by Jim Feist
The countdown continues! Last week we looked at my Top 21-40, this week is my Top 20. The CFB season kicks off September 3rd, so here's a peak at college football's best.
20. Indiana: A Big 10 surprise team? The Hoosiers are off a losing campaign but return 7 starters on both sides of the ball. The offense is an attacking, no-huddle unit under Kevin Wilson, ripping off 236 yards rushing per game (10th in the nation). And they add UAB transfer junior RB Jordan Howard, a terrific transfer from UAB. He finished seventh nationally with 132.3 rushing per game. QB 6-5 senior Nate Sudfeld (6 TDs, 3 picks) was very productive before an injury. The Hoosiers beat eventual SEC champions Missouri (31-27) on the road and went toe-to-toe with national champion Ohio State in Columbus before losing 42-27. Junior CB Antonio Allen was honorable mention All-Big 10 and teams with soph S Donovan Clark, senior LB Zack Shaw, plus the schedule isn’t that difficult. Their 15-9 run over total could continue, too.
19. Georgia Tech: Paul Johnson has a speedy offense that’s tough to defend, off an 11-3 SU, 10-4 ATS campaign. 5 starters are back on offense, 7 on defense. Junior QB Justin Thomas (18 TD, 6 picks, 1,719 yards passing) was the missing piece with 1,086 yards rushing. The defense made strides (25.7 ppg allowed) under second-year DC Ted Roof, bringing in a 4-3 alignment. G-Tech gets Notre Dame in September and later road games at Clemson and Miami will be the biggest challenges.
18. Auburn: Coach Gus Malzahn returns 6 on offense, 8 on defense, to a team that averaged 35.5 points and 255.5 yards rushing (14th). The offense is expected to open up the passing game more behind Junior QB Jeremy Johnson (3 TDs, 0 INTs; 436 yards). New defensive coordinator Will Muschamp has junior DE Carl Lawson back from injury and senior DE DaVonte Lambert was a welcome addition. The road schedule is not bad at Kentucky, Arkansas and A&M.
17. USC: Coach Steve Sarkisian looks to add to his up-tempo offense, averaging 35.8 points with senior QB Cody Kessler (39 TDs, 5 INTs, 3,826 yards; 69.7%). 7 starters return on both offense and defense. This offense was 15th in the nation with 296.6 yards passing. The backfield is deep and the entire offensive line returns. USC’s defense held teams to an average of just 133 yards on the ground and was Top 20 in turnover margin and third down conversions. There are 3 tough road games, though, at Arizona State, Notre Dame and Oregon.
16. Mississippi State: Off a 10-3 season the Bulldogs and Dan Mullen are rebuilding but return senior QB Dak Prescott (27 TDs, 11 INTs), who was second on the team with 986 yards rushing. This offense averaged 36.9 ppg (17th), 280.7 yards passing and 233 rushing. Sophomore RB Aeris Williams (a top recruit) and Brandon Holloway (294 yds, 6.5 ypc) will step up alongside junior WR De’Runnya Wilson (680 yards). The defense (21.7 ppg allowed) lost its coordinator and key players on the line, but return senior LB Benardick McKinney and junior LB Beniquez Brown. They are on a 22-15-1 run under the total.
15. Florida State: Let’s see if Jimbo Fisher’s Seminole machine can keep rolling. Junior Sean Maguire (339 yards) made one start in 2014, completing 21 of 39 passes for 304 yards against a great defense (Clemson). The WRs are talented with 6-2 sophomore Travis Rudolph and sophomore Ermon Lane, while 4 starters return to the O-line. 7 starters return on defense, but they slipped from No. 1 to 50th allowing 25.6 ppg. The Seminoles have 23-game ACC winning streak and have an easy schedule outside of two late road games at Clemson and Florida.
14. Wisconsin: New coach Paul Chryst returns to Madison after a three-year stint as Pittsburgh’s head coach. 6 starters are back on offense, 8 on defense. Junior RB Corey Clement (949 yards, 6.5 ypg) played second fiddle to Melvin Gordon but had a fine season, along with senior QB Tanner McEvoy, who ran for 709 yards, 8.8 ypc. Senior QB Joel Stave (9 TDs, 10 INTs, 1,350 yards) regressed, but as a junior in 2013 he had 22 TDs, 13 INTs. The defense was dominant allowing 20.7 ppg (17th) but has to rebuild at linebacker, though the secondary is outstanding. The opener is tough against Bama in Arlington, Texas. Wisconsin has been great at home, 70-8 SU, 43-29 ATS the last 11 years.
13. Stanford: Coach David Shaw was rebuilding during an 8-5 campaign, but returns 9 starters on offense, 4 on defense. Senior QB Kevin Hogan (19 TDs, 8 INTs) ran for 295 yards and the backfield is deep. The O-line should be one of the nation’s best behind senior Left tackle Andrus Peat, senior OG Joshua Garnett and junior center Graham Shuler. The defense was second in the nation in points allowed (16.4 ppg) and returns its best linebackers. Road games at USC and Northwestern will be a challenge and they end by hosting Notre Dame and host Oregon (Nov. 14). Stanford is on a 25-14 run under the total with dominant defense, run-first offense.
12. Ole Miss: Expectations are high for Coach Hugh Freeze’s team, though they lost QB Bo Wallace (22 TDs, 14 INTs). Junior college recruit (and former Clemson QB) Chad Kelly is in town, a mobile two-way threat with experience. 10 Starters are back on offense, 8 on defense. Senior RB Jaylen Walton (5.5 ypc, 586 yards) returns, with a deep WR corps behind senior WR Cody Core (558 yards) and 6-3 junior WR Laquon Treadwell (632 yards). The defense was No. 1 allowing 16 points per game in 2014 and returns the Nkemdiche brothers and sophomore All-American DE Marquis Haynes (7.5 sacks).
11. Missouri: The Tigers are off a sizzling 11-3 SU/9-5 ATS campaign and return 7 starters on both sides of the line. Coach Gary Pinkel has a balanced attack behind Junior QB Matt Mauk (25 TDs, 13 INTs), 4 offensive linemen back and senior RB Russell Hansbrough (1,084 yards, 5.3 ypc). This offense averaged 27.8 points, 189 yards passing and 178 rushing. The defense is a force after allowing just 21 ppg (19th). Junior CB Aarion Penton and senior CB Kenya Dennis anchor a veteran secondary with junior DT Harold Brantley anchoring the line. Missouri is 60-24 SU, 38-37-2 ATS last 84 home games and on a 20-8 ATS run overall.
10. Baylor: What can you do for an encore, Art Briles? Briles is a master at recruiting speed and offensive talent. Last season Baylor was tops in the nation in scoring (48.2 ppg) averaging 365.9 yards passing (4th) and 215.5 rushing (29th) pg. Fourth-year junior QB Seth Russell (8 TDs, 1 INTs, 804 yards, 56.5%) is replacing Bryce Petty. The offensive line returns intact and a laded crew of receivers, including Junior WR Corey Coleman (1,119 yards, 11 TDs) and soph WR K.D. Cannon (1,030). The defense continues to improve (25.5 ppg allowed). The secondary returns all 4 starters with Xavien Howard and Ryan Reid at the corners and 6-9 DE senior Shawn Oakman is back after recording 11 sacks. With all that speed on offense it’s no wonder Baylor is on a 26-12 run over the total.
9. LSU: The Tigers are off a 8-5 season and return 8 starters on offense, 9 on defense. The offense couldn’t pass the football (116th in passing) but they have junior QB Anthony Jennings (11 TDs, 7 picks) and sophomore QB Brandon Harris (6 TDs, 2 INTs) with a year under their belts. The ground game is loaded with the best offensive line in the SEC and sophomore RB Leonard Fournette (1,034 yards, 5.5 ypc). The defense is even better, allowing just 17.5 ppg for new coordinator Kevin Steele. The front line is outstanding led by senior DE Danielle Hunter, linebacker junior Kendell Beckwith and sophomore tackle Davon Godchaux. In Week 3 they host Auburn, a revege game after Auburn ripped them, 41-7, last year. The Tigers are on a 14-19-1 ATS run.
8. Oregon: The Ducks will be fun to watch again after rolling up 45.4 points (4th), 312.5 yards passing (10th), 234.5 rushing (22nd) per contest. Junior QB Jeff Lockie (207 yards) and Morgan Mahalk return, but a guy to watch is senior QB 5-11 Vernon Adams, who transferred from Eastern Washington, a huge dual talent. Sophomore RB Royce Freeman (1,365 yards, 18 TDs) is back and the wide outs are loaded, including senior WR Bralon Addison, who missed all of last year. The defense allowed 23.6 ppg (31st) and returns 6-7 senior DT DeForest Bucker, who missed last year with a leg injury. They have to survive a revenge game at Michigan State in Week 2. No-huddle Oregon is on a 43-28-1 run over the total.
7: Michigan State: The Spartans were 11-2 last year and have been covering games for a while, on an 18-8-1 ATS run. Senior QB Connor Cook (24 TDs, 8 INT; 3,214 yards) is 16-1 as Big 10 starter for Coach Mark Dantonio. He lost his top weapons, however. Fortunately, defense (21.5 ppg) returns senior defensive end Shilique Calhoun (8 sacks), along with safety Montae Nicholson and CB Darian Hicks. There are two huge revenge games against Oregon and at Ohio State Nov. 21, a 49-37 loss as -4 chalk. Michigan State is 29-40 ATS at home, though 6-1 ATS last year.
6. Texas A&M: Kevin Sumlin is a great recruiter and has a stocked lineup for 2015 with 8 starters back on both lines. Sophomore QB Kyle Allen (16 TDs, 7 INTs) returns and the wideout corps is loaded behind 6-4 junior WR Josh Reynolds (842 yards, 13 TDs), sophomore WR Speedy Noil (583) and 6-4 junior Edward Pope (454). This offense (35.2 ppg) will have great balance with senior RBs 5-8 Trey Williams (560 yards, 6.9 ypc) and Tra Carson (581). The D-line returns intact for new coordinator John Chavis (6 years at LSU). The only road games are at Arkansas, Ole Miss, Vandy and LSU, so they get Bama and Auburn at home. A&M is on a 15-11 run over the total.
5: Notre Dame: Brian Kelly gets Texas and USC at home, with the only tough road games at Clemson and Stanford. 8 starters return on offense, 10 on defense. Sophomore QB Malik Zaire (266 yards) steps in and led the way in a 31-28 bowl win over LSU. Zaire is the best running quarterback under Kelly in South Bend. Junior RB Tarean Folston (889 yards, 5.1 ypc) and junior WR William Fuller (1,094 yds) lead a balanced attack. The only defensive spot where a starter does not return is at cornerback. At 8-5 last season, the Irish lost three games by a total of 7 points, including 31-27 to Florida State as a +9 dog.
4. Alabama: Florida State transfer senior QB Jake Coker (4 TDs, 0 INTs, 403 yards) steps in to this pro-style attack that averaged 36.9 points and over 200 yards rushing and passing. Senior RB Derrick Henry (990 yards, 5.8 ypc) is back and senior tight end 6-6 O.J. Howard (260 yards) is a force. The defense has ranked No. 1, No. 4 and No. 6 the last three years in points allowed. The front seven is loaded with talent and depth and will be one of the best in the country with junior NT A’Shawn Robinson and senior DE Jason Reed. They open vs. Wisconsin (Sept. 6) in the Cowboys classic in Arlington, Texas. 4 key road games are at Georgia, Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Auburn.
3. TCU: The Frogs are off a 12-1 SU/11-2 ATS campaign and Gary Patterson’s squad is primed for another great season. 10 starters are back on offense, 5 on defense. OC Doug Meacham helped jumpstart the offense which averaged 46.5 points (2nd), 326 yards passing (7th) and 206.8 rushing (36th). Senior QB Trevone Boykin (33 TDs, 10 INTs, 3,901 yards), senior RB Aaron Green (922 yards) and senior WRs 6-4 Josh Doctson (1,018 yards) and Kolby Listenbee (753, 18.4) return to scorch defenses. The defense was 8th in nation in points allowed (19 ppg) and has key losses up front. However, senior DT Davion Pierson and DE Mike Tuaua return. The biggest challenges are at both Oklahoma schools, but they carry a 43-7 SU/31-19 ATS run at home into the new season.
2. Georgia: The Bulldogs are off a 10-3 SU/8-5 ATS campaign and have 6 starters back on offense, 7 on a super defense. Pro-style Junior QB Brice Ramsey (3 TDs, 2 INTs, 333 yards, 61.5%) steps in and is surrounded by playmakers. They add offensive play-caller Brian Schottenheimer from the NFL. The offense has sophomore RB Nick Chubb (1,547 yards, 7.1 ypc) along with 4 offensive line starters. They are on a 17-9 run over the total. The defense is even better, ranked 16th last season allowing 20.7 ppg. Junior LB Leonard Floyd is a force, Junior college recruit LB Chuks Amaechi is aboard joining sophomore LB 6-6 Lorenzo Carter, another five-star recruit from 2014. And the defensive line gets a boost with 313-lb freshman DT Trenton Thompson, the No. 1 DT recruit in the nation. Sports bettors note: Georgia is 51-21 SU/38-33 ATS on the road under Mark Richt.
1. Ohio State: Dynasty? The Buckeyes started 24-0 under Urban Meyer, then rolled to a nation title last season. They are off a 14-1 SU, 10-5 ATS campaign, ripping Wisconsin (59-0), Alabama (42-35) and Oregon (42-20) -- as a dog each time! He’s the best coach and recruiter in college football and his 2015 team is loaded. 7 starters are back on both sides of the line. Look at the Buckeye’s quarterback depth: Senior QB Braxton Miller (24 TDs, 7 INTs in 2013), sophomore QB J.T. Barrett (34 TDs, 10 INTs) and national title hero sophomore QB Cardale Jones (7 TDs, 2 picks). Junior RB Ezekiel Elliott (1,878 yards, 6.9 ypc) and soph RB Curtis Samuel (383 yards, 8.1 ypc) lead a backfield that has an embarrassment of talent + riches. The defense allowed just 22 ppg (26th in the nation). Ohio State is 8-1 SU/6-3 ATS on the road and on a 23-6 run over the total. And their only tough Big 10 road game is at Michigan. A year from now we’ll be talking about them going for 3 titles in a row.