The Syracuse Orange football team will enter the 2014 season with decent expectations to return to a bowl game and improve their record. If they're going to do so, they're going to have to cut through a schedule that will include four teams that have been included in ESPN and CBS Sports' way-too-early Top 25s.
Florida St. Seminoles (No. 1/1)
The defending national champions will visit the Carrier Dome on the road to a repeat. Jamies Winston will still be there and even if they're not actually the No. 1 team in the nation next season, they're going to be up there. Either way, be afraid…Sparta will burn to the ground...
FSU will have to wait to see whether a few underclassmen such as left tackle Cam Erving, wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin and tight end Nick O'Leary return to school or enter the NFL draft. But Winston is coming back, along with a stable of capable tailbacks and a plethora of big-play receivers. The biggest personnel losses will occur on defense, where the Seminoles will have to replace linebackers Christian Jones and Telvin Smith, cornerback Lamarcus Joyner and safety Terrence Brooks. [ESPN]
The Seminoles will lose several contributors from their perfect 2013 run, most notably All-American defensive back LaMarcus Joyner, center Bryan Stork and potentially junior wideout Kelvin Benjamin. But the Heisman Trophy winner will be back, and Jimbo Fisher has recruited well enough that any hole will immediately be plugged by just another blue-chip NFL-bound prospect. [CBS]
Clemson Tigers (No. 18/16)
Dabo Swinney and his Tigers will welcome (?) the Orange to Death Valley where plenty of folks are sure to still be butthurt over Scott Shafer's outburst and whatever other perceived slight they create out of thin air. Should be fun.
The Tigers won't fall off the map, especially with offensive coordinator Chad Morris coming back for another season on Dabo Swinney's staff, but they'll have to replace their top playmakers. Along with Boyd, Clemson will lose leading rusher Roderick McDowell and receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant, who are turning pro. Morris will choose a new quarterback from among rising senior Cole Stoudt, sophomore Chad Kelly and incoming freshman Deshaun Watson, one of the country's most prized recruits.[ESPN]
Speaking of teams losing their quarterbacks, Tajh Boyd is gone, and the incredible receiving tandem of Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant is, too. But as long as Chad Morris is around, the Tigers won't fare too badly on that side, and the defense shapes up as maybe the best of Dabo Swinney's tenure.[CBS]
Notre Dame Fighting Irish (No. 23/20)
The Orange and Irish will tangle at MetLife Stadium on September 27th. The Orange might very well be 3-0 at this point and a win here could be a huge boost towards taking the next step. The Irish return with a lot of questions and might be the dominant force from two years ago, but will be good.
Quarterback Everett Golson returns after missing the entire 2013 season because of academic reasons, and he'll have to be better than he was in 2012...The running game might be more consistent with freshman Greg Bryant returning from a knee injury to join a deep stable of tailbacks. Notre Dame expects to bring back eight starters on offense, but it will miss departing left tackle Zack Martin and top receiver TJ Jones. The Irish also will have to rebuild their defensive line with tackle Louis Nix III and end Stephon Tuitt leaving for the NFL draft. [ESPN]
The Irish quietly had a perfectly successful 2013, winning nine games and dealing Michigan State its only loss. Brian Kelly must replace both his coordinators and two stud defensive linemen in draft-bound juniors Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, but the return of quarterback Everett Golson will be most welcome. [CBS]
Louisville Cardinals (UNR/No. 25)
ESPN didn't include the Cardinals but CBS did. Teddy Bridgewater and Charlie Strong are gone but it's not like the entire program is falling apart. Plus, now that Bobby Petrino is in town, he's going to keep them good (before bolting in 1-2 years for something better).
Their 2014 coach is still a mystery, and Teddy Bridgewater has left the building. But this is still a program that's gone 23-3 the past two seasons, has ample talent at wide receiver and tailback, and finished the year No. 1 in the nation in total defense. The losses even aside from Bridgewater are substantial, but this program has enough momentum that the right coaching hire should keep them on the radar. [CBS]
Obviously, a long way to go before the 2014 season, and we're talking about preseason polls that are usually filled with errors to begin with, but it's something worth keeping in mind as you think about Syracuse's task ahead.