For the first time ever, college football will have its very own playoff this season. A 13-member selection committee will pick the top four teams in all the land to compete in semifinal games in the Sugar Bowl and the Rose Bowl.
The two winners will advance to the National Championship game in Dallas on January 12.
Now here’s the hard part, picking those final four teams before a single down has been played. Here are my predicted top four, with a few other teams who could make the committee ponder a little harder.
1. Florida State (2013- 14-0, National Champions): There’s no question who everyone’s number one is. The defending national champions (yeah I said defending Jimbo) are the most talented team in the country, and Jameis Winston is right at the center of that talent.
The 2014 Heisman Trophy winner will have to establish a second target at wideout, but he returns senior Rashad Greene (76 catches, nine TDs and 1128 yards) and tight end Nick O’Leary (33 catches, seven TDs and 557 yards). FSU also returns four of five starters along the offensive line.
Defensively replacing Telvin Smith, Timmy Jernigan and Lamarcus Joyner will be no easy task, but the cupboard is far from bare for new defensive coordinator Charles Kelly. As long as Jalen Ramsey and Mario Edwards Jr. stay healthy, the Seminoles have plenty of athletes to overcome the inexperience on that side of the ball.
FSU does have a beefed-up non-conference schedule with the Cowboys Kickoff Classic against Oklahoma State on Saturday, a visit from Notre Dame on October 18 and its annual clash with Florida in Tallahassee on November 29.
The Biggest ACC games will be Clemson on September 20, but like Notre Dame and Florida the Tigers have to travel to Doak Campbell Stadium. The glaring ‘trap-game’ on the Seminoles’ schedule looks to be a Thursday night visit to Bobby Petrino and Louisville on October 30.
2. Alabama (2013- 11-2, 7-1 SEC): The Crimson Tide finished last year with two straight losses, lost eight players to the NFL, including quarterback A.J. McCarron, yet I don’t think anyone will argue that Alabama is again one of the best teams in the nation.
Physically Jacob Coker is an upgrade from McCarron under center, but the question that needs to be answered is if the Mobile, Ala. native is ready mentally to be Alabama’s quarterback. Coker still hasn’t been named the starter over senior Blake Sims, but all indications from Tuscaloosa are that he will.
New offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has plenty of weapons for either QB to utilize. Amari Cooper (45 receptions, four TDs and 736 yards) is fully healthy, and the dynamic duo of running backs T.J. Yeldon (1279 yards rushing, 12 TDs) and Derrick Henry (394 yards rushing and three TDs) will provide plenty of power on the ground.
The secondary was Alabama’s biggest chink in the armor last year (OK that and it’s field goal coverage unit), but a year to marinate and work with DB-whispers Nick Saban and Kirby Smart should make that a much-improved unit. Alabama also has the preferred cure to any ailing secondary, a massive defensive front. Senior nose tackle Brandon Ivory weighs in at 6-foot-4, 308 pounds. Defensive ends Ed Stinson and Jeoffrey Pagan are both over 290 pounds, while sophomore A’Shawn Robinson checks in at a measly 6-foot-4 320 pounds.
An SEC West schedule is never a favorable one, but Alabama gets three very big games at home this year, Florida on September 20, Texas A&M October 18 and Auburn on November 29. The Crimson Tide will have to travel to LSU on November 8, and like every year that game could determine the division and league champion.
3. Oklahoma (2013- 11-2, Big 12 Champions): Trevor Knight- not a win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl- is the reason for all the Sooners’ preseason love. Yes the fact that Knight’s ah-hah moment happened to come against a team of Alabama’s caliber didn’t slow the hype train.
Knight’s athleticism and development has forced senior Blake Bell to switch to tight end, and given Bob Stoops and company and extra bounce in their step around Norman, Okla. The Sooners return four starters up front on offense, and nine defensive starters.
Last year Oklahoma was susceptible to the run, but if the boys up front hold their position, linebacker Eric Striker (50 tackles, 10.5 TFL and 6.5 sacks) is as good as they come in one-on-one match-ups.
The Sooners will be tested in the third week of the season as Tennessee comes to town on September 13. They then have to turn around and travel to West Virginia the following week.
Oklahoma travels to Texas Tech (November 15) and TCU (October 4), but they host Baylor on November 8 and Oklahoma State December 6. The Red-River Rivalry will take place as always in Dallas on October 11, but with Charlie Strong cleaning house in Austin it looks like the Longhorns won’t be able to catch OU by surprise like they did in last year’s 36-20 thrashing.
4. Michigan State (2013- 13-1, BIG Ten Champions): Speaking of teams who finished 2013 with momentum, the Spartans went 8-0 in the BIG Ten, defeated Ohio State 34-24 in the championship game and took down Stanford 24-20 in the Rose Bowl. All without much offensive firepower… to put it kindly.
Quarterback Connor Cook showed he can make plays when called upon in the wins over Ohio State and Stanford, but Michigan will rely heavily on running back Jermey Langord (1422 yards and 18 TDs) for its offensive firepower. Cook returns his top target in Tony Lippet (44 catches, two TDs and 613 yards), but Sparty will have to replace three starters along the offensive line.
Week two will go a long way towards determining if Michigan State will be one the last four standing as it travels to Eugene, Orgeon to take on the Ducks. Oregon has struggled with physical defensive fronts like Michigan State in the past, but they’ve never had as polished a passer as Marcus Mariotta before. It may just be week two, but if Oklahoma and FSU go unblemished (Even if they have one loss the SEC champ will get in), then the September 6 match-up could turn out to be an elimination game for a playoff spot.
After the trip out west Michigan State hosts its three toughest opponents the rest of the way with Nebraska (October 4), Michigan (October 25) and Ohio State (November 8) all coming to East Lansing. Michigan State misses Wisconsin in the regular season, but the two could meet in the conference title game.
Oregon (2013- 11-7, 7-2 Pac-12): Like I said the week two match-up is almost an elimination game for Michigan State and Oregon, so if the Ducks win they’re in great position to make the playoff. Quarterback Marcus Mariota is the best player in the country not named Jameis Winston or Todd Gurley.
Oregon not only hosts Sparty, but they also get Stanford (November 1) and Washington (October 18) at home. Even if Oregon loses to Michigan State, if it beats Stanford, UCLA on the road (October 11) and wins the PAC-12 then the Ducks likely would be in the final four, unless the others go unbeaten.
Ohio State (2013- 12-2, 8-0 BIG Ten): Certainly without Miller the Buckeyes have a large uphill battle ahead of them in 2014, but the good news is that Ohio State still has more talent at the skill positions than the rest of the conference. New signal caller, redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett was four-star recruit in high school despite tearing his ACL his senior season. Urban Meyer’s new athletic defensive front will get a challenge right out of the gate with a trip to Baltimore on Saturday to face Navy’s triple option. Things don’t get much easier for OSU in the non-conference schedule with visits from Virgina Tech (September 6) and Cincinnati (September 27). An offensive line with four new starters and an inexperienced quarterback are why I don’t anticipate the Buckeyes getting by Michigan State in the BIG Ten.
Auburn (2013- 12-2, SEC Champions): The Tigers schedule are the reason I went with Alabama in the SEC. Auburn travels to Kansas State (September 18), Georgia (November 15) and Alabama this season, while hosting LSU (October 4) and South Carolina (October 25). The Tigers will have one thing in 2014 that has been sparse in recent seasons at Jordan-Hare- continuity. Nick Marshall is the first returning QB Gus Malzahn has had in his nine-year college coaching tenure, and defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson will be the first Auburn DC to return for a second season in three years.
Clemson (2013- 11-2, 7-1 ACC): If Clemson gets by Georgia on Saturday the Tigers have a favorable schedule. Clemson does travel to FSU, but they host Louisville (October 11), N.C. State (October 4) and South Carolina (November 29). It will be tough with a new quarterback, but if Dabo Swinney can defeat UGA again and finally beat South Carolina, then the Tigers deserve to be in the discussion as long as their only loss is at FSU.