The winningest football program of the last quarter-century, Florida State, reigns as the sport’s champion, while the best program over the last five seasons, Alabama, will again be in the running for No. 1 in 2014.
So too will traditional powers Oklahoma and Ohio State, while recent champion/contender Auburn and Oregon rank among the top tier in the opinion of most observers.
But each of the above six teams, as well as the rest of the sport’s challengers, will chase their title dreams in a brave new col lege football world beginning this fall: finally, the sport will crown its champion with the aid of a tournament format.
After three months, 12 games, and various conference championships, four teams will be chosen -- or better put, selected -- by a 13-person committee assigned to oversee the sport for 2014 and beyond.
Odds are that the old system’s champion, Florida State (5-to-1 to claim the crown this season) will be in line to win under the new version as well. (The Seminoles are in fact listed at -250 -- that is, a Vegas sports bettor would have to wager $250 to win $100 -- to be one of the four teams to qualify for the four teams in the new College Football Playoff.)
Such is life for a power program that returns the nation’s best player, reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, as well as offensive and defensive lines, defensive backfield, special teams, linebackers and receiving corps that rank among the best in the country.
THE FSU INVITATIONAL?
Can anyone stop FSU? Weren’t we asking the same question about the Crimson Tide last spring, summer, and for the bulk of the fall?
Florida State is the consensus preseason No. 1, but Alabama, Oregon, Oklahoma and Auburn likely could each stand toe-to-toe with the Seminoles on any given Saturday.
The nation’s second tier of hopefuls isn’t far behind, as Baylor, Ohio State, UCLA, South Carolina, Stanford, Michigan State and perhaps Georgia possess legitimate title aspirations.
Thereafter, another 15-25 contenders abound, but reasonable arguments can be made against each, with easily identifiable obstacles blocking their respective paths to New Year’s Day glory.
Ah yes, New Year’s Day football -- now preceded by New Year’s Eve football -- has returned to its rightful spot as the sport’s bacchanalian feast.
Six games, three on both New Year’s Eve (Peach Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, Orange Bowl) and New Year’s Day (Cotton Bowl, Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl) will feature the nation’s 12 best teams at season’s end, though only two of those contests -- the Rose and Sugar this season -- will host the semifinals of the inaugural College Football Playoff.
(The venues for the semifinals will rotate in future seasons, with the Orange and Cotton hosting games following the 2015 season, and the Peach and Fiesta doing the same after 2016.)
Which programs will rise above the fray in 2014? What follows is a tiered look at the hopefuls for the inaugural College Football Playoff in 2014.
FINAL FOUR…PLUS ONE?
Florida State was dominant last season, but each team in the quartet that follows below has the athletes to compete with the Seminoles on both sides of the ball.
FLORIDA STATE (14-0; Beat 13 FBS foes by an average of 38 points per game.)
The argument for:Should be favored -- by more than 10 points -- in every game it plays. The Seminoles have no apparent weakness on offense, defense, or among their special teams.
The argument against:One ill-timed regular season loss could remove them from contention, because the schedule doesn’t feature any apparent heavyweights. The loss of defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt to the same position at Georgia could sting at some point; Pruitt was an assistant on each of the last three national championship defenses (Alabama in 2011-12 as its secondary coach, and last year at FSU).
In Six Words or Less: Best player, stout lines, manageable schedule
ALABAMA (11-2; Lost consecutive games to conclude 2013.)
The argument for:As late as Thanksgiving dinner 2013, no college football fan in his or her right mind believed any program was the Crimson Tide’s equal, and it’s noteworthy that it took the most remarkable ending in college football history (you remember – that 109-yard TD return of a missed field goal?) to keep ‘Bama from its third straight BCS championship game appearance. A remarkable string of recruiting classes affords head coach Nick Saban one of the nation’s two most talented rosters.
The argument against:A.J. McCarron and C.J. Mosley are not walking through that door any more. (But if they did, they’d start.) Alabama is transitioning to a new era after a three-year run that included two titles and a 36-4 record, losing only to teams that finished among the AP’s top six at season’s end.
In Six Words or Less: Best ever to lose two straight?
OREGON (11-2; Both losses occurred in November, and both were ugly.)
The argument for:Have you seen their offense? Oregon has changed the way college football is played in the modern era, and the triggerman, QB Marcus Mariota, can be otherworldly when he’s on his game. The Ducks draw Stanford at home this year and don’t play USC. A Sept. 6 matchup (in Eugene) against Michigan State and a mid-October trip to UCLA highlight the slate.
The argument against:Oregon was mugged in its last three defeats (Stanford 2012; Stanford and Arizona 2013). They’re not yet a defensive peer of FSU, Alabama, Michigan State, Stanford, etc.
In Six Words or Less: Under 30 (points) equals trouble.
OKLAHOMA (11-2; Dominated three power programs, taken to the woodshed by two others.)
The argument for:A playmaking, attacking defense led by dynamic linebackers, plus a dual-threat, electric quarterback in Trevor Knight -- and a stout offensive line -- means the Sooners likely will be favored in every regular season game. (They draw Baylor in Norman.) Oklahoma’s only non-conference matchup of note, Tennessee, would have been much more intriguing near the turn of the century -- or in 2016.
The argument against:What’s closer to the truth, the no-show at Baylor in October or the bundling of ‘Bama in January? The real Sooners certainly lie somewhere in between; will that be enough to fend off six worthy Big 12 challengers?
In Six Words or Less: Stoops (Mike) brought the D back.
AUBURN (12-2; From winless to SEC West champs.)
The argument for:The offense is both beautiful and brutal in its approach, with one of the two best center/quarterback tandems in the land. The O-Line is phenomenal, the D-Line boasts depth, the linebackers can run and hit, and the head coach is outstanding.
The argument against:Offenses with a pulse will put up 28+ on the Tigers, especially if the secondary doesn’t improve. Auburn was three plays away, two of them According to Hoyle Miracles, from a four-loss regular season last fall.
In Six Words or Less: Resurrection not only complete, but remarkable.
ON THE CUSP?
The good news? Each of these teams has more answers than questions. The bad news? None of the quintet listed below appears as well-suited for a four-month run to the College Football Playoffs as our top five.
OHIO STATE (12-2; Ended with a thud after 24 straight wins.)
The argument for:The defensive line could be the nation’s best -- and the offense’s triggerman and the program’s head coach aren’t far behind in that regard. Newbies on the offensive line will be aided by the presence of Braxston Miller under center -- and in the open field. The schedule doesn’t include Wisconsin, Iowa or Nebraska, though Navy and Virginia Tech won’t lie down for the Buckeyes in early September.
The argument against:If Ohio State loses at Michigan State in prime time in early November, the rest of the schedule affords little opportunity to return to Top Four consideration.
In Six Words or Less: Twelve consecutive wins aren’t unlikely.
BAYLOR (11-2; Replete with eye-opening wins, and losses, alike.)
The argument for:You can expect 600 yards and 50 points a game, which is a nice starting point on a football Saturday. The Bears return standouts in every offensive position group and have a defensive line that could be outstanding. Sterling play at quarterback and on the lines generally equates to top-tier success in the college game.
The argument against:Baylor’s defense improved dramatically from 2012 to 2013, but most of the unit’s heroes have moved on. Despite their ascent, the Bears still yielded 49 points to Oklahoma State, 38 to TCU (104th-best scoring offense), and 52 to Central Florida over the regular season’s final three games and bowl contest. Depth could be an issue for the Bears defensively, as November brings Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, and Kansas State to the table.
In Six Words or Less: Heisman Trophy to return to Waco?
UCLA (10-3; Punched in the mouth twice, but ended with a pair of knockout blows.)
The argument for:An up-and-coming quarterback, a stacked defense, and the nation’s most versatile player, sophomore Myles Jack, highlight a star-studded roster. The Bruins last season lost to two outstanding teams (@Oregon and @Stanford) and one quality team (ASU). Oregon is not on the schedule unless the two meet in the Pac-12 championship game.
The argument against:November concludes against USC and Stanford over a six-day span, and Oregon, the projected Pac-12 North Champ, likely follows thereafter. Three months to get to 10-0 could turn into 11-2 (or 10-3) 14 days later.
In Six Words or Less: Potentially powerful but not yet proven.
SOUTH CAROLINA (11-2; Remarkably, they didn’t win their half of the conference.)
The argument for:Led by a standout offensive line, offensive backfield, and uniquely talented linebackers, South Carolina is poised for another title-contending season in the SEC East -- and annual rival Georgia must come to Williams-Brice. The Gamecocks are the best team in the nation not to play in a BCS bowl over the last three years – but a legitimate shot at New Year’s Eve/Day festivities awaits if Steve Spurrier’s crew can navigate (most of) its six major conference tests, plus in-state rival Clemson (in Death Valley) at season’s end.
The argument against:Texas A&M, Georgia, Missouri, Auburn, Tennessee, Florida, and Clemson. And that’s before the goal game of the SEC Championship in December. The Gamecocks aren’t escaping unscathed, and another two-loss season seems the most likely result.
In Six Words or Less: Top 10 finish again? You bet.
MICHIGAN STATE (13-1; Saved their best for last with upsets of Ohio State, Stanford.)
The argument for:The defense should be among the nation’s 10 best and the offense hit its stride late last season with quarterback Connor Cook evolving from manager to playmaker. Absent from the schedule are Wisconsin, Iowa, and their usual September foil, Notre Dame.
The argument against:The Spartans will receive a huge test early at Oregon -- and MSU hasn’t escaped September unscathed since 2010. The loss of all-time program great Darqueze Dennard at corner, plus a pair of playmaking ‘backers, is likely to drop the Spartans stout defense from utterly impenetrable to merely “very good.” Michigan, Ohio State, and a game at Penn State highlight the season’s second half. Two losses seem likely, especially with Wisconsin and the Big 10 championship game standing in the way of a Final Four berth.
In Six Words or Less: Two losses more likely than one.
DARE TO DREAM
This quintet is highlighted by three SEC powers that appear a half-notch below their peers listed above. Stanford can compete with anyone – unfortunately, they’ll have to compete with at least six teams capable of doing the same. Conversely, Wisconsin has smooth sailing after a tremendous opening test.
GEORGIA (8-5; Injuries were the impetus for a fall from preseason grace.)
The argument for:A remarkable running back tandem (soon to be a quartet) ranks either 1A or 1B nationally, and there’s nothing wrong with the wideouts, either. The deep linebacking corps could be tremendous. Schedule shows no Alabama, no LSU, and Auburn in Athens.
The argument against:The offensive line appears average, a potential issue against top SEC defenses, especially on the road. Tackling was an issue last season, though much of 2013 can be attributed to a roster ravaged by injury, and the secondary isn’t on par with the front seven. Each issue listed here will be put to the test in opening games against Clemson and at South Carolina.
In Six Words or Less: Bounce back, but a year away
LSU (10-3; They rolled out of bed in August with 10 wins.)
The argument for:Young runners on the verge? Check. Offensive line? Check. Depth at linebacker? Check. Stout defensive ends? Check. Athletes everywhere? Check. It’s LSU, for crying out loud.
The argument against:The offense’s triggerman is uncertain and the usual collection of NFL-ready wideouts is, well, in the NFL. The Tigers receive an immediate test against Wisconsin in Arlington. Road games include Auburn, Florida, and Texas A&M, while Ole Miss looms as a home trap preceding Alabama’s visit to Death Valley.
In Six Words or Less: Fifth in SEC, 15th in nation?
STANFORD (11-3; Their worst season in the last four. Remarkable.)
The argument for:Veteran dual-threat triggerman, playmakers on the perimeter, and a guaranteed running game. The defense has an All Pac-12 performer at each level (DL, LB, DB). Special teams are tremendous and the new culture for the Cardinal is that of a proven, rock-solid winner.
The argument against:Lost front-seven stalwarts were the unsung heroes of this perennial 11-win program over the last four seasons. Games at Washington, Notre Dame, Arizona State, Oregon, and UCLA follow an early September home tilt against USC. Good luck navigating that.
In Six Words or Less: A step back seems inevitable
WISCONSIN (9-4; But 8-5 Iowa ranked as their top conquest.)
The argument for:No Ohio State, no Michigan State, and no Michigan. Wait, who else is in the Big 10? An opening marquee matchup against LSU in Arlington, Tex., will either bury the Badgers early or vault them into contention -- with a weak Big 10 West on tap. Per usual, the offensive line and ball carriers are great.
The argument against:The front seven is youth-filled and the passing game might not be able to complement the brutish rushing attack. A potential opening loss to LSU puts the Badgers at 0-1 with ZERO top-15 opponents on tap through Thanksgiving.
In Six Words or Less: Opening contest to tell the tale.
MISSOURI (12-2; The out-of-nowhere power of 2013.)
The argument for:Draw Georgia at home and don’t play Alabama, LSU, Auburn, or Ole Miss. That’s as good as it gets in the SEC.
The argument against:Losses on defense and (unexpectedly) at wide receiver are a major issue. A three-game, four-week stretch at South Carolina, hosting UGA, and traveling to Florida will be tough to overcome.
In Six Words or Less: Double-digit win total seems likely.
ONE YEAR (OR MYRIAD BREAKS) AWAY?
Each of these programs -- at least on paper -- appears headed for bigger things in 2015 than this fall.
USC (10-4; Losses to arch-rivals Notre Dame, UCLA took their toll.)
The argument for:QB, RB, DL, LB and DB appear formidable, and WR Nelson Agholor is awesome -- that’s a nice start.
The argument against:USC is as talented as most teams from Player 1 through Player 22, but depth issues are likely to again plague the Trojans over the season’s four-month grind, one that brings rivals UCLA and Notre Dame in the final two weeks (and Stanford will provide an early September test). The offensive line might not be championship caliber.
In Six Words or Less: Sanctions still sting...
NOTRE DAME (9-4; Wins over MSU, ASU, and USC incongruent with late loss at Pittsburgh.)
The argument for:A one-loss Notre Dame team would rank at the top of the heap of non-unbeatens in 2014, thanks to a brutal schedule that includes nine teams capable of beating everyone outside the sport’s top five on a given Saturday. The offense should be the best of the Kelly era, while the defense is expected to feature a high-risk, high-reward complement under new coordinator Brian VanGorder.
The argument against:The second-toughest schedule in the nation (check out Florida!)…one of the youngest two-deep depth charts in the country…major losses over the last two seasons defensively…the defensive line as a point of weakness rather than program strength.
In Six Words or Less: Wait ‘til next year...
OLE MISS (8-5; Upset LSU, but lost to the rest of the SEC’s contenders.)
The argument for:A veteran quarterback, two seasons of remarkable recruiting success, plus a roster finally commensurate with the SEC West. These aren’t your father’s Rebels.
The argument against:How about this five-week mid-season stretch without a bye: Alabama, at Texas A&M, Tennessee, at LSU, Auburn? Will they escape Boise State in Atlanta in August?
In Six Words or Less: Is the cart before the horse?
NEBRASKA (9-4; That’s six straight seasons with at least nine wins.)
The argument for:The defensive front seven should be improved, music to the ears of program fans that have often seen their defense as the Achilles’ Heel under head coach (and noted defensive guru) Bo Pelini. The running backs, led by Ameer Abdullah, are top-notch.
The argument against:The offensive line was gutted by graduation, a reality that could hamstring the team’s talented backfield. Nebraska has been prone to turnovers in recent seasons and a new offensive front likely won’t eradicate that pressing issue. The road schedule of Fresno State, Michigan State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa is no joke, plus Miami comes to Lincoln (where was that in the 1980s?).
In Six Words or Less: Road trips will prove too much.
MICHIGAN (7-6; Ranked somewhere between great and horrendous each Saturday.)
The argument for:Can a team that lit up both Notre Dame and Ohio State be as bad as it looked against Akron and Connecticut? The front seven has ample talent, led by vastly underrated vets Jake Ryan and Frank Clark. The Wolverines’ cornerback trio will challenge every receiving corps it faces. QB Devin Gardner and WR/TE Devin Funchess are special at times.
The argument against:There are many. The Wolverines ripped the Irish and the Buckeyes for 41 points apiece, but over the course of the three-month season, a terrible offensive line took its toll -- and its two best players from that group are gone. This team is filled with young players in need of development, and trips to Notre Dame, Michigan State, and Ohio State await.
In Six Words or Less: The O-Line might offset everything else.
TEXAS (8-5; Yielded 30+ points seven times including 40+ twice out of conference.)
The argument for:The defensive front seven has real potential, and it’s not as if the Longhorns haven’t continually stockpiled talent. New head coach Charlie Strong will return Texas to glory, eventually.
The argument against:Strong inherits quarterback issues and a defense that found tackling more of a nuisance than necessity at times last season. Of note: defenses that give up Half-A-Thousand yards rushing to BYU don’t generally contend for a title 12 months later. The offensive line isn’t on par with the talent of the running backs behind them.
In Six Words or Less: At least a year away.
BUT ON ANY GIVEN SATURDAY...
Two stocked rosters, an off-season coaching splash, and a program built from scratch by an all-time underrated head coach populate this group. Each has one (or two, or three) too many obstacles to overcome for title contention this fall.
CLEMSON (11-2; 2-2 vs. national powers Georgia, FSU, So. Carolina, and Ohio State.)
The argument for:The defensive line should be great, and the offense will continue to pile up yards and points despite losses of all-time program greats. South Carolina comes to Death Valley to conclude the season, a potential season-end springboard in the eyes of the selection committee.
The argument against:How about September? After opening at Georgia, the Tigers later travel to Florida State. (Regarding the team’s matchup last fall, I think the Seminoles just scored again.) Departed stars Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins were elite, all-time difference-makers, and though their replacements are potential standouts -- there’s a difference, and it will present itself on at least three Saturdays this fall.
In Six Words or Less: No FSU would equal contention. Alas…
FLORIDA (4-8; How could the Florida Gators drop seven straight?)
The argument for:A strong offensive backfield, a strong front seven, and a chance for top-tier cornerback play led by sophomore Vernon Hargreaves.
The argument against:Only a rudderless ship loses seven straight -- including to an FCS foe -- with that much talent on hand. Head coach Will Muschamp has one year, or less, to right this ship, and the Gators face the most imposing collection of heavyweights in the nation.
In Six Words or Less: Alabama, LSU, UGA, South Carolina, FSU. Sheesh.
WASHINGTON (9-4; Took Stanford to the wire, but no big wins of note.)
The argument for:The defense is experienced, talented, and features one of the nation’s top juniors, OLB Shaq Thompson. New head coach Chris Petersen’s schemes will be helped by a veteran offensive front.
The argument against:Aside from USC, Washington must play every team of note the Pac-12 has to offer. That’s a tall task for a team breaking in a new triggerman.
In Six Words or Less: Ease into 2014 before battling Stanford.
KANSAS STATE (8-5; But just 2-4 vs. relative peers, including a bowl beat-down of Michigan.)
The argument for:WR/Returner Tyler Lockett is one of the nation’s best with the ball in his hands, and the passing game as a whole will be strong. Defensive end Ryan Mueller is a returning All-American.
The argument against:The defense outside of Mueller is nothing to write home about and the Wildcats will have trouble winning two against this quartet of games: Auburn, at Oklahoma, Texas, at Baylor.
In Six Words or Less: Bill Snyder is a miracle worker.
The path of least resistance allows each of these teams to dream big and imagine a shocking invitation to New Year’s Bowl festivities.
IOWA (8-5; Loss to NIU in opener set them back.)
The argument for:No Ohio State, Michigan State, or Michigan, and they play three peers in Kinnick Stadium. A non-conference win at Pittsburgh (Sept. 20) could result in a 7-0 start entering November, when Northwestern (and later Wisconsin and Nebraska) come to town.
The argument against:Decent teams such as the Hawkeyes tend to trip up twice regardless of how a schedule sets up. Reaching the Big 10 title game will be a tall task.
In Six Words or Less: Fall from polls inevitable in November.
HOUSTON (8-5; But lost to nearly every peer.)
The argument for:They don’t play anyone markedly better.
The argument against:A signature win isn’t possible.
In Six Words or Less: Top-scoring team in the nation?
MARSHALL (10-4; Win over Maryland capped a nice season.)
The argument for:Perhaps the easiest schedule in recorded history -- at least 25 teams in this preview would roll through it at 12-0.
The argument against:Will be completely dismissed in the event of any defeat.
In Six Words or Less: A Conference USA title repeat must suffice.
OTHERS OF NOTE
Each squad listed below has punch and/or promise, but none appear headed for New Year’s Bowl festivities.
ARIZONA (8-5; How’d they beat Oregon by 26 points?)
Reality -- October is brutal, with three of four against Oregon, USC, and UCLA.
ARIZONA STATE (10-4; Bowl loss to Texas Tech the only questionable defeat.)
Reality -- The offense will again roll but the defense might be worse.
BOISE STATE (8-5; More losses in ‘13 than in previous four seasons combined.)
Reality: 10 wins is a realistic goal in Year One AP (After Petersen).
BYU (8-5; Includes the September murder of Blue-Blood Texas.)
Reality -- Sleeper potential for 2014, but will anyone notice?
CINCINNATI (9-4; Belk Bowl beating at the hands of North Carolina was a surprise.)
Reality -- Add a former five-star QB prospect and avoid UCF, but must travel to OSU, Miami.
CENTRAL FLORIDA (12-1; Dream season was produced by George O’Leary.)
Reality -- QB and offensive line losses too much to overcome.
LOUISVILLE (12-1; And actually fell short of expectations.)
Reality -- Step up in competition too much in Year One for Bobby Petrino.
MIAMI (9-4; No-showed in each defeat.)
Reality: The schedule is better than they are.
MISSISSIPPI STATE (7-6; Brutal schedule took its toll.)
Reality -- Travel to LSU, Alabama, and Ole Miss (and host Auburn)
NORTH CAROLINA (7-6; Won six of final seven.)
Reality: No Florida State on 2014 slate, but trips to Clemson and Notre Dame, with Virginia Tech sandwiched in between…
OKLAHOMA STATE (10-3; Rough ending to a contending season.)
Reality -- Missed a golden opportunity last season; a step back is likely.
OREGON STATE (7-6; Lost five straight to conclude regular season.)
Reality -- Face five of the league’s top six: USC, Stanford, ASU, Washington and Oregon.
TCU (4-8; But lost many close and late.)
Reality -- A split with OU and Baylor (in Waco) in early October would set up the Horned Frogs for Big 12 contention to the bitter end.
TEXAS A&M (9-4; Despite an atrocious defense.)
Reality -- Will be back…in 2015 and beyond
TEXAS TECH (8-5; Looked great until they played teams with a pulse.)
Reality -- 2-2 in November likely would equate to another 8-9 win season.
VIRGINIA TECH (8-5; Two-season swoon has been a surprise.)
Reality -- Won’t be kept down long and they don’t play Florida State.