1. ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE
• Coach: Nick Saban (146-54-1) sixth year at school.
• Returning starters: Offense 7, defense 4.
• Top players: OT Barrett Jones, OT D.J. Fluker, QB A.J. McCarron, RB Eddie Lacy.
• Voids to fill: RB Trent Richardson, C William Vlachos, LB Dont’a Hightower, CB Dre Kirkpatrick.
• Key tests: Sept. 1 vs. Michigan at Arlington, Texas, Sept. 15 at Arkansas, Nov. 3 at LSU.
• Outlook: Alabama begins the season aiming to repeat as national champion for the first time since 1979. Coach Nick Saban has the talent and depth to do it, but early tests on the schedule, including a season opener against Michigan (Sept.1) at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, will test his defense.
2. SOUTHERN CAL TROJANS
• Coach: Lane Kiffin (25-13) third year at school.
• Returning starters: Offense 8, defense 6.
• Top players: QB Matt Barkley, WR Robert Woods, WR Marqise Lee, DE Wes Horton.
• Voids to fill: DE Nick Perry, OT Matt Kalil.
• Key tests: Sept. 15 at Stanford, Nov. 3 vs. Oregon.
• Outlook: Quarterback Matt Barkley returned for his senior season to win a national championship. A relatively light schedule combined with plenty of offensive firepower should propel the Trojans to the national title game.
3. LSU TIGERS
• Coach: Les Miles (103-39) eighth year at school.
• Returning starters: Offense 6, defense 5.
• Top players: DL Sam Montgomery, OT Alex Hurst, TB Spencer Ware, P Brad Wing.
• Voids to fill: OL T-Bob Herbert, CB Tyrann Mathieu, DT Michael Brockers, CB Morris Claiborne.
• Key tests: Oct. 13 vs. South Carolina, Nov. 3 vs. Alabama.
• Outlook: The loss of Tyrann Mathieu was a blow to the Tigers’ defense, but a soft schedule to begin the season will give LSU’s defense time to regroup. All eyes will be on quarterback Zach Mettenberger, the highly touted transfer from Georgia. If Mettenberger can successfully stretch the field, the revenge-minded Tigers might have enough to get past Alabama.
4. OKLAHOMA SOONERS
• Coach: Bob Stoops (139-34) 14th year at school.
• Returning starters: Offense 5, defense 8.
• Top players: QB Landry Jones, C Gabe Ikard, WR Kenny Stills, CB Demontre Hurst.
• Voids to fill: WR Ryan Broyles, DE Frank Alexander, WLB Travis Lewis, DE Ronnell Lewis.
• Key tests: Oct.13 vs. Texas, Nov.13 at West Virginia.
• Outlook: Coach Bob Stoops rehired brother Mike Stoops to stabilize the Sooners’ defense. On the other side of the ball, quarterback Landry Jones will attempt to manage the pressure built from last year’s late-season slide.
5. GEORGIA BULLDOGS
• Coach: Mark Richt (106-38) 12th year at school.
• Returning starters: Offense 5, defense 10.
• Top players: QB Aaron Murray, C David Andrews, CB/WR Malcolm Mitchell, LB Jarvis Jones.
• Voids to fill: K Blair Walsh, TE Orson Charles.
• Key tests: Oct.6 at South Carolina, Nov.10 at Auburn.
Outlook: The Bulldogs return all but one starter to a defense that was ranked third in the country last season. Quarterback Aaron Murray is now a seasoned veteran in the SEC.