LINCOLN — I just got the egg off my face from last year. It might have been a whole omelet, considering I, and many other pundits and hacks, picked USC to win the national title in 2012.
The Trojans lost their national title dreams early in a 21-14 loss to eventual Rose Bowl champ Stanford and proceeded to careen into a 7-6 ditch.
So this year, I'll play the odds and pick an SEC team. The trouble is: Alabama or Texas A&M? The Aggies and quarterback Johnny Manziel went to Tuscaloosa last year and pulled the upset of the year. Now the Tide visits College Station in mid-September.
A national title knockout game so early? Yep. It's part of what makes college football special.
So the goal here is this: I gotta pick the winner of that game.
And, again, I'll play the odds: Alabama. The king of the sport with a returning quarterback of its own in A.J. McCarron, whose swimsuit model girlfriend, Katherine Webb, aptly symbolizes Bama's rise from Southern, blue-collar grinders to a celebrity squad with all the attendant distractions.
Nick Saban coached this team hard before. Wait until you see the level he'll take it to next season. The best dynasty since Nebraska in the 1990s will have itself as enemy No. 1. And, well, Johnny Football. Him, too.
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Even NU didn't chart these waters. Because Tom Osborne promised to give the program to Frank Solich after the 1997 season, fans never got to see just how far Osborne could have taken it. Saban is nowhere near finished. And though his 2013 squad isn't on the same level of the 2011 Tide — one of the best college football teams ever assembled — it's close enough to make the Tide a considerable, prohibitive favorite.
If only Manziel weren't in Bama's way, right?
My top 25 for 2013, which takes recent recruiting classes into account:
The defense will have its usual crew of crushers, while the offense could be Saban's best in seven seasons. Bama loses some offensive linemen, but the program knows how to reload.
2. Texas A&M
Aside from a late November trip to LSU, the schedule is very, very cozy, and the most recent recruiting class gave Manziel many, many toys at wide receiver. The Aggies lose Kliff Kingsbury at offensive coordinator, but remember, head coach Kevin Sumlin is the one who made Kingsbury the coach he is. The defense will be improved.
3. Ohio State
So long as quarterback Braxton Miller stays healthy, the Buckeyes' season boils down to a trip to Michigan. The schedule is otherwise so friendly — home games vs. Wisconsin and Penn State, no Nebraska or Michigan State — that Urban Meyer's strut and thrust of the chin will be a defining image through 2013.
We've all learned not to doubt the Cardinal, right? At least until coach David Shaw gets the inevitable NFL call. Returning quarterback Kevin Hogan has a lot of the tools Andrew Luck once did. Oregon and Notre Dame visit The Farm.
The architect of the Ducks' no-huddle offense, Chip Kelly, will try to win the NFC East with Michael Vick's worn-out arm. The team he leaves behind has a ton of potential, especially on defense. Quarterback Marcus Mariota figures to improve.
6. Notre Dame
A great defense masked a struggling offense all year until the BCS national championship. It'll get better this year. The defensive line is still elite. The Lennay Kekua/Manti Te'o circus will actually help the team turn the page from 2012.
If Aaron Murray and an offense returning nearly every starter can beat Clemson, South Carolina and LSU in September, the Bulldogs will play for the national title. I don't think it happens. The defense lost too many studs.
The Cardinals' thumping of Florida in the Sugar Bowl showed that, when quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is right, this team is a legitimate top 10 squad. Ten starters return on defense.
What to do with this team? The Gators had huge wins over LSU, A&M and Florida State last year, but I'm still not sold on Will Muschamp's coaching ability. The offense was hideous. It needs to get more diverse. The defense lost several players early to the NFL draft, but it's still talented.
The Tigers chose to put Georgia and South Carolina on their nonconference schedule. They have quarterback Tajh Boyd back and a defense that improved greatly under defensive coordinator Brent Venables. The ACC favorite.
11. Kansas State
I'm picking the Wildcats as the Big 12 favorites because the whole, terrific offensive line returns; Bill Snyder kept his coaching staff intact; and juco quarterback Jake Waters can throw. The defense won't be great, but it wasn't that great in the last half of 2012, anyway.
12. South Carolina
The Gamecocks need some pieces at linebacker and cornerback, but the offense should remain dangerous, while the defense has Jadeveon Clowney for a final season before he pounces to the NFL.
Hey, are these Huskers entirely too high? Not to me. I had always planned on pegging NU as an 11-win team in 2013. Fourth-year starting quarterback. A loaded offense. A defense with far more talent than last year. An easy schedule. A coaching staff with actual continuity.
14. Oklahoma State
If you've paid attention to the recruiting Mike Gundy did in 2010 and 2011, you know what kind of athletes he has on his roster. Pair that with some experience at quarterback, and you're looking at another 10-win team.
Landry Jones was a great kid and prolific thrower, but the Sooners needed him to graduate. They'd grown too soft. Successor Blake Bell is subtle like a punch to the head. It'll serve OU and its suddenly porous defense well.
Brutal schedule of TCU, Florida, Georgia, Alabama and A&M. The Tigers lost too many good players to navigate it.
The Longhorns' long, ugly, painful transition to a power, pro-style team is nearing completion. If quarterback David Ash can hang on to his job, I like the strides UT has made on its offensive line.
After a smashing recruiting class, look for the Bruins to get more youth and speed on the field. The team peaked with its win over USC, and ran into a weird situation afterward, playing Stanford back-to-back.
The Wolverines have to hope Devin Gardner finally develops into a real, consistent quarterback as a senior. I'm not convinced he will. UM does get Nebraska, Notre Dame and Ohio State at home.
The Horned Frogs hung in there better than I imagined last year, considering QB Casey Pachall went to rehab. Pachall's back and should win the starting job. But the schedule — at Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Iowa State, vs. LSU — is a real trip.
21. Florida State
Loads of raw talent, but quarterback E.J. Manuel is gone, and Jimbo Fisher's coaching staff has been almost turned over in one year.
22. Ole Miss
You can't ignore the Rebels' incredible recruiting class, which could immediately rebuild the defensive line, or the fact that they lost by a combined 10 points to LSU, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M. Quarterback Bo Wallace returns.
23. Boise State
A win in the opener at Washington sets the stage for another run at an undefeated season. The coaching staff is the goods, and the talent is improving.
24. Oregon State
Solid, hard-working team that faded in close road games toward the end of 2012. This is about where the Beavers belong, given a challenging slate in 2013.
Others are higher on the Wildcats. I'm still not sold that Northwestern's talent pool can consistently beat teams that aren't looking past Pat Fitzgerald's bunch.
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