The college football season is eight days from starting. The sport enters the era of the College Football Playoff, and like its basketball counterpart, the focal point of prognostication involves picking who will be in your “Final Four.” Here’s nine keynote thoughts as we take a last overview of the regular season…
*The betting favorites for the four playoff spots center around five teams. Florida State and Alabama are considered virtual locks. Oregon, Auburn and Oklahoma are all priced reasonably comparably for the final two spots before the dropoff in the odds begins.
*Based on the early odds and rankings, the four games that will define the regular season would be as follows—Clemson at Florida State (September 20), where the Tigers, can make themselves a playoff favorite with a road upset. Stanford at Oregon (November 1), as the Cardinal looks for a third straight upset in the game that’s settled the Pac-12 title three straight years. Baylor at Oklahoma (November 8), with the Sooners looking for revenge in a game among the Big 12 favorites. And how can we leave out Auburn at Alabama (November 29) on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
*Beyond the four playoff teams, there will be eight more teams chosen for the “contract bowls” (the new term for “BCS bowls” which was the new term for “major bowls”). Those are the Orange, Cotton, Peach and Fiesta. Unlike previous years, there are no limitations on how teams one conference can get I these games, so how many spots will the SEC scarf up between these and the playoff? Based on current rankings, that number would be three (Alabama, Auburn, South Carolina), but three more (Georgia, LSU, Ole Miss) are right on the threshold.
*The season-ending shoulder injury to Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller has rattled the national situation, and the Buckeyes are being written off as a contender to make the playoff. That makes sense, but don’t rule Ohio State out for the Big Ten title. There is no other clearly dominant team and it’s not unthinkable that a 6-2 conference record could be good enough for a division title if tiebreakers fall right. Last I checked, Ohio State still recruits like crazy and they have a head coach in Urban Meyer that knows what he’s doing.
*I know the ire of Michigan State fans was raised by saying no other Big Ten team was dominant. Sparty is ranked #8 in the preseason polls and after last year’s Rose Bowl win and #3 national finish, Michigan State is feeling its oats. I like this program, but I’m not persuaded that the depth of talent is so good that MSU can just reel off big years and reload after graduation losses. For the same reasons, I have doubts about Baylor’s #10 national ranking. I’m looking for both the Spartans and Bears to come back to the pack.
*The two divisions that are most wide-open are the Big Ten West and the ACC Coastal. My own team, the Wisconsin Badgers are the favorite in the former, but I’m concerned about the defense and the quarterback situation. And a bad loss to Penn State in a big season finale last year has left my confidence shaken. Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and Northwestern are all viable challengers. North Carolina is the favorite in the ACC Coastal, but the Tar Heels have never played in the ACC Championship Game and are therefore vulnerable. Virginia Tech, Miami and Duke all lie in wait.
*I find Georgia the most interesting team in the country, mainly because I think the Bulldogs are going to win the SEC, and recent history says that means they’re at least one of the two best in the nation. Georgia needs an experienced defense to drastically elevate its play, and running back Todd Gurley can win the Heisman if he stays healthy. They play Clemson and South Carolina in the first three weeks and even a split keeps their conference and national hopes very much alive.
*No race is more wide-open then that of the “Little Five” conferences (American, Conference USA, Mountain West, MAC, Sun Belt) for their one guaranteed spot in the contract bowls. Based on the first rankings, Central Florida is the favorite to get the spot, but they’re officially unranked (#26, and a long way from #25). Marshall is further behind, Boise State gets a little support and only a few other teams get even a single Top 25 vote. That means a wide-open race which invites us to go off the board, and I’m taking Houston to get this prestige bowl spot.
*The Heisman Trophy race is opening as a two-horse race between Florida State’s Jameis Winston, as he aims to become the second player to win the award twice. Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is right behind. Recent history says the winner will be someone other than the early favorites—who saw Winston last year or Johnny Manziel in 2012 coming? Or Robert Griffin III in 2011? Or Cam Newton in 2010? You get the point.
That’s our Notebook Nine to start the year. My own picks to make the College Football Playoff are Florida State, Oklahoma, Georgia and UCLA (seeded in that order) with the Seminoles to win a second straight championship.
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