1. Southern California
QB Matt Barkley passed for 3,528 yards and a Pac-12 record 39 touchdowns then bypassed NFL draft for shot at BCS title and Heisman Trophy. Trojans have best WR combo in Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, veteran OL, defense featuring DBs T.J. McDonald and Nickell Robey and get Oregon at home Nov. 3.
Bulldogs have best SEC defense with NT John Jenkins, LB Jarvis Jones and FS Bacarri Rambo, but four defensive starters, including Rambo, face early suspensions. RB Ken Malcome and freshmen Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall replace departed Isaiah Crowell. Elite QB Aaron Murray can carry to SEC, BCS title games.
Top-ranked defense might drop off with only 4 returning starters, but senior FS Robert Lester and NT Jesse Williams are anchors. QB AJ McCarron excelled in title win over LSU, and Saban is high on frosh RB T.J. Yeldon. Schedule includes neutral-site Michigan opener Saturday and road tests at Arkansas, Missouri and LSU.
Like USC’s Barkley, QB Landry Jones also passed on projected first-round NFL draft pick to lead veteran offense that adds freshman WR Trey Metoyer and returns injured RB Dominique Whaley. Ex-Arizona coach Mike Stoops is back as defensive coordinator. Tough finish at West Virginia, vs. Oklahoma State and at TCU.
5. Florida State
Seminoles’ defense ranked fourth in nation and second against rush and returns bookend DEs Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner and top CBs Xavier Rhodes and Greg Reid. Senior QB EJ Manuel is mobile and freshman WR Kelvin Benjamin (6-6, 242) joins Rashad Greene. Noles’ key game is Sept. 22 vs. Clemson.
Redshirt freshman QB Marcus Mariota starts but may rotate early with soph Bryan Bennett while RB Kenjon Barner and all-purpose RB/WR/PR De’Anthony Thomas provide fireworks. Vet defense adds freshman DL Arik Armstead (6-8, 300). Ducks might get two shots at USC, on Nov. 3 in L.A. and in Pac-12 title game.
Ex-Maryland QB Danny O’Brien replaces ex-N.C. State QB Russell Wilson as transfer-in-residence, but he has two years of eligibility. Heisman finalist Montee Ball, who tied NCAA record with 39 TDs, returns. Badgers must improve run defense but have cakewalk to Big Ten title game since division rivals Ohio State and Penn State are ineligible.
When Heisman finalist Tyrann Mathieu was kicked off and reportedly entered drug rehab, Tigers lost big-play dimension at CB/PR. But defense is elite with DEs Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo, and QB Zach Mettenberger is upgrade from departed Jordan Jefferson. Tigers get South Carolina, Alabama at home, finish at Arkansas.
Brady Hoke executed shocking turnaround in first season thanks to makeover of defense ranked 17th in country led by DBs Jordan Kovacs and J.T. Floyd. QB Denard Robinson, a run-pass Heisman candidate, must cut down 15 interceptions. Of five toughest games, only Michigan State on Oct. 20 is at Big House.
Tigers are loaded on offense with QB Tajh Boyd, RB Andre Ellington and WRs Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins. New defensive coordinator Brent Venables must slow opponent scoring from 29.3 per game but has experienced athletes at LB and DB. Upset on Sept. 22 at Florida State paves way to ACC title game.
11. West Virginia
Mountaineers hope momentum of Orange Bowl blowout and Heisman candidacy of QB Geno Smith leads to fast Big 12 start. Spread offense with WRs Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin fits new league, but new defensive coordinator Joe DeForest from Oklahoma State faces a major rebuild, changing to 3-4 scheme.
12. South Carolina
If RB Marcus Lattimore returns to form after October ACL tear, Gamecocks can challenge Georgia in SEC East. Connor Shaw has stabilized QB spot, and defense that ranked third nationally benefits from maturation of soph DE Jadeveon Clowney. Georgia visits Oct. 6 before trips to LSU, Florida.
QB Casey Pachall and talented WRs Josh Boyce, Brandon Carter and Skye Dawson figure to keep offense humming near last year’s 40.9 points pace. Tough defense features DE Stansly Maponga, LB Kenny Cain, but secondary lacks experience.
Former Razorbacks assistant John L. Smith, who has 18 years head-coaching experience, is capable replacement for Bobby Petrino, but his scandalous exit disrupts program. All-SEC QB Tyler Wilson and RB Knile Davis lead top-flight offense. Defense must improve in big games, but gets Alabama, Rutgers and LSU at home.
Junior Josh Nunes succeeds No. 1 NFL draft pick Andrew Luck at QB having completed 1 of 2 passes for 7 yards. But Cardinal relies on its OL factory, RB Stepfan Taylor and possibly freshman Barry Sanders Jr., son of the Hall of Famer.
16. Boise State
Broncos replace NCAA’s winningest QB, Kellen Moore, with junior Joe Southwick. He leans on vet O-line and WRs Matt Miller and Mitch Burroughs. Defense will dominate MW before Big East move.
Strong defense, soft schedule make Knights surprise BCS bowl contender. Big East defensive POY Khaseem Greene and DT Scott Vallone of Central Islip, Long Island lead No. 14 defense, which adds freshman DE Darius Hamilton.
18. Virginia Tech
Versatile QB Logan Thomas, who passed for 3,013 yards and ran for 11 TDs, carries rebuilding offense with freshman RB Michael Holmes. But 10th-ranked defense returns 8 starters, including DE James Gayle and LBs Bruce Taylor and Tariq Edwards. Hokies have clear path to ACC title game in Coastal Division.
19. Ohio State
Hiring of Ohio native Meyer, a two-time national champ at Florida, erases Jim Tressel ouster despite bowl ban. QB Braxton Miller’s run-pass ability fits Meyer’s offense, and 19th-ranked defense has DLs John Simon and Johnathan Hankins and influx of freshman talent.
Rocky Pac-12 debut, but QB Jordan Wynn returns after missing nine games for shoulder surgery. RB John White IV averaged 116.8 yards, and Utes won five of last six. DT Star Lotulelei and safeties Brian Blechen and Eric Rowe lead a solid defense. Toughest games are at home vs. BYU and USC.
Sophomore QB Teddy Bridgewater and team with only nine returning seniors matured late last season. Offense adds redshirt freshman RB Corvin Lamb. If Cards handle a strong non-conference schedule, they should roll to the Big East finale at Rutgers.
22. Michigan State
Nation’s sixth-ranked defense is largely intact, including potential first-rounders in DE William Gholston and CB Johnny Adams. Junior QB Andrew Maxwell replaces departed Kirk Cousins, but RB Le’Veon Bell keys attack.
23. Kansas State
Collin Klein set FBS record for QBs with 27 rushing touchdowns to lead offense that averaged 31.8 points. Starting backfield and receivers return, and Wildcats add JC WR Marquez Clark (98 catches, 1,639 yards). K-State won eight games by a TD or less and must improve D that allowed 27.9 points.
24. North Carolina
Former Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora should right a ship rocked by scandal that led to a postseason ban. ACC pass efficiency leader Bryn Renner and 1,000-yard RB Giovani Bernard lead a talented offense. New defense features five DBs.
25. Central Florida
Knights should rebound after losing six games by TD or less. Defense ranked ninth nationally led by DE Victor Gray and FS Kemal Ishmael. Transfer Miami RB Storm Johnson joins a deep backfield ahead of Big East move.