College football guru Phil Steele released his projection of the Associated Press Top 25 this week. Actually, Steele released his AP Top 26 projection, breaking down not his preseason rankings, but rather estimating how the media voters will cast their ballots for the first poll.
It’s a pretty fascinating rundown. Be sure to check out the above link for the complete 26, and read on for thoughts on some of the more surprising inclusions and omissions.
TCU Horned Frogs: Gary Patterson built TCU into a regular double-digit-game-winner, rolling off eight 11-win campaigns in a decade. However, the Horned Frogs faced growing pains in their Big 12 debut and stumbled to a 7-6 finish.
TCU wasn’t just new to its conference. There were plenty of fresh faces wearing purple-and-black last season, which means a much more experienced team in 2013. The return of quarterback Casey Pachall and newly eligible Nebraska transfer running back Aaron Green add needed firepower on offense.
Year Two should go more smoothly for TCU, but are the Frogs destined for a top 15 ranking? Only Oklahoma is projected for a higher preseason rating among Big 12 teams per Steele.
Kansas State Wildcats: Bill Snyder’s defending Big 12 Conference champions check in on the periphery at No. 26. While things on the sidelines are very much staying the same, there is a plethora of change sweeping Manhattan this offseason.
In addition to Heisman Trophy finalist quarterback Collin Klein, the Wildcat defense loses 10 starters. A ballot cast for K-State before getting a good look at the 2013 Wildcats is a vote of confidence in Snyder’s magic. The venerable coach has plenty of tricks hidden up the sleeves of his roomy, purple jacket. And if he molds this team into a Big 12 contender, it might be his best act yet.
USC Trojans: USC eeks into Steele’s projection. Were I casting a ballot right now, the Trojans would not sniff the Top 25. USC is coming off a historically disappointing 7-6 finish, loses its four-year, starting quarterback, and actually has less depth than a season ago. Mounting injuries in spring practices highlight the team’s thinned ranks.
However, there’s a decided mystique about USC that intrigues AP voters. Last season’s preseason No. 1 ranking meant overlooking some of the team’s more glaring issues, including significant departures on both lines and the aforementioned depth issues. Cardinal and gold comes with a certain deference, and part of that means perhaps higher-than-warranted rankings from pollsters. With Heisman candidate Marqise Lee back, I suspect Steele’s prediction of USC slipping into the preseason Top 25 comes to pass.
Florida Gators & South Carolina Gamecocks: Steele projects SEC East rivals Florida and South Carolina Nos. 8 and 9. Both were top 10 teams in 2012, and each can compete for the conference in 2013. The Gamecocks return 12 starters, and the Gators return 11. However, South Carolina looks more like the preseason top 10 for next year.
Florida’s primary offensive weapon was running back Mike Gillislee, who Will Muschamp and Brent Pease could replace with true freshman Kelvin Taylor. UF is going to rely heavily on youth from Muschamp’s recent, highly touted recruiting classes. The assumption is the Gator youngsters will perform at a top 10 level, and quarterback Jeff Driskel will develop into a more capable play maker. Both are pretty significant conditionals.
South Carolina had the opportunity to break in new contributors late in 2012. The unfortunate injury of Marcus Lattimore allowed Mike Davis to get more carries than he might have otherwise. Quarterback Dylan Thompson saw plenty of action in 2012, and was outstanding down the stretch. He threw half of his 10 touchdowns in wins over Clemson and Michigan to close the campaign.
Whether the starting quarterback is Thompson or currently injured Connor Shaw, Steve Spurrier has the opposite problem of his former program.
Northern Illinois Huskies: The Mid-American Conference champion Huskies stumbled in their Orange Bowl opportunity, and a cursory glance at the final score from Miami would suggest Northern Illinois was no match for Florida State. While the Seminoles — a preseason favorite to win the 2012 BCS championship, mind you — did exert their superiority in the fourth quarter, NIU was within a touchdown and in FSU territory before a Terrance Brooks interception late in the third stanza.
Quarterback Jordan Lynch is back to captain a potent Huskie offense that returns seven other starters. Among the returners is Akeem Daniels, a special breed of ball carrier and receiver who could develop into NIU’s version of MAC rival Kent State’s star, Dri Archer.
That said, Steele’s projection is right on. Voters are unlikely to reach on non-power conference teams without an established brand name. A lack of preseason recognition was one of the challenges Boise State faced in its long battle for national respect. Even with three consecutive seasons of 11 wins or more, NIU has a long road ahead of it to command similar attention.
Arizona State Sun Devils: The Pac-12 landed five on Steele’s projection. Arizona State was not among that group.
ASU is a Pac-12 championship sleeper in 2013 — perhaps more of a sleeper than I envisioned, if Steele’s projection is accurate. The Sun Devils finished 8-5 in Todd Graham’s first season, closing strong in wins over rival Arizona and decimating Navy in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
Arizona State exhibited a blend of explosive offense (38.4 points per game, No. 14 in FBS) and intimidating defense (second in the nation with 52 sacks), and returns several key contributors on both sides of the ball. The surprising decision of defensive lineman Will Sutton to return for one more season in Tempe instantly gives the Sun Devil defense the look of a contender.
Perhaps still feeling burned by the disappointing 2011 Sun Devils, voters should have Arizona State off their preseason radars.