The start of the 2013 college football season is still a few months away. However, Athlon Sports is already counting down the teams for the upcoming year.
Alabama is Athlon’s pick to win the national championship, with Urban Meyer’s Ohio State Buckeyes expected to finish No. 2 nationally.
While there is always plenty of intrigue in filling out the top 25, No. 26-40 features a handful of teams that just missed. And 41-60 showcases plenty of teams fighting to move up college football's food chain or improve after a disappointing season. Auburn was one of the SEC's worst teams last year but expects to rebound with the hire of Gus Malzahn. Missouri struggled in its SEC debut, and the Tigers hope a healthy James Franklin at quarterback can make a big difference in 2013.
Another intriguing team to watch in this range is West Virginia. The Mountaineers must replace quarterback Geno Smith and receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. With so many new faces stepping into key roles in Morgantown, West Virginia could struggle just to get to a bowl game.
Note: Ranking is where team is projected to finish at the end of the 2013 season
College Football 2013 Preseason Rankings: 41-60
41. Mississippi State
MSU has won 29 games in four years under coach Dan Mullen, earning bowl berths each of the last three seasons. That’s a big step forward for this program, but there is a hunger for much more. The Bulldogs just moved into a $25 million football-only facility, which could be viewed as symbolic of their effort to join the SEC’s elite.
To do that, both lines must play at a much higher level, because the SEC will always expose weaknesses in the trenches. As it was last year, the back end of MSU’s schedule is loaded, with games against South Carolina, Texas A&M, Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss. That closing stretch will define the Bulldogs’ season and show just how far the program has come under Mullen.
2013 Mississippi State Bulldogs Team Preview
There is talent at Auburn, which has signed many highly rated classes in recent years. The most telling factor of coach Gus Malzahn’s tenure will be whether he can coach up and retain that talent, two areas where Gene Chizik failed before his firing.
Most likely, Malzahn’s first year will see too many SEC teams that are more talented and have more depth than Auburn at too many positions. The Tigers do play in the SEC West, after all. But expect Malzahn and his offense to have some fun along the way. Auburn will beat someone it shouldn’t because of Malzahn’s fast-paced offense.
2013 Auburn Tigers Team Preview
Staging a slideshow to illustrate his points, coach Bronco Mendenhall outlined BYU’s success on and off the field in his first eight seasons with a Signing Day news conference that served as an impassioned defense of his program. Of course, BYU’s most pressing issue is upgrading the offense. Its ineffectiveness kept the Cougars from capitalizing on the best defensive performance in school history.
Matching last season’s 8–5 record will be a challenge in 2013, even if coordinator Robert Anae’s fast-tempo offense is more productive. The Cougars are facing what Mendenhall labels their toughest schedule ever, with home games against Boise State and Texas and visits to Wisconsin and Notre Dame.
2013 BYU Cougars Team Preview
44. Northern Illinois
New coach Rod Carey inherits a program with a fan base thirsting to follow in the footsteps of BCS crashers Boise State and TCU. Expectations have reached unreal levels at Northern Illinois after three straight seasons with at least 11 wins, five consecutive bowl appearances — including last year’s Orange Bowl — and two MAC championships in a row. The 2012 season was a perfect combination of a favorable schedule, weakened conference and some key late developments — most beyond NIU’s control — that allowed the Huskies to elbow their way into a BCS bowl.
The offense faces a new set of questions in 2013. Opponents won’t be caught off guard after spending the offseason game-planning to stop quarterback Jordan Lynch. The success of the season might hinge on NIU finding playmakers to take pressure off of their record-setting quarterback. There’s also the question about Carey’s ability to handle the transition from assistant coach to CEO at what is now a high-pressured job.
The pieces are in place for a third straight MAC title, but it won’t be as easy as many NIU fans envision.
2013 Northern Illinois Team Preview
45. Texas Tech
Things changed in Lubbock the night Kliff Kingsbury was announced as Texas Tech’s new head football coach. With one move, a fan base that had been fractured since the tail end of the Mike Leach era suddenly became united.
But a united fan base doesn’t guarantee success. The Red Raiders have some nice pieces, but there might be a few too many questions — Can Michael Brewer shine at quarterback? Can the offensive line replace three starters? Can the secondary hold its own? — for this team to be a significant factor in the Big 12 race in 2013.
2013 Texas Tech Red Raiders Team Preview
Butch Jones inherited a questionable roster and a brutal schedule, but his first year might also come with an unusual gift in the cutthroat SEC — very reasonable expectations from a win-starved fan base. If the Vols can pull off six wins and make a bowl, fans would be thrilled. (So would bowl executives, because ticket sales would be brisk.)
A large senior class that seems to have eagerly embraced the new coaching staff offers hope that this group can overachieve. And after three seasons in which every close SEC game seemed to go the other way, the Vols are due for some better luck.
2013 Tennessee Volunteers Team Preview
These are heady times for Rutgers. A year removed from a share of the program’s first league title, the school is Big Ten-bound after this season. That makes this year — in the newly named American Athletic Conference — a transition year. That could be the case on the field as well for coach Kyle Flood, whose team staggered to a 2–4 finish despite featuring six players invited to the NFL Combine.
The development of quarterback Gary Nova and the revamped back seven hold the keys to this season. If both areas turn out to be a strength, Rutgers can compete for a league title and a BCS berth. If not, the Scarlet Knights could have trouble breaking the .500 mark.
2013 Rutgers Scarlet Knights Team Preview
Missouri’s first year in the SEC was rife with change, and it wasn’t for the better as the Tigers suffered their first losing season since 2004. The changes continued in the offseason with the abrupt resignation of offensive coordinator David Yost, a longtime Gary Pinkel assistant. Former offensive line coach Josh Henson is now in charge of a Missouri attack that found life in the SEC to be more physical — and low scoring — than the Big 12.
As Pinkel enters his 13th year at Missouri, faith in the Tigers boss could be floundering. The Tigers haven’t suffered back-to-back losing seasons since Pinkel’s first two years in Columbia, but their transition to the SEC was hardly smooth. After a clear step back in 2012, Missouri needs to move forward in 2013 or be left in the dust by their new conference foes.
2013 Missouri Tigers Team Preview
The Razorbacks have question marks in too many areas to be considered a contender. Having three head coaches in an eight-month span in the aftermath of the Bobby Petrino scandal has seemingly sidetracked a program that passed its way into the top 10 for a couple of seasons. Expecting a well-oiled transition to a stronger drive-blocking running game would be unreasonable. In a best-case scenario, quality blockers emerge across the board, quarterback play is efficient, the running game is unleashed and playmakers rise up on all three levels on defense. Even if several of those scenarios take place, the Razorbacks have a long trip back to SEC West contention.
2013 Arkansas Razorbacks Team Preview
Tulsa has quietly become a solid football program. The Golden Hurricane have won 10-plus games in four of their last six seasons and have been to a bowl game in seven of the past eight years. In his second season, coach Bill Blankenship led the school to its first C-USA title since 2005 and second top-25 ranking in three seasons.
Blankenship often said in the spring that maintaining the championship level is more difficult than chasing a title. He has challenged his team to repeat in its final season in Conference USA before it leaves for the American Athletic Conference in 2014.
For that to happen, Tulsa must identify some new playmakers on defense and continue to have success running the ball on offense.
2013 Tulsa Golden Hurricane Team Preview
The knock on UCF has long been its inability to string together winning seasons. With quarterback Blake Bortles at the head of an experienced and versatile offense, the Knights feel like they’re primed to match their 10-win output from 2012 and silence those critics.
The key will be the growth and development on the other side of the ball, however.
If UCF can develop its defense and find the right players to plug into several key holes in the secondary and at linebacker, it might find a way to challenge for a conference title with the likes of Louisville and Cincinnati. If not, the Knights could struggle against a consistently higher level of competition than they ever faced in Conference USA.
2013 UCF Knights Team Preview
Change is sweeping through the Pittsburgh football program as it moves from the Big East to the ACC. But the absolute biggest storyline is what remains the same: Paul Chryst. By returning, Chryst ended a tumultuous three-year odyssey in which Pittsburgh saw three different coaches lead its program. The next step for Chryst is to elevate a team that has been mediocre the past three seasons.
With uncertainty at quarterback and running back — and with the transition to a new conference — Pittsburgh likely will endure growing pains. The Panthers, though, could go a long way toward building instant momentum by defeating ACC foe Florida State in a nationally televised season opener at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh nearly pulled off a triple-overtime win at Notre Dame last season, so an upset isn’t out of the question. Nor is a slight improvement in Chryst’s second season.
2013 Pittsburgh Panthers Team Preview
It’s the final go-round in the ACC for Maryland, which moves to the Big Ten in 2014. The Terrapins has six victories to show for coach Randy Edsall’s first two seasons and enough injuries to fill medical manuals for years. Maryland lost 10 players to season-enders last year, including four quarterbacks. Now, the Terps have some speed and some big-play potential but a lot of questions.
C.J. Brown, the first of the four quarterbacks to go down last year, is an inspirational team leader who seems to rally those around him. If he can do that — and get the ball in the hands of wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long and those running backs in space — Maryland should at least be fun to watch.
The defense looks faster, too, but that doesn’t necessarily mean improved. Special teams weren’t so special last year, either. Edsall has back-to-back top 35 recruiting classes, but he may need at least one more before the Terps can be a real threat. And then they’ll have to do it in the Big Ten.
2013 Maryland Terrapins Team Preview
54. NC State
NC State athletic director Debbie Yow has already said she expects 2013 to be a rebuilding season, but coach Dave Doeren won quickly at NIU with a roster he inherited from another coach. The offense will have to run the ball more effectively, and quarterback Pete Thomas will have to learn a new scheme. The defense should be able to carry the mail, especially with the first four games at home, as the team adjusts to the new staff. Don’t expect State to be a significant factor in the ACC Atlantic Division race, but there is enough talent on the roster to return to a bowl game for the fourth straight season.
2013 NC State Wolfpack Team Preview
Coach Sonny Dykes needs to find a quarterback, but he is inheriting enough talent at running back and wide receiver to have immediate success on offense. The defense, however, could be an issue, especially with some expected growing pains with a new coordinator and a new system.
The schedule is also extremely difficult — the Bears play USC and UCLA from the South and host Ohio State and Northwestern in non-conference action. There will be progress, but it might not show up in the win column. Reaching bowl-eligibility will be a challenge.
2013 California Golden Bears Team Preview
56. West Virginia
Early in spring drills, coach Dana Holgorsen said his team “lost a lot of star power, but we have a lot of hungry kids.” It’s a good thing. Holgorsen, his players and Mountaineers fans have a lot to chew on. One can always expect offense from Holgorsen. But this might be his toughest challenge in years. Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey rewrote WVU’s offensive records. Holgorsen will have to rely not only on a young quarterback, but also young receivers and a rebuilt offensive line. His defense is getting better talent, but not much should be expected there this season. On top of it all, Holgorsen has five new assistants.
2013 West Virginia Mountaineers Team Preview
57. Iowa State
The Cyclones have reached the postseason three of the last four years, and each time they outperformed expectations to get there. That will have to be the case again this season in their quest for (at least) six wins and a bowl bid.
The pieces are in place offensively to improve upon last year’s production (24.5 points and 364.2 yards per game), and it has to in order to be a factor in the Big 12. The defense lost a number of important players whose absence will be felt tremendously. Untested players will have to step in and have an impact right away for ISU to have any shot at reaching its goals.
The program is on the up-tick, in a lot of ways. Fan support has always been strong, and with the success under coach Paul Rhoads it’s reached unprecedented heights. Fans should expect growing pains, especially on defense, although there’s a chance to once again be playing and practicing in December.
2013 Iowa State Cyclones Team Preview
The Utes became known for their major bowl breakthroughs and high national rankings as a Mountain West power, but they have found life in the Pac-12 to be much more demanding. Utah has gone 7–11 in two seasons of conference play. How Dennis Erickson’s product performs against Pac-12 defenses will determine whether the Utes can get back to a bowl game in 2013. They face a more difficult challenge, with Oregon and Stanford on their schedule for the first time since the Utes joined the league. “We have a lot of work to do, addressing our deficiencies,” coach Kyle Whittingham says.
2013 Utah Utes Team Preview
Coach Kevin Wilson is tired of merely coming close and knows that this is the season that the Hoosiers should at least enjoy bowl-eligibility. The schedule is loaded with eight home games, and Indiana does not play away from Memorial Stadium until Oct. 12. Wilson and his staff recruited the highest-ranked class in IU history, packing it with the speed and size that his defense has lacked to stop the run.
But winning with freshmen is difficult in the Big Ten, so offense will remain Indiana’s calling card for at least one more season. Indiana’s best offensive players — Tre Roberson, Stephen Houston, Ted Bolser, Kofi Hughes — are starting their third season in Wilson’s high-tempo system, mastering the necessary deceptions. If the defense can make modest improvement, Indiana could score its way to six victories.
2013 Indiana Hoosiers Team Preview
60. Utah State
The Aggies return plenty of experience from a team that won 11 games and was ranked No. 16 in the final AP poll. However, the move to the stronger Mountain West will pose plenty of challenges. The non-conference schedule is difficult as well, with trips to Utah and USC and a home date with BYU.
There could be a few hiccups with the transition from Gary Andersen to Matt Wells, but there have been no significant changes in philosophy, which should help this veteran team pick up where it left off. USU has won 16 of its last 19 games, and the three losses were by a combined six points. Another bowl game should be in the Aggies’ sights.
2013 Utah State Aggies Team Preview
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