DALLAS -- On Monday night, TCU coach Gary Patterson and his players had to watch Ohio State and Oregon play in their backyard in the first College Football Playoff Championship presented by AT&T.
The Horned Frogs, who went 12-1 this past season, were left out of the playoffs after falling from No. 3 to No. 6 on the playoff selection committee's final ballot. Instead of crying Texas-sized tears about being snubbed, the Horned Frogs blasted Ole Miss 42-3 in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on New Year's Eve, which only strengthened their case as one of the country's top four teams.
It might not be much of a consolation, but the Horned Frogs are No. 1 in the first Way-Too-Early Top 25 of 2015. With 10 starters expected back on offense and six more returning on defense, TCU might be loaded for (Baylor) Bears this coming season.
"That's good," Patterson said. "We were 70th last year, I think. That's what people had us a year ago. That's where we were ranked. It's good for recruiting and all that kind of stuff, but that's tougher because now you have to create a chip on your shoulder. People are going to say you are [No. 1], but now you have to go prove you are. You've gotta go prove it."
No. 2 Ohio State, No. 3 Baylor and No. 4 USC follow the Horned Frogs, with hopes of reaching next season's four-team playoff. No. 5 Oregon and No. 6 Michigan State would be among the first teams left out.
How accurate are the Way-Too-Early rankings? This past season, we correctly picked three of the four teams (FSU, Alabama and Oregon) for the playoff in our initial Way-Too-Early Top 25 on Jan. 6, 2014. Ohio State was ranked No. 9.
Here's the first Way-Too-Early Top 25 for 2015:
2014 record: 12-1, 8-1 Big 12
Returning starters: 10 offense, 6 defense, 2 special teams
Why they might finish No. 1: Did you watch the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl? TCU's high-flying offense shredded Ole Miss' top-rated defense in a 42-3 rout on New Year's Eve. Quarterback Trevone Boykin and nine other starters are expected back on offense, after the Horned Frogs scored a school-record 562 regular-season points in their first season in a spread offense directed by co-coordinators Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meachem. If Aviante Collins slides into a tackle spot, TCU might start 10 seniors and one junior on offense next season.
Why they might finish lower: The Horned Frogs are losing the heart and soul of their defense in Dawson and Mallet, who combined to make 236 tackles, 31½ tackles for loss and 7½ sacks this past season. Replacing Carter and White won't be easy, either. TCU plays six road games this season, including trips to Minnesota in the opener and to Oklahoma State and Oklahoma during Big 12 play in November. At least it plays Baylor at home in its Nov. 27 regular-season finale.
2014 record: 14-1, 8-0 Big Ten
Returning starters: 7 offense, 7 defense, 2 special teams
Why they might finish higher: Like the Horned Frogs, the Buckeyes are going to be loaded on offense in 2015. First, coach Urban Meyer must decide on a starting quarterback. If 2013 starter Braxton Miller sticks around, there will be a three-man race for the job, as he'll have to beat out J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones. Running back Ezekiel Elliott is coming back after running for more than 1,600 yards, along with four starting offensive linemen and three of the top four receivers.
Why they might finish lower: The Buckeyes are losing offensive coordinator Tom Herman, the Broyles Award winner as the country's top assistant, who was hired as Houston's new head coach. There are also a couple significant losses on defense, including Bennett and the two Grants. OSU's nonconference schedule isn't easy, with a season opener at Virginia Tech and home games against Hawaii and MAC foes Northern Illinois and Western Michigan.
3. Baylor Bears
2014 record: 11-2, 8-1 Big 12
Returning starters: 8 offense, 9 defense, 1 special teams
Why they might finish higher: Even with Petty and two of his favorite targets, Goodley and Norwood, departing, Baylor figures to be just as explosive on offense in Briles' spread system. Sophomore quarterback Seth Russell completed 56.5 percent of his passes for 804 yards with eight touchdowns and one interception this season, and receivers KD Cannon and Corey Coleman each had more than 1,000 receiving yards. With left tackle Spencer Drango coming back for his senior season, five starters are back on the offensive line, along with tailback Shock Linwood, who ran for 1,252 yards with 16 touchdowns. The defense should continue to improve, especially with end Shawn Oakman coming back for his senior season.
Why they might finish lower: The Bears will once again play a soft nonconference schedule: SMU (away), FCS foe Lamar (home) and Rice (home). This past season showed Baylor has no margin for error in Big 12 play, and Baylor will close the 2015 season with three difficult road games in November: at Kansas State (Nov. 5), at Oklahoma State (Nov. 21) and at TCU (Nov. 27), in addition to home games against Oklahoma (Nov. 14) and Texas (Dec. 5).
4. USC Trojans
2014 record: 9-4, 6-3 Pac-12
Returning starters: 8 offense, 7 defense, 1 special teams
Why they might finish higher: You would think the Trojans could play better in coach Steve Sarkisian's second season, after struggling to finish games this season (three of their four losses were by six points or fewer). Junior quarterback Cody Kessler flourished under Sarkisian and completed 69.7 percent of his passes for 3,826 yards with 39 touchdowns and five interceptions. He'll miss junior wideout Agholor, who is turning pro, but almost everybody else is expected back on offense. USC started three freshmen and a sophomore on the offensive line by season's end.
Why they might finish lower: The Trojans are losing a boatload of talent on defense, including three of their top four tacklers and top two pass-rushers. Junior end Williams, who had 80 tackles and seven sacks, is turning pro, and Tavai (seven sacks) is also departing. Three injured players who missed the season with injuries -- defensive lineman Kenny Bigelow and linebackers Jabari Ruffin and Lamar Dawson -- should be back and might be able to help. USC's schedule isn't a cakewalk, with road games at Arizona State (Sept. 26), Notre Dame (Oct. 17) and Oregon (Nov. 21).
5. Oregon Ducks
2014 record: 13-2, 8-1 Pac-12
Returning starters: 6 offense, 7 defense, 2 special teams
Why they might finish higher: Even without Marcus Mariota, the Heisman Trophy winner who is expected to enter the NFL draft as a junior, the Ducks figure to be pretty potent on offense. Tailback Royce Freeman will be a sophomore, and receiver Bralon Addison and left tackle Tyler Johnstone are expected back after missing the 2014 season with a knee injuries. Jeff Lockie will have to hold off redshirt freshman Morgan Mahalak and Georgia Tech transfer Ty Griffin to win the starting quarterback job. Another option might be Braxton Miller, if he decides to transfer for his senior season.
Why they might finish lower: The Ducks lose several of their best players, including Mariota, Fisher, Grasu and Ekpre-Olomu. It won't be easy replacing that much production on offense. Oregon plays road games at Michigan State (Sept. 12), Arizona State (Oct. 29) and Stanford (Nov. 14).
2014 record: 11-2, 7-1 Big Ten
Returning starters: 5 offense, 7 defense, 1 special teams
Why they might finish higher: The return of quarterback Connor Cook, who threw for 3,214 yards with 24 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2014, at least gives the Spartans a chance to challenge Ohio State in the Big Ten East this coming season. At this point, it wouldn't be wise to underestimate Michigan State, even though it loses a ton of talent. Under coach Mark Dantonio, the Spartans have won 11 games or more in four of the past five seasons. Their only two losses in 2014 came against Oregon and Ohio State, which played for the national championship.
Why they might finish lower: There are heavy personnel losses on both sides of the football, and the Spartans are also replacing defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who left to become Pitt's head coach. On offense, the Spartans will have to replace Langford, who ran for 1,522 yards with 22 touchdowns, and Lippett and Mumphery, who combined for 91 catches and 14 touchdowns. Three of four starters will have to be replaced in the secondary, as well.
7. UCLA Bruins
2014 record: 10-3, 6-3 Pac-12
Returning starters: 10 offense, 8 defense, 2 special teams
Why they might finish higher: Maybe the hype about UCLA came a year too soon. Even with Hundley departing early for the NFL draft, the Bruins are going to be loaded with returning talent in 2015. UCLA's roster included 50 freshmen and sophomores this past season, and many of its best players were underclassmen. Rising juniors such as Eddie Vanderdoes and Myles Jack are only going to continue to improve.
Why they might finish lower: There's no question the Bruins are going to miss Hundley, who passed for 3,155 yards, ran for 644 and accounted for 33 touchdowns this past season. Sophomore Jerry Neuheisel, son of former UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel, is the favorite to replace Hundley, but he might be pushed by incoming freshman Josh Rosen, the country's No. 2 pocket passer prospect, according to ESPN Recruiting. UCLA's schedule in 2015 won't be easy, with road games at Arizona, Stanford, Utah and USC.
2014 record: 10-3, 6-2 SEC
Returning starters: 7 offense, 6 defense, 2 special teams
Why they might finish higher: Georgia brings back four of five starters on the offensive line, as well as tailback Nick Chubb, who ran for 1,547 yards with 14 touchdowns as a freshman (after getting only 31 carries combined in the first five games). Georgia's defense improved dramatically under first-year coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, and linebackers Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins and Lorenzo Carter are coming back. Georgia's schedule includes only four true road games and only two (at Vanderbilt and Tennessee) in the first two months of the season.
Why they might finish lower: Georgia is going to have to find a new quarterback to replace Mason, who was solid yet unspectacular in his only season as a starter. Brice Ramsey, Jacob Park and Faton Bauta will battle for the job this spring. Will the Bulldogs be as explosive on offense without former coordinator Mike Bobo, who left to become Colorado State's head coach? The Bulldogs hired former NFL assistant Brian Schottenheimer to take over the offense.
2014 record: 10-3, 6-2 ACC
Returning starters: 7 offense, 3 defense, 1 special teams
Why they might finish higher: If quarterback Deshaun Watson is healthy, the Tigers are going to be really difficult to stop, even after former offensive coordinator Chad Morris left to become SMU's head coach. With co-offensive coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott running the show, Clemson piled up 387 yards of offense in a 40-6 victory over Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl. Watson is going to be surrounded by a very deep receiver corps, including Artavis Scott and Mike Williams. Clemson's schedule also sets up well, with home games against Notre Dame, Georgia Tech and FSU.
Why they might finish lower: There might be major issues on both lines of scrimmage. The Tigers lose three starters on the offensive line and their entire defensive front. Clemson might have to rely heavily on its incoming freshman class, which includes offensive tackles Mitch Hyatt and Jake Fruhmorgen and defensive tackle Sterling Johnson, who have already enrolled. ESPN 300 DT Christian Wilkins is also committed.
2014 record: 12-2, 7-1 SEC
Returning starters: 2 offense, 7 defense, 2 special teams
Why they might finish higher: The Crimson Tide are going to have to -- gasp! -- rebuild their starting lineup this coming season. But perhaps no one has recruited as well as Alabama the past few years. Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin can build his offense around tailback Derrick Henry, who figures to get more of the workload this coming season, and there are still a few good receivers returning.
Why they might finish lower: It might not be so easy for Alabama to simply reload this time. The Tide will lose Sims, star receiver Cooper and tailback Yeldon, who are entering the NFL draft. FSU transfer Jake Coker is the favorite to replace Sims, but he might be pushed by redshirt sophomore Cooper Bateman, redshirt freshman David Cornwell and even incoming freshman Blake Barnett, the country's No. 1 pocket passer prospect, according to ESPN RecruitingNation. Alabama also loses three starting offensive linemen, though center Ryan Kelly and tackle Cam Robinson are coming back. Alabama's defense was exposed in its loss to Ohio State in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, and it needs to get faster at linebacker and improve dramatically in the secondary.
11. Ole Miss Rebels
2014 record: 9-4, 5-3 SEC
Returning starters: 10 offense, 7 defense, 2 special teams
Why they might finish higher: If you can somehow erase the Rebels' horrid performance in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl from your mind, the rest of the 2014 campaign was pretty memorable. The Rebels started 7-0 and were ranked No. 3 in the country before injuries started piling up. They're bringing back 18 players who started the bowl game, and star receiver Laquon Treadwell, cornerback Tee Shepherd and linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche are coming back from injuries.
Why they might finish lower: There's no question Wallace had a roller-coaster career under center, but the Rebels don't have a replacement ready to go. Redshirt freshmen Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade are in line to replace him, although Clemson transfer Chad Kelly could be an option, despite his recent legal problems. There are some significant holes to fill on defense, after losing three of the top five tacklers and two stars in the secondary. Ole Miss' road schedule in 2015 isn't easy, with games at Alabama, Florida, Memphis, Auburn and Mississippi State.
2014 record: 8-5
Returning starters: 9 offense, 10 defense, 0 special teams
Why they might finish higher: Notre Dame was one of the youngest teams in the country in 2014, and it might bring back nine starters on offense and 10 on defense. The offensive line will return intact if left tackle Ronnie Stanley doesn't leave for the NFL draft, and the top five rushers and top three receivers are expected back. The Fighting Irish had seven new starters on defense in 2014, which explains some of their struggles. They might get back two defensive starters who were suspended this past season: cornerback KeiVarae Russell and lineman Ishaq Williams.
Why they might finish lower: Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has to settle his team's quarterback quandary. Junior Everett Golson came back from a one-year suspension and turned the ball over too frequently. Kelly played both Golson and sophomore Malik Zaire in the Music City Bowl. Will he stick with a two-quarterback system moving forward? Will Golson stick around or transfer? The schedule isn't overly difficult to Notre Dame standards, but the Irish will still play road games at Clemson and Stanford.
13. Arizona Wildcats
2014 record: 10-4, 7-2 Pac-12
Returning starters: 7 offense, 5 defense, 2 special teams
Why they might finish higher: The Wildcats won the Pac-12 South and reached the Fiesta Bowl with a freshman quarterback and tailback. Anu Solomon was a big surprise, throwing for 3,793 yards with 28 touchdowns and nine interceptions, though he struggled a bit down the stretch. Freshman Nick Wilson ran for 1,375 yards with 16 touchdowns, and sophomore Cayleb Jones had 73 catches for 1,019 yards with nine scores. The best news: Sophomore linebacker Scooby Wright III is coming back after winning the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and Chuck Bednarik and Rotary Lombardi awards in his first season as a starter.
Why they might finish lower: Arizona will have to replace three starting offensive linemen and three starters in the secondary. Two of the team's top three tacklers -- Tevis and Grandon -- are departing after combining to make 204 stops, five sacks and five interceptions. Arizona's Pac-12 schedule this season will include road games at Stanford, Colorado, Washington, USC and Arizona State.
14. Auburn Tigers
2014 record: 8-5, 4-4 SEC
Returning starters: 5 offense, 7 defense, 2 special teams
Why they might finish higher: The Tigers were downright awful on defense at the end of the 2014 season, which is a big reason they lost four of their last five games. Coach Gus Malzahn fired defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson and replaced him with former Florida coach Will Muschamp. The Tigers bring back seven starters on defense, as well as promising pass rusher Carl Lawson, who missed all of this past season with a torn ACL in his left knee. The Tigers lose a few big weapons on offense, but sophomore Jeremy Johnson has been waiting for his turn at quarterback. Receiver Duke Williams is coming back, and juco transfer Jovon Robinson might be the next big thing in Auburn's backfield.
Why they might finish lower: There's only so much Muschamp can do to fix Auburn's defense without the right personnel. The Tigers should be pretty good up front, with Lawson, Montravius Adams and Gimel President coming back. The linebacker corps received a boost when junior Kris Frost elected to return to school. But the secondary might be a mess, especially with Therezie, Mincy and safety Jermaine Whitehead moving on. The Tigers will play SEC road games at LSU, Kentucky, Arkansas and Texas A&M.
2014 record: 10-3, 6-3 Pac-12
Returning starters: 7 offense, 9 defense, 2 special teams
Why they might finish higher: After winning 10 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1970-73, the Sun Devils got a major boost when junior tailback D.J. Foster decided he'll return to school for his senior season. Strong is turning pro, so Foster might be utilized more as a slot receiver in 2015. The Sun Devils lose quarterback Kelly, but Mike Bercovici started three games in 2014 and passed for 1,445 yards with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions. Nine starters are expected back on defense.
Why they might finish lower: The Sun Devils will have to do some rebuilding on both lines of scrimmage, as they lose their starting offensive tackles and Hardison, who had 15 tackles for loss and 10 sacks in 2014. Arizona State's schedule won't be easy, either. It opens the season against Texas A&M in Houston, then opens Pac-12 play with consecutive games against USC (home) and UCLA (road).
2014 record: 11-3, 7-1 Big Ten
Returning starters: 5 offense, 7 defense, 1 special teams
Why they might finish higher: New Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst inherited a pretty talented roster and a favorable schedule in 2015. The Badgers open the season against Alabama in Arlington, Texas, which won't be easy, but they don't play Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State or Penn State during the regular season. The secondary returns intact, along with the starting outside linebackers. Chryst lured offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph back to Madison, which was a major staff addition.
Why they might finish lower: To say Heisman Trophy finalist Melvin Gordon carried the load this past season would be a gross understatement. He ran 343 times for 2,587 yards with 29 touchdowns, and he might be the most missed player in the country. Sophomore Corey Clement might be another star, but Gordon's heavy lifting will be hard to replace. Chryst must fix Wisconsin's passing game, which ranked 116th among FBS teams (148.7 yards per game), and returning starter Joel Stave will have to hold off redshirt freshman D.J. Gillins and incoming freshman Austin Kafentzis, who enrolled early. Three starters must also be replaced on the offensive line.
17. LSU Tigers
2014 record: 8-5, 4-4 SEC
Returning starters: 8 offense, 6 defense, 2 special teams
Why they might finish higher: If LSU can fix its quarterback problem, it might be one of the most-improved teams in the country this season. The Tigers started nine freshmen and sophomores against Notre Dame in the Music City Bowl, including tailback Leonard Fournette, who was as good as advertised while running for 1,034 yards with 10 touchdowns as a freshman. Young receivers Travin Dural, Malachi Dupre, John Diarse and Trey Quinn should only continue to get better.
Why they might finish lower: Unless the Tigers can add a transfer quarterback or Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris improve dramatically during the offseason, they'll probably continue to sputter on offense. LSU ranked 116th among FBS teams (and last in the SEC) in passing with only 162.9 yards per game. While there's a ton of talent coming back on defense, the Tigers will miss former defensive coordinator John Chavis, who left for the same position at Texas A&M. LSU's schedule in 2015 includes road games at Mississippi State, Syracuse, South Carolina, Alabama and Ole Miss.
2014 record: 11-3, 6-2 ACC
Returning starters: 5 offense, 8 defense, 2 special teams
Why they might finish higher: The Yellow Jackets rolled into the postseason with a boatload of momentum and confidence after upsetting rival Georgia 30-24 in overtime in the regular-season finale and then Mississippi State 49-34 in the Capital One Orange Bowl. Sophomore Justin Thomas is a tailor-made fit for coach Paul Johnson's triple-option offense and passed for 1,719 yards with 18 touchdowns and six interceptions, while running for a team-high 1,086 yards with eight scores. Thomas should only continue to get better.
Why they might finish lower: Besides Thomas, the Yellow Jackets lost most of their firepower on offense, including their top two receivers (Smelter and Waller) and four of their top five running backs (Days, Laskey, Perkins and Tony Zenon). The good news: Four of their five starting offensive linemen are coming back. Tech's road schedule this upcoming season is pretty arduous, with trips to Notre Dame, Clemson, Duke, Miami and Virginia.
2014 record: 13-1, 8-0 ACC
Returning starters: 3 offense, 7 defense, 2 special teams
Why they might finish higher: Few teams have recruited and reloaded better than Florida State the past few seasons, and coach Jimbo Fisher might be counting on a bunch of underclassmen this season. Winston, Edwards and Williams have already announced they're leaving for the NFL draft, and defensive tackle Eddie Goldman might do the same. FSU is expected to bring back a few proven playmakers on offense, including tailback Dalvin Cook and receivers Jesus Wilson and Travis Rudolph.
Why they might finish lower: With Winston leaving, the Seminoles are going to have an unproven player under center. Sophomore Sean Maguire started against Clemson this past season, when Winston was suspended, and completed 51 percent of his passes for 339 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions in three games. He'll battle freshmen John Franklin III and J.J. Cosentino for the job, along with three incoming freshmen. The Seminoles will also have to replace four of five starters on the offensive line and myriad playmakers on defense.
2014 record: 12-2, 7-1 Mountain West
Returning starters: 9 offense, 8 defense, 1 special teams
Why they might finish higher: After going 12-2 and beating Arizona 38-30 in the VIZIO Fiesta Bowl in coach Bryan Harsin's first season, the Broncos are the favorites to win the Mountain West and appear in another New Year's Six bowl in 2015. The Broncos are expected to bring back their entire starting offensive line, along with four other starters on offense and eight on defense.
Why they might finish lower: The Broncos will have to replace Hedrick and Ajayi, who is leaving for the NFL draft after running for 1,823 yards with 28 touchdowns this past season. Freshman Ryan Finley is the favorite to replace Hedrick, after he attempted 27 passes in 2014, but he might be pushed by incoming freshman Brett Rypien, who enrolled at Boise State this month. Rypien, from Spokane, Washington, chose the Broncos over scholarship offers from Washington, Washington State, Oregon State, Arizona State and Mississippi State. He is the nephew of former NFL quarterback Mark Rypien.
2014 record: 7-6, 2-6 SEC
Returning starters: 10 offense, 7 defense, 1 special teams
Why they might finish higher: After losing 13 consecutive SEC games to start the Bret Bielema era (and 17 in a row overall), the Hogs finally turned the corner at the end of the past season. Arkansas upset then-No. 17 LSU and then-No. 8 Ole Miss by a combined score of 47-0 in November and then defeated Texas 31-7 in the AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl. The Hogs will carry a lot of momentum into next season, especially with star tailbacks Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins both expected back. Four starters are returning on the offensive line, along with quarterback Brandon Allen, who threw 20 touchdowns and five interceptions in 2014.
Why they might finish lower: If Arkansas is going to improve its 2-6 2014 SEC record, it will have to earn it this coming season. The Razorbacks' schedule is again arduous, with road games at Tennessee, Alabama, Ole Miss and LSU. The Razorbacks will also have to replace two key defensive players: Flowers, their top pass rusher, and Spaight, their leading tackler.
22. Utah Utes
2014 record: 9-4, 5-4 Pac-12
Returning starters: 8 offense, 7 defense, 2 special teams
Why they might finish higher: Utah coach Kyle Whittingham seems cautiously optimistic junior running back Devontae Booker is coming back for his senior season, which would be a major coup for the Utes. The juco transfer ran for 1,512 yards while catching 43 passes the past season. Even with left tackle Jeremiah Poutasi leaving early for the NFL draft, the Utes might bring back eight starters on offense and seven on defense.
Why they might finish lower: Utah is going to have to replace some key pieces on defense, especially Orchard, who had 84 tackles, 21 tackles for loss and 18½ sacks this past season. Rowe and Blechen are big losses in the secondary. The Utes lost three key assistant coaches, including defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Kalani Sitake, who left for Oregon State, and offensive coordinator Dave Christensen, who left to become Texas A&M's offensive line coach. The Utes face a challenging road schedule in Pac-12 play, with road trips to Oregon, USC, Washington and Arizona.
2014 record: 7-6, 3-5 SEC
Returning starters: 10 offense, 9 defense, 1 special teams
Why they might finish higher: It seems the Volunteers have been rebuilding forever, but they finally seem ready to turn the corner after going a combined 12-13 in coach Butch Jones' first two seasons. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs looks like the answer under center, and four starting offensive linemen are coming back, along with tailback Jalen Hurd, who ran for 899 yards as a freshman. Tennessee's schedule is also favorable, with only four true road games: at Florida, Alabama, Kentucky and Missouri.
Why they might finish lower: There aren't a lot of reasons not to be excited about Tennessee's future, but at some point, it has to translate into victories over teams they're not expected to beat. The 45-28 victory over Iowa in the Taxslayer Bowl was a nice start, but it's going to take more than back-to-back wins over South Carolina to make a move in the SEC East.
2014 record: 7-6, 4-5 Big 12
Returning starters: 8 offense, 8 defense, 1 special teams
Why they might finish higher: After losing five games in a row, the Pokes upset rival Oklahoma 38-35 in overtime in the Bedlam game and then defeated Washington 30-22 in the TicketCity Cactus Bowl to salvage what might have been a really disappointing season. But freshman Mason Rudolph played pretty well at quarterback, and the Cowboys are expected to bring back three top receivers and three starting offensive linemen.
Why they might finish lower: The Cowboys will have to replace a potent one-two punch in the backfield. Roland, a senior, was the team's top rusher with 770 yards, and Hill, a speedy backup tailback and kick returner, was dismissed from the team in December, after he was charged with domestic violence. The month of November will once again define OSU's season, as it plays TCU, Baylor and Oklahoma at home, as well as a road game at Iowa State in the final month.
2014 record: 8-5, 5-3 Big Ten
Returning starters: 7 offense, 7 defense, 2 special teams
Why they might finish higher: The Gophers continue to make strides under coach Jerry Kill, who guided them to an 8-5 record and their first New Year's Day bowl game in 52 years in 2014. There are some key pieces to replace on offense and defense this season, but the bulk of the two-deep depth chart is coming back.
Why they might finish lower: The Gophers are losing Cobb and Williams, their top two weapons on offense. Williams, who caught 36 passes for 569 yards with eight touchdowns, is entering the NFL draft after his sophomore season. Cobb ran for 1,626 yards and 13 touchdowns, and the Gophers will have a difficult time replacing his production. Quarterback Mitch Leidner played better in a 33-17 loss to Missouri in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl, but he has to continue to improve as a passer. The Gophers were too one-dimensional on offense this past season.