On the eve of the deadline for underclassmen to declare for the NFL Draft, we offer up a preliminary ranking of the top 10 teams in college football for the 2013 season.
McCarron's return cemented the Crimson Tide's place as the favorite to win it all again in 2013.
Why the Crimson Tide will win it all: Reports of Nick Saban's return to the NFL were premature. As if having college football's greatest coach since having college football's greatest coach wasn't enough, quarterback AJ McCarron, linebacker CJ Mosley, running back TJ Yeldon, wide receiver Amari Cooper and offensive linemen Cyrus Kouandjio and Anthony Steen return to take their shot at a three-peat.
Why it won't: An offensive line that flexed its muscle in postseason wins over Georgia and Notre Dame will feature three new starters in 2013. There's talent on hand to make the transition go as smoothly as possible, but don't underestimate the 126 games of experience Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and DJ Fluker accumulated.
Is the schedule favorable?: The Crimson Tide won't see the best the SEC East has to offer until Atlanta. Open dates precede meetings with Texas A&M (Sept. 14) and LSU (Nov. 9).
Why the Cardinal will win it all: With quarterback Kevin Hogan working behind a line that will welcome back four starters, the offense will continue to build on its respectable finish to the 2012 season. And while that side of the ball gets most of the headlines, a defense that ranked 20th nationally in 2012 brings back nine starters for 2013.
Why it won't: Ever wonder what running back Stepfan Taylor would have done in Alabama's offense? Considering the similarity in styles between the two units, watching him rush for nearly 2,900 yards the last two seasons gave us a pretty good idea. Next season he'll do his running on Sundays.
Is the schedule favorable?: Washington, UCLA, Oregon and Notre Dame all visit Palo Alto.
3.] TEXAS A&M
Why the Aggies will win it all: Jonathan Paul "Football" Manziel. Isn't that enough? Of course it isn't and that's why he'll need some assistance from offensive tackle Jake Matthews, running back Ben Malena (808 rushing yards, eight TDs) and wide receiver Mike Evans (82 receptions, 1,105 yards, five TDs).
Why they won't: Losing offensive tackle Luke Joeckel was a blow and the Aggies will also need to replace two starters at each level of their defense, including their top two tacklers -- defensive end Damontre Moore (12.5 sacks, 21 TFL) and linebacker Jonathan Stewart (81 tackles) -- and top pass defender -- Dustin Harris (11 PBU).
Is the schedule favorable?: A&M gets Alabama at home in week three and has road games at Ole Miss (Oct. 12) and LSU (Nov. 23). There is no return trip to Florida, so the Aggies couldn't have asked for a better run up to Atlanta. Given its place on the schedule, the loser of the Alabama-Texas A&M game won't be eliminated from the national title race.
Why the Ducks will win it all: Chip Kelly, the man who invented offensive football, will have starting quarterback Marcus Mariota and all-purpose star De'Anthony Thomas at his disposal once again. Oregon reminds me of Florida State circa 1990; lives in the top five but struggles to get over the hump. Sooner or later someone has to end the SEC streak, so why not the Ducks?
Why they won't: Running back Kenjon Barner heads to the NFL after rushing for 1,727 yards and 23 touchdowns. While you know Kelly will have another back ready to fill the void, at some point his team will need to win a line-of-scrimmage game in a big spot. Defensively, the Ducks must replace their top two tacklers -- linebackers Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso -- from the 2012 season.
Is the schedule favorable?: Road trips to Washington, Stanford and Arizona will tell the tale.
5.] OHIO STATE
Why the Buckeyes will win it all: In addition to bringing back Heisman candidate Braxton Miller at quarterback, the OSU offense will welcome back nine other starters, including four seniors up front.
Why they won't: As good as Miller is, he needs some help. A mediocre receiving corps had a lot to do with the Buckeyes ranking 101st in passing offense last season. Meanwhile, a pass defense that gave up 352 yards in a 52-49 win over Indiana also needs work.
Is the schedule favorable?: Other than a road trip to Michigan for the regular season finale, not much in the way of potential potholes on the way to the conference championship game. As the Buckeyes proved in 2012, a mediocre team by SEC standards is capable of running the table in the B1G. While getting to the BCS Championship Game is a reasonable goal for the Buckeyes, beating the SEC champ probably isn't.
6.] SOUTH CAROLINA
Why the Gamecocks will win it all: The biggest question for a South Carolina offense that will return nearly intact will be at quarterback. And seeing as how Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson are each capable of getting the job done, it will be a good problem for Steve Spurrier to have. Then again, playing two quarterbacks hasn't always ended well for the HBC.
Why they won't: Lost amid the talk of defensive end Jadeveon Clowney's Heisman campaign is the fact that the Gamecocks have major holes to fill in their front seven and secondary. Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward must replace his top four tacklers from the 2012 season.
Is the schedule favorable?: Interesting non-conference matchups with North Carolina in Columbia and UCF in Orlando will bookend SEC games with Georgia in Athens and Vanderbilt in the season's first month. Get to November in good shape and four straight home games -- including visits from UF and Clemson -- await.
Why the Bulldogs will win it all: Other than Alabama, you'd be hard pressed to find an offense that will return as many weapons as UGA will in 2013. Combine quarterback Aaron Murray, wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell and running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall with an offensive line that was playing championship football by the end of the 2012 season and points won't be a problem for the Dawgs next season.
Why they won't: From linebackers Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree to defensive linemen John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers, the Dawgs' defensive front seven was gutted by the NFL Draft. That's before you get to the secondary, where four of the unit's top five defensive backs must be replaced.
Is the schedule favorable?: A team featuring a rebuilt defense will make its 2013 debut at Clemson before hosting South Carolina a week later. Get through those two games and a Sept. 28 home date with LSU will be cake.
Why the Gators will win it all: Will Muschamp's vision for the UF offense came into focus in 2012 as new coordinator Brent Pease implemented the physical first style of play that Charlie Weis failed to produce in 2011. With quarterback Jeff Driskel returning to work behind an improving offensive line, look for more of the same next season.
Why they won't: Offensively, UF is the Ohio State of the SEC: solid up front with a quarterback who can make plays with his legs. But where are the playmakers at running back and wide receiver? As for the defensive side of the ball, the NFL Draft was very unkind to the Gators, as safety Matt Elam, defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and linebacker Jelani Jenkins left school early.
Is the schedule favorable?: The Gators travel to South Florida to take on what's left of the Miami Hurricanes in week two. November games against Georgia and at South Carolina will determine the Eastern Division rep for Atlanta.
Why the Tigers will win it all: Even with leading receiver DeAndre Hopkins bolting for the NFL, the Clemson passing game will be deadly with quarterback Tajh Boyd and wide receiver Sammy Watkins leading the way. The fact that his offensive line will return four starters likely factored into Boyd's decision to return for his senior season.
Why they won't: Can the Clemson defense continue to make strides in year two under coordinator Brent Venables? The Tigers moved up from 81st to 48th in scoring D in Venables' first year at the controls. They'll need to jump another 30 spots or so for this team to be a legitimate BCS title contender.
Is the schedule favorable?: Two games against SEC foes will determine the legitimacy of this team's candidacy: Georgia in the opener and South Carolina in the regular season finale.
Why the Tigers will win it all: Because all eyes will be on Alabama and Texas A&M in the SEC West. Les Miles will morph into the Dale Brown of LSU football. He'll win big when expectations are at their lowest. And on the heels of a mass exodus of defensive talent to the NFL, expectations will be at a 10-year low for the Tigers in 2013.
Why they won't: Quarterback Zach Mettenberger won't be able to win the kind of shootouts that the personnel turnover on defense might bring about.
Is the schedule favorable?: The opener against TCU at Jerry World won't be a gimme and neither will road trips to Georgia, Ole Miss and Alabama. And did I mention home games against Florida and Texas A&M?
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