As I wrap up my 2015 college football preseason rankings, we focus on the top five teams in the country. There is very little separation between these teams and I could see any of them hoisting the College Football Playoff trophy at the end of the season. There are two matchups on rivalry weekend involving four of these five teams. We may only see two or three of these teams by the time New Year’s Eve rolls around but for now, these are my top five teams in the country.
5. Alabama Crimson Tide (12-2, 7-1, SEC Champions)
Alabama is once again in the thick of things before the season again but this year seems different for the Crimson Tide. There are a lot of doubts, most of them on the offensive side of the ball, and many people say they deserve a high ranking because of what they’ve done rather than what they are expected to do. I could see that side of the argument but I disagree. This team is very similar to the 2009 National Champions – a lot of experience mixed with young talent on defense and a lot of pieces to replace on offense. The last two seasons have been seen as a failure at the hands of the Kick Six and a third string quarterback, two unpredictable scenarios. This year may be more of the same, but it will be hard to see anyone beat the Tide if the right pieces fall in place.
Offense: Last season, the offense saw a major jump in production with new coordinator Lane Kiffin (with a little help from Amari Cooper). Fans may not be able to expect the same for 2015. Everyone knows about the quarterback battle – now narrowed to three – but it is the entire offense that will need to rebuild from last year. Yes, Blake Sims and Amari Cooper left but so did T.J. Yeldon, DeAndrew White, Christion Jones, Jalston Fowler, Arie Kouandjio, Austin Shepherd and Leon Brown. You can even throw in Brian Vogler and Tyrenn Jones to that list. That is a lot of spots to fill for a team to be put in the top five but the talent is once again there for the Crimson Tide.
Whoever ends up as the number one quarterback for Alabama, they will have plenty of weapons to choose from. Ardarius Stewart and Chris Black are primed for breakout seasons and will be joined by sophomores Robert Foster and Cam Sims as the main receivers for Alabama. The Tide hope to get production out of junior tight end O.J. Howard but it seems they still haven’t found a way to get him targets in the offense. The running back duties are of no worries to Alabama fans, as rising junior Derrick Henry was actually the Tide’s leading rusher last season and will be joined by senior Kenyan Drake, who is coming off an injury but has shown he can be a playmaker with his speed. Ryan Kelly and Cam Robinson return in the two most important offensive line spots but will have to play beside three new faces.
Defense: This is where the Tide can win their games. Last season, Alabama’s defense took a hit from what they were use to seeing, allowing 18 points per game. The run defense stayed strong though, allowing just 3.2 yards per carry and 102 rushing yards per game (including the Sugar Bowl). Most of the front seven returns this year so the Crimson Tide should expect more of the same. Jarran Reed and A’Shawn Robinson lead a loaded defensive line that loses just one guy who saw playing time last season. The only improvement that might be made is on the pass rush, as Alabama just has 19.5 sacks from their returning players. Reggie Ragland will be the core of this defense and he leads a linebacker group that has two other seniors on it – Denzell Duvall and Dillon Lee – along with rising juniors Ryan Anderson and Reuben Foster. You could go on and on about the talent in the middle of the defense but it won’t be long for them to prove it on the field.
The secondary faced many issues last season, finishing 59th in the nation in passing yards allowed. They had some inconsistent play at the cornerback position while the safeties either were not prepared for man coverage or were being brought on the blitz. Landon Collins and Nick Perry leave, along with the two most productive seasons by a member of the secondary. Cyrus Jones will be looked at as the new leader of the secondary and he showed great improvement by the end of last year. Jones will be joined by three 5-star recruits that will see the majority of playing time in the back. Redshirt freshman Marlon Humphrey has been listed as the second starting cornerback while true freshman Minkah Fitzpatrick and sophomore Tony Brown are listed as the first and second guys at the STAR position. Two former cornerbacks, Geno Smith and Eddie Jackson, will take over the safety positions.
On special teams, Cyrus Jones will be the main punt returner while J.K. Scott looks to once again be one of the nation’s top punters.
Schedule: For this to be as close to a rebuilding year as Alabama can get, the schedule is just another reason to doubt the Crimson Tide. The Tide open against a strong Wisconsin team on Saturday but it only gets worse from there. Ole Miss takes a visit to Tuscaloosa in week three. Then the Tide will have to travel to Athens to face the SEC East favorites before coming back home for a meeting against Arkansas. The next two weeks include a trip to Texas A&M and a home meeting against the rival Volunteers. The bye week finally comes before a home meeting against LSU which is followed by a trip to Starkville. Alabama finishes the year in Auburn where they hope to win consecutive SEC West titles and possibly take a step to making the playoff.
Prediction: 10-2 (6-2, 2nd in SEC West)
4. Baylor Bears (11-2, 8-1, Big XII Champions)
Head coach Art Briles has completely turned around the Baylor football program and they are ready to compete for a national title. Many people think they deserved a shot last season but a regular season loss to West Virginia, that came the week after a comeback win against TCU, likely kept them out of the College Football Playoff. Baylor is vying for the top spot in the conference but will also be in contention for a spot in the final four. What stands in their way is a daunting schedule and consistency issues on defense.
Offense: The Bears had the top offense in the country last season, averaging 48.4 points per game. Bryce Petty leaves but the quarterback position has yet to be an issue for Baylor since Briles took over. Seth Russell will be the man for the job, and although his 56 percent completion rate last year may not be great, his ability to make big plays is. Russell averaged 16.6 yards per completion last season for eight touchdowns and just one interception. He also didn’t take a sack while running for nearly six yards per carry and scoring three touchdowns. Shock Linwood returns as the top running back for Baylor, rushing for 1,252 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2014. His backups, Johnny Jefferson and Devin Chafin, also return after combining for 907 yards and 14 touchdowns last year. The receiving corps returns its top two playmakers from a year ago in KD Cannon and Corey Coleman, each catching for more than 1,000 yards. Senior Jay Lee had 42 catches for more than 600 yards while three other returning receivers combined for 32 catches and nearly 400 yards. The offensive line brings back four starters, including All-American left tackle Spencer Drango. The offense is loaded with talent and should once again be one of the nation’s best.
Defense: Last season, the defense in Waco was sporadic. Against the run, the Bears were a top-20 defense but they ranked 110th against the pass. On first and second down, Baylor ranked outside the top 40 in total defense but when the Bears held opponents to third down, they ranked in the top 10. The inconsistencies also showed in the quarter splits, where Baylor was a top-20 defense in both the first and second quarter but finished 54th in the third quarter and 119th (ONE HUNDRED AND NINETEENTH!) in the fourth quarter. That stat may be a little inflated because the fourth quarter was played by walk-ons with as many blowouts that Baylor played in but it still needs work.
The Bears return all but two players in their front seven positions. Linebacker Bryce Hager left and will be a huge loss but the depth should help the rush defense stay where it was in 2014. Defensive end Shawn Oakman was one of the best players in the nation last season, finishing with 19.5 tackles for a loss and 11.0 sacks. Sophomore Raaquan Davis will be the new middle linebacker but will be surrounded by returning starters Taylor Young and Aiavion Edwards who combined 102 tackles and five turnovers last year. The secondary returns 11 of their top 12 players from last season and still only have one senior in the back. Experience was gained last season but it may not be enough to see the major improvements that Art Briles’ squad needs. Rising junior Orion Stewart finished last year with 67.5 tackles and four interceptions but the man coverage from the corners needs to improve before the defense can take the next step.
Schedule: The Bears schedule may not look too difficult, especially for those outside the Big XII, but it all boils down to the final five weeks of the season. Baylor should be sitting at 7-0 heading into their bye week at the end of Octobor. They will then have to travel to Manhattan, Kansas on a Thursday night to face the Wildcats. They come back home to face Bob Stoops and the Sooners before hitting the road again for back-to-back games against Oklahoma State and TCU. If they manage to get through all of that unscathed, they have to finish the season against an improved Texas team during championship week.
Prediction: 10-2 (7-2, 2nd in Big XII)
3. Auburn Tigers (8-5, 4-4, 4th in SEC West)
It may seem crazy to rank this team in the top three after finishing 8-5 last season and then losing six offensive starters. However, we know what Gus Malzahn can do with an offense and he doesn’t need the same pieces to make something work. There is a lot of talent of offense and although some of them are unproven, Malzahn has proven himself capable of making any offense work in his schemes. The defense will need to show improvement in year one under Will Muschamp but it is hard to see it not happening with all the returning key players for the Tigers. Consistency issues showed in games against Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama but this team was much better than a 5-loss team a year ago. They have a chance to make up for it in 2015.
Offense: The offense will no longer be in the hands of Nick Marshall, which may end up being a good thing for Auburn. Marshall was a great quarterback for the Tigers’ system and it helped put a heavy focus on the run. Most of the time, the speed sweeps, counters, screens and play-action deep balls worked for Rhett Lashlee’s offense but it will look different this year. Jeremy Johnson steps in as the new signal-caller in the plains and has brought a lot of hype with him. His talent has him in the Heisman talk even though he threw just 37 passes last season. He completed 75 percent of those passes and threw for three touchdowns with no interceptions. He even has an SEC start under his belt from last year’s season opener against Arkansas when Marshall was suspended. Johnson looked fantastic against a pretty good defense and fans expect that to continue into his first year as the starter. Johnson is already a better passer than Marshall ever was and he can leave the running game to a new running back core.
This year, Roc Thomas will be the starter but that may not mean much at Auburn. Thomas is a rising sophomore and will be joined in the backfield by junior college transfer Jovon Robinson and true freshman Kerryon Johnson. All three of these runners were five-star recruits and should bring explosiveness to the backfield to go along with senior receiver Ricardo Louis who is lethal on speed sweeps. The receiving core loses two of their top players in Quan Bray and Sammie Coates but have Louis and All-SEC senior Duke Williams to help replace them. They are joined by senior Melvin Ray, who has shown his big-play ability, and two new four-star freshmen. The offensive line loses All-American center Reese Dismukes but bring in a very capable replacement with Austin Golson. The Ole Miss transfer will be joined by three others that have made a combined 52 career stars and sophomore Braden Smith at right guard.
Defense: Last season was a disaster for the Auburn defense as they gave 32 points per game in their final eight games (not counting Samford) leading to a 3-5 record in those games. The Tigers struggled with stopping both aspects of any legitimate offense, finishing 66th nationally in total defense in 2014. However, Muschamp is the defensive genius that they needed to come in and fix this and he may have the weapons to get it done sooner rather than later. The defense is loaded with experience at the starting positions but may have some issues with depth if any of them get hurt. They have a lot of talent with the underclassmen but they have yet to prove themselves.
The defensive line returns their top three tacklers from last year including junior Montravius Adams who finished with 8.0 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks. Adams is poised for a breakout year and will be playing along rising sophomore Carl Lawson who returns after being injured in 2014. Lawson was a five-star recruit and finished the 2013 season 7.5 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. He will be expected to come back and contribute immediately and should fulfill, maybe even exceed, those expectations. Freshman defensive end Byron Cowart will see a lot of playing time in his first season and should help make this front one of the best in the conference.
Auburn has it made at the linebacker position because of seniors Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost. The two combined 158.5 tackles last season, along with 21.0 tackles for a loss, 6.0 sacks, two interceptions, three pass breakups and four forced fumbles. These guys were playmakers last year and could be even better this season. The linebackers do not have to be brought on the blitz much because of the pass rush ability of the defensive ends. That helps these two make the reads necessary to help this defense try to shut down plays from the start. They will be joined by returning linebackers Tre’ Williams, Javiere Mitchell and Kenny Flowers.
The secondary was huge for Auburn last year. They were great at making the big plays happen, whether it was for or against Auburn. The Tigers had 20 interceptions last season but also gave up 44 pass plays of 20 yards or more (91st in the country). They would dominate any passing game that already had its own struggles but it seemed Auburn’s secondary couldn’t handle some of the better passing attacks in the league. Kyle Allen and Blake Sims (despite three INTs) had huge games against the Tigers which lead to close losses for Auburn. Jonathan Jones and Johnathan Ford return as the top two defensive backs for Muschamp and they bring in help with Michigan transfer Blake Countess and Georgia transfer Trey Matthews (who has already helped Auburn).
Schedule: The Tigers schedule is just as tough as any SEC West schedule and it gets started before conference play even begins. A matchup in Atlanta against Louisville on Saturday kicks off the season. Auburn will travel to LSU in week three before returning home for Mississippi State. Back to back road trips to Lexington and Fayetteville come just before a home meeting against Ole Miss. A road game against Texas A&M plus home meetings with Georgia and Alabama wrap up the year.
Prediction: 11-1 (7-1, SEC Champions)
2. Ohio State Buckeyes (14-1, 8-0, Big Ten Champions, National Champions)
Urban Meyer is coming off possibly the best season of his coaching career. He won a conference and national championship with a third string quarterback and a star sophomore running back. Now, the Buckeyes return 14 starters and a lot more contributors that are ready to compete for another national title. They also still get to play in the Big Ten. However, it is very hard to go back-to-back and it has been 11 years since a team has started and finished the season as the top-ranked team in the AP poll. Cardale Jones, JT Barrett, Braxton Miller, Ezekiel Elliot, Joey Bosa and company are ready to give it their best shot and it is tough to see why they couldn’t do it again.
Offense: Last season, the Buckeyes had to deal with the loss of two quarterbacks but still had one of the best offenses in the country. They could put up a lot of points with long, sustained drives or with big, explosive plays. They finished with fifth in points per game and ninth in yards per game in 2014. They were mostly lead by J.T. Barrett but you could argue that they were even better when Cardale Jones took over. Yes, most of their season was against Big Ten teams but they embarrassed an SEC defense and a Pac-12 defense to finish the season.
Entering the 2015 season, no one has any idea how the Buckeyes will handle Barret and Jones in their two quarterback system. They are currently listed with an “or” between their names on the opening depth chart for Ohio State but it is safe to say that either would be a good choice. Braxton Miller has now moved to wide receiver, joining Michael Thomas and Corey Smith as the top playmakers for the receiving corps. They lost some of their deep threats but are loaded with young talent to help with depth for the position. Miller will likely play the H-Back position which gave Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson a lot of targets last year. Whether it is Miller, Marshall or Wilson lined up as an extra receiver, it will give the two quarterbacks yet another option in the passing game.
The running game finished as the ninth best in the country a year ago and return basically everybody. Ezekiel Elliot enters as the Heisman frontrunner after rushing for 1,878 yards and 18 touchdowns. Elliot busted on to the scene in the final three games for the Buckeyes and if he can keep up that pace, we could see record numbers from the junior in 2015. Barrett was the Buckeyes’ second leading rusher last season, going for over 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns. His mobility may give him the edge over Jones at quarterback, which would give Ohio State another dynamic to work with on the offensive side of the ball. Rising sophomore Curtis Samuel also returns in the backfield after averaging 6.6 yards per carry and scoring six touchdowns last year. Ohio State is replacing just one starter on the offensive line but have senior Chase Farris who is ready to fill the hole at right tackle.
Defense: Ohio State had a solid defense last season, good enough with that offense, but could still need improvement throughout the season if they want to repeat. The Buckeyes finished 34th against the rush but 19th overall in 2014. The defense seemed lost against certain offenses – i.e. Navy’s option game, Indiana’s Tevin Coleman (228 yards), Alabama’s run game (6.8 yards per carry). They still made the plays when they needed to and made sure they reaked havoc against the passing game.
Last season’s defensive line finished with 28.5 sacks and the secondary had 25 interceptions, both ranking in the top ten of the country. Defensive end Joey Bosa returns for his junior season after finishing with 13.5 sacks last year and will be joined by senior tackle Adolphus Washington. The question lies past the two of them. The Buckeyes return four players that saw minimal time on the defensive line last season and bring in two four-star freshmen to try to make up for the losses. Look for rising sophomore Tyquan Lewis to make a huge impact on the opposite side of the line as Bosa.
If the line can get back to how good it was last season, the defense may get even better. The Buckeyes return seven of their top nine linebackers from the national championship squad including leading tackler Joshua Perry (98.5). The senior is joined by Freshmen All-American Darron Lee, who finished his first year with 16.5 tackles for a loss, 7.5 sacks, three pass breakups, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. The kid is a natural playmaker and could get even better with a year of experience under his belt.
The secondary was very young last year and was still one of the nation’s best. They just lose Doran Grant – five interceptions, nine pass deflections – but return both starting safeties and five other defensive backs that saw playing time last season. Juniors Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell return at the safety positions after combining for 135 tackles and 10 interceptions. Sophomores Eli Apple and Gaeron Conley will be the starters at cornerback and look to make sure the secondary stays at the top of the country in 2015.
Schedule: Ohio State doesn’t have a lot of games that stand out on the schedule but every game is tough when you have a target on your back. The Buckeyes may not be able to afford a loss if they want a chance at the playoff again (unless it is Virginia Tech again). Urban Meyer’s squad travels to Blacksburg on Monday without four players (Bosa, Marshall included) to face the Hokies. They manage to get their toughest conference opponents – Michigan State, Penn State and Minnesota – at home while traveling to Indiana, Rutgers and Illinois. They finish the year against a dangerous Michigan team in Ann Arbor.
Prediction: 11-1 (7-1, Big Ten Champions)
1. TCU Horned Frogs (12-1, 8-1, 2nd in Big XII)
All aboard the bandwagon to Fort Worth. With all the hype around the nation’s best conference (SEC) and nation’s best team (Ohio State), I have a Big XII team at the top of my rankings entering 2015. Last year, the Horned Frogs were arguably the top team in the country and definitely a top-three team by the end of the season. A 3-point loss to Baylor after blowing a 21-point, fourth-quarter lead was the only blemish in an amazing season for TCU. The explosive factor returns to the offensive side of the ball but big question marks lie in the back seven of the defense. Can head coach Gary Patterson and the Horned Frogs find the answers they need to be a national contender? I believe the answer is an astounding yes.
Offense: Last season, TCU’s offense was spectacular. They finished 2nd in the nation in points per game and could beat you with whatever style of offense they wanted to use that day. The Horned Frogs scored over 40 points nine times last season, including an 82-point performance against Texas Tech and a 42-3 win against one of the nation’s best defenses in Ole Miss. The offense has seen some struggles under Patterson but they were the reason that the 4-8 team from 2013 turned into a 12-win season. The same amount of improvement this year could get them all the way to 15 wins.
The Horned Frogs’ offense may be lead by the best quarterback in the country. Trevone Boykin returns for his senior season after throwing for 3,900 yards last season while completing 61 percent of his passes with a 3:1 touchdown to interception ratio. Boykin added 829 yards rushing to go along with eight touchdowns. He enters this season as one of the favorites for the Heisman and has many of his favorite weapons back to help him. Senior Josh Doctson was Boykin’s favorite receiver last season, getting nearly a quarter of his attempts. Doctson finished the year with 66 receptions for 1,022 yards and will be expected to go for 1,000 plus again. Boykin’s two other main receivers are seniors Kolby Listenbee and Deante’ Gray, who combined for 1,335 yards and 12 touchdowns on just 77 catches.
The ground game of TCU is not to be overlooked either. They finished just (used loosely) 36th in the country last season in rushing yards but return five of their six rushers. Senior tailback Aaron Green will lead the way after averaging 7.1 yards per carry and scoring 11 total touchdowns. Green showed major improvement since coming over as a transfer from Nebraska his freshman season and much of the success is due to the coaching staff in Fort Worth. Green will not be splitting goal line carries like he has in the past and could have a career year in 2015. Boykin was the number two runner for the Horned Frogs, while sophomores Trevorris Johnson and Kyle Hicks will find some playing time in the back field to give Green rest.
On the offensive line, TCU is set but will need to make something happen this year before everyone leaves. The Horned Frogs have All-conference selections at center and right tackle while returning both of their starting guards. They will be starting five seniors on the line this year that have 97 career starts between them.
Defense: Patterson has stuck with the 4-2-5 base defense that has had so much success at TCU and that is what makes last year’s stats difficult to comprehend. The purpose of the formation is to get an extra secondary member in to stop the pass while playing more loosely on the run. It makes sense in the Big XII. Last year, the Horned Frogs finished 9th in the country against the run and 77th against the pass. It was good enough to be ranked 18th in total defense and 8th in scoring defense. While the defense against the run was spectacular and odd, the pass defense could use some work and it will not be easy to rebuild.
Last season, TCU’s defensive line had 61 tackles for a loss by themselves. When you have a line that works this well, there is no need to throw in a third linebacker. The Horned Frogs return eight of their nine leading tacklers and bring in three new freshmen along with Nebraska transfer Aaron Curry. Curry is expected to come in and take a starting role at the defensive tackle position to help the three seniors currently listed as starters for the Horned Frogs. James McFarland, Mike Tuaua and Davion Pearson were all starters on the imposing line from last season. They combined for 28.5 tackles for a loss, 15.5 sacks and seven forced fumbles. Those four names are just the start of a deep defensive line for TCU.
The defense begins to see an issue when you look at the linebackers from last season. The Horned Frogs lose their top three guys, including All-American Paul Dawson who had a team-high 108 tackles and four interceptions. The losses would not be a problem but TCU doesn’t seem to have the guys to back them up yet. They return just two linebackers who played last season and bring in three 3-star recruits to try to fix the depth issue. Good news for TCU fans is that no one heard of Dawson until he started playing out of his mind last season, meaning that any of these guys could jump right into the role and fill it perfectly. That guy, for me, is true freshman Mike Freeze. He dropped off many big school’s boards after separating his shoulder in the offseason and missing his entire senior season. He was a big athlete in high school and even ran track. If there is one trait that makes great linebackers stand out from the rest, it is speed. Freeze has that and more and should make a big enough impact to help TCU fill the position without too much hassle.
In the secondary, there is a lot of pieces that need to be replaced but the depth will not be an issue. There are 13 interceptions off last year’s team that are now gone but senior safety Derrick Kindred returns to fill the leadership role and have a breakout season of his own. He was the leading tackler in the Horned Frogs’ secondary and helped make big plays, including four interceptions and two forced fumbles. Kindred will be leading a young group of defensive backs that include starting sophomore cornerbacks Nick Orr and Ranthony Texada. They bring in two new freshmen, including four-star cornerback DeShawn Raymond who will give depth behind the young starters.
Schedule: TCU’s schedule is similar to Baylor’s in that it is loaded on the back end. However, an opening game at Minnesota on Thursday night will not be easy. The Horned Frogs open conference play at Texas Tech and travel to Kansas State in mid-October. TCU’s November schedule could cause a problem but it sets up better than Baylor’s does. A trip to Stillwater is followed up by a home game against Kansas before going back out to Oklahoma to play the Sooners. Then, there is the showdown against Baylor in the regular season finale which could be for a trip to the College Football Playoff.
Prediction: 12-0 (9-0, Big XII Champions)
Caleb Turrentine is a contributor and a show host at WVUA-FM. Follow him on Twitter, @CalebTurrentine.