The start of the college football season is less than 100 days away, and Athlon Sports is counting down the top teams for the upcoming year.
Florida State is Athlon’s pick to win the national championship, with Nick Saban's Alabama Crimson Tide projected to finish No. 2 nationally. Of course, there's a new element to college football's regular season with the addition of a four-team playoff, and Athlon Sports is picking Ohio State to finish No. 3 and Oklahoma to finish No. 4. The debate in the preseason is no longer about No. 1 and No. 2 and instead more about the top four teams in the nation.
While there is always plenty of intrigue in filling out the top 25, Nos. 26-40 feature a handful of teams that just missed. Iowa kicks off this batch of teams at No. 26, as the Hawkeyes are capable of winning the Big Ten's West Division. Virginia Tech is Athlon's projected Coastal champion and ranks No. 27. Another intriguing team this release of rankings is Marshall at No. 40 - the highest team from outside of the power conferences in 2014.
With the completion of Athlon's college footballTop 25 for 2014, it's time to take a look at the rest of the rankings, beginning with Nos. 26-40.
Follow the top 25 on Twitter @AthlonSports and join the debate at #Athlon25. Follow Athlon's College Football Writers on Twitter: Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven), Braden Gall (@BradenGall) and David Fox (@DavidFox615).
Note: Ranking is where team is projected to finish at the end of the 2014 season
College Football 2014 Projected Rankings: 26-40
Many of the pieces are in place for Iowa to continue this latest resurgence under coach Kirk Ferentz, especially on offense. Combine that with a schedule that doesn’t include Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan or Penn State, and has Iowa State, Wisconsin and Nebraska coming to Kinnick Stadium, and there is reason to believe Iowa can be a legitimate contender in the new Big Ten West Division.
27. Virginia Tech
The offense should benefit from being in Year 2 in coordinator Scot Loeffler’s system, but Year 1 didn’t exactly set the bar high. The Hokies had the 101st-ranked offense nationally in 2013, averaging 356.0 yards per game. Fixing the lagging running game would go a long way toward making Virginia Tech more competitive, since there’s plenty of faith in Blacksburg that defensive coordinator Bud Foster will figure things out like he always does. Frank Beamer is confident that the changes he made to the offensive coaching staff prior to 2013 are taking root but knows that it will take time. Still, the Hokies should contend in a wide-open Coastal Division this year.
New quarterback, new coach, new conference (the ACC), new, more formidable schedule. There’s a lot to process for a program that won 23 games as well as the Sugar and Russell Athletic bowls the last two seasons. But Petrino has won everywhere he’s coached in college — including a 41–9 record during his first stint at Louisville. If quarterback Will Gardner stays healthy, the Cards have enough weapons to score big on everybody but Florida State, Clemson and Notre Dame. Defense will determine if Louisville can win more than eight.
Bo Pelini’s record is 58–24, with at least nine victories in each of his six seasons. But he has yet to coach a conference champion. In fact, Nebraska hasn’t won a conference title since 1999, much too long for a program with three national titles in the five years prior to that.
In the aftermath of a 38–17 regular-season-ending loss to Iowa, speculation spread that Pelini’s tenure as coach might be over. But he has since received a contract extension through the 2018 season. Extension or not, however, there’s pressure to win a championship and return to national relevance. The Huskers should have the defense for that. The question is whether the offense can be balanced enough to get the job done against a schedule that sets up very well in a restructured division of the expanded Big Ten.
Ten wins were once the norm at Miami, and now it’s a place to set the bar for 2014. The last time UM reached double-digit victories was 2003, and the only way it happens this year is with an improved defense and solid quarterback play. Certainly the pieces are in place on offense for an explosive group, but new faces on both sides of the ball need to make significant impacts for Al Golden’s team to reach its goals.
31. North Carolina
The Tar Heels have enough talent to challenge for first place in the ACC’s Coastal Division, which remains unpredictable and up for grabs, but their margin of error is small. In truth, UNC looks to be in better shape for 2015 than for this season. The offense has only one senior on the two-deep depth chart, and the defense would benefit from another year of experience up front and in the secondary. But the Tar Heels have to play the 2014 season first. If they perform better than expected along the offensive line and get a breakout season from someone on a defense that lacks an established star, the future could be now.
After Michigan went 8–5 and 7–6 over the past two seasons, the shine from Brady Hoke’s 11–2 debut campaign is officially gone. The 2014 season is clearly the most important of Hoke’s tenure at Michigan. This is the youngest team Hoke has had during his time in Ann Arbor, but there is plenty of talent on the roster.
Michigan’s defense should be strong enough to keep it in games early in the season, but if the offense doesn’t show significant improvement, it’s hard to envision this team posing too much of a threat in the new Big Ten East Division.
33. Mississippi State
Expectations are high in Starkville. Mississippi State enters the season with one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC and a defense that has the potential to be among the best in the league. If suitable replacements are found on the offensive line and the special teams improves, the 2014 season could be the best in Dan Mullen’s six years at the school.
34. Texas A&M
A&M’s stadium is undergoing a $450 million redevelopment that will make Kyle Field one of the premier venues in college football when construction is done in 2015. Until that time, however, Kyle Field remains a work in progress. The same could be said for the inhabitants of the facility. With a strong offensive line, a stable of promising, young skill players on offense and a defense that should improve, the Aggies could be a factor in the SEC West. But 2015 may be the year A&M steps back into in the national spotlight.
A tough schedule and a bowl defeat kept BYU stuck on eight victories in 2013, but coach Bronco Mendenhall likes the trajectory of the program. “We win every year, and it’s just a matter of how much,” Mendenhall says. “I think this group wants to do even more than we’ve done before.”
Even after a Fight Hunger Bowl loss ended BYU’s streak of five bowl victories, the Cougars have “tons of momentum,” Mendenhall says. “I like our program a lot right now, and I like our players.”
In BYU’s fourth season of independence, the Cougars are positioned to make some national impact especially if the defensive front seven comes together and quarterback Taysom Hill becomes a more consistent passer.
In recent vintage, Pittsburgh would best be described as unimpressive and/or average. The words are cringe-worthy for those involved with the program, but not inaccurate. The Panthers are 13–13 in two seasons under Chryst and 19–20 since 2011. The good news is that the program firmly belongs to Chryst — only 17 players remain from previous regimes — and young players are making an impact. Chryst played 12 freshmen extensively last season. Still, the Panthers should expect to experience more growing pains, given the uncertainty at quarterback, the precarious nature of the offensive line and a defense that lost the best lineman in the nation. Victories over Notre Dame, Duke and Bowling Green in ’13 can serve as building blocks, but losses to Navy, Georgia Tech and North Carolina are reminders that more work must be done.
37. Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State lost 28 seniors from a year ago; it was a special group that matched the best four-year win total of any class in program history. So while Cowboys coaches believe they’ve recruited well, so much turnover, coupled with a challenging schedule that opens with defending national champion Florida State, suggests that a step back is in order. Just how far back depends on how quickly the kids grow up.
The Coastal Division race should be wide open again this season, and Duke should be in the thick of it. Thanks to a pillow-soft non-conference schedule, and the absence of Clemson, Florida State and Louisville among Atlantic Division crossover opponents (the Devils get Syracuse and Wake instead), a third straight bowl game seems highly likely for the Blue Devils. A repeat trip to the ACC title game? Duke seemed to catch just about every late-game break in 2013 (for a change). It’s hard to envision a repeat of that level of magic again this fall. And the Blue Devils certainly won’t be sneaking up on anyone this time around.
It became clear to coach Gary Patterson during the Horned Frogs’ second year in the Big 12 that major changes were in order on the offensive side of the ball. His defense, long a program hallmark, was maintaining its success in the new league. But the Frogs missed the postseason for the first time since 2004 largely because the offense — which had moved the ball with ease in the Frogs’ final years in the Mountain West — failed to produce.
If the offense, under new leadership, can make modest gains, the Frogs could emerge as a surprise contender in the Big 12. TCU went 4–8 in 2013, but the Frogs lost four games by a combined 11 points, including one in overtime. In two other 10-point losses, TCU had a chance to win late in the game.
With better play at quarterback and along the offensive line — two areas that underperformed in 2013 — TCU will be in position to win a few more of those close games and put itself back into postseason play.
Could Marshall go undefeated? When Louisville had to postpone its 2014 date with the Herd due to an ACC-obligated matchup with Notre Dame, Rhode Island became Marshall’s final non-conference opponent. The Herd certainly should be favored each week as long as Cato remains healthy (backup QB is a big concern heading into the fall). The three teams that beat Marshall last year that are on the schedule this year all must visit Huntington, where Marshall has won eight straight. A highly productive offense led by an elite quarterback and solid, veteran defense could lift the Herd to a historic season.