1. Alabama Crimson Tide
NCAA football experts are too concerned about who’ll be under center when the season opens, as head coach Nick Saban has recruited an abundance of talent in Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide have the best trio of running backs in the country, which will lead directly to one of four spots in the playoffs.
2. South Carolina Gamecocks
Head coach Steve Spurrier lost some big names in Columbia, but he’ll have a smile on his face when calling running back Mike Davis’ number, while quarterback Dylan Thompson is capable of filling the role that Connor Shaw left behind. The Gamecocks main question mark is replacing defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, but the defense has been a solid unit for years.
3. LSU Tigers
Few teams will be more athletic on the football field as the LSU Tigers, as head coach Les Miles has welcomed in a ton of talent to Baton Rouge. LSU will be written off due to the need of replacing six NFL draft picks, but I’m confident that young stars will emerge in a big way this season—none bigger than true freshman running back Leonard Fournette.
4. Auburn Tigers
The classic case of being overvalued, as the program enjoyed a dream season due to miraculous plays against Alabama and Georgia. The Tigers will be backed heavily by the betting public due to the return of quarterback Nick Marshall, but I think the program is destined for a middle-of-the-pack finish.
5. Ole Miss Rebels
I’m already hearing a lot of chatter about this squad in the national media, which has caused me to temper my expectations a bit, but this could be a championship season in Oxford. The Rebels return nine starters on defense, while playmakers abound on the offensive side of the football—just need a quarterback to play consistent football on a weekly basis.
6. Florida Gators
There’s no hotter seat in the country than in Gainesville, which I believe will cause the locker room to rally around head coach Will Muschamp. Florida Gators signal-caller Jeff Driskell has worked his way back to 100% health, and will now be running a new system under offensive coordinator Kurt Roper.
7. Mississippi State Bulldogs
The Bulldogs return 18 starters from last year’s team, but all eyes will be on dual-threat quarterback Dak Prescott. If Prescott stays healthy—the program will take a big step forward.
8. Texas A&M Aggies
College football handicappers will need to keep an eye on the Aggies early on, as everyone’s expecting a rebuilding year in College Station. Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin begins life without Johnny Football, which could lead to a first-year player taking over under center.
9. Missouri Tigers
The Tigers made a surprise run to the SEC Championship Game a season ago, which could lead to them being overvalued by the betting public. Missouri will score points with quarterback Maty Mauk leading the way, but the unit will miss talented wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham on the outside.
10. Tennessee Volunteers
I’m a big fan of head coach Butch Jones, but I’m going to temper my expectations of this program taking a step forward until the end of non-conference play. The Volunteers welcome back plenty of playmakers on offense, while the defense will be led by a talented group of linebackers.
11. Georgia Bulldogs
Fans in Athens said goodbye to four-year starter Aaron Murray under center—a player who was instrumental in leading the program to a ton of victories late in games. Georgia has a talented backfield and nine defensive starters coming back, but I’m not sold on quarterback Hunter Mason taking over.
12. Kentucky Wildcats
Second-year head coach Mark Stoops was able to land a top 20 recruiting class, but the Wildcats have a long way to go after finishing 13th in both total offense and defense in 2013. Kentucky’s offense will likely be inconsistent, considering the group will likely be led by a player that has never thrown a pass at the collegiate level.
13. Arkansas Razorbacks
The pressure is on for second-year head coach Bret Bielema, as his staff struggled mightily in moving from the Big Ten to the premier conference in the nation. Arkansas won’t go 0-8 in SEC play, but the program is missing playmakers outside of the running back position.
14. Vanderbilt Commodores
James Franklin orchestrated a major turnaround for the program, but he landed the head coaching position at Penn State during the offseason. I recommend paying more attention to them this year, than last, when making your college football picks.