainly, this year's squad has the highest expectations and the greatest opportunity to win a BCS title in football, something that still confounds those familiar with an admissions process that routinely rejects athletes that any other "academic" school--like Notre Dame, Northwestern, Duke, and Vanderbilt--would instantly accept. 

Can the Cardinal handle the pressure, even though they are insulated from some of it in sleepy Palo Alto?

To use some analogies, this is a team that has found newfound wealth after not having been rich or is dating the most girl everyone wants for the first time. Can they roll with college football blue bloods? Can they act like they've done it before? If they can, they have a schedule that is just tough enough for the computers but not too overwhelmingly to give Stanford a return trip to the Rose Bowl--this time, though, it could be for the BCS crown. David Shaw, who played football at the school and whose father coached on the Farm, is cool under pressure--sometimes too much so--and his demeanor and presence will be a factor in keeping the team steady.

Games they can’t overlook:

Sept. 7 -- vs. San Jose State:  The Spartans are much improved and return a quarterback, David Fales, who was the most accurate passer last year, and the pesky program has consistently given Stanford trouble throughout the last decade. 

Nov. 23 -- vs. California: If Stanford is in contention for the national title, the annual rivalry game will be dangerous, especially because Stanford will be looking ahead to their showdown with Notre Dame the week after on the Farm. 

Game to watch:

Nov. 7 -- vs. Oregon: This game could be a de facto national semifinal along with the LSU-Alabama game two days later.

3. TEXAS A&M

Texas A&M and Stanford were the two hottest teams at the end of the last season. And though Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel lost Ryan Swope, a favorite target of his, running back Christine Michael, who is impressing the Seattle Seahawks in training camp, and nearly half of his top receivers, he will have Ben Malena returning at running back, backed up by two others--Trey Williams and Brandon Williams--who may be better than he is. Coach Kevin Sumlin is renowned for his offensive game plans, as was evident last year against Alabama and games after the upset in which the Aggies saw no letdown. 

But make no mistake about it, though, it will still be the Johnny Manziel show in College Station--on and off the field. Despite all of his off-season and off-the-field drama, he can single-handedly take over a game on the field, and the Aggies remain a threat to win the title so long as he is playing. Manziel may need some time to adjust to his new receivers, but he has enough talent in the backfield to give him the time--if he needs it--to get accustomed to his new targets. If the Aggies beat Alabama in the third week of the season, only LSU may then stand in the way between them and a berth in the BCS title game. 

Game they can’t overlook:

Oct 19 - vs. Auburn: Gus Malzahn, another unconventional offensive genius, and Auburn should not be underestimated this year. They will be looking for signature wins--and will get some as they punch up this year in the SEC. If the Aggies take Auburn for granted, the Tigers may go into College Station and give the Aggies a rude awakening. 

Games to watch:

Sept. 14 -- vs. Alabama; November 23 -- at LSU: If Texas A&M defeats Alabama, LSU may be their last hurdle between them and Pasadena. If the Aggies lose to Alabama, the game against LSU could still be just as important, especially if LSU defeats Alabama the game before they play the Aggies. 

4. GEORGIA 

Georgia was a tipped pass away from possibly going to the national title game last year, suffering a heartbreaking loss to Alabama in a classic SEC championship game. Quarterback Aaron Murray returns, perhaps with more confidence than ever before, with a potent backfield of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall that will offset some of the losses the Bulldogs have had on defense, which was porous last year. 

Georgia will have to outscore opponents to win, and make no mistake about it, the Bulldogs have a brutal schedule. Georgia’s defense was porous last year, so there may not be that much of a drop-off with the newcomers. Unfortunately for Georgia, though, their toughest match-ups take place in the first month of the season. Georgia faces Clemson, LSU, and South Carolina in the first month the year. 

Game they can't overlook:

Oct 19: at Vanderbilt: Inevitably, Georgia has gotten in trouble under Mark Richt for not taking lesser opponents seriously. James Franklin's Vanderbilt team is tough, and they play with chips on their shoulders. This will be a dangerous game for Georgia, a team with a schedule that gives them no room for error. 

Games to Watch:

Sept 28: LSU; Nov. 2: Florida: After Georgia's Week two showdown with South Carolina, these two games will determine whether Georgia goes to Atlanta for the SEC title game. 

5. OREGON

Can a new chef cook the same gourmet dish--with just as much relish and style--with perhaps even better ingredients? That is the question everybody will be asking in Eugene this year, as Mark Helfrich replaces Chip Kelly, an offensive guru who who put his stamp on the program before leaving for the NFL, taking it to heights unseen at the university. Oregon has gone to four straight BCS bowls, something no school in the dominant SEC conference has done. Quarterback Marcus Mariota, who caused Johnny Manziel to go to Texas A&M because Manziel knew he could not beat him out, is a Heisman Trophy contender. De’Anthony Thomas, who can score whenever he touches the football, and the gaudily-clad Ducks will fly past many of its opponents with dizzying speed a bevy of talent. Oregon is vulnerable on defense, though, especially at linebacker, which means teams like Tennessee and Stanford may give the Ducks trouble. 

Games they can’t overlook:

Sept. 14 -- vs. Tennessee: Tennessee still has SEC talent, a powerful offensive line, and may be a program under new coach Butch Jones that will try to punch back up to relevance. The Vols will treat this game--along with their annual showdown on the Third Saturday in October with Alabama--as a national title game. 

Oct. 26 -- vs. UCLA: UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley can take apart any defense, and Oregon will definitely be looking ahead to Stanford in this contest. 

Game to watch: 

Nov. 7 -- at Stanford: This game will most likely be for a trip to the Pac-12 title game and a potential spot in Pasadena--for the BCS title game.

6. OHIO STATE

Like Stanford’s Kevin Hogan, Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller can give Alabama’s defense trouble, but that’s thinking way down the line. The Buckeyes still seem a year away from dominating opponents and will have to rely heavily on Miller, which means teams can scheme more effectively for the Buckeyes. And while Ohio State’s schedule looks easy heading into their annual battle against Michigan, Ohio State did not thoroughly dominate many of their games last year against weak opponents, and could be vulnerable against a Northwestern or a Wisconsin. They may ultimately have to beat Michigan twice if they have any chance of making it to Pasadena not for the Rose Bowl, but for the BCS title game. Ohio State may be good on paper, but they have not been tested, and that is why they start outside the top five.

Games they can’t overlook: 

Nov. 14 - at Cal: Ohio State struggled at home last year against Cal, and new California head coach Sonny Dykes, whose teams have given top teams trouble, will throw the kitchen sink at the Buckeyes--even with a true freshman starting at quarterback--in what will be the Ohio State’s first road game. 

Nov. 28 - vs. Wisconsin: Ohio State will be tested in this game against a defense that can scheme for Miller. 

Game to watch:

Nov. 30 -- at Michigan: This rivalry has lost its luster in recent years, but there will be a full revival this year--as the stakes may not be any higher for both teams in this classic annual showdown. 

7. SOUTH CAROLINA 

Steve Spurrier, while at Florida, played Alabama in the inaugural SEC championship game that raised the curtain on what has developed into the current college football era, so it may be fitting if South Carolina ends up playing Alabama in the SEC title game in the last year of the BCS for a trip to Pasadena. It could happen. Spurrier has a quarterback in Connor Shaw who is gritty and is unafraid to take chances and wins games ugly, which will excite and drive Spurrier nuts at the same time. 

All eyes, though, will of course be on South Carolina defensive end Jedeveon Clowney, who many are saying is the best NFL prospect of the last decade. Two things to consider regarding Clowney--he had slight head and neck injuries in the offseason that caused him to miss some time, and one wonders if Clowney will play “trying not to get hurt” in order to preserve his status as the No. 1 draft pick in next year’s NFL Draft, which is all but a foregone conclusion. On the flip side, Clowney could try to do too much if he feels like he has to live up to the hype and billing and try to win the Heisman, which would take him out of the game plan and allow teams to use his aggressiveness against him with quick passes in the middle of the field. Either way, Clowney will have more on his mind than he did his first two years at South Carolina because there is much more at stake--for him and his school--this season. 

(Editor’s Note: Preview written before South Carolina played North Carolina on Thursday)

Game they can’t overlook:

Oct. 26 -- at Missouri: This game will be South Carolina’s third consecutive road game after games at Arkansas and Tennessee, and Missouri quarterback James Franklin is a dual-threat quarterback who can hit short passes up the middle that can give South Carolina some trouble, especially a team that will be road-weary.  

Game to watch:

Nov. 16 -- vs. Florida: The ol’ ball coach will play his alma mater, where he won a Heisman Trophy and rose to fame as a head coach, for what may be a trip to the SEC title game.

8. LOUISVILLE

Their schedule may be easier than Boise State’s, another potential BCS buster from the underrated Mountain West Conference, and so the Cardinals will have to pummel their opponents into submission to get the respect of some of the voters. But unlike BCS busters from the past, Louisville has a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender in quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, which will ensure the school gets plenty of buzz and hype. They have a dominant victory over SEC power Florida in last year’s Sugar Bowl that will be fresh in the minds of voters and a coach in Charlie Strong that voters like to root for--that factor helps and should not be underestimated. Louisville may even be better on offense with the addition of troubled-but-talented running back Michael Dyer, who helped Auburn win a national title three years ago. And Strong, a defensive guru, will have Louisville prepared for overmatched conference opponents. Louisville earned its No. 8 position by defeating Florida last year in the Sugar Bowl. 

Games they can’t overlook:

Sept. 14 -- at Kentucky: Kentucky is the worst team in the SEC, but they still have SEC talent. And even though this game is on the football field, the schools are still fierce rivals The Cardinals have to watch out for Houston and Memphis in the weeks before their showdown with the Bearcats. 

Game to watch: 

Dec. 5 -- at Cincinnati: On paper, Louisville could well be undefeated going into this contest, and this game may be for a trip to the BCS title game. 

9. CLEMSON 

Clemson lost to South Carolina last year in the rivalry game and beat LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, which is why they start in the ninth position--in front of LSU and two spots behind Clemson. Quarterback Tajh Boyd and wide receiver Sammy Watkins will ensure the Tigers outscore nearly all of their opponents despite a defense that was shaky last season.

Game they can’t overlook:

Nov. 2 -- at Virginia: Mike London’s Virginia team seems poised to upset some teams this year, and the Cavaliers will be dangerous at home. 

Games to watch: 

Aug. 31 -- vs. Georgia; Nov. 30 -- at South Carolina: Clemson has bookend games against SEC powers. If they can beat both of these teams and take care of business in the ACC, they could contend for a BCS title berth. 

10. LSU

Many analysts do not have LSU in the top 10 because they they think the Tigers lost too many talented players on defense (eight starters were drafted!) and have a brutal schedule. True, LSU only returns three starters--but not so fast on the "doom and gloom." As always, LSU remains loaded with talent on the defense. Anthony Johnson, Christian LaCouture, and Tashawn Bower are emblematic of defensive lineman that allow the SEC to separate from other conferences. They will wreak havoc for opponents. Look for D.J. Welter to have a breakout year at linebacker--his will be a name announcers will like to say. The team from Baton Rouge whose fans Alabama fans accuse of smelling like corn dogs still remain the greatest threat to Alabama. 

With new offensive coordinator and quarterback guru Cam Cameron, Zach Mettenberger should play more games like he did against Alabama last year. And regardless of what may happen with Jeremy Hill, LSU has a talented roster of running backs, including Alfred Blue, that will give Cleeland enough weapons to keep opposing defenses honest and take some pressure off the enigmatic Mettenberger. LSU, and especially Mettenberger, though, has no time for "seasoning" and "adjusting" this year. The college football playoffs start for the Tigers in week one against TCU, and they must be ready out of the gate. 

Games they can’t overlook:

Oct 5 -- at Mississippi State: LSU is vulnerable in this game because it falls after Georgia and before LSU’s showdown with Florida. 

Oct 19 -- at Ole Miss:  A possible letdown against an Ole Miss team that will be amped for this game. The game is the week after LSU plays Florida and the week before the Tigers’s “off-week” against Furhman. Players must be careful not to mentally check out. 

Games to watch: 

Nov. 9 -- at Alabama: As it has been the last few years, this game could be the de facto SEC and national title game. Enough said. LSU still remains Alabama's greatest threat. 

Nov. 23 vs. Texas A&M: Last year, Alabama played Texas A&M after defeating LSU in dramatic fashion and promptly suffered their first loss. This is a very dangerous game for LSU for the same reason. Should LSU survive their brutally treacherous schedule and defeat Alabama on the road, they will be spent for this game and face a quarterback in Manziel who will ensure LSU will have no time to rest on defense. The only difference between LSU this year and Alabama last year is LSU gets a bye week (which should be mandated Alabama and LSU after their brutal annual clash) after the Alabama game, something Alabama did not get last year before playing Texas A&M. 

Week One Games to Watch (with AP Rankings):

1. No. 5 Georgia at No. 8 Clemson

A game with national title ramifications. The loser of this game may spiral downward and have some letdowns in the coming weeks. 

2. No. 12 LSU v. No. 20 TCU

An important game to see what LSU is made of and if their defense can be just as ferocious as in years past.  

3. No. 1 Alabama v. Virginia Tech

The defending back-to-back national champions will play in a neutral site game. Dual-threat Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas will be a good warm-up act for Alabama before they play Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel in two weeks. Alabama fans will want a blowout in this game, so some of Alabama's young talent can get repetitions. During the last few seasons, Alabama's early season blowouts of opponents have allowed key true freshman to get invaluable live-game action that made Alabama that much better in November. 

4. No. 19. Boise State at Washington

Boise State has an outside chance at being a BCS buster. Head coach Chris Petersen may be the best coach in the country in preparing his teams for a game, especially if he has multiple weeks to do so. Washington will not have tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins for this game, which gives Boise State a huge advantage as Seferian-Jenkins, arguably the nation's best tight end, would have given Boise State defenders huge matchup problems in the secondary. 

5. No. 22 Northwestern at California

Ohio State will also travel to California for its first road game in two weeks, so this game will be a good gauge to see if Northwestern can be a legit contender (can they demolish an inferior California squad in the battle of "smart" schools?) and if they have a chance at beating Ohio State later in the year. 

6. No. 7 Texas A&M vs. Rice 

All eyes on Johnny Manziel, a one-man reality show in the "freak show" era, who will play in the second half after serving a two-quarter suspension after reaching a settlement with the NCAA, which had investigated whether he had received payment for allegedly autographing thousands of pieces of memorabilia in the offseason.  


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