As usual, the eggheads who run college sports—the same scholars who gave us a Big Ten with 12 teams, a Big 12 with 10 teams and a Big East that will soon include San Diego State and Boise State—have been hard at work this off-season trying to improve the game, or more accurately, squeeze more money out of student athletes. More conference realignment is in the works. At least the power brokers finally signed off on a championship playoff. Unfortunately, that four-team playoff (with teams chosen by a selection committee) won’t begin until 2014. So for two more years we’ll have the convoluted Bowl Championship Series system—the one the Southeastern Conference has dominated, winning a staggering six national titles in a row. Maybe this is the season the streak ends. Vegas thinks so, making USC a three-to-one favorite. It’s doubtful the Trojans would have been better than a 25-to-one pick had quarterback Matt Barkley jumped to the NFL early. Barkley says he has “serious unfinished business” left in college. Translation: It’s national title or bust around Los Angeles.

USC: After two seasons in NCAA jail (thanks to Reggie Bush and his rule infractions) the Trojans are now free to play in the postseason and are primed to end the SEC’s six-year run of national titles. The team was liberated at a perfect time: Golden boy Matt Barkley—the most polished player in the long line of star Trojan QBs—bypassed the NFL for one more year of college. Barkley has the country’s best receiving tandem (Robert Woods and Marqise Lee), a 1,000-yard rusher (Curtis McNeal) and four returning starters on the offensive line. The defense also returns its top four tacklers. And no team will be hungrier than this one. That’s a good thing, because the Trojans’ 37-year-old coach, Lane Kiffin, has never won a bowl game and is just 3–6 all-time against top-25 teams. prediction: 14–0
LSU: The Tigers beat eight ranked teams last year, and only one of those opponents got within 12 points of them. Of course it was that opponent, Alabama, that came back to thump LSU in the BCS title game. LSU is still loaded on defense (as usual). The Tigers lost two first-rounders, but their defense may be even better since the rest of the unit was so young last year. The big question is whether coach Les Miles can get some decent quarterback play. Tigers fans won’t miss former starter Jordan Jefferson, but we’ll see how sharp Georgia castoff Zach Mettenberger is. He said he couldn’t wait for Miles to flip him the keys to the offense, adding that it would be like getting a Maserati when you turn 16. Word of caution, Zach: Don’t drive it into a ditch like Jefferson did last January. prediction: 12–2
Alabama: At 60, Nick Saban has clearly established himself as the best coach in the college game. Bama had gone 13–19 the previous four seasons in SEC play when he arrived. Under Saban the past four years, the Tide has won two national titles, with a 48–6 record, playing in the roughest conference. The team plays smart and physical and, led by the nation’s best offensive line, will continue to do so this fall. Quarterback A.J. McCarron, who shredded LSU’s vaunted defense in the title game, is also back. The downside? Saban has to replace four of his top five tacklers. prediction: 11–2
Oregon: The Oregon football brand has soared in the past five years thanks to edgy uniforms courtesy of Nike king Phil Knight (a proud alum) and the frenetic offensive system run by coach Chip Kelly. (Think a no-huddle offense on Red Bull.) These Duckies are no fluke. They have to replace their quarterback and starting tailback, but Kelly has two triggermen (Bryan Bennett and Marcus Mariota) who are faster and have better arms than Darron Thomas. Kelly also has De’Anthony Thomas, a dazzling sophomore running back–wideout–return man who averaged a touchdown every eighth time he touched the ball last season. The Ducks also return most of their defense, including top tackler John Boyett. The bad news? They have to play at USC this year. prediction: 12–2
Oklahoma: Last year’s preseason number one pick in both the coaches and AP polls proved to be a bigger flop than The Hangover Part II. The Sooners lost at home to a Texas Tech team that didn’t even make a bowl, lost to Baylor and got whupped 44–10 by Oklahoma State. It has been eight years since coach Bob Stoops had a team finish in the top four, but he does have standout QB Landry Jones back and a more seasoned offensive line. Better still, Stoops’s brother Mike returns to run the defense. The Stoopses have a lot of speed to work with on defense, and they’re going to need it: The Sooners have to visit West Virginia and TCU, the Big 12’s two most explosive teams. prediction: 11–2
Florida State: It has been nine years since the Seminoles finished in the top 10, but that doesn’t stop the pollsters from fawning over them in the off-season. FSU always looks the part, but the Noles have lacked discipline and leadership. So why might things be different this year? Quarterback EJ Manuel, a fifth-year senior, is a respected leader who has a dynamic group of receivers. The team also has arguably the fastest defense in the nation, with nine starters returning from what was the fourth-ranked defense in 2011. Oh, and the Noles’ two archrivals, Miami and Florida, are in rebuilding mode. If third-year coach Jimbo Fisher can’t have a breakthrough season now, he’ll probably never have one with FSU. prediction: 12–2
West Virginia: The Mountaineers’ first year under offensive mastermind Dana Holgorsen was chaotic. But it ended in spectacular fashion. The team blasted Clemson 70–33 in the Orange Bowl, and it looks as though Holgorsen is just warming up. WVU dumped the Big East for the tougher Big 12, and the timing of the move is good. Holgorsen overhauled the defensive staff, which settled some rocky team chemistry. “The biggest change is that everyone’s getting along with each other,” said QB Geno Smith. Keep an eye on Smith, a Heisman candidate with stud receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. If the defense, which has six starters back, can be decent, this is a good dark-horse national-title pick. At least they won’t be boring. prediction: 11–2
Georgia: Longtime coach Mark Richt got himself off the hot seat last fall by winning 10 games, though the Dawgs didn’t beat anyone good. They faced four top-15 teams and lost to all of them. NFL scouts love Georgia’s personnel, especially on defense, where they ranked fifth in the country. Their best player on defense—All-American linebacker Jarvis Jones, a USC transfer—is a potential top-10 pick. The team’s leader is Aaron Murray, UGA’s starting quarterback for the third year. He doesn’t have ideal size, but he can move and makes good decisions. He also has a few gifted young tailbacks to lean on, but the offensive line is green. The best news in Athens? The schedule is as favorable as you can get in the SEC, meaning they avoid LSU, Alabama and Arkansas. The only top-20 team they’ll likely face in the regular season is South Carolina. prediction: 12–2
Michigan State: The Big Ten doesn’t have a legit national-title contender this year, but there are a handful of good teams. The Spartans—with eight of their top nine tacklers returning, including towering defensive end William Gholston—are the best of the bunch. And they have some momentum, coming off an Outback Bowl win over Georgia—MSU’s first postseason win in a decade. The Spartans are a traditional grind-it-out Big Ten offense, led by 238-pound sledgehammer tailback Le’Veon Bell and an experienced offensive line. Junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell replaces Kirk Cousins. Maxwell, a six-foot-three former high jumper, is a better athlete than Cousins. We’ll find out midseason if he has the same poise when MSU plays a three-game stretch with back-to-back road trips to Michigan and Wisconsin before facing off against Nebraska. prediction: 12–2
TCU: The Horned Frogs have won 47 games in the past four seasons, one fewer than Alabama. But with TCU’s move from the Mountain West Conference to the Big 12, it has officially made the big time. The bad news: In February, four key players, including Tanner Brock, the linebacker pegged to be the leader of the defense, were snagged in a drug bust. Coach Gary Patterson immediately booted them. Three were defensive starters. Now only five starters return on defense. The offense, though, should be even more explosive than it was in 2011, when TCU ranked ninth in scoring. Quarterback Casey Pachall and his crew of receivers now have some experience. Good thing. The Horned Frogs close the season playing Texas and then Oklahoma, against whom they are a combined 3–33 since 1968. prediction: 10–3 *Check out Playboy’s Preseason All America Team*