Coach: Nick Saban (68-13 at Alabama; 159-55-1 overall).
Starters returning: Offense 6, defense 7.
Key losses: RB Eddie Lacy, C Barrett Jones, LG Chance Warmack.
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Key returners: RB T.J. Yeldon, WR Amari Cooper, LB C.J. Mosley.
Big games: Sept. 14 at Texas A&M; Nov. 9 vs. LSU; Nov. 30 at Auburn.
Outlook: One of the Crimson Tide’s starting safeties is named Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. For that alone, it’s worth the top ranking in the nation. Of course, Nick Saban’s main focus is gunning for his third national championship in a row and fourth in five years. The offensive line is new but the defense seems NFL ready. Yeldon and Cooper, a Miami product, are two of the best skill-position players in the country.
Coach: Mark Helfrich (0-0 at Oregon; 0-0 overall).
Starters returning: Offense 8, defense 7.
Key losses: RB Kenjon Barner, DE Dion Jordan, LB Kiko Alonso.
Key returners: QB Marcus Mariota, RB De’Anthony Thomas, CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.
Big games: Sept. 14 vs. Tennessee; Oct. 12 at Washington; Nov. 7 at Stanford.
Outlook: The offense will be flashier than the uniforms, but it will take more than the potential for big plays to win at Stanford. The winner of that game could position itself in the driver’s seat for a trip to the national championship. Both running back De’Anthony Thomas and sophomore quarterback Marcus Mariota have Heisman Trophy potential. Run stoppers up front are a concern.
Coach: David Shaw (23-4 at Stanford; 23-4 overall).
Starters returning: Offense 6, defense 8.
Key losses: RB Stepfan Taylor, TE Zach Ertz, DT Terrence Stephens.
Key returners: FB Ryan Hewitt, OT David Yankey, OLB Trent Murphy.
Big games: Nov. 7 vs. Oregon, Nov. 16 at USC, Nov. 30 vs. Notre Dame.
Outlook: Stanford’s football team is so very SEC in every way except political leanings and entrance requirements. Big offensive and defensive lines anchor the team, making the Cardinal a West Coast anomaly. The second half of the schedule will be a challenge, especially if the team hasn’t identified any playmakers to stretch the field. The good news is that Stanford’s defense is stout enough to make up for its offensive flaws.
Coach: Mark Richt (118-40 at UGA; 118-40 overall).
Starters returning: Offense 9, defense 3.
Key losses: FS Bacarri Rambo, LB Jarvis Jones, LB Alec Ogletree.
Key returners: QB Aaron Murray, TB Todd Gurley, TB Keith Marshall.
Big games: Aug. 31 at Clemson, Sept. 7 vs. South Carolina, Nov. 2 vs. Florida.
Outlook: Like rivals South Carolina and Florida, the Bulldogs enter the season with an inexperienced defense. Unlike those other teams, Georgia has plenty returning on the offensive side of the ball to balance out the losses. Quarterback Aaron Murray returned for another shot at Alabama and the backfield combination of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall is the best in the SEC.
5. SOUTH CAROLINA
Coach: Steve Spurrier (66-37 at USC; 208-77-2 overall).
Starters returning: Offense 7, defense 5.
Key losses: TB Kenny Mills, C T.J. Johnson, LB Shaw Wilson.
Key returners: WR Ace Sanders, DE Jadeveon Clowney, CB Jimmy Legree.
Big games: Sept. 7 at Georgia, Nov. 16 vs. Florida, Nov. 30 vs. Clemson.
Outlook: Jadeveon Clowney alone is enough to get any team in the top 10. The defensive end is arguably the best player in college football and will anchor a Gamecocks defense that is replacing a host of talent up front. Clowney’s presence should give the rest of the defensive line time to work out the kinks. Quarterback Connor Shaw is a born leader but also has been inconsistent throughout his career. An early test against Georgia could determine who plays Alabama in the SEC championship game.
Coach: Charlie Strong (25-14 at UL; 25-15 overall).
Starters returning: Offense 6, defense 10.
Key losses: C Mario Benavides, CB Adrian Bushell, OT Alex Kupper.
Key returners: QB Teddy Bridgewater, WR DeVante Parker, WR Damian Copeland.
Big games: Sept. 14 at Kentucky, Oct. 10 vs. Rutgers, Oct. 18 vs. Central Florida.
Outlook: Teddy Bridgewater of Miami is one of the best quarterbacks in the country, and coach Charlie Strong’s defense has the potential to run the table. The hype machine has been churning in Louisville ever since the Cards routed Florida in the Sugar Bowl. A few key losses for national-title contenders, and Louisville could sneak into the picture.
Coach: Mack Brown (150-43 with UTA; 23-112-1 overall).
Starters returning: Offense 10, defense 9.
Key losses: WR Marquise Goodwin, TE D.J. Grant, DE Alex Okafor.
Key returners: QB David Ash, WR Jaxon Shipley, MLB Steve Edmond.
Big games: Oct. 12 vs. Oklahoma, Oct. 26 at TCU, Nov. 16 at Oklahoma State.
Outlook: This is the obligatory “going out on a limb” top 10 pick. The Longhorns’ defense was pathetic last season given its potential and something suggests the boys in Austin have finally figured out football glory no longer will be handed to them on a silver platter. This is the season for defensive coordinator Manny Diaz of Miami to turn his unit around. With 19 returning starters, the Longhorns have the experience to challenge for the Big 12 championship.
Coach: Dabo Swinney (40-21 with CU; 40-21 overall).
Starters returning: Offense 6, defense 6.
Key losses: RB Andre Ellington, WR Jaron Brown, TE Brandon Ford.
Key returners: QB Tajh Boyd, WR Sammy Watkins, LB Stephone Anthony.
Big games: Aug. 31 at Georgia, Oct. 19 vs. FSU, Nov. 30 at South Carolina.
Outlook: The Tigers have the speed to keep up with Florida State, and quarterback Tajh Boyd could be a difference maker. An early-season victory in Athens, Ga., would propel the Tigers into the national-championship conversation.
9. NOTRE DAME
Coach: Brian Kelly (28-11 with Notre Dame; 81-33 overall).
Starters returning: Offense 6, defense 8.
Key losses: TE Tyler Eifert, LB Manti Te’o, QB Everett Golson.
Key returners: DE Stephon Tuitt, DT Louis Nix, OT Zack Martin.
Big games: Sept. 7 at Michigan, Sept. 28 vs. Oklahoma, Nov. 30 at Stanford.
Outlook: There will be no miracles in South Bend, Ind., this season. With quarterback Everett Golson suspended for violating academic rules and the taste of that drubbing to Alabama still fresh (not to mention the “fake girlfriend of Manti Te’o” saga), the Irish won’t be capturing any imaginations this season. In Tommy Rees we do not trust.
10. OHIO STATE
Coach: Urban Meyer (12-0 at OSU; 116-23 overall).
Starters returning: Offense 9, defense 4.
Key losses: OLB Etienne Sabino, CB Travis Howard, S Orhian Johnson.
Key returners: QB Braxton Miller, OLB Ryan Shazier, CB Bradley Roby.
Big game: Nov. 30 at Michigan.
Outlook: Urban Meyer’s esophageal spasms might return if his team loses quarterback Braxton Miller to injury. Like Tim Tebow during Meyer’s run with the Gators, Miller is central to everything the Buckeyes do on offense. Miller will have help on offense, but the defense is relatively inexperienced. Does it really matter, though? Ohio State’s schedule in a diminished Big Ten is so easy, the fans in Columbus already have booked all the hotel rooms in Pasadena, Calif..