E.J. Manuel's performance this year will either be the reason Florida State climbs back to the top of the ACC or the reason they have a mediocre season. If he plays well, the old FSU could be back. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon)

6. Florida State- Florida State lost quarterback Christian Ponder but outside of that they return a LOT of starters, key starters too. Jermaine Thomas at RB will be huge for them, they have talent at receiver, and they return a quality offensive line (especially their tackles Andrew Datko and Zebrie Sanders). They also have one of the best pass rushers in the country in Brandon Jenkins, who should draw considerable attention this year as he attempts to mimic his incredible success from last year. Florida State’s saving grace will be E.J. Manuel’s considerable playing experience considering he was the back-up to Ponder all this time, but because of Ponder’s injuries he not only has regular season experience but bowl game experience. While he wasn’t dominant or spectacular in all of his playing time, he definitely showcased ability and should play well enough to give Florida State a good shot at an ACC title. If he plays really well then they may have a shot at a great bowl game or even a chance to win the National Championship.

7. South Carolina- South Carolina is returning a lot of talent and has a great recruiting class coming in. They have a number of players ready to emerge, and if Stephen Garcia can finally get his act together (and keep it together, which is usually the tricky part) South Carolina should have a great season. Garcia, Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffrey will make the offense viable provided the offensive line helps them out, and South Carolina should have a fierce pass rush if Devin Taylor emerges like I expect him to. South Carolina definitely has a lot of talent, and this may be the ole ball coach’s best chance to win a SEC title in a long time, with Alabama, Auburn and Florida all in a significant transition stage.

Trent Richardson has incredible upside and should help carry the Crimson Tide offense while A.J. McCarron adjusts to his new role as the starter. (AP Photo/ Butch Dill)

8. Alabama- It’s tough to ever count Alabama out of the top 5 or 10, but if there was a year to do it this would probably be the year. They lost a quarterback who is apparently allergic to losing in Greg McElroy, a Heisman winner and future NFL stud in Mark Ingram, a dynamic wide receiver in Julio Jones, multiple offensive linemen (most notably James Carpenter, who I might have had an interview with had I not projected him to go in the 3rd round) and Marcell Dareus, just to name a few. Losing four first round draft picks plus a quarterback who lost less times in his college career than I do when I play a full NCAA Football on Xbox is about as bad as it gets for a college program, but Alabama is an elite program now and like USC used to do they aren’t going to rebuild, they are going to reload. The problem with that is, while they can reload at most positions and they return a LOT of talent on defense, QB is going to be a question mark. A.J. McCarron is expected to be the starter, but he has little playing experience and will only be a redshirt sophomore. The QB position is incredibly important, especially for a possible national title run, and while I expect ‘Bama to be formidable because of their defense and a very dynamic running back in Trent Richardson and a receiver I am high on in Marquis Maze, if McCarron doesn’t step up in a big way they will lose at least a couple games even with a favorable schedule for a SEC school.

9. Oklahoma State- Oklahoma State had a fantastic season last year and they return some key starters this year, specifically Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon, two of the key cogs in what may have been the most explosive offense in the country last year. They lost Kendall Hunter though, a very effective RB who really was the final piece to their explosive offense puzzle, so replacing him with another effective player will be critical if they want to have similar success on offense again this year. On defense they have some talent, but it will be a question mark until they step up in my opinion. They haven’t had much on that side of the ball in a while but it has been overshadowed by their high octane offenses. If their defense can step up then Oklahoma State has a chance to give Oklahoma a run for their money.

Russell Wilson may not have played for Wisconsin last year, but this year he could be the key to unlocking the potential of multiple players on offense, most notably wide receiver Nick Toon.

10. Wisconsin- Wisconsin is returning a lot of quality players, such as Montee Ball, James White, Nick Toon, Ricky Wagner, Peter Konz, Kevin Zeitler, Louis Nzegwu, Chris Borland (coming back from injury), Antonio Fenelus, Devin Smith and Aaron Henry, to name a few. They will still have a very good offensive line as they return three good starters and already have a replacement for Carimi in place at LT in Wagner. RT will be an area of concern, as well as the DE spot opposite Nzegwu, previously occupied by the #11 overall draft pick J.J. Watt. They do have a significant upgrade on the way at QB though, and Russell Wilson’s transfer to Wisconsin makes them a favorite to win the Big-10 this year. Their pass defense is concerning to me though, because they lost two established starters in J.J. Watt and Niles Brinkley and while they might have solid replacements for them Wisconsin’s pass defense was an issue before they even lost them (see Rose Bowl game against TCU). If they can generate a quality pass rush and play better pass defense then Wisconsin could go a long way, but that back end is concerning to me.

Thanks for reading my most recent installment of my Preseason Top 25 Rankings! The top five teams will be unveiled tomorrow!

–Tom

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