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NCAA Top 20

   by Jim Feist - 08/25/2013

The countdown continues! Last week we looked at my Top 21-40, this week is my Top 20. The college football season kicks off August 29th and here's a look at college football's best!

20. UCLA: The Bruins won 9 games and feel primed to take the next step under second-year coach Jim Mora, Jr. This offense is terrific behind dual-threat sophomore QB Brett Hundley (29 TDs, 11 INTs) averaging 34.4 points, 274 yards passing and 190.8 yards rushing. Four starters return on the offensive line while senior RB Damien Thigpen is coming back from a knee injury.
8 starters return on offense, 6 on defense. Mora has instilled a toughness on both sides of the ball, but the defense is still the weak link, allowing 49 to Baylor and 43 to Cal and Arizona State. UCLA lost both of its starting cornerbacks to the nation's 91st ranked pass defense. Safety is a strength with Tevin McDonald and FS Randall Goforth. They are on a 9-5 run over the total; road games at Nebraska, Stanford, Oregon and USC will be tough.

19. TCU: The Horned Frogs were in rebuilding mode and finished 7-6, but look ripe for a strong campaign with 5 starters back on offense, 9 on defense for Coach Gary Patterson. Sophomore QB Trevone Boykin (15 TDs, 10 INTs) took over the job and leads a balanced offense with soph RB B.J. Catalon (582 yards) and junior WR Brandon Carter (590). This group averaged 28 points, 236.5 yards passing and 152 yards rushing. RB Waymon James led the team in rushing in 2011 and returns after missing most of 2012 with an injury.
The defense was 30th in the nation in points allowed. Sophomore DE Devonte Fields is a super-talent on the defensive line and the secondary returns Jason Verrett, one of the nation's top covermen in TCU's unique 4-2-5 defensive scheme. Opening against LSU is no fun. They carry a 33-4 SU/22-13 ATS run at home into the new season.

18. Wisconsin: The Badgers got a big surprise when Brett Bielema jumped ship, but they get a terrific young coach in Gary Andersen, who did wonders at Utah State. His offense averaged 34.9 points and over 200 yards rushing and passing last fall. He inherits a talented Wisconsin team with 6 starters back on offense, 6 on defense, a group that has been to three straight Rose Bowls.
Sophomore QB Joel Stave (6 TDs, 3 INTs) played half his freshman season because of injuries. He is surrounded by a boatload of offensive talent with RB James White (806 yds, 6.4 ypc) and Melvin Gordon, plus seniors WR Jared Abbrederis (837) and TE Jacob Pedersen on an offense that averaged 29.6 points and 236 yards rushing. The D-line is deep, anchored by senior LB Chris Borland. This team had 4 losses by 3 points and two others by 6 and 7 in 2012. This year’s schedule might be the easiest in the Big 10 outside of a trip to Ohio State in late September. Wisconsin has been great at home, 57-7 SU, 34-24 ATS the last nine years.

17. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys were rebuilding last season (8-5), but that sets the stage for a breakthrough 2013 campaign. 5 starters return on offense, 7 on defense. Mike Gundy’s no-huddle offense averaged 45.7 points, 331.7 yards passing and 215 yards rushing and returns senior QB Clint Chelf (15 TDs, 6 INTs), soph QB J.W. Walsh and junior WR Josh Stewart (1,210 yards). Throw in RBs Jeremy Smith and Desmond Roland and they have more than enough tools to torch Big 12 defenses.
The defense returns 7 starters and is loaded at LB, though the secondary must replace three-year starter in Brodrick Brown. The schedule is relatively easy until a November 16th game at Texas and they get rival Oklahoma at home, a 51-48 revenge game. They are on a 9-4 run over the total after giving up 59, 41, 44, 51 and 41 in five losses.

16. Notre Dame: Brian Kelly has upgraded the Irish defense and the offense continues to make strides. This team won a slew of close games on the way to a 12-0 start before getting humbled by Alabama. 4 starters return on offense, 8 on defense. Sophomore QB Evertt Golson (12 TDs, 6 INTs) got bounced but they still have senior QB Tommy Rees (436 yards), who threw 20 TDs, 14 picks in 2011. He leads a balanced attack along with RB George Atkinson III and senior WR T.J. Jones (649 yards).
The defense impressed last fall allowing 12.8 ppg, No. 2 in the nation. Despite losing big names the unit still returns 8 starters with CB Bennett Jackson anchoring the secondary and a deep front line that should be an elite unit. The schedule is challenging, playing Oklahoma at home (Sept. 28), plus at Michigan and at Stanford.

15. Georgia: The Bulldogs weren't far from a national title last fall, dropping a thrilling SEC title game to Alabama. Georgia returns 8 starters on offense and 3 on defense from a team that went 12-2. Senior QB Aaron Murray (36 TDs, 10 INTs, 3,893 yards) anchors an offense with sophomore RB Todd Gurley (1,385 yards, 6.2 ypc) that averaged 37.8 points, 285 yards passing and 182.6 yards rushing.
The defense has allowed 20.6 and 19.6 points per game the last two years but is rebuilding. The schedule is tougher, opening at Clemson and against South Carolina, then a showdown with LSU – all by September 28! Sports bettors take note: Georgia is 45-17 SU/34-28 ATS on the road under Head Coach Mark Richt, 7-2 SU/5-4 ATS the last two seasons.

14. Nebraska: The Huskers return 7 starters on a talented offense, 5 on defense – and a chip on its shoulder. Nebraska was destroyed in its final two games by Wisconsin (70-31) and Georgia (45-31). Throw in a 63-38 loss at Ohio State and Bo Pelini has plenty to improve on defense. Only two part-time starters return to the front seven, so the D-line has new faces. On the plus side, they don't face Ohio State or Wisconsin and open with 5 straight home games.
The offense will be the strength behind four-year starter senior QB Taylor Martinez (13 TDs, 8 INTs), who ran for 1,019 yards, 4 O-line returnees and junior RB Ameer Abdullah (1,137). They averaged 34.8 points and ranked 8th in the nation with 253.4 yards rushing. Nebraska is 16-9 SU/14-11 ATS on the road under Pelini and on a 9-5 run over the total.

13. Florida: Will Muschamp has built the Gators into a dominant defense, 5th in the nation in points allowed in 2012. 4 starters are back on defense, 5 on offense. Linebacker is a concern, but the secondary is loaded and the D-line adds Ronald Powell, a former No. 1 prospect returning from a torn ACL and defensive tackle Darious Cummings arriving from junior college.
The offense needs to take a step up, a unit that was all about running (187.7 yards rushing pg). Former Boise State offensive coordinator Brent Pease is in his second season. Three starters are back on the offensive line and sophomore RB Matt Jones came on late last season, including eight carries for 81 yards and a touchdown against Florida State. Junior Jeff Driskel (12 TDs, 5 INTs) ran for 408 yards and needs to keep defenses honest with a better passing game, with Florida ranking 118th in passing. Florida is 50-9 SU, 28-25-1 ATS at home in the Swamp the last eight years. Road games at South Carolina and LSU will be huge challenges

12. Oklahoma: Hopes were high for the Sooners last season and they 'disappointed' with a 10-3 campaign. Hopes are still high with 7 starters back on offense, 4 on defense. This offense was 5th in the nation in passing with 336.5 yards per game and 61st in rushing (161.4 yds pg) averaging 38.2 points. The O-line line returns four starters and backfield has senior RB Damien Williams (946 yards), while the passing game returns Jalen Saunders, Sterling Shepard and Trey Metoyer.
All eyes will be on 6-foot-6 junior QB Blake Bell, who threw for just 107 yards. The defense is rebuilding, especially on the line. The secondary ranked 12th nationally in pass efficiency defense but has to replace cornerback Demontre Hurst and safeties Tony Jefferson and Javon Harris. Oklahoma is 43-7 SU, 23-20 ATS at home the last seven seasons.

11. Florida State: Coach Jimbo Fisher is off a 12-win season and returns 6 starters on offense, 4 on defense. This offense averaged 39.3 points, 206 yards rushing and 265 yards passing, but losses QB E.J. Manuel to the NFL. QB Clint Trickett decided to leave because freshman Jameis Winston impressed in the spring, plus 6-6 sophomore Jacob Coker has experience. The good news is there is a boatload of returning talent with junior RB Devonta Freeman (660 yards, 5.9 ypc), RB James Wilder, Jr. (635), and junior WR Rashad Greene (741 yards) working behind one of the best offensive lines in college football.
The defense was sixth in the nation allowing 14.7 ppg. The D-line lost key players, but the linebacker corps is terrific along with the secondary. The schedule has two tough road games, at Clemson and Florida. FSU is on a 23-13-1 run under the total.

10: Texas: The Longhorns are off a 9-4 season and return 9 starters on both sides of the ball for Mack Brown. The offense made great strides in being balanced last year behind junior QB David Ash (19 TDs, 8 INTs), averaging 35.7 points, 263 yards passing and 171.5 yards rushing. The backfield is loaded with soph RB Johnathan Gray (701 yards), junior Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron.
The defense was strong in the secondary and returns a lot of experience, but a big disappointment up front, 88th against the run while allowing 29 ppg. Texas returns standouts DE Jackson Jeffcoat and cornerback Quandre Diggs, while LB Jordan Hicks is back after missing most of last season with an injury. There are three revenge games on deck after giving up 63 to Oklahoma, 48 to West Virginia and 42 to K-State. Texas is 80-24 SU, 56-46-1 ATS the last eight seasons.

9. Louisville: The Cardinals made several statements last fall, going 11-2 while beating Florida in the Sugar bowl, 33-23, as a +14 dog. Head Coach Charlie Strong has everything in place for an even better campaign with 5 starters back on offense, 9 on defense. Junior QB Teddy Bridgewater (27 TDs, 8 INTs) is dynamite and has a loaded crop of wide outs to go to on the nation's 24th ranked passing offense, striking for 31.2 points and 296 yards passing per contest.
The defense returns nine starters from a unit that allowed just 340.3 yards and 23.8 points per game. LB Preston Brown and DE Marcus Smith lead what should be the best defense in the conference. With a soft schedule, Louisville has a shot at a 12-0 regular season.

8. LSU: Coach Les Miles returns 7 starters on offense, but only 3 on defense. Unlike recent years, more pressure will be on the offense because of a young defense. The ground game averaged 173.7 yards and is deep with Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard, who combined for 734 yards. 6-foot-5 senior QB Zach Mettenberger (12 TDs, 7 INTs) was up and down, though he was terrific in the near-upset of Alabama, a season-best 298 yards.
The biggest turnover is on the offensive line on a unit that allowed 32 sacks. The defense, too, has bodies and depth charts shifting with key losses in the secondary and the defensive line. The schedule is tough, with Florida and A&M at home, plus road games at Georgia and Bama. The Tigers are on a 3-7 ATS run.

7. Clemson: The Tigers are 19-8 ATS the last two years and Coach Dabo Swinney has another loaded offense led by OC Chad Morris and Senior QB Tajh Boyd (36 TDs, 13 INTs, 3,896 yards). Clemson averaged 41 points, 321 yards passing and 191 yards rushing. They return 6 starters on offense, 7 on defense, including junior WR Sammy Watkins (708 yds).
After finishing 2011 ninth in the ACC in yards allowed and 10th in scoring defense, the Tigers showed solid improvement in the first season under coordinator Brent Venables. Clemson ranked third in the ACC in points allowed and registered 2.6 sacks a game last year. Despite all that offense the Tigers are on a 27-14 run under the total the last four seasons.

6: Texas A&M: What a welcome to the SEC! Head Coach Kevin Sumlin is a proponent of wide-open, attacking offenses and the Aggies were the best of the SEC and one of the best in the nation averaging 44.5 points, 316 yards passing and 242 yards rushing. Remarkable QB Johnny Manziel (26 TDs, 9 INTs) won the Heisman, exploding on the national scene as a freshman with 1,409 yards rushing, 21 rushing TDs while averaging 7 yards per carry. 6 starters are back on offense, 5 on 'D'.
No. 1 WR sophomore Mike Evans (1,105 yards) is back, though offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury left, so running backs coach Clarence McKinney will call the plays. A&M's defense didn't allow a lot of points but gave up 390 yards per game and loses key LBs. They also finished 12th in the SEC in pass defense. A top-10 recruiting class should help the depth. The Aggies only play 4 road games, at LSU late in November, but the big one is at home September 14th against Alabama.

5. Oregon: Chip Kelly bolted for the NFL, but leaves a stocked roster for the new coach, former assistant Mark Helfrich. No need to change the no-huddle, option-attack that winded opponents while rushing for 315 yards, passing for 222 yards and 49.6 points per contest. Sophomore QB Marcus Mariota (32 TDs, 6 picks) was better than advertised while rushing for 752 yards, a whopping 7.1 ypc! Throw in returning backs junior De'Anthony Thomas (701 yards) and sophomore Byron Marshall and Oregon is loaded with ball-carriers.
The defense allowed just 21.6 ppg and uses a heavy rotation to off-set what the offense does, running opposing defenses ragged. The Ducks have a lot of defensive depth returning, especially in the secondary and the D-line. The linebacking corps lost some key players as well as important leaders on defense. Their schedule is easy outside of a revenge game at Stanford November 7. Oregon is on a 30-14 run over the total.

4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes haven't lost yet under Urban Meyer, 12-0. Expectations are high with 9 starters back on offense, 4 on defense. Meyer likes the run with his triple-option attack and has a terrific running QB in junior Braxton Miller (15 TDs, 6 INTs), who has run for 715 and 1,271 yards the last two years. He teams with senior RB Carlos Hyde (970 yds) on an offense that ranked 10th in the nation in rushing with 242 yards and 37.2 points per contest.
Meyer has work to do retooling the defense, anchored by LB Ryan Shazier (115 tackles, 5 sacks). The D-line suffered a lot of graduation losses and the Buckeyes ranked just 34th in total defense. Ohio State opens with six of eight at home, but one of those road games is a long trip at Cal (Sept. 14). They have enough to win the Big 10, but are at rival Michigan November 30 to end the regular season.

3. Alabama: The Tide is a dynasty, winning three of the last four titles. So how did they finish fourth in the SEC West in 2010 and second in 2011? It happens, with everyone gunning for the champs. Senior QB A.J. McCarron (30 TDs, 3 INTs) leads a powerhouse, balanced offense along with sophomore RB T.J. Yeldon (1,108 yds, 6.3 ypc) and soph WR Amari Cooper (1,000 yds). Replacing three starters on the offensive line is the biggest concern.
The defense was No. 1 in points allowed (10.9 ppg) and has six starters back. The linebacking corps will be one of the best in the nation, though the secondary must replace Dee Milliner and the D-line loses three key players. Coach Nick Saban has a serious shot to make it 4 titles in 5 years, with a September 14 game at Texas A&M and a November 9 meeting with LSU the biggest challenges. LSU had Bama beat last year before letting it slip away, while the Aggies won at Alabama, 29-24, so they are great but not unbeatable.

2. Stanford: The Cardinal is off a powerhouse 12-2 rebuilding season and return 6 starters on offense, 10 on defense. Sophomore QB Kevin Hogan (9 TDs, 3 INTs) completed over 71% of his passes taking over in mid-season while rushing for 263 yards. He leads a balanced offense that returns a strong offensive line, 6-8 senior TE Levine Toilolo and great running back depth with seniors Anthony Wilkerson and Ricky Seale, plus junior RB Remound Wright.
Stanford was the nation's No. 3 ranked run defense in 2012 and led the nation in sacks returning junior DE Henry Anderson and senior Ben Gardner. The pass defense was a weak spot, but returns six starters in their base nickel package. This secondary is faster, led by junior safety Ed Reynolds, who returned three of his six interceptions for touchdowns. Stanford gets Oregon and Notre Dame at home. They are on a 9-5 run under the total with this dominant defense.

1. South Carolina: Two straight 11-2 seasons, can Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks get by Alabama to play for the national title? They won't have to play the Tide until the SEC title game, providing both make it. Spurrier will have fun with this offense returning senior QB Connor Shaw (17 TDs, 7 INTs), a skilled backup in Dylan Thompson along with leading WR Bruce Ellington (600 yards). 6 starters return on offense (4 on the O-line) to a unit that averaged 31.5 points and 238 yards passing.
5 starters are back on a super-talented defense that was 13th in the nation allowing 18.2 ppg. Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree anchor a strong secondary and the D-line is loaded, led by star DE Jadeveon Clowney, one of the top players in the nation. They catch Georgia in Week 2 as the Bulldogs work in a new QB, and get Florida and rival Clemson at home. They carry runs of 8-4 ATS, 8-4 over the total into the new season – along with high expectations.

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