So here we are in the last season of the Bowl Championship Series, the year before college football finally gets a bracket-style run for the national title. There’s history on the line in 2013. The Southeastern Conference is favored to win it all for an unprecedented eighth consecutive time. Nick Saban’s Alabama is looking to become the first college football team to win three in a row. Texas A&M’s mercurial QB Johnny Manziel, the first freshman to win the Heisman, will try to balance being a rock star athlete (“Johnny Football” has been partying with Justin Timberlake and Drake) with dethroning the Crimson Tide and leading the Aggies to their first national title. Still, there will be plenty to watch outside the SEC. Clemson’s high-octane QB Tajh Boyd has NFL scouts evoking the name Steve McNair. Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater, who was superb in leading the Cards to an upset over Florida in the Sugar Bowl, has a good chance to lead his team to an undefeated regular season. And then there’s Urban Meyer, who coached Ohio State to a 12–0 finish his first year in Columbus. Too bad the Buckeyes were in NCAA jail and forbidden to play a bowl game. Now Meyer’s team is eligible to win it all. If anyone is going to finally knock off the SEC, the Buckeyes are a smart bet. Ready for kickoff?
At 61, Nick Saban keeps getting better. The coach’s closest confidants say he’s more in tune with the psychological aspect of the game now than he was a decade ago, when he won his first national title with LSU. But winning an unprecedented third consecutive BCS title (and fourth in five seasons) won’t be a walk in the quad. The Tide has to replace three offensive linemen and five key pieces on defense. Saban has a big-game quarterback in AJ McCarron, a great target in wide receiver Amari Cooper and a budding star running back in T.J. Yeldon. And his recruiting system keeps cranking out playmakers on defense. PREDICTION: 13–1
Kevin Sumlin’s Aggies were the only team that beat Alabama in 2012, and they throttled Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. The result: A&M’s first top-five finish in 56 seasons. Heisman-winning QB Johnny Manziel (below left) spent a lot of time in the off-season getting more comfortable in the pocket, which should help as defenses adapt to him. It will also help if A&M can develop a star on what looks like an average SEC defense. Alabama is visiting on September 14, and Saban’s boys are pissed. PREDICTION: 11–2
The Cardinal is coming off back-to-back top-10 finishes. Quarterback Kevin Hogan impressed in the second half of last season as a redshirt freshman by, among other things, winning at Oregon in his first road start. He’ll play behind arguably the college game’s best front line. The D, which was the best on the West Coast, should be even better. The team needs a running back, but coach David Shaw has his eye on a speedy redshirt freshman: Barry J. Sanders, son of the Detroit Lions superstar. PREDICTION: 12–2
The Big Ten’s rep has been in the toilet, but Urban Meyer and his dynamic quarterback Braxton Miller can fix all that. Miller has wheels and a strong arm; he just has to learn that he doesn’t need to throw everything at 150 mph. Meyer has to replace most of his front seven on defense, but he has recruited some studs who should fill the gaps. Coming off an unbeaten 2012 season, the Buckeyes could be something special. PREDICTION: 12–2
The Tigers finished 2012 on a high, beating LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. They have a potent attack led by likely future first-round QB Tajh Boyd (right), who blossomed last year with a 67 completion percentage and 36 TDs against 13 interceptions. Four offensive linemen are back, as is star wide receiver Sammy Watkins. Clemson often looks good on paper. Will this be the year the Tigers realize their potential? PREDICTION: 12–2