On Monday, ESPN's Mark Schlabach released his pre-season top-25 list. Three 2013 opponents crack Schlabach's far too early Top 25. Regardless of the absurdity of college football polls in April, these are somewhat interesting. Plus we're still ~120 days from college football, so what else are we gonna talk about?
Anyway, Clemson checks in as the highest ranked opponent at #12.
12. Previous rank: 11
The Tigers say they'll play even faster on offense in 2013 with quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins coming back. But it's Clemson's defense that might make a big difference this coming season. Last season, the Tigers were one of the country's most improved defenses in the second half of the season; they allowed only 4.9 yards per play in their final seven games. Tigers coach Dabo Swinney hopes he's found a star pass-rusher in defensive end Vic Beasley, who had 10 sacks in four spring scrimmages. On offense, receivers Charone Peake and Martavis Bryant emerged as potential playmakers, which would take some pressure off Watkins after star DeAndre Hopkins moved on. The Tigers also have to be more consistent running the football, and "Hot" Rod McDowell, D.J. Howard and Zac Brooks are the top candidates to carry the ball.
The defense will be the biggest question mark for the Tigers heading into the season. The unit was improved down the stretch, but the schedule also lightened considerably too.
Florida State is up next at #14.
14. Previous rank: 16
There were plenty of changes at FSU this spring: an overhauled coaching staff, new defense and new quarterback. Redshirt freshman Jameis Winston looks like the winner at quarterback after he completed 12 of 15 passes for 205 yards with two touchdowns in the spring game. He mastered the offense this spring, despite splitting time with FSU's baseball team. After Winston's spring game performance, junior Clint Trickett announced he's transferring (he's already visited West Virginia and USF and might visit Michigan and Auburn). New defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, a former Alabama assistant, installed a defense that looks a lot like the Crimson Tide's. Defensive ends are dropping into coverage, linebackers and defensive backs are blitzing and cornerbacks are jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage. Pruitt also moved safety Lamarcus Joyner to cornerback, linebacker Karlos Williams to safety and tight end Dan Hicks to defensive end.
Lots of changes for Florida State this offseason. The Atlantic Division title may be decided on October 19 when the Seminoles travel to Death Valley to take on the Tigers. FSU won last year's matchup 49-37 to win the Atlantic en route to the Seminoles' first conference championship since 2005.
Finally, USC checks in at #23.
23. Previous rank: NR
After a disappointing 7-6 season in 2012, the Trojans continued to battle limited scholarships and injuries this spring. USC coach Lane Kiffin didn't name a starting quarterback after sophomores Max Wittek and Cody Kessler and freshman Max Browne battled for the job in the spring. Kessler was the most impressive during the spring game, completing 15 of 22 passes for 242 yards with three touchdowns. He probably goes into the summer with a slight edge, although Kiffin listed all three quarterbacks as co-starters on the post-spring depth chart. The good news was sophomores Nelson Agholor and Victor Blackwell emerged as big-play weapons at receiver, which should take some pressure off Marqise Lee, the 2012 Biletnikoff Award winner. Agholor caught seven passes for 106 yards with two touchdowns in the spring game, while Blackwell had seven catches for 155 yards with one touchdown. Freshman Justin Davis also emerged as a co-starter at tailback, after Silas Redd missed much of the spring with a knee injury.
The good news is this game is early enough in the year that USC may be still finding its way in the post-Barkley era. Still, not holding my breath.
Also of note, Louisville comes in at #4 in this poll which is ... crazy. Schlabach should have just renamed this poll the "most likely to go undefeated" rankings. The Cardinals will play their final season in the American nee Big East before moving to the ACC. Combined with a non-conference schedule of Ohio, Eastern Kentucky, Kentucky and Florida International, you can see why expectations are quite high for the 'Ville in 2013. However, Louisville did go 6-1 in one score games last year, beat Florida in a bowl game, squeaked past FIU (28-21), winless Southern Miss (21-17), USF (27-25), Rutgers (20-17) and lost at home to UConn in 3OT.
Regardless, Louisville-for-Maryland is a significant upgrade in the football department and is a reminder that the ACC's Atlantic Division is only about to get a whole lot more difficult.