Here it is, my complete season preview for the 2014 college football season. Predictions for every conference, along with my four playoff teams, are below. There’s a lot to discuss, so let’s get right into it.
The ACC is Florida State’s to lose. I don’t expect the Noles to pull off another undefeated season, but given their immense talent, plus the return of Jameis Winston, I think they’re the clear favorite to run away with this conference, and possibly a package of lobster rolls from the supermarket. I expect Clemson and Louisville to take a step back. Both are good programs, but each lost so much from last year — Clemson all of their playmakers, and Louisville their superstar coach and quarterback — that it’s insane to expect they wouldn’t be worse off this year.
In the Coastal division, I’ll take Virginia Tech to just edge out Duke, Pitt, Miami and UNC in a tightly-contested clusterfuck of a race. Every few years Frank Beamer leads Virginia Tech to an 8-4 ugly turnover-laden division win. Feels to me like one of those years.
Just because Braxton Miller is out for the year, that doesn’t mean Ohio State is finished. They might be out of the playoff picture, but they’re very much in the conference title race. I give the slight edge to Michigan State, who I believe was the best defense in college football last season. (They lost some guys but should be very talented once again.) Jeremy Langford is one of the most underrated running backs in the country, and Connor Cook is a serviceable QB. While a few more playmakers couldn’t hurt, there’s no area where the Spartans are sorely lacking. I’m predicting a 10-2 Michigan State to win the tiebreaker over a 10-2 Ohio State and beat a feisty Wisconsin in the conference title game.
After those three teams, the conference is a complete toss-up. Michigan, Nebraska, Iowa, Northwestern, and maybe even Penn State or Indiana can all give opponents trouble. I do believe Rutgers and Maryland will struggle to adapt to the Big 10, Maryland because of the conference’s physical style of play, and Rutgers because, unlike in the Big East, they actually have to play real teams every week.
There are a lot of good teams in this conference, but I believe, like last year, it all comes down to Baylor vs. Oklahoma. I’m taking the Bears, who are turning into an elite program under Art Briles. They’ll obviously have the offense, with Petty and Co. returning, but as of last year their defensive recruiting efforts have started paying off. I don’t know if Baylor will be as good as last year, but I think they’ll pull off a 1 or 2 loss season and barely edge out Oklahoma.
I think people are way too quick to anoint Trevor Knight the savior and put Oklahoma into the playoff. Knight was great last year in the Sugar Bowl against an Alabama team that wasn’t thrilled to be there. Take nothing away from Knight; he played an excellent game and he earned all the accolades about that particular performance. But everyone’s quick to forget that he played in several other games last year and generally looked mediocre. Baylor whipped Oklahoma last year IN NORMAN. They should be the Big 12 favorite until proven otherwise.
In other news, look for Texas Tech to surprise some people and end up near the top of the conference. Kliff Kingsbury isn’t just a dreamboat, he’s also a very good coach and former quarterback who should inspire QB Davis Webb to play at a high level.
And finally, West Virginia needs to step up to the plate this season. They don’t have a ton of talent, but they at least need to show some more heart. The difference between the Big East and the Big 12 is that the Big 12 makes you face quality opponents week after week. Yes, a Big East team can cruise to a good record and have a stellar performance in a BCS bowl. It’s a lot different when you have to give A-level effort every week. The Mountaineers learned that the hard way last season. Dana Holgorsen has two choices: 1) Slam eight more Red Bulls and stay up until he’s figured out a defensive scheme that will give up less than 80 points a game, or 2) start updating his LinkedIn profile.
This is a tough one. I like Oregon. It’s boring, I know, but they have more talent than ever before. Phil Steele, who I’m pretty sure is locked in a storage container 364 days a year doing nothing but analyzing football rosters, lists the Ducks as the PAC-12s best team in several categories, including the most important ones, quarterback and O-line. I think Oregon faces several challenges throughout the year: Week 2 against Michigan State, at UCLA in October, the Civil War in Corvallis, and especially the annual roadblock against Stanford. But I’ll take a 1-loss Ducks to win the North and knock off UCLA in a title game rematch. My Mariota for Heisman campaign begins today.
Elsewhere in the conference, I’ll take UCLA over Arizona State in the South. USC is a year away and Arizona is too content producing 1-and-done basketball players and future porn stars to win more than 8 games. Stanford will struggle to win more than 9 games against a brutal schedule. Oregon State is a good dark horse pick to steal the North should Oregon fail to meet expectations. Chris Petersen will make Washington a national powerhouse, but not this year. Washington State is exciting, but not a true contender. Utah has some rebuilding to do, Colorado has even more rebuilding to do, and Cal… well, those kids receive a top-notch education.
First, I say this unequivocally and without hesitation, the SEC is hands down the best conference in America, and it’s not even close. I don’t care if Florida State won the title, or if the PAC-12 is rapidly improving. The SEC is basically a professional training league, like what the D-league is to basketball, only with more BBQ and slightly less marijuana. Any one of the teams in the SEC, and yes I’m including Kentucky, could win the AAC. If you took the bottom half of the SEC West — Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Arkansas — they would finish #1-4 in the AAC. Georgia would win the Big 10 or the Big 12. They’ll be lucky to finish 5th in the SEC. So remember, everything I say below is relative.
Let’s start with the East. South Carolina is my team. They’re one of the ten best teams in the country, and they’ve got the slight edge over Georgia thanks to A) a strong defense, and B) Mike Davis, who is about to establish himself as a premier college running back, and C) no Mark Richt. Florida will be much-improved from last year, but they have a killer schedule and will have to be outstanding to win even 8 games. Missouri lost Michael Sam — I wonder what ever happened to that guy, you never hear about him on ESPN — but they also lost a great player named Kony Ealy who is now on the Carolina Panthers. They’ll struggle to match last year’s success, even though I’m a big Maty Mauck fan. Vandy and Kentucky don’t have a shot. Tennessee fans, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you need to brace yourselves for a frustrating year. The Vols will have a hard time even getting bowl eligible. They have only 1 easy game all year, and worst of all, they’re in for a shock week 1 when an underrated Utah State squad comes into Knoxville (but we’ll get to that later).
Now for the best division in football, the SEC West. I was all about Alabama up until yesterday. As you can see in my SEC preview notes, Alabama has the best schedule of the SEC West contenders, a solid D, an incredible stable of running backs, and a quarterback who gave Jameis Winston a run for his money at Florida State. Except, oh wait, now I’m reading that Blake Sims will start in week 1 and that supposed star transfer Jake Coker will “see action.” If this were a sorority formal, that would be awesome news for Coker, but since this is football, it means Nick Saban is thinking about rotating quarterbacks, and that is never a good thing.
Problem is, the next logical choice to win the division, Auburn, has a schedule straight from the bowels of hell. I don’t care what any analysts or ranking say, Auburn’s schedule is the hardest in the country*. This is Notre Dame’s schedule, which some rankings have as the #1 toughest schedule in the country. This is Utah’s, who others claim as the hardest. This is Auburn’s. If I had my choice, I’d trade away the Tigers’ schedule for either of the other two. Auburn draws Georgia and South Carolina out of the SEC East, while Alabama gets Tennessee and Florida. That could be your division right there.
Now, there is one other team that has the potential to win this division, and that’s LSU, but with freshmen is key positions, that’s not exactly a safe bet. If you’re looking for a dark horse National Champion pick, LSU is a decent bet, but if you’re looking to play it smart, go with Auburn or Bama. I’ll stick with my original pick of the Crimson Tide, but my confidence level is currently at 51%.
As for the rest… Texas A&M is rebuilding. Losing Manziel, Evans, and Matthews is too much for any team to bounce back from in one year. They also face a brutal schedule. The Mississippi teams will pull off a few upsets, but they’d need some amazing luck to actually win the division. Arkansas would need a few years of great recruiting to get back to the top of this division.
[*Credit to TeamRanking.com which does list Auburn as the toughest schedule, although they have Alabama as #2. You never know what can happen during a season, but as I covered above, given the preseason rankings, there’s a huge gap between Auburn and Alabama’s schedule. I should also note that a few other SEC teams, including Arkansas and Tennessee, have absolutely brutal schedules, but since they’re not title contenders to begin with, the impact is much greater on Auburn.]
This is my most “shocking” pick of the preseason. While most experts are waffling on Cincinnati or UCF, I like the Houston Cougars to come out of nowhere (a.k.a. 3rd place) and take the Awful Athletic Conference by winning every game 47-40. Actually, I think Houston goes 10-2 but prevails over an up-and-down Cincy squad. I don’t think UCF falls off the face of the Earth, but I do expect them to drop down a notch. I think they open with back-to-back losses against Penn State and Missouri, a win against Bethune-Cookman, then two more losses to Houston and BYU, before going on a winning streak and ending the year 7-5. I’ll get to the obligatory UConn discussion in my week 1 picks, and the rest of the conference is not worth mentioning.
I really like Utah State this year. Quarterback Chuckie Keaton is a great leader and a talented player. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Aggies end up with 11 or 12 wins and a pretty good bowl game. Watch out for them to surprise Tennessee in week 1. From the West division, I’ll take Nevada. They have a bunch of returning talent. As for perennial favorite Boise State, I have a sad feeling their days in the sun may be coming to an end. The last two years under Joe Southwick were disappointing, and this year’s QB Grant Hedrick served as Southwick’s backup, so it’s reasonable to assume the team will be even worse this year. Watch out for the Mountain West to play spoiler this year: San Diego State, San Jose State, Fresno, Colorado State, and even Air Force will give opponents a run.
I like Bowling Green. Although coach Dave Clawson headed off to Wake Forest, he left this team in a good position, coming off a 10-3 year with plenty of returning starters, including QB Matt Johnson and a whole bunch of senior leaders. New coach Dino Babers brings a Baylor-inspired offense to a team whose offense was already pretty good. You know that’s going to be fun.
I will say, the MAC is one of the hardest conferences to predict, because they always field 5-6 good teams. Kent State, Northern Illinois, Toledo… you really don’t want to see any of them on your schedule if you’re a power conference team. Pay attention to the MAC if you don’t already. It’s one of the most exciting conferences to watch. Plus their games are always on weird nights, where the TV schedule is usually a dance show, Real Housewives of Camden, or Kent State vs. Ohio. As much as I like screaming piles of plastic surgery or 15-year old girls who have “been waiting for this moment their whole life,” I’ll take the 42-40 MAC shootout any day.
Marshall is going 12-0 before they get crushed in the newly-revived Peach Bowl, where I assume Gregg Allman will be the halftime show. Other teams in this conference that I see being competitive are North Texas, Louisiana Tech, and possibly Texas San Antonio. But in terms of someone being under the national spotlight, it’s all about Marshall. They have an excellent returning starter in Rakeem Cato and one of the easiest schedules in the country.
I have no idea, so I’ll go with UL-Monroe and UL-Lafayette. Teams with UL- in front of them have won me a lot of bets in the past. They score a ton of points and they always cover. If you told me UL-Shreveport was getting 9.5 points against Florida State, I would bet on UL-Shreveport. And UL-Shreveport isn’t even a real college. That’s how much I like UL- teams.
The academic scandal at Notre Dame, along with the fact that quarterbacks rarely succeed after taking a year off, pretty much ensures the Irish an 8-4 season and a slot in the Sheridan Hawaii Bowl on December 24th, where my Uncle Nick can yell at the TV during Christmas Eve dinner. (He hates the Irish, I have no idea why, probably cause they got a bogus call against Syracuse in 1972 or some shit like that.) BYU should go 10-2 but they won’t have a real shot at a (former) BCS bowl. Army is a below-average team with a pretty easy schedule, and Navy is an above-average team with a harder schedule, so you can look for both those teams to go 6-6. (If that happens, let’s just put them both in the Armed Forces Bowl, and they can play each other two weeks in a row.)
This is what you really care about, right?
While compiling my season preview data, two things stood out to me:
1) The best teams in the country have much more difficult schedules than last year.
2) There has been a good deal of turnover in key positions.
The teams that I believe will succeed this season are the ones that experience the smoothest transition from last year, as well as the most manageable schedules. My four playoff teams are below, but first…
Other teams to watch out for
-South Carolina: In a good position to steal a playoff spot should the SEC West teams beat up on each other.
-Auburn: Possibly the most talented team in the country, but as previously mentioned, the schedule is brutal.
-Michigan State: If they didn’t have to face Oregon week 2, I’d have them at 11-1 and in the playoff. Alas, that’s the downside of scheduling tough.
-Wisconsin: If they can prevail over LSU, look out, because it’s a clear path to the Big 10 title game.
-Oklahoma: I see them as slightly overrated, but if predictions about Trevor Knight come to fruition, they’re an obvious contender.
#1 Alabama – After last year’s disappointing finish, Nick Saban will whip this team into championship shape. QB is a big issue, but the rest of the team is outstanding, and the schedule is reasonable as far as SEC teams go.
#2 Florida State – While I do believe the Seminoles will drop a game during the regular season, they are a cut above everyone else in the ACC. Given their top preseason ranking, they should be ranked in the top 6 all year.
#3 Oregon – This is the year for the Ducks. Mariota returns, the O-line is great, the defense is solid, and though they’ve lost guys, they still have a fair amount of talent at the skill positions. The schedule is demanding, and the PAC-12 continues to improve, but I think a 1-loss Ducks team finds themselves in the top 4 at season’s end.
#4 Baylor – I’m going out on a limb here, but given how Baylor dominated Oklahoma last year, I expect them to win that game (at home this time) once again. The Bears are loaded on offense, Bryce Petty will put up massive numbers, and their out-of-conference schedule is weak. I think they can get to 11-1 and sneak into the final playoff spot.
Alabama handles Baylor easily, while Heisman winner Marcus Mariota and Oregon shock Florida State in a wild shootout.
Your 2015 National Champions, the Oregon Ducks, finally achieve the greatness they’ve been looking for, with a surprisingly low-scoring victory over the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Read my week 1 picks here.