Repeat or unseat? FSU is loaded again, but this year they'll have to win an extra game to take the title. And there are plenty of worthy challengers gunning for the champs.
1. Florida State
2013 Record: 14–0, 8–0
There is no doubt that the defending BCS champs have a target on their back. Heisman-winning QB Jameis Winston (4,057 yards, 40 TDs) returns as the sparkplug for FSU's explosive offense — the Seminoles' 94 total TDs were tops in the nation last season. Rashad Greene (page 39), Winston's go-to receiver, will be vital for Florida State's passing game. What more do the Seminoles need to prove that they can repeat? Defense. And FSU has that too. Florida State, which has seven defensive starters returning, led the nation in scoring defense (12. 1 points per game) and interceptions (26). The one thing that could trip up the Seminoles is a lack of locker room leadership.
2013 record: 22–2, 7–1
With a bowl game loss and no conference championship, the Crimson Tide ended last season in an unfamiliar place. Then came the losses of QB AJ McCarron, linebacker C.J. Mosley, and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to the NFL. But don't count Alabama out. Winner of three of the last five national championships, the team boasts rusher T.J. Yeldon (1,235 rushing yards), receiver Amari Cooper (page 39), and QB Jacob Coker, a transfer from Florida State. FSU coach Jimbo Fisher praised Coker's strong arm and knowledge, describing him as "much more talented" than any recent Alabama QB. If Coker lives up to the praise, he'll show Fisher firsthand what he's capable of doing in the title game.
2013 Record: 11–2, 7–2
The Ducks have a Heisman hopeful in QB Marcus Mariota (page 36) at the helm of their offense, but arguably their most important player is on the other side of the ball. Cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu turned down the NFL draft to return for his senior season, and the Ducks are glad he did. He's a key defensive stopper who had 84 tackles and three interceptions last season. The big disappointment in 2013 was a 26–20 loss to Stanford, but Oregon has home field advantage against the Cardinal this time around. The Ducks have a solid shot at a playoff bid as long as they don't falter against an underdog such as Oregon State, which was one big play away from an upset win last season — and which hosts Oregon this year.
2013 record: 12–2, 7–1
A miraculous win over dominant Alabama last season (one second can change everything) demonstrated Auburn's never-give-up grit. But while the Tigers may have had luck on their side against their in-state rival, they came up short in the title game against FSU. Leading Auburn's search for redemption will be QB Nick Marshall (page 39) and speedy wideout Sammie Coates, who had 902 receiving yards and seven TDs last season. Tre Mason, whose 23 TDs led the Tigers' No. 1 rushing offense, is gone, but running backs Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant can help carry Auburn to another conference championship. Each rushed for more than 600 yards and had six touchdowns last year.
Florida State (1) defeats Auburn (4)
Alabama (2) defeats Oregon (3)
THE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Coker will get Alabama on the scoreboard, but when all is said and done, Winston will get the best of his former understudy. Without Clinton-Dix and Mosley, Alabama's inexperienced defense will be no match for the Seminoles, who will win another title — and spur talk of a dynasty in Tallahassee.
The Rest of the Top 10
2013 record: 11–3, 7–2
The Pac-12 champ last year, Stanford will have to adjust to the loss of outside linebacker Trent Murphy, who led the nation in sacks (15). QB Kevin Hogan has a terrifying trio of options in Ty Montgomery, Devon Cajuste, and Michael Rector. The three combined for 18 of the team's 21 receiving TDs in '13. Standford's returning core puts it on the bubble of the four-team playoff.
6. Ohio State
2013 record: 12–2, 8–0
QB Braxton Miller is a Heisman hopeful once again. The junior, who missed the first three games of last season with a knee injury, bounced back to throw for 2,094 yards and rush for 1,068. The Buckeyes' rush-dominated offense (308.6 yards per game last season) puts them in shape for another trip to the Big Ten title game, where last year they fell short against Michigan State.
2013 record: 10–3, 6–3
Pac-12 foes beware. The Bruins had the top frosh on offense and defense last season, and (surprise!) it's the same guy. Second year linebacker (and sometimes running back) Myles Jack is the first player in league history to win the conference defensive and offensive freshman awards. His versatility can steer UCLA to a Pac-12 championship.
2013 record: 11–2, 8–1
The Bears will be the top team in Texas this year. The NCAA leader in total offense (618.8 yards per game) last year, Baylor welcomes back senior QB Bryce Petty, who threw for 4,200 yards in '13 and is a Heisman contender. Keeping Petty's jersey clean will be All-America left tackle Spencer Drango — as long as the junior can overcome last year's back injury.
2013 record: 11–2, 7–2
The Sooners ended last season with an upset win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, and they may have found the answer to their QB problems in the process. Sophomore Trevor Knight threw for 348 yards — more than twice as many he had in any of his other four starts. A D-line anchored by defensive ends Charles Tapper and Geneo Grissom will make opposing quarterbacks miserable.
10. South Carolina
2013 record: 11–2, 6–2
The Gamecocks lost their biggest impact player when defensive end Jadeveon Clowney was selected as the top pick in the NFL draft. South Carolina will rely on sophomore defensive ends Darius English — a 6′ 7″ pass rushing specialist who put on 20 pounds in the offseasons — and Gerald Dixon to step up. Tailback Mike Davis had a breakout season, rushing for 1,183 yards.
For more on the upcoming season, check out SI Kids' 2014 College Football Preview!
Photos: BILL FRAKES/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (WINSTON), KEVIN C. COX/GETTY IMAGES (YELDON), LARRY C. LAWSON/CAL SPORT MEDIA (EKPRE-OLOMU), KEVIN LILES/USA TODAY (COATES)