College football has been a Southeastern Conference block party. Winning six consecutive national championships will create that type of atmosphere. And not much is going to change this season as Alabama and LSU, who jousted for the SEC title and national championship a year ago, will be back at it. But there’s a threat to the SEC’s streak: Southern Cal. After a few years of probation, scholarship reductions, and bowl bans, USC is back in the championship mix and quarterback Matt Barkley is good enough to lead the Trojans all the way to the top. So let’s look into the crystal ball and see which teams could be headed to the BCS title game in Miami.
1. Southern Cal
LAST YEAR: 10-2, 7-2 Pac-12
OUTLOOK: After a two-year probation hiatus, USC is back in the hunt for big things. The main reason? QB Matt Barkley came back. Barkley is the Heisman front-runner, and he’ll be joined by RB Silas Redd, a transfer from Penn State. Even though the Trojans are still below their scholarship limits, coach Lane Kiffin should put together a championship run.
LAST YEAR: 13-1, 8-0 SEC
OUTLOOK: LSU could be the team that extends the SEC’s run of national championships to seven. The Tigers were supposed to be a year away last season, and lost the BCS title game to rival Alabama. LSU is better than the Tide this season and with QB Zach Mettenberger running the offense, the Tigers should be in the title mix again.
LAST YEAR: 10-3, 6-3 Big 12
OUTLOOK: QB Landry Jones is back and so is most of the offensive line. That’s the good news. The bad news is WR Ryan Broyles is gone. But there is enough talent everywhere else to put the Sooners back on track for the national championship if the SEC devours itself in conference play.
LAST YEAR: 12-1, 7-1 SEC
OUTLOOK: Rebuilding at Alabama means settling for the Sugar Bowl rather than the BCS title game. Even though almost half of the starting lineup from last year’s national championship team is gone, coach Nick Saban has filled the gaps with younger talent. And QB A.J. McCarron knows how to run an offense. Defensively, the Tide will be nasty everywhere. Who but LSU is going to beat these guys?
LAST YEAR: 12-2, 8-1 Pac-12
OUTLOOK: The Ducks are 34-6 in three seasons under Chip Kelly and figure to reach double-digit wins this year. RB Kenjon Barner leads an offense that averaged 46 points per game last season and the defense is good enough to give the offense a rest when it needs it — which isn’t often.
6. West Virginia
LAST YEAR: 10-3, 5-2 Big East
OUTLOOK: The Mountaineers have moved to the Big 12, and while the competition, will be tougher, the talent in Morgantown is good enough to handle anyone — including Oklahoma, which visits Morgantown Nov. 17. Coach Dana Holgorsen knows how to compete in the Big 12 (he’s coached at Texas Tech and Oklahoma State) and he has QB Geno Smith to run his offense.
7. Florida State
LAST YEAR: 9-4, 5-3 ACC
OUTLOOK: This could be the season the Seminoles return to the top five. Coach Jimbo Fisher has recruited well and talent is everywhere. QB EJ Manuel is a game-breaker. The defense is fast and deep.
8. Michigan State
LAST YEAR: 11-3, 7-1 Big Ten
OUTLOOK: Seventeen starters return, including most of the offensive line. But QB Kirk Cousins is not one of them. Still, the Spartans will be able to run over people with that line and RB Le’Veon Bell.
LAST YEAR: 10-4, 7-1 SEC
OUTLOOK: If not for Alabama and LSU, Mark Richt’s squad would be considered a top-five team. They’ll have to settle for top 10. Luckily for the Bulldogs, neither LSU nor Alabama is on the schedule this season. Led by QB Aaron Murray, Georgia should make it to the SEC title game, at the very least.
LAST YEAR: 11-2, 6-2 Big Ten
OUTLOOK: The Wolverines won the Sugar Bowl last season, and with QB Denard Robinson and RB Fitzgerald Toussaint (assuming his suspension is lifted) leading the offense, Michigan could make it to the Rose Bowl. Don’t panic about the opener — vs. Alabama in Arlington, Texas, Sept. 1. The Wolverines will be fine.
11. South Carolina
LAST YEAR: 11-2, 6-2 SEC
OUTLOOK: Steve Spurrier has done a nice job in building the Gamecocks into an SEC force, and this could be Spurrier’s best team. QB Connor Shaw can run Spurrier’s offense as well as anyone, and RB Marcus Lattimore is exceptional. The game against Georgia Oct. 6 could be for the SEC East title.
LAST YEAR: 11-2, 6-2 SEC
OUTLOOK: Former coach Bobby Petrino left a roster stocked with talent for John L. Smith, who will unleash RB Knile Davis and QB Tyler Wilson. The offense should be strong enough to overcome some defensive weaknesses.
LAST YEAR: 11-3, 6-2 Big Ten
OUTLOOK: With Danny O’Brien (Maryland) replacing another QB transfer from the ACC, Russell Wilson (N.C. State), the Badgers might just make their third straight Rose Bowl. But there are lots of holes to fill with only 10 starters returning. RB Montee Ball is back for another Heisman push.
LAST YEAR: 10-4, 6-2 ACC
OUTLOOK: The Tigers are talented — QB Tajh Boyd, WR Sammy Watkins, and RB Andre Ellington give defensive coordinators nightmares. The talent is there on defense, but is the toughness? That might be the difference between Clemson and Florida State when it comes to an Orange Bowl bid.
LAST YEAR: 11-2, 7-0 Mountain West
OUTLOOK: Which league are the Horned Frogs in this season? The MWC? The Big East? Sorry. It’s the Big 12. It will be a challenge, but Gary Patterson can gameplan with the best and he has QB Casey Pachall. Defensively, the Frogs look a little thin beyond DE Stansly Maponga.
16. Oklahoma State
LAST YEAR: 12-1, 8-1 Big 12
OUTLOOK: Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon are gone, but RB Joseph Randle returns and Mike Gundy knows how to build as well as coach. Playing OSU won’t be a day at the beach this season.
17. Virginia Tech
LAST YEAR: 11-3, 7-1 ACC
OUTLOOK: Nine wins is almost a guarantee in Blacksburg and this season should be no exception. QB Logan Thomas may be the best player in the ACC. Coach Frank Beamer will find some tricks to help him out.
LAST YEAR: 8-5, 4-5 Big 12
OUTLOOK: Are the Longhorns really back? After a few rough seasons in Austin, Mack Brown went back to the basics — offensive and defensive line strength, a solid running game, and decent QB (likely David Ash, not Case McCoy). That should be enough to keep them in the Top 20.
19. Boise State
LAST YEAR: 12-1, 6-1 Mountain West
OUTLOOK: Yes, Kellen Moore (50-3 record as starting QB) is finally gone. But in Boise’s last year in the MWC before moving to the Big East, coach Chris Petersen still has a few tricks in his bag. It all depends on how quickly QB Joe Southwick matures.
LAST YEAR: 11-2, 8-1 Pac-12
OUTLOOK: See Boise (with Andrew Luck instead of Kellen Moore). Josh Nunes is the new starting QB. Coach David Shaw has a solid defensive front returning and a very good recruiting class. Playing the Cardinal at the end of the year will be tougher than at the beginning.
LAST YEAR: 9-4, 5-3 Big Ten
OUTLOOK: Life in the Big Ten is tougher for the Huskers than it was in the Big 12. But things are getting better. And with QB Taylor Martinez and RB Rex Burkhead — the team leaders in total yardage — the Huskers will not be easy for anyone.
LAST YEAR: 7-6, 3-5 SEC
OUTLOOK: It hasn’t been a smooth ride for Will Muschamp, and it will take time to get back to the level where Florida can look Georgia and South Carolina in the eye, much less Alabama and LSU. But the defense will be better and the offense, with young QBs Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel, will improve. Anything beyond eight wins would be a surprise.
23. North Carolina State
LAST YEAR: 8-5, 4-4 ACC
OUTLOOK: Tom O’Brien likes QB Mike Glennon, even mentioning him in the same sentence with his former QB at BC, Matt Ryan. Glennon might be that good and ready to break out with veterans everywhere. If the Wolfpack can stay healthy, they might be in the hunt for an ACC title.
24. Kansas State
LAST YEAR: 10-3, 7-2 Big 12
OUTLOOK: Bill Snyder once built the Wildcats into a national power. Now in his second stint, he has made them into a solid program again. With QB Collin Klein running the show, Kansas State has a chance to make some noise, although winning 10 games again would be a stretch.
25. Texas A&M
LAST YEAR: 7-6, 4-5 Big 12
OUTLOOK: The Aggies are in a fancier neighborhood in the SEC and new coach Kevin Sumlin knows how to build quickly. He will have to do it along both lines, and the skill positions need some seasoning, particularly at QB where Jameill Showers replaces Ryan Tannehill.