College football comes back on Thursday and the road to the premium “New Year’s Six” bowl games in general and the four-team College Football Playoff in particular begin. This post will focus on the teams the AP has designated as the favorites to reach the major bowl games.
The Playoff semifinals will be held in the Orange & Cotton Bowls, while the Rose, Sugar, Fiesta and Peach are the other marquee destinations over December 31-January 1. The same committee that creates the playoff matchups also sets the pairings for the other four bowl games.
That means we know up front that the top eleven teams in the final rankings are going to make big bowl games, with the highest-ranked team from the so-called “Little Five” conferences (Mountain West, American, Conference USA, MAC, Sun Belt) also qualifying.
While we won’t know what the committee is thinking until October, we can at least use the preseason AP poll as a reliable guide to the early favorites be in these games. Here’s a brief look at each team, with an emphasis on the negative—what challenges do they have to overcome to meet expectations, be it in the lineup or in the schedule?
Ohio State: They have to play Virginia Tech on Monday night on the road without suspended defensive end Joey Bosa one of the best in the country. While the Buckeyes can likely make it with one loss things will get interesting if someone can upset them prior to the season finale in Ann Arbor and giving Jim Harbaugh a chance to play spoiler.
TCU: The defensive back seven has a lot of personnel to replace and it’s also fair to wonder if TCU has the kind of program that can string together consecutive dominant seasons. I know they did it in 2009-10, but that was in the Mountain West, not against a nine-game Big 12 schedule.
Alabama: Nick Saban has major rebuilding to do on offense and it won’t be with experienced replacements—five projected starters are sophomores or freshmen. I know the Tide reloads, but the Playoff is still a high bar to reach. The good news is that most key SEC games are at home, with Auburn the only exception. The non-conference test with Wisconsin is in Dallas and the ultimate SEC champ will have at least one loss to give and stay in contention.
Baylor: Once again, the Bears’ non-conference schedule is awful, so we have to assume they need to go undefeated. The game with TCU is on the road and that nine-game league slate is a tough row to hoe without a margin for error. And turmoil has now descended on the program in light of reports that head coach Art Briles overlooked past criminal histories on the part of transfers.
Michigan State: Sparty has to visit both Michigan and Ohio State, meaning an upset of the Buckeyes isn’t likely and the Wolverines will be hungry to re-assert their “big brother” status with Harbaugh in town. Michigan State also needs to replace defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi who took the head job at Pitt.
Auburn: Another SEC West favorite with a lot of rebuilding to do on offense and I don’t think we can be as sure about the Tigers reloading as is the case with the Crimson Tide. The schedule sends them on the road to LSU and Alabama and includes a Saturday night neutral-site opener with Louisville.
Oregon: They need to win big road games to make the Playoff again or to win the conference. A road trip to Michigan State is on September 12 and the Ducks visit Stanford on November 14, a likely must-win game in the Pac-12 North. Oregon needs to win these games while replacing Heisman-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota.
USC: The Trojans have a feared passing game with Cody Kessler, but they had that last year and still lost four games. USC has road games at Arizona State, Notre Dame and Oregon. They could probably still make a major bowl by winning the other nine games (which still include UCLA, Arizona and Stanford), but need to go 11-1 to make the Playoff and might need 10-2 for the New Year’s Six.
Georgia: Past history is the biggest argument against Georgia. They generally seem to find a way to disappoint when the most is expected, and expectations are high this season. A new quarterback and very young defensive front. While the SEC East is the softer side of the conference, the Dawgs drew Alabama and Auburn in their cross-divisional games and have to play Georgia Tech outside the league.
Florida State: There are seven freshman and sophomores starting on the offensive side of the ball alone. One of them is running back Dalvin Cook, who became the latest FSU player to be on a police blotter, something that history suggests we’ll see more of before the season is out. The new quarterback is Notre Dame transfer Everett Golson, who will have to show he can avoid turnovers in a must-win road trip to Clemson.
Notre Dame: We need to see that starters returning to a questionable unit—in this case the defense—means improvement through experience and we need to see Malik Zaire show he can match Golson for making explosive plays while not matching the departed quarterback in turning the football over. Oh, and the schedule’s a bear with Georgia Tech, Clemson, Navy, USC, Stanford and a game with UMass the only real gimme.
Boise State: Boise’s a top-heavy favorite, but they do have to best the best among five conferences, so sheer numbers work against them. The non-conference schedule includes Washington, BYU and even Virginia won’t be a gimme. While there is experience up and down the lineup from last year’s Fiesta Bowl winner, Boise does have a new quarterback in Ryan Finley.