Matt Charboneau breaks down The Detroit News’ Top 25 college football teams. There are four Big Ten teams in our rankings -- No. 6 Michigan State, No. 11 Ohio State, No. 20 Nebraska and No. 25 Wisconsin.
1. Florida State
Coach: Jimbo Fisher (45-10 at Florida State and overall)
Last season: 14-0 overall, 8-0 ACC
Notable: The Seminoles return 13 starters, with the most important being quarterback Jameis Winston. He’ll once again lead a Seminoles offense that will one of the most potent in the nation. Among the top returners are Rashad Greene (1,128 receiving yards in 2013) and Karlos Williams (730 rushing yards). There will be some tests in the non-conference season, but most of those come at home, as does an ACC battle with Clemson. Five starters must be replaced on a defense that was among the best in the country last season, but the biggest challenge for the Seminoles might be finding a way to avoid complacency.
Key games: Sept. 20 vs. Clemson, Oct. 18 vs. Notre Dame, Nov. 29 vs. Florida
Coach: Nick Saban (74-15 at Alabama, 165-57-1 overall)
Last season: 11-2 overall, 7-1 SEC
Notable: The Crimson Tide ended the season on a down note with a crushing loss to Auburn, followed by a one-sided loss to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. But that hardly means they’re headed for any sort of slump as the talent in Tuscaloosa is still among the best in the nation, including running backs T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry. Most eyes will be ono quarterback Jacob Coker, the transfer from Florida State; he has two years of eligibility left. He’s thrown only 41 passes in his college career but could be the key to Alabama’s playoff hopes.
Key games: Nov. 8 at LSU, Nov. 29 vs. Auburn
Coach: Mark Helfrich (11-2 at Oregon and overall)
Last season: 11-2 overall, 7-2 Pac-12
Notable: Quarterback Marcus Mariota’s knee injury derailed Oregon’s season last year as two losses in three weeks to Stanford and Arizona ended any BCS hopes. But Mariota said no to the NFL and is back as the Ducks make a push to reach the College Football Playoff. The offense should be as good as ever, even with the loss of injured left tackle Tyler Johnstone, but the real questions for Oregon on are defense. Only five starters return for first-year coordinator Don Pellum, but one of those is All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.
Key games: Sept. 6 vs. Michigan State, Oct. 11 at UCLA, Nov. 1 vs. Stanford
Coach: Bob Stoops (160-39 at Oklahoma and overall)
Last season: 11-2 overall, 7-2 Big 12
Notable: The Sooners ended last season on a high note with a win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and found a quarterback in the process. Trevor Knight took control of the offense by throwing for 348 yards and four touchdowns in that game and has the offense in the position to complement one of the better defenses in the nation. The secondary will be fairly green for the Sooners, but the front seven is as tough as they come and should anchor Oklahoma’s hopes of reaching the playoffs.
Key games: Oct. 18 vs. Kansas State, Nov. 8 vs. Baylor, Dec. 6 vs. Oklahoma State
Coach: Gus Malzahn (12-2 at Auburn, 21-5 overall)
Last season: 12-2 overall, 7-1 SEC
Notable: The Tigers made an amazing run to the national title game last season and believe quarterback Nick Marshall is the guy that can take them back. He threw for 1,976 yards and 14 touchdowns last season while also rushing for 1,068 yards and 12 touchdowns. The running game will be a work in progress with Tre Mason and his 1,816 yards gone, but the offensive line returns four starters and will be one of the nation’s best. The wild card for the Tigers will be improving on a defense that gave up more than 420 yards a game last season.
Key games: Oct. 4 vs. LSU, Nov. 15 at Georgia, Nov. 29 at Alabama
6. Michigan State
Coach: Mark Dantonio (64-29 at Michigan State, 82-46 overall)
Last season: 13-1 overall, 8-0 Big Ten
Notable: The Spartans are coming off a record-setting season that was highlighted by a No. 3 national ranking following a victory in the Rose Bowl. The offense returns most of its weapons, including quarterback Connor Cook and running back Jeremy Langford. The big question for Michigan State is replacing six starters on a defense that has been among the best in the nation the last three years. Linebacker Max Bullough is gone, as is Jim Thorpe Award-winning cornerback Darqueze Dennard. Minimizing those losses will be the key to Michigan State’s season.
Key games: Sept. 6 at Oregon, Oct. 4 vs. Nebraska, Nov. 8 vs. Ohio State
7. South Carolina
Coach: Steve Spurrier (77-39 at South Carolina, 219-79-2 overall)
Last season: 11-2 overall, 6-2 SEC
Notable: The Gamecocks lose quarterback Connor Shaw but the offense should be able to lean on an outstanding offensive line and the running of Mike Davis, who ran for more than 100 yards seven times and piled up 1,183 yards, the fourth-highest total in South Carolina history. The defense was outstanding in 2013, but there were some significant losses, including defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, and defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles.
Key games: Sept. 13 vs. Georgia, Oct. 25 at Auburn, Nov. 29 at Clemson
Coach: Art Briles (44-32 at Baylor, 78-60 overall)
Last season: 11-2 overall, 8-1 Big 12
Notable: The Bears won the Big 12 title last season, their first outright championship since 1980, and will be in strong position to do so again after capping the season with their first BCS bowl appearance. Quarterback Bryce Petty had a breakout season, passing for 4,200 yards and 32 touchdowns, and will have one of his top targets available with the return of Antwan Goodley, who caught 71 passes for 1,339 yards and 13 touchdowns. One concern for the Bears is a defense that returns only four starters.
Key games: Nov. 8 at Oklahoma, Dec. 6 vs. Kansas State
Coach: Jim Mora (19-8 at UCLA and overall)
Last season: 10-3 overall, 6-3 Pac-12
Notable: Quarterback Brett Hundley is one of 15 returning starters for the Bruins after throwing for more than 3,000 yards and running for 748 in 2013. Plenty of talent is available to catch Hundley’s passes, including junior Devin Lucien and sophomore Thomas Duarte, but the running game could be a question. Jordon James and Paul Perkins will team up in the backfield but Hundley could carry the load. Defensively the Bruins lose linebacker Anthony Barr, but Myles Jack, who also plays on offense, had 75 tackles and two interceptions as a freshman.
Key games: Oct. 11 vs. Oregon, Nov. 22 vs. Southern Cal, Nov. 28 vs. Stanford
Coach: David Shaw (34-7 at Stanford and overall)
Last season: 11-3 overall, 7-2 Pac-12
Notable: The Cardinal have won two straight conference titles and should be in the hunt to claim another after falling short against Michigan State in the Rose Bowl. Kevin Hogan is back at quarterback and he’ll look to utilize some talented receivers, including Ty Montgomery, who caught 61 passes for 958 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. The defense has a new coordinator after Derek Mason left to be Vanderbilt’s head coach, and the Cardinal must replace end Trent Murphy and linebacker Shayne Skov.
Key games: Sept. 6 vs. Southern Cal, Nov. 1 at Oregon, Nov. 28 at UCLA
11. Ohio State
Coach: Urban Meyer (24-2 at Ohio State, 128-25 overall)
Last season: 12-2 overall, 8-0 Big Ten
Notable: The Buckeyes have yet to lose a regular-season game under Urban Meyer, but losses last year in the Big Ten title game and in the Orange Bowl have put a damper on that mark. However, things took an even worse turn when Braxton Miller was lost for the season with a shoulder injury. The Buckeyes will still be good thanks to some skill at receiver and a talented defensive front, but an inexperienced offensive line with a redshirt freshman quarterback (J.T. Barrett) might be too much to overcome.
Key games: Sept. 6 vs. Virginia Tech, Nov. 8 at Michigan State, Nov. 29 vs. Michigan
Coach: Mark Richt (126-45 at Georgia and overall)
Last season: 8-5 overall, 5-3 SEC
Notable: Three starters are gone from the offensive line, but Huston Mason got experience last season at quarterback and Todd Gurley, if healthy, will be one of the top running backs in the nation. The biggest questions for the Bulldogs are on defense, where Jeremy Pruitt takes over as coordinator after Georgia struggled in 2013. The front seven is solid, led by linebacker Ramik Wilson, but the secondary will be the key. There is plenty of talent, but it is inexperienced and will be under plenty of pressure.
Key games: Aug. 30 vs. Clemson, Sept. 13 at South Carolina, Nov. 15 vs. Auburn
Coach: Les Miles (95-24 at LSU, 123-45 overall)
Last season: 10-3 overall, 5-3 SEC
Notable: The Tigers return 12 starters and the offensive line is one of the best in the nation. But quarterback Zach Mettenberger is gone and receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry are in the NFL. Sophomore Anthony Jennings and true freshman Brandon Harris are battling to be the new quarterback and that fight could go into the season. On defense, the front four is solid thanks to standout ends Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco, and the secondary is young but talented. The only potential weak link for the defense is at linebacker.
Key games: Aug. 30 vs. Wisconsin, Oct. 4 at Auburn, Nov. 8 vs. Alabama
14. Southern Cal
Coach: Steve Sarkisian (first year at Southern Cal, 34-29 overall)
Last season: 10-4 overall, 6-3 Pac-12
Notable: Steve Sarkisian, a former offensive coordinator at USC, takes over after five years as head coach at Washington. He inherits a team that returns 14 starters, including quarterback Cody Kessler and receiver Nelson Agholor, who has the potential to be among the best in the Pac-12. Running back Javorius Allen had a solid 2013 but the Trojans will be making several changes along the offensive line. All-American Leonard Williams leads an impressive defensive line as eight starters return on the entire unit that will switch to a 3-4 this season.
Key games: Sept. 6 at Stanford, Nov. 22 at UCLA, Nov. 29 vs. Notre Dame
Coach: Dabo Swinney (51-23 at Clemson and overall)
Last season: 11-2 overall, 7-1 ACC
Notable: The Tigers capped another impressive season with an Orange Bowl victory over Ohio State but must rebuild their offense after losing quarterback Tajh Boyd, receiver Sammy Watkins and running back Rod McDowell. Senior Cole Stoudt takes over at quarterback but all of his potential weapons are unproven at this point. The defense is talented, led by senior end Vic Beasley, who had 13 sacks as a junior, a solid group of linebackers and promising defensive backs.
Key games: Aug. 30 at Georgia, Sept. 20 at Florida State, Nov. 29 vs. South Carolina
16. Notre Dame
Coach: Brian Kelly (37-15 at Notre Dame, 208-72-2 overall)
Last season: 9-4 overall
Notable: The Irish played in the 2012 national championship game but tumbled in 2013 after quarterback Everett Golson was suspended for the season. But Golson is back this year and with an impressive offensive line, the Irish should be headed in the right direction. The defense welcomes in new coordinator Brian VanGorder while also attempting to overcome the loss of defensive linemen Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt. Throw in a difficult schedule and getting back to championship level will be a tall task.
Key games: Oct. 4 vs. Stanford, Oct. 18 at Florida State, Nov. 29 at Southern Cal
17. Arizona State
Coach: Todd Graham (18-9 at Arizona State, 67-38 overall)
Last season: 10-4 overall, 8-1 Pac-12
Notable: Senior quarterback Taylor Kelly is back to lead one of the top offenses in the conference. Last season he threw for 3,635 yards and ran for 608 while accounting for 37 touchdowns. The issues for the Sun Devils will be on defense, where nine starters are gone for new coordinator Keith Patterson. The biggest holes to fill were left by two-time defensive player of the year Will Sutton at tackle, linebacker Carl Bradford, cornerbacks Robert Nelson and Osahon Irabor, and safety Alden Darby.
Key games: Sept. 25 vs. UCLA, Oct. 4 at Southern Cal, Oct. 18 vs. Stanford
18. Kansas State
Coach: Bill Snyder (178-90-1 overall and at Kansas State)
Last season: 8-5 overall, 5-4 Big 12
Notable: Quarterback Jake Waters is back after throwing for nearly 3,000 yards and 18 touchdowns last season, and he’ll have favorite target Tyler Lockett back at receiver. The offensive line is solid, but the Wildcats have to find a new running back. End Ryan Mueller returns to lead the defense after recording 11.5 sacks last season, while linebacker Travis Britz and safety Dante Barnett bring experience.
Key games: Sept. 18 vs. Auburn, Oct. 18 at Oklahoma, Dec. 6 at Baylor
19. Texas A&M
Coach: Kevin Sumlin (20-6 at Texas A&M, 55-23 overall)
Last season: 9-4, 4-4 SEC
Notable: The Johnny Manziel era is over and the the Aggies are turning to sophomore Kenny Hill, who won a camp battle with true freshman Kyle Allen to replace the former Heisman winner. But early on the Aggies will rely on the run game. The offensive line should be solid and Trey Williams is an explosive runner who will be joined by junior Tra Carson, who played at Oregon as a true freshman in 2011. The defense will be the issue again after the Aggies struggled against the run in 2013, and it didn’t help that defensive tackle Isaiah Golden and linebacker Darian Claiborne were kicked off the team.
Key games: Oct. 18 at Alabama, Nov. 8 at Auburn, Nov. 27 vs. LSU
Coach: Bo Pelini (58-24 at Nebraska and overall)
Last season: 9-4 overall, 5-3 Big Ten
Notable: Nebraska might be the favorite to win the Big Ten West and much of that could hinge on the play of quarterback Tommy Armstrong. He’ll have Kenny Bell to throw to and Ameer Abdullah to hand the ball, and both are among the best in the Big Ten. Only three starters return on the Cornhuskers’ defense, but one is All-American defensive end Randy Gregory, who had 10.5 sacks last season. The rest of the defense is short on star-power, but linebacker and secondary have enough experience to be solid.
Key games: Oct. 4 at Michigan State, Nov. 15 at Wisconsin, Nov. 28 at Iowa
21. North Carolina
Coach: Larry Fedora (15-10 at North Carolina, 49-29 overall)
Last season: 7-6 overall, 4-4 ACC
Notable: The Tar Heels will have plenty of talent on offense with nine returning starters. The starting quarterback battle could go right up to kickoff of the opener, but junior Marquise Williams has the edge in experience over redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky. T.J. Logan leads a talented stable of running backs behind a shaky offensive line that lost two starters. The defense should benefit from another year of experience up front and in the secondary, led by emerging star Brian Walker at cornerback.
Key games: Sept. 27 at Clemson, Oct. 11 at Notre Dame
Coach: Gary Pinkel (102-63 at Missouri, 175-100-3 overall)
Last season: 12-2, 7-1 SEC
Notable: Maty Mauk takes over at quarterback full-time after filling in for injured James Franklin last season and helping lead the Tigers to the SEC East title. He’ll have help from the running game, led by Marcus Murphy and Russell Hansbrough, and an offensive line that returns three starters. The defense has plenty of questions, including up front, at linebacker and in the secondary. But ends Markus Golden and Shane Ray return after combining for 11 sacks and 22 tackles for a loss in backup roles last season.
Key games: Sept. 27 at South Carolina, Oct. 11 vs. Georgia, Nov. 15 at Texas A&M
Coach: Hugh Freeze (15-11 at Mississippi, 45-18 overall)
Last season: 8-5 overall, 3-5 SEC
Notable: Bo Wallace is back and looks to improve on an inconsistent 2013. But his top two running backs, Jaylen Walton and I’Tavius Mathers, return, and sophomore receiver Laquon Treadwell caught 72 passes last season and was the SEC’s top freshman. The defense struggled with injuries last season but could be among the best in the conference this season if potential turns into production. Defensive end C.J. Johnson is back to full strength while former end Robert Nkemdiche has found a home at tackle.
Key games: Oct. 4 vs. Alabama, Oct. 25 at LSU, Nov. 1 vs. Auburn
Coach: Chris Petersen (first year at Washington, 92-12 overall)
Last season: 9-4 overall, 5-4 Pac-12
Notable: Chris Petersen takes over the Huskies after an amazing run at Boise State and he inherits a team with questions on offense. Sophomore Jeff Lindquist earned the starting nod at quarterback and sophomore Dwayne Washington is the best bet to be the starting running back, though multi-talented linebacker Shaq Thompson has gotten consistent work in camp carrying the ball. On defense, the front seven is solid but issues exist in the secondary, where youth and inexperience are predominant.
Key games: Sept. 11 vs. Stanford, Oct. 18 at Oregon, Nov. 8 vs. UCLA
Coach: Gary Andersen (9-4 at Wisconsin, 39-35 overall)
Last season: 9-4, 6-2 Big Ten
Notable: The Badgers have lost plenty of talent, but with Heisman hopeful Melvin Gordon carrying the ball and the Wisconsin offensive line leading the way, the Badgers are never out of the hunt in the Big Ten. At quarterback, it appears Tanner McEvoy will unseat Joel Stave after Stave has struggled with consistency. The defense will undergo plenty of changes, including finding a replacement for linebacker Chris Borland. The secondary, however, returns three starters in cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton and Darius Hillary, and safety Michael Caputo.
Key games: Aug. 30 vs. LSU, Nov. 15 vs. Nebraska, Nov. 22 at Iowa