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TOP 25 | NCAA PREVIEW

Talented Alabama has sights set on three-peat

AJ McCarron is an expert game manager, but can he navigate Alabama through another strong SEC field?

FILE/BUTCH DILL/AP/2013

AJ McCarron is an expert game manager, but can he navigate Alabama through another strong SEC field?

Who can dethrone Alabama? Notre Dame took its shot in last season’s BCS title game, but the Crimson Tide completely outclassed the Fighting Irish to win their second consecutive national championship. Who will be bold enough to step in front of that locomotive from the Southeastern Conference and put a halt to the irresistible force known as the Alabama Crimson Tide? Oregon thought it deserved a shot over Notre Dame last season. So did Texas A&M and its Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel, who pinned Alabama with its only loss in a 13-1 season. When the BCS finally — and some critics would say, mercifully — runs its course this season, and gives way to the cleverly named “College Football Playoff,’’ odds are Nick Saban’s team three-peats as national champion.

1. Alabama

LAST YEAR: 13-1, 7-1 SEC

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OUTLOOK: Folks in Tuscaloosa are expecting the good times to keep rolling for the Tide, despite the loss of nine starters to the NFL. The reasons? Nick Saban returns QB AJ McCarron, a 3,000-yard passer who has become an expert at managing the game; WR Amari Cooper, who had 1,000 receiving yards in 2012; and RB T.J. Yeldon, who rushed for 1,108 yards and 12 TDs last season. While the secondary may be suspect, LB C.J. Mosley anchors a stout front seven.

2. Stanford

LAST YEAR: 12-2, 8-1 Pac-12

OUTLOOK: Alabama owes the Cardinal a huge assist for knocking Oregon out of the BCS title picture with a 17-14 upset Nov. 17. As its just reward, the prediction here is that Stanford will get its title shot against the Crimson Tide this season. David Shaw will have a veteran-laden lineup that will include QB Kevin Hogan, who went 5-0 as a starter and 4-0 against Top 25 teams, and LB Shayne Skov serving as the defensive fulcrum of a team built to make a run not only at the Pac-12 title, but the Crimson Tide as well.

3. Ohio State

LAST YEAR: 12-0, 8-0 Big Ten

OUTLOOK: Because the NCAA ruled them ineligible for postseason play, almost everyone overlooked the fact the Buckeyes went undefeated in Urban Meyer’s first season in Columbus. But don’t expect any sophomore jinx for Meyer, who is a combined 34-4 in Year 2 of his three previous coaching stints. QB Braxton Miller returns to the controls of an explosive offense.

4. Georgia

LAST YEAR: 12-2, 7-1 SEC

OUTLOOK: The Bulldogs have yet to reach the midway point of the season undefeated since 2005, the last time Georgia won the SEC title. With a defense in rebuilding mode, Mark Richt will need prolific QB Aaron Murray and RB Todd Gurley to get the Dawgs off to a fast start when Georgia opens with tough back-to-back games against Clemson and South Carolina.

5. Oregon

LAST YEAR: 12-1, 8-1 Pac-12

OUTLOOK: With Chip Kelly gone to the NFL, the Ducks aren’t likely to take a step back — or a breather, for that matter — with former offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich taking over the reins. Dual-threat QB Marcus Mariota and home run threat RB De’Anthony Thomas will keep the pedal to the metal of Oregon’s fast-break, no-huddle offense.

6. South Carolina

LAST YEAR: 11-2, 6-2 SEC

OUTLOOK: Jadeveon Clowney’s open-field destruction of Michigan RB Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl still resonates. It could be symbolic, though, of the impact the Gamecocks are prepared to make this season. They have two proven QBs, a talented offensive line, depth at the skill positions, and the most feared player in college football lining up at defensive end.

7. Clemson

LAST YEAR: 11-2, 7-1 ACC

OUTLOOK: QB Tajh Boyd, the ACC preseason Player of the Year, gave his 2013 Heisman campaign an early springboard when he willed Clemson to an impressive victory over LSU in the Peach Bowl to close out the 2012 season. It was the type of gritty performance that earned raves from coach Dabo Swinney and had Clemson fans hoping for more — if not better — this season.

8. Texas A&M

LAST YEAR: 11-2, 6-2 SEC

OUTLOOK: Is Johnny Manziel college football’s version of Lindsay Lohan? Coach Kevin Sumlin hopes not. The Aggies coach does not need any such distractions from his Heisman Trophy-winning QB, who stands to be declared ineligible if an NCAA investigation finds he accepted money for signing autographs. When Manziel flies right, the Aggies are a threat, as Alabama found out the hard way.

9. Florida State

LAST YEAR: 12-2, 7-1 ACC

OUTLOOK: Jimbo Fisher has handed the reins of FSU’s offense to talented redshirt freshman QB Jameis Winston, who is expected to make everyone in Tallahassee forget about E.J. Manuel. Winston will be complemented by talented WR Rashad Greene and RBs James Wilder Jr. and Devonta Freeman in the Seminoles’ bid to repeat as ACC champions.

10. Louisville

LAST YEAR: 11-2, 5-2 Big East

OUTLOOK: The Cardinals look to make some noise in the American Athletic Conference before jumping ship to the ACC next season. Junior QB Teddy Bridgewater, who passed for 3,718 yards last season, is poised to make a Heisman run and could be aided in that cause by RB Michael Dyer, an Auburn transfer, and WR DeVante Parker. But Louisville’s weak schedule could hurt.

11. Florida

LAST YEAR: 11-2, 7-1 SEC

OUTLOOK: Will Muschamp pointed to two factors that helped the Gators improve from seven wins to 11 last season: turnovers (plus-15) and fourth-quarter scoring (128-32). The Gators hope to improve upon those numbers with eight returnees on defense and QB Jeff Driskel back at the helm of the offense.

12. LSU

LAST YEAR: 10-3, 6-2 SEC

OUTLOOK: After having a school-record nine players selected in the NFL draft — including six defensive players in the first three rounds — the Tigers might be getting overlooked as a contender in the SEC West. But Les Miles always finds a way to reload. Senior QB Zach Mettenberger, who’s gained more of a command of the offense under new coordinator Cam Cameron, will help stabilize the situation in Baton Rouge.

13. Oklahoma State

LAST YEAR: 8-5, 5-4 Big 12

OUTLOOK: With 15 returning starters, the Cowboys were picked as the preseason media favorite to win the Big 12. Mike Gundy likes to stretch the field vertically. With QBs Clint Chelf and J.W. Walsh, Josh Stewart, the league’s best receiver, and DT Calvin Barnett back to anchor the defense, Oklahoma State could gain some separation in a wide-open league.

14. Notre Dame

LAST YEAR: 12-1

OUTLOOK: After the Fighting Irish were smacked around by Alabama in the BCS title game, Brian Kelly knew his team needed to get bigger and stronger to contend for a championship in 2013. The loss of QB Everett Golson for the season (academics) did not help Notre Dame get any better, but NT Louis Nix and DE Stephon Tuitt certainly give the Irish a big, strong presence on defense.

15. Texas

LAST YEAR: 9-4, 5-4 Big 12

OUTLOOK: The Longhorns’ 31-27 Alamo Bowl win over Oregon State, which included 10 sacks by the Texas defense, signaled a turning of the corner for Mack Brown, who went 13-12 the previous two seasons. Brown returns 19 starters from that bowl-winning squad. Among them: QB David Ash, WRs Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley, and DE Jackson Jeffcoat.

16. Oklahoma

LAST YEAR: 10-3, 8-1 Big 12

OUTLOOK: Bob Stoops made a startling call by giving redshirt freshman QB Trevor Knight the starting nod over Blake Bell, the heir apparent to Landry Jones. Stoops was left with no choice but to shake things up after the Sooners were spanked by Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl.

17. Michigan

LAST YEAR: 8-5, 6-2 Big Ten

OUTLOOK: The Wolverines looked ready to run through a cement wall after Tom Brady dropped by Ann Arbor last week to give the team a pep talk. QB Devin Gardner takes over full time for Denard Robinson, but will need RBs Fitzgerald Toussaint or newcomer Derrick Green to take pressure off with the running game.

18. Michigan State

LAST YEAR: 7-6, 3-5 Big Ten

OUTLOOK: LB Max Bullough and CB Darqueze Dennard are among the six defensive starters Mark Dantonio will return to the Spartans’ league-leading defense that ranked fourth in the country last season. Problem is, after struggling to score touchdowns (settling for 32 field goal attempts), QB Andrew Maxwell will need to spark an offense that lost RB Le’Veon Bell to the NFL.

19. Wisconsin

LAST YEAR: 8-6, 4-4 Big Ten

OUTLOOK: Former Utah State coach Gary Andersen inherits a veteran team (23 seniors) from Bret Bielema, who shockingly departed for Arkansas three days after guiding the Badgers to their third consecutive Big Ten title. RB James White will be counted upon to keep Wisconsin’s powerful rushing attack on track while All-Big Ten LB Chris Borland will be the centerpiece of Andersen’s 3-4 defense.

20. TCU

LAST YEAR: 7-6, 4-5 Big 12

OUTLOOK: Gary Patterson is counting on QB Casey Pachall and RB Waymon James to be more of a consistent presence in TCU’s offense after both missed time last season. The Frogs, who ranked 16th in the nation on defense, return eight starters from a stout defense, led by DE Devonte Fields.

21. Baylor

LAST YEAR: 8-5, 4-5 Big 12

OUTLOOK: Art Briles hopes the Bears build off a four-game winning streak at the end of last season. QB Bryce Petty is unproven but he will be protected by G Cyril Richardson on the left side and be joined in the backfield by junior RB Lache Seastrunk, an Oregon transfer who rushed for 1,012 yards last season for the Bears.

22. UCLA

LAST YEAR: 9-5, 6-3 Pac-12

OUTLOOK: The Bruins were picked to win the Pac-12 South for the third straight year, but Jim Mora has some holes to fill on defense and at running back, where UCLA will miss Johnathan Franklin. QB Brett Hundley will have to step up, while LB Anthony Barr needs to do the same on defense.

23. Northwestern

LAST YEAR: 10-3, 5-3 Big Ten

OUTLOOK: The Wildcats will present a dual threat at QB, with the athletic Kain Colter and pure passer Trevor Siemian, which gives Pat Fitzgerald multiple options with which to attack an opponent. The QBs will have plenty of weapons, including WRs Christian Jones and Rashad Lawrence and RB Venric Mark, a preseason All-Big Ten selection.

24. Nebraska

LAST YEAR: 10-4, 7-1 Big Ten

OUTLOOK: The Cornhuskers have gone 13 years without a conference title. But with QB Taylor Martinez back at the helm of an offense that averaged 34.8 points per game, Bo Pelini is hoping the Huskers have enough firepower while a young and inexperienced defense catches up.

25. Boise State

LAST YEAR: 11-2, 7-1 Mountain West

OUTLOOK: Chris Petersen returns the fewest starters (4 offense, 3 defense) in the eight years he’s been in Boise. Fortunately, among the offensive returnees will be QB Joe Southwick, who completed 70 percent of his passes for 888 yards with 9 TDs and 1 INT in the last four games, and WRs Matt Miller and Kirby Moore, two of Southwick’s favorite targets.

Etc.

Predictions and points of reference.

Heisman hopefuls

Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State

Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina

Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia

Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson

AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama

Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville

Marqise Lee, WR, Southern California

Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon

Heisman Repeat Offender

Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M

New faces, new places

Steve Addazio, Boston College

Gary Andersen, Wisconsin

Bret Bielema, Arkansas

Rod Carey, Northern Illinois

Dave Doeren, North Carolina State

Sonny Dykes, California

Darrell Hazell, Purdue

Mark Helfrich, Oregon

Skip Holtz, Louisiana Tech

Butch Jones, Tennessee

Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech

Mike MacIntyre, Colorado

Doug Martin, New Mexico State

Gus Malzahn, Auburn

Todd Monken, Southern Miss

Brian Polian, Nevada

Matt Rhule, Temple

Scott Shafer, Syracuse

Mark Stoops, Kentucky

Willie Taggart, South Florida

Tommy Tuberville, Cincinnati

BCS bowl projections

Jan. 1 — Rose Bowl (Pasadena, Calif.): Ohio State vs. Oregon

Jan. 2 — Sugar Bowl (New Orleans): LSU vs. Florida State

Jan. 3 — Fiesta Bowl (Glendale, Ariz.): Oklahoma State vs. Louisville

Jan. 3 — Orange Bowl (Miami):

Clemson vs. Notre Dame

Jan. 6 — BCS Championship (Pasadena, Calif.): Alabama vs. Stanford

Games to watch

Georgia at Clemson, Aug. 31

Florida at Miami, Sept. 7

Alabama at Texas A&M, Sept. 14

Louisville at Kentucky, Sept. 14

UCLA at Nebraska, Sept. 14

Wisconsin at Ohio State, Sept. 28

Southern Cal at Notre Dame, Oct. 19

Florida State at Clemson, Oct. 19

Oregon at Stanford, Nov. 7

LSU at Alabama, Nov. 9

Florida at South Carolina, Nov. 16

BYU at Notre Dame, Nov. 23

Ohio State at Michigan, Nov. 30

Notre Dame at Stanford, Nov. 30

Oklahoma at Oklahoma State, Dec. 7

Army vs. Navy, Dec. 14

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