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Staples: National Predictions

Jason Staples gazes into an especially hazy crystal ball and tries to project the 2015 season.

Last year's predictions column was, as always, a mixed bag. The opening paragraph was pretty good:

The Big Ten will effectively be out of the national championship hunt after Week 2: LSU beats Wisconsin opening week and then in Week 2, Oregon comfortably beats Michigan State, and Virginia Tech shocks Braxton Miller-less Ohio State in an ugly, offensively-challenged game.

Of course, the Big Ten wound up getting back into the picture and winning the title, so no cigar after all. I got Mariota winning the Heisman and was one point away from a two-loss SEC champion. But I whiffed badly on Florida going 8–4 and Clemson opening with a win over Georgia (though that was a ballgame until Clemson lost their SDE early in the fourth and promptly started getting gashed in the running game). I also whiffed badly on my expectations of FSU's season from last year, though I was far from alone on that score.

In any case, here are my best guesses for a season in which I think mayhem will be the operative word, making it especially difficult to project:

The ACC

The ACC will go 2–2 or better in the conference’s four major nonconference games to open the season. 

North Carolina will open the season by beating rival South Carolina in Charlotte, followed by the Gamecocks struggling to get to 6-6 on the season and perhaps even missing a bowl at 5–7.

Louisville will give Auburn all they can handle in their opening-season tilt. And …

Ohio State will not go undefeated. In fact, for the second year in a row, I’m predicting that Virginia Tech will upset Ohio State. Only this time, I think the Hokies proceed to win the ACC Coastal afterwards (I had them finishing sixth in the Coastal last season). Full disclosure: I would not have picked the Hokies over the Buckeyes had Joey Bosa and two key receivers not been suspended for the opener.

Deshaun Watson will start every game for Clemson and that offense will put up ridiculous numbers … and the Tigers will still finish third in the ACC Atlantic behind Florida State and Louisville, thanks in part to having a more difficult conference slate than the Cardinals.

Miami will be significantly better than they were in 2014 … and will still go 8–4, thanks to a better-than-people-realize ACC Coastal and crossover games against FSU and Clemson. Don’t be surprised if the Hurricanes win one of those two, however, as I have the Canes upsetting Clemson. The Canes do have a reasonable chance of 9–3 if things break right for them, however, and I expect them to beat Nebraska early in the season.

Georgia Tech will take a step back, thanks largely to a monster schedule, going 8–4 and falling short of the ACC Championship Game.

The ACC will again finish the regular season with a winning record against the SEC. Notre Dame will go 4–2 in its six games against the ACC.

National

Michigan will exceed the already high expectations for the program under Jim Harbaugh and go 8–4 on the season and will give Ohio State all they can handle in Ann Arbor to close the regular season. The Wolverines have a significantly more talented roster than most realize, but the necessary accountability, attention to detail, and toughness have been lacking in the program. Harbaugh will have them playing sound, physical football from day one.

No SEC team will have fewer than two losses. This may be the deepest that conference has ever been, and it’s going to be tougher than ever for anyone to make it through unscathed. Nevertheless, an SEC team will still make the playoff with two losses—and they won’t be the only two-loss team in the playoff.

Watch out for Texas A&M in the SEC West. Their schedule sets up perfectly, those wide receivers are going to run roughshod through the SEC, and if the Chief can get their defense to a level of competence, they may well surprise and win the SEC West. I picked Alabama (after toying with Georgia) on the podcast, but I'm just not sold enough on their wide receivers to pick them. So I'm going to go with Texas A&M to win the West, followed by LSU. Schedule matters, and TAMU has a really friendly one compared to the others in that division. And for what it's worth, this is the least fearless prediction in this column, along with the four playoff teams—I really think this division is wide open.

I’m pretty confident in Georgia winning the SEC East, however. Tennessee is at least a year away, and I just don’t think the rest of that side is very good. I think Missouri yet again surprises everyone and finishes second in the division. 

South Carolina will go 6–6 or 5–7, prompting Steve Spurrier to seriously consider retirement.

Southern Cal will “disappoint” once again, but not because they underachieved. It’s just that the expectations are too high for a roster that is still too thin to make it through that schedule successfully. The margins are just too thin. I have the Trojans finishing 9–3.

Arizona State will finish nowhere near what many pundits are projecting—I’m not sure they’re even the best team in that state.

Although they will obviously take a step back at quarterback (even with Vernon Adams), Oregon is actually better across the board than they were last season and will win the Pac 12 after pounding Michigan State (again) in East Lansing. Don’t be surprised if the Ducks are ranked #1 going into the College Football Playoff. Vernon Adams will make a trip to New York at the end of the regular season.

TCU will not finish in the top five, but Trevone Boykin will still make the trip to New York City. 

That said, this will be the year a running back breaks through and wins the Heisman Trophy after a decade of the award going to quarterbacks. My best guess: Georgia tailback Nick Chubb.

I really have no idea who is going to win the national title this year. I just don't think it's going to be Ohio State.

My best attempt at projecting the conference races and the playoff field is below.

Conference Standings:

SEC East

1. Georgia
2. Mizzou
3. Tennessee
4. Florida

SEC West

1. Texas A&M
2. LSU
3. Alabama
3. Auburn
3. Ole Miss
6. Arkansas
7. Miss St.

SEC Champion: Texas A&M

B1G East

1. Ohio State
2. Michigan
3. Michigan State
4. Penn State

B1G West

1. Wisconsin
2. Nebraska
3. Minnesota

B1G Champion: Ohio State

Pac 12 North

1. Oregon
2. Stanford
3. Utah

Pac 12 South

1. UCLA
2. USC
3. Arizona
4. Arizona State

Pac 12 Champion: Oregon

Big 12

1. Baylor
2. TCU
3. Oklahoma
4. Oklahoma State
5. Texas

ACC Atlantic

1. Florida State (6–2)
2. Louisville (6–2)
3. Clemson (5–3)

ACC Coastal

1. Virginia Tech (6–2)
2. Georgia Tech  (5–3)
2. Miami  (5–3)
2. North Carolina (5–3)
2. Pitt (5–3)
6. Virginia (3–5)
6. Duke (3–5)

ACC Champion: Florida State

College Football Playoff

1. Oregon
2. Baylor
3. Ohio State
4. Texas A&M


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