2014 CFN Preseason Rankings - CFP 4?

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The Top Four

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2014 CFN Preseason Rankings
Top 4 | 5 to 10 | 11 to 20 | 21 to 30 | 31 to 40 | 41 to 50 | 51 to 60
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There's one very important distinction in the CFN preseason rankings: these are based on how good the teams are going into the season and NOT how they're going to finish. Some teams have easier schedules than others, some get tougher road games and some will need a little bit of time to jell, meaning they might be better than their final record indicates. Going into the year, these are how good the teams appear to be from No. 1 through 128.

Prediction: 11-1
3 Best Players: 1) QB Brett Hundley, Jr., 2) LB Myles Jack, Soph., 3) LB Eric Kendricks, Sr.
Relative Strengths: 1) Quarterback, 2) Linebacker, 3) D Line
Spotlight Units: 1) Running Back, 2) Receiver, 3) O Line
The season will be a success if … UCLA wins the Pac-12. The Bruins have been building toward this moment, right? It’s Jim Mora’s third season, and it’s Brett Hundley’s third season as well. The blue-chip talent that the staff has been able to attract is no longer unfamiliar with the system or the expectations, so miscommunications ought to be relegated to the rookies. Yeah, the schedule is predictably brutal, but getting Oregon, USC and Stanford in Pasadena will make navigating that slate a bit more realistic.

Offense: Coordinator Noel Mazzone continues to do an outstanding job with the Bruins, but he’s looking for more. More pop. And more consistency, especially when facing the better teams on the schedule. Remember, when the 2013 season took a turn for the worse last October, the offense scored just 24 points in back-to-back losses to Stanford and Oregon. The good news for Mazzone is that Heisman contender Brett Hundley is back to engineer the offense from quarterback. The concern? Hundley is surrounded by plenty of good players, but no slam-dunk All-Pac-12 performers. Yeah, there’s a lot of depth at running back and wide receiver, but is there a true No. 1? Jordan James and Devin Fuller, respectively, are among the Bruins vying for the honor. In the trenches, UCLA must do a better job of protecting Hundley. The O-line is chock full of budding blockers, all of whom are looking to mesh into a cohesive unit before the opener at Virginia.

Defense: Lou Spanos left for a job with the Tennessee Titans, creating an opportunity for Jeff Ulbrich to be promoted. Ulbrich inherits a very talented defensive unit, but one that won’t be without its issues. The biggest concern in Westwood will be retooling a pass rush that’s going to miss linemen Cassius Marsh and Keenan Graham and All-American OLB Anthony Barr. It’s the latter graduations that make oft-injured DE Owamagbe Odighizuwa and up-and-coming OLB Kenny Orjioke so instrumental to the unit’s success in 2014. The balance of the front seven ought to be dynamite, led by linebackers Myles Jack and Eric Kendricks and rising, full-sized linemen Eddie Vanderdoes and Ellis McCarthy. Keep an eye on the secondary, in particular, which brings back all of last year’s starters. The corner tandem of Fabian Moreau and Ishmael Adams, anonymous today, will drive quarterbacks nuts in the fall. The Bruins have recruited extremely well in recent years, and it’ll be reflected in Ulbrich’s first D.

3. Oregon
Prediction: 11-1
3 Best Players: 1) QB Marcus Mariota, Jr., 2) CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Sr., 3) C Hroniss Grasu, Sr.
Relative Strengths: 1) Quarterback, 2) O Line, 3) Running Back
Spotlight Units: 1) Receiver, 2) Secondary, 3) Special Teams
The season will be a success if … the Ducks snap their two-year streak without a Pac-12 title. Marcus Mariota’s back. Mark Helfrich has that transitional first year out of his system. And Stanford is retooling both sides of the ball. There’s no reason why Oregon can’t win the North, continue its domination of the South and qualify as one of the four teams in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Mariota didn’t return for his junior year to play in a Holiday Bowl. And Helfrich can ill-afford to run second-best to anyone else in the league.

Offense: From the moment Marcus Mariota chose to return for at least one more year, Oregon was assured of housing one of the most prolific attacks in the country. Mariota is a perfect fit for the high-powered spread-option, running and throwing the ball with equal proficiency. A little too perfect, possibly, as backups Jake Rodrigues and Damion Hobbs have recently decided to transfer. The Ducks will again rock on the ground behind Mariota, the dynamic backfield tandem of Thomas Tyner and Byron Marshall and a stellar veteran O-line. But who’ll catch Mariota’s passes now that Josh Huff has graduated and Bralon Addison has suffered a serious knee injury? Look for the passing attack to employ more than just the receivers, which expect big things from speedy redshirt freshman Devon Allen and sophomore Darren Carrington. Tyner and Marshall have soft hands out of the backfield. And tight ends Johnny Mundt and Pharaoh Brown possess the size and the athleticism to emerge as dangerous weapons in the middle of the field.

Defense: How in the world do you replace Nick Aliotti, an institution in Eugene? You promote from within a coach who has even deeper roots with the program. As a player or a coach, Don Pellum has been affiliated with Oregon for all but four seasons since 1980. He’s a tremendous communicator and a strict disciplinarian who already knows the players and the blueprint used by Aliotti to turn the Ducks into one of the country’s most disruptive units. Pellum takes the reins of a unit that’ll be outstanding at the second level, but will need to retool up front and in the secondary. All-star CB Ifo-Ekpre-Olomu is the leader of a defensive backfield breaking in three new starters, including both safeties. The D-line is banking on a trio of talented juniors to turn a possible liability into a unit strength. NT Alex Balducci and ends DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead are flush with size and next-level potential. However, they’ve got to concurrently reach that ceiling in 2014, or else Oregon will be vulnerable both against the run and the pass.

2. Alabama
Prediction: 11-1
3 Best Players: 1) RB T.J. Yeldon, Jr., 2) LB Trey DePriest, Sr., 3) S Landon Collins, Jr.
Relative Strengths: 1) Running Back, 2) Linebacker, 3) Receiver
Spotlight Units: 1) Quarterback, 2) Special Teams, 3) Secondary
The season will be a success if … Alabama wins the inaugural College Football Playoff. Not making the four-team playoff – no matter how – would be an epic disaster, but really, just getting into the final four would be a good year, even for Alabama. Of course, the program measures seasons by adding to the pile of national championships, and considering all the talent brought in, it’s win or bust.

Offense: It’s not like the offense needed tweaking after averaging 454 yards per game and finishing seventh in the nation in passing efficiency, but if the line comes together, it should be even better. New offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will simplify things a little bit while also taking a few more shots down the field and speeding things up a tad. Don’t expect the hurry-up, but the pacing should be a bit crisper. Blessed with a ridiculous array of talented running backs, T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry and Kenyon Drake would all start and be Doak Walker candidates anywhere else. Amari Cooper leads a veteran receiving corps that should benefit from the huge arm of Florida State transfer Jacob Coker, who’ll most likely take over AJ McCarron’s starting gig. It’s Alabama, so the line will be outstanding, but it might take a little bit before true freshman superstar recruit Cam Robinson shines at left tackle – he will. Everything else is in place for this to be an even more dangerous and more devastating attack.

Defense: Compared to Alabama’s ridiculously high standards and the precedent set during the Nick Saban era, the D wasn’t up to its normal snuff. It finished fifth in the nation overall and fourth in scoring D, and it dominated the above-average and worse, but it got torched by Texas A&M, Auburn and Oklahoma in the three big games of the year. The secondary needs to be tighter at corner, but Landon Collins and the safety situation should help the cause. Trey DePriest Is back at linebacker, but this might not be a vintage corps – again, compared to the amazing recent history. However, the line should be a brick wall, starting with A’Shawn Robinson, who looks like the next great Crimson Tide NFL prospect up front. The talent is in place to finish in the top five again, but can it be the killer it was during the national title campaigns? If the corners are better, and the coaching staff figures out how to deal with talented dual-threat quarterbacks, absolutely.

1. Florida State
Prediction: 12-0
3 Best Players: 1) QB Jameis Winston, Soph., 2) OT Cameron Erving, Sr., 3) WR Rashad Greene, Sr.
Relative Strengths: 1) Secondary, 2) O Line, 3) Quarterback
Spotlight Units: 1) Running Back, 2) Linebacker, 3)
The season will be a success if … the Seminoles repeat. With the talent left in Tallahassee, and the manageable schedule the team faces, anything less than another ACC and national championship will be viewed as a disappointment at Florida State. As it should be. The ‘Noles are bringing back a Heisman-winning quarterback and as much talent as any other FBS school. Plus, Clemson must visit Doak Campbell Stadium in Week 3, which will likely give the host a head start on capturing another Atlantic Division title.

Offense: No offense in the history of college football scored more points—723—than Florida State did a year ago. And the ‘Noles did it with a rookie quarterback under center. Jameis Winston is a special athlete, but it speaks volumes about the staff and the system that the offense actually elevated in the year after EJ Manuel graduated. With Winston back for his sophomore season, no drop-off in production is expected in 2014. The line will be among the best in the country, Karlos Williams and Mario Pender will pick up the slack on the ground and WR Rashad Greene and TE Nick O’Leary will be Winston’s best targets. If there are concerns, they hinge on the new center, likely Austin Barron, and a lack of proven playmakers in the passing game. Greene is a gamebreaker, and O’Leary brings grit to the attack. But someone, like Christian Green or Jesus Wilson, must emerge as a complement, much the way Kelvin Benjamin did late last season.

Defense: Coordinator Jeremy Pruitt had an auspicious single season in Tallahassee. But now that Pruitt is in Athens, it’s up to the internally promoted Charles Kelly to keep this D among the nation’s stingiest units. Florida State was suffocating in 2013, yielding a nation’s-low 12.1 points per game. It faces changes in personnel this fall, but nothing that’s expected to keep this program from once again dominating the rest of the ACC. A new season means new emerging stars, particularly in a secondary that’s going to be lights out. FSU has stockpiled future pros, like P.J. Williams, Jalen Ramsey, Nate Andrews and Ronald Darby. While the front seven is solid, it’s not quite as certain as the defensive backfield. Expectations are high for DE Mario Edwards, DT Eddie Goldman and linebackers Terrance Smith, Matthew Thomas and E.J. Levenberry. Still, they’ll have to prove this season that they can be more than just ballyhooed recruits who deliver in spurts. They’ve got to command starring roles now that their reps and importance to the team will be on the rise.

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