The Athlon Sports college football preseason Top 25 countdown starts on Wednesday.
Predicting college football is an inexact science that’s more difficult to pinpoint than any other sport due to roster turnover, as well as the volatility when it comes to developing personnel and new coaches.
We use depth charts, recruiting rankings, stats, schedules, history, coaching and gut instincts to predict each conference to the best of our abilities. Getting it right is our top priority.
But that doesn’t mean that certain teams are darn near impossible to figure out. Here are the 10 biggest wildcard teams in college football entering our Top 25 countdown.
The Tigers are going to be one of the best teams in the ACC but how good could they be nationally? There is a lot to like about this team with star quarterback Deshaun Watson and overall depth that’s as talented as any team in the league. But this team only returns two starters on defense and four on offense. Lastly, offensive mastermind Chad Morris is now coaching at SMU. This team could be an ACC champion and Playoff contender — or 8-4.
A new coach alone makes a team tough to pinpoint in the preseason. But one without a starting quarterback and a lopsided depth chart makes it even tougher. There are loads of talent on defense but few proven players along the offensive line or under center. Most believe in this coaching staff and the SEC East is fairly wide open, but it’s tough to gauge how good the Gators will be in 2015.
This is the most-talented team in the ACC and one of the top two or three rosters in the nation. But the offensive line is totally reworked, Sean Maguire is taking over at quarterback and only three starters are back on offense. The defense will be salty with seven starters back and a schedule that sets up for another ACC title run. But is this a Playoff team again or just a really good ACC team?
There are 13 starters back for LSU as Les Miles once again boasts one of the top 10 collections of players in the nation. However, none of that is under center (for now) and he has to replace John Chavis as his defensive leader. The offense should run through uber-talented running back Leonard Fournette and the defense should be fine, but this team is trending in the wrong direction, faces one of the toughest schedules in the nation and has major QB concerns. This team could finish in any of the seven slots in the SEC West and it wouldn’t surprise anyone.
The Big Ten's West Division appears to be wide open and Nebraska has as good a shot of winning it as anyone else in the league. Six starters are back on both sides of the ball, including star power up front in the all-important trenches. Does new head coach Mike Riley have a quarterback that fits his system on the roster and can the Huskers overcome scheduling imbalance to win the West? Definitely. Could the Big Red lose to BYU, Miami, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan State? Also yes.
Bob Stoops is coming off one of his worst seasons in Norman and, traditionally, his teams perform better when entering a season without expectations. This team won’t be picked by anyone ahead of Baylor or TCU but is the top challenger to the top two squads in the Big 12. If Baker Mayfield flourishes in Lincoln Riley’s system and six returning defensive starters improve, watch out for the Sooners.
Much of the Ducks' success in ’15 hinges on graduate transfer quarterback Vernon Adams and his ability to pick up the offense quickly in summer camp. The offense is downright sick, loaded with elite playmakers at nearly every position. The defense, in particular the secondary, has some major holes to plug. And Stanford is gaining significant ground in the Pac-12 North race this summer. Oregon’s ceiling is high, but are the Ducks a Playoff team or a Holiday Bowl team?
The talent is undeniably better and so is the team. But the defensive line is still very thin and the Vols play some of the best running teams in the nation. Dual-threat quaterback Joshua Dobbs should have better support up front along the line and at the skill spots but he has just a handful of starts under his belt. Can this team overcome a brutal schedule, exorcise some demons against Florida, Alabama or Missouri and contend in the SEC East? Or is this a five-loss team? The Big Orange’s youth makes this an interesting team to keep an eye on heading into the summer.
What do we know about Texas? Charlie Strong is an excellent coach who has a proven track record. His defense will be salty, physical and disciplined. And that the Longhorns have little to no offense. This team plays differently than anyone else in the league, making them interesting. But Tyrone Swoopes is still more liability than playmaker. With 11 starters back, this team is a total wildcard in the Big 12 this fall.
There are seven starters back on defense and seven back on offense, including the best quarterback in the Pac-12 in Cody Kessler. The roster has more recruiting star power on it than any other team in the league, and by a wide margin. But the schedule is nasty — especially, within the division, the Pac-12 South — and questions about the overall depth still remain. Can the coaching staff get the most out of the Trojans? If so, this team could make the Playoff. If not, USC could finish fourth in the division.