The sun has barely set on the BCS era and, as we speak, Florida State’s Chief Osceola is riding off toward the horizon with the last Crystal Ball tucked carefully under his arm. But now it’s time to take a break from this glorious ending and ponder: What will next season look like?
Here’s an early top 10 for 2014:
1. Ohio State — The Buckeyes return the Heisman front runner in Braxton Miller and a ton of other playmakers on both sides of the ball. After going 24-2 in his first two years in Columbus, Urban Meyer finally has the roster in place to win the first national title under the new College Football Playoff system.
2. Oregon — If Miller is the Heisman favorite, Marcus Mariota isn’t too far behind. He returns to lead an explosive Duck offense that should once again wreak havoc on opposing defenses. On the other side of the ball is a unit led by Ifo Ekpre-Olomu that could be the best defense in school history.
3. Auburn — For all the magic and luck Auburn needed to get to the BCS title game, remember that it was only Year One of the Gus Malzahn Era on The Plains. Give the man another spring ball and add a stellar recruiting class to the mix and watch him mold a new juggernaut consisting of players who buy in completely with what he’s trying to accomplish. It helps that the ever-improving Nick Marshall and a bevy of talented young defenders are set to return for another go-around.
4. Oklahoma — No one should’ve been that surprised by OU’s upset of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. It’s Oklahama, after all. This is a program that is always loaded with talent. Quarterback Trevor Knight showed glimpses of a bright future against the Tide and could develop into one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country in 2014. The Sooner defensive front seven is an elite group on par with those units from the early Bob Stoops era.
5. Florida State — What will the Seminoles do for an encore? Well, first they’ve got to figure out how many key players from this year’s squad will be heading to the NFL. Devonta Freeman, James Wilder, Jr., Timmie Jernigan and Kelvin Benjamin could all leave early for the draft, while seniors Lamarcus Joyner, Telvin Smith and Bryan Stork will all be gone, too. Still, Jameis Winston returns and the treasure trove of talent on defense means FSU should once again be the team to beat in the ACC.
6. Alabama — Next year’s Crimson Tide could be the most talented team of Nick Saban’s tenure in Tuscaloosa. Somewhere between 40 and 50 players will play in the NFL at some point. However, the Tide will need to find a quarterback to replace AJ McCarron and do a little rebuilding on defense, too. With a few minor tweaks, Alabama should have no trouble making the four-team playoff.
7. Baylor — Heisman candidate Bryce Petty returns to lead what could be the best offense in college football. Tailback Lache Seastrunk is heading to the pros, but his able backup, Shock Linwood, returns and could be even more productive. The Bears were one of the most improved defenses in the country this past season, but will have to find able replacements for Ahmad Dixon and Eddie Lackey if they want to remain in the upper echelon of the Big 12.
8. UCLA — Heisman candidate Brett Hundley bypassed millions of NFL dollars and should be in line for a huge junior season for the Bruins. He has a ton of offensive weapons at his disposal, including linebacker-turned-running back Myles Jack. The defense is deep and experienced. This should be the best UCLA team since the late 1990s.
9. Wisconsin — Stud running back Melvin Gordon returns as does quarterback Joel Stave. If the Badgers can rebuild their wide receiver and linebacker groups, they should once again challenge for the Big Ten title.
10. Stanford — The defense must replace a lot of NFL bodies, but there’s plenty of available talent ready to give it a shot. The offensive line will once again be among the nation’s best and quarterback Kevin Hogan, who is 10-1 as a starter against ranked teams, should be ready for a breakout season.