At last, we are closing in on a brand new football season. It’s time to kick off our annual preseason look. College football begins Thursday, August 29, and here’s a look at my top teams, counting down from 40 to 21.
40. BYU: The Cougars are off an 8-5 SU, 7-6 ATS season and return eight starters on offense, four on defense. The offense average 28.7 points, 247 yards passing (50th), 153 yards rushing despite using three QBs because of injuries and ineffectiveness. Those three QBs: 25 TDs, 17 INTs.
Dual-threat Sophomore QB Taysom Hill (4 TDs, 2 INTs) was second on the team in rushing with 336 yards, 6.1 ypc, and is joined by sophomore RB Jamaal Williams (775) and 6-4 senior WR Cody Hoffman (1,248), both leading the team.
The defense has been a force allowing 20 ppg (22nd in the nation) in 2011 and 14 ppg last year (3rd in nation). DE Kyle Van Noy is back after getting 13 sacks on a unit that ranked second in the nation in rush defense (86.9 yards per game) and held five opponents to seven points or fewer.
Note: The Cougars open at Virginia, then host Texas in Week 2.
39. Texas Tech: Tommy Tuberville is out and Kliff Kingsbury takes over. He will keep the Mike Leach offense he used to run, a unit that averaged 37.5 points, 356 yards passing (second in the nation). Sophomore QB Michael Brewer (375 yds, 4 TDs, no picks) steps in, though true freshman QB Davis Webb is a three-star recruit who may challenge.
Senior WR Eric Ward (1,053 yds) bypassed the NFL to come back, and three of five offensive linemen from a unit that only allowed 19 sacks last season are gone. Defense returns eight starters but was soft allowing 31 ppg. DC Matt Wallerstedt is their fifth coach to give it a shot in the last five years.
Note: The schedule is easy earlier, back-to-back games against both Oklahoma schools (Oct. 26, Nov. 2).
38. Fresno State: Coach Tim DeRuyter did a fabulous job during a 9-4 SU, 11-2 ATS campaign. They had the No. 12 ranked passing attack in the nation averaging 37.9 points and 325.6 yards in the air and return senior QB Derek Carr (37 TDs, 7 INTs).
The Bulldogs led the Mountain West with 478 yards per game and have WRs soph Davante Adams (1,312 yds) returning along with speedy junior Josh Harper (333) and slot WR Isaiah Burse (851).
Eight starters are back on offense and defense. The secondary is outstanding (Fresno State’s 20 interceptions was the country’s third best total) but the run defense ranked 75th. They’re attacking 3-4 scheme allowed 23.8 ppg, a huge upgrade from 2011.
Note: The big showdown will come early, September 20 at home against Boise.
37. Ole Miss: Make or break! The Rebels are off a 7-6 SU, 10-3 ATS campaign and return 8 starters on offense, 7 on defense, so expectations are high. Coach Hugh Freeze’s offense average 31.5 points, 250 yards passing and 173.8 yards rushing and returns what could be the best receiving corps in the SEC.
The offensive line returns four starters for 6-5 junior QB Bo Wallace (22 TDs, 17 INTs), junior WR Donte Moncrief (979 yards, 10 TDs) and senior RB Jeff Scott (846 yards).
The linebacking corps is the strength of the Rebels’ defense behind soph Denzel Nkemdiche. But they allowed 27.6 ppg because of a bad secondary that allowing 246.5 passing yards, 7th in the SEC. That explains a 4-0 run OVER the total into the new season.
Note: Don’t look for a hot start, though: Ole Miss opens with 3 of 4 road games: at Vandy, at Texas, at Bama and at Auburn right before hosting Texas A&M and LSU!
36. Georgia Tech: Paul Johnson’s run-oriented squad (311 yards rushing per game, No. 4 in the nation) averaged 33.6 points. Sophomore QB Vad Lee (3 TDs, 1 pick) ran for 544 yards and is joined by junior RB Zack Laskey (697 yds, 5.2 ypc).
With all that scoring why were they 7-7? The defense was soft (28.3 ppg) so changes made as DC Ted Roof is aboard. 8 starters are back. He brings in a 4-3 alignment after Al Groh had tried a 3-4 scheme the previous two years.
Note: The Yellow Jackets are on a 18-12-1 ATS run.
35. USC: The Trojans (7-6 SU, 3-10 ATS) were a preseason Top 10 team a year ago, even No. 1, but I had them 19th because of an overrated coach and a suspect defense. That’s where the program has been hurt the most with the loss of scholarships.
The heat is building on Lane Kiffin but they return 8 starters on offense, 7 on defense. Sophomore QB Max Wittek (3 TDs, 5 INTs) got his feet wet and didn’t exactly shine, but has a load of skill position talent including senior RB Silas Redd (905 yds) and junior WR Marqise Lee (1,721 yds).
Note: The coaching staff was shuffled with Mike Ekeler, Clancy Pendergast and Tommie Robinson coming aboard. Pendergast is the biggest addition, as he is charged with getting USC’s defense back on track.
34. Mississippi State: In the rugged SEC the Bulldogs are 24-15 the last three years, so Dan Mullen has built a consistent and overachieving program. MSU returns 6 starters on offense, 5 on defense. The offense averaged 29.5 points, 237.8 yards passing, 143.5 rushing and returns seniors QB Tyler Russell (24 TDs 10 INTs) and RB LaDarius Perkins (1,016 yards).
The passing game lost its top targets, but with four offensive linemen back this should be a strong, balanced attack again. The secondary has new looks so a deep D-line will be the strength up front, a unit that allowed 23.3 ppg.
Note: The Bulldogs are on a 7-4-1 run UNDER the total.
33. Kansas State: Is there a better coach than Bill Snyder? He continues to amaze, off a 11-2 SU, 9-3-1 ATS 2012 season. The Wildcats return 8 starters on offense, but only 3 on defense and lose star QB Collin Klein. All 5 starters return to an offensive line that did a great job in pass protection and paved the way for 194 rushing yards per game.
QBs Daniel Sams (55 yards passing, 235 yards rushing, 7.3 ypc) and Jake Waters are back along with RB John Hubert (947 yds, 5.0 ypc). The defense (22.2 ppg allowed) loses everyone up front, filled in by a slew of JUCO newcomers.
Note: There’s time to figure out the pieces to the puzzle with North Dakota State, Louisiana-Lafayette and UMass to start the season, but the Big 12 opener at Texas comes up fast.
32. Missouri: Moving to the SEC was no fun for Coach Gary Pinkel last season (5-7), giving up 59 to A&M, a 41-20 loss to Georgia and a 42-10 home loss to Bama. The good news is this team returns a lot of offensive talent, 7 starters on offense, 6 on defense.
Senior QB James Franklin (10 TDs, 7 INTs) looks for a healthy year and has a deep receiving corps with 6-5 senior Marcus Lucas (509 yards) while 6-4 senior WR L’Damian Washington (443 yds) averaged 17.7 yards per catch.
The Tigers return 4 starters on the O-line and senior RB Henry Joseph has had a year to recover from a serious knee injury (he ran for 1,168 yards, 8.1 ypc in 2011). The defense allowed 28.4 ppg. Three of the top four returning tacklers, including EJ Gaines, will play in the defensive backfield, but they are rebuilding the D-line.
Note: Missouri is 48-19 SU, 28-30-1 ATS its last 67 home games.
31. Tennessee: The Vols are off back-to-back 5-7 seasons. However, they got the right guy to run the program in first-year head coach Butch Jones. He’s a demanding, disciplinarian who did outstanding jobs at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, following in the footsteps of Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly.
Rocky Top has 5 starters back on offense, 7 on defense. QB Justin Worley steps in after throwing for 134 yards last year on an offense that was 15th in the nation in passing with 315.6 yards per game, as well as 36.2 ppg. They lost their top wideouts, but Jones loves aggressive offenses and his Cincinnati team average over 200 yards rushing and passing.
Both tailbacks, Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane, return to one of the best offensive lines in the SEC. The defense was awful in the secondary but returns a strong LB corps.
Note: Tennessee carries a 10-2 run over the total into the new season.
30. Washington: The Huskies should have an explosive offense with 10 starters back, led by senior QB Keith Price (19 TD, 13 INTs), junior RB Bishop Sankey (1,439 yds) and juniors 6-6 TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins and WR Kasen Williams (878 yds). A banged up offensive line hurt them in 2012 but Price has a chance to return to his 2011 form when he had 33 TDs, 11 INTs on an offense that averaged 40 points.
The defense made huge strides last year under new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, allowing 24.2 ppg (39th in the nation), an improvement of almost 12 points per contest. A bowl game is likely, though road trips to Stanford, Arizona State and UCLA will prevent dreams of a Pac 12 title.
Note: The Huskies open against Boise, a team they lost the Las Vegas bowl to, 28-26.
29. Northwestern: The Wildcats were ranked 110th in the nation in passing but won 10 games (10-3 SU, 12-1 ATS). How did they do that? By doing everything else well, 31.7 points and 225.5 yards rushing per contest. 8 starters are back on offense, 7 on defense.
Junior QB Trevor Siemian (6 TDs, 3 INTs) returns along with star senior RB Venric Mark, who ran for 1,366 yards, 6 yards per carry, and senior QB/RB Kain Colter (894 yards rushing).
Three O-line starters are gone from a unit that led the Big Ten in sacks allowed and finished 19th nationally in rushing.
The secondary struggled (last in the Big Ten in passing defense) but up front they return All-Big Ten performer Tyler Scott (9 sacks).
Note: The Wildcats hope the opener doesn’t hurt, a long road trip at California (August 31), followed by 5 straight home games.
28. Oregon State: The Beavers impressed with a 9-4 SU, 8-5 ATS season and expectations are strong with 8 starters back on offense, 7 on defense. Mike Riley has a stocked offense with junior QB Sean Mannion (15 TDs, 13 INTs), one that averaged 32.5 points, 307 yards passing and 124.4 yards rushing.
That passing attack was 19th in the nation and returns junior WR Brandin Cooks (1,151 yards). Four starters return to the offensive line along with sophomore RB Storm Woods (940 yards, 13 TDs). Riley did a phenomenal job rebuilding the defense and they allowed 20.6 ppg. Much of the defense returns, except up front where they lost three of four starters.
Note: Oregon State gets Stanford and USC at home and is on an 8-3 run OVER the total.
27. Virginia Tech: The Hokies just made their 20th straight bowl game and made some changes on offense. Frank Beamer hired former Auburn offensive coordinator Scott Loeffler to overhaul the offense that slipped in 2012. 6-6 senior QB Logan Thomas (18 TDs, 16 INTs) is back and led the team in rushing (524 yards) but wasn’t much of a passer completing just 51.2%.
Nine starters are projected to return on a defense that ranked among the top 32 teams in the nation in total, scoring, rushing and pass defense led by LB Jack Tyler, the ACC’s leading returning tackler.
Note: V-Tech is on a 4-9 ATS run but a stellar 22-10 SU/18-14-1 ATS on the road the last six years.
26. Michigan State: The Spartans (7-6 SU, 5-8 ATS) were rebuilding last season on offense but still had a fine year, losing five games by four points or less. 8 starters are back on offense, led by senior QB Andrew Maxwell (13 TDs, 9 INT). They moved the football with a balanced attack but struggled to find the end zone too often averaging just 20 ppg.
The offense doesn’t have to be explosive because 7 starters return to the Big 10’s best defense, one that allowed 16.3 ppg (9th in the nation). They ranked fourth in the nation in yards allowed and return senior DT Micajah Reynolds and junior NT James Kittredge to a powerhouse front.
Note: The Spartans get Michigan at home with the only tough road games at Notre Dame and Nebraska. Michigan State is 20-35 ATS its last 55 home games!
25. Arizona State: Here come the Sun Devils! Coach Todd Graham ignited the offense last year (38.4 ppg) and has 17 starters returning, so expectations are high. Junior QB Taylor Kelly (29 TDs, 9 INTs) had a terrific sophomore season leading an offense that averaged 259 yards passing, 205.4 rushing. He is joined by senior RB Marion Grice (679 yards) and senior TE Chris Coyle (696).
The defense (24.3 ppg allowed) led the nation in tackles for loss and was second in sacks, but the run defense was poor giving up 183 yards per game. The D-line got a big boost when star DT Will Sutton opted to return for his senior year, joined by speedy senior LBs Carl Bradford and Chris Young. Is this a sleeper team? They surprised oddsmakers last season going 8-4-1 ATS.
Note: We will know right away as ASU faces Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame - all by Oct. 5!
24. Miami: The U played 21 freshmen last season, one of the youngest teams in the country. Coach Al Golden has 9 starters back on offense, 5 on defense. The offense averaged 31.4 points, 295 yards passing and 144.8 rushing and returns senior QB Stephen Morris (3,345 yds, 21 TDs, 7 INTs). He has plenty of help with sophomore RB Duke Johnson (947 yds, 10 TDs, 6.8 ypc) and junior WR Phillip Dorsett (842 yds).
While the offense impressed, the defense did not, finishing last in the ACC in both rushing yards and passing yards allowed per game. Golden hopes experience makes a difference and this unit was very good at forcing turnovers.
Note: The schedule features Florida (Sept. 7), and tough road games at South Florida, at UNC, FSU and Pitt. Miami brings an 8-3-1 ATS run into the new season.
23. Boise State: The rebuilding Broncos (11-2 SU/6-7 ATS in 2012) did very well and return their best starters on offense, a unit that averaged 30 points, 223 yards passing and 168 yards rushing. Senior QB Joe Southwick (19 TS, 7 INTs) has sophomore RB Jay Ajayi (548 yards, 6.7 ypc) in the backfield and junior WR Matt Miller (769 yards).
The Broncos ranked No. 5 in the country in pass defense (169.5 yards per game) and No. 8 in scoring defense (15.8 points), but loses their two starting cornerbacks. A dazzling newcomer is JUCO transfer DT Deuce Mataele up front. Boise State faces seven 2012 bowl teams this season - six of them in the first eight games.
Note: Since 1999, Boise is 88-4 SU, 48-32 ATS at home!
22. North Carolina: Coach Larry Fedora was a great hire, a proponent of no-huddle, wide-open attacking offenses like he ran at Southern Miss. His first season for the Tar Heels: 40.6 points, 291.8 yards passing, 193.8 yards rushing per game, ranking 8th in nation in points scored. UNC has 6 starters back on offense, 7 on defense.
This offense is loaded with senior QB Bryn Renner (28 TDs, 7 INTs, 3,356 yds) and electric 6-4 soph WR Quinshad Davis (776 yds), along with RB A.J. Blue and junior WR Eric Ebron (625). The defense returns 6 starters, but has plenty of room for improvement following an up-and-down performance in the new 4-2-5 alignment.
Note: The Tar Heels allowed 25.7 ppg and are on 7-3-1 run OVER the total.
21. Michigan: The Wolverines found the right man to lead them in Brady Hoke, off seasons of 11-2 and 8-5. The Wolverines return five starters on offense and six on defense from a team that finished 6-2 in the Big Ten. With Denard Robinson off to the NFL, senior QB Devin Gardner (11 TDs, 5 INTs) gets the full time nod. There is plenty of experience to assist him in senior RB Fitz Toussaint is back at tailback and top WR Jeremy Gallon (829 yards).
The defense was very strong again, 19.8 ppg ranked 20th in the nation. Michigan allowed over 32 points in only two games and that was against Alabama and South Carolina. Big Blue avoids the SEC this season and gets rival Ohio State at home, a 26-21 loss last year.
Note: Michigan is 16-18 SU/14-20 ATSits last 34 road games.
Jim Feist, author and leader in sports information for over 40 years, hosts TV’s Proline as well as running National Sports Services since 1975. Follow him on twitter: @JimFeistSports . Reach him at [email protected]