National signing day didn't drastically alter the landscape of college football in 2014, but it did mark an important checkpoint between the upcoming season and last, making its wake as good a time as any to indulge in some way-too-early predictions on the inaugural College Football Playoff.
But here's the thing about way-too-early predictions: They're made way too early. Important dominoes like the transfers of Max Wittek and Cody Riggs, who will both be eligible immediately next season, could still play a major part in determining which teams are capable of contending for a conference title and spot in the national semifinals.
Also, keep in mind how often a college football season goes off the rails. Last year, for example, the College Football Playoff likely would have included Florida State and Alabama, but it also would have included Auburn and Michigan State.
The Tigers and Spartans went a combined 10-15 in 2012.
A playoff with no upsets would be, in and of itself, a mild upset, and these predictions did their best to reflect that entropy.
Even if the winner feels like chalk.
Michigan State (9-3)
Michigan State replaces Notre Dame, its usual nonconference opponent of decent ability, with a trip to Oregon at Autzen Stadium. That should result in a loss, but after winning its next nine of 10 games, including a home contest against Michigan, Sparty will remain alive late in the season.
Then, however, an end-of-season loss at Penn State—not dissimilar to what happened to Wisconsin last season—will stymie some momentum and keep the Spartans squarely out of the Big Ten Championship Game, since they had also lost to Ohio State in this scenario.
Sparty won't even have a chance during the last week as it had hoped, with Michigan heading into Columbus to play Ohio State. The Nittany Lions will deny its CFP bid earlier than expected.
Oregon gets three of its four toughest opponents in Autzen next season, and that home-field advantage should help it overpower the likes of Michigan State, Washington and even its longtime kryptonite, Stanford.
The Ducks also get to avoid USC for the second straight season, which would typically, at least earlier in the millennium, bode quite well. However, in 2014, they still have to travel to play the best team in Los Angeles, where they'll lose to the Bruins of UCLA.
Road games against scrappy Utah and Oregon State will result in at least one more unexpected loss, much like last year's dud against Arizona. But Oregon will still make the Pac-12 championship at 10-2, thanks in large part to some growing pains at Stanford.
There, it will lose, once again, on the home turf of UCLA.
North Carolina (11-2)
The Tar Heels have a chance to surprise a lot of people this year, especially if quarterback Marquise Williams, who played well in relief of Bryn Renner in 2013, provides the consistent upgrade I project.
They also have a pretty nice schedule inside the ACC. North Carolina gets to avoid Florida State, and though it does have to travel to Clemson, it gets the Tigers earlier in the season when they should still be piecing together a rotation after massive personnel losses.
UNC will open some eyes and finish the regular season with only one loss—a road game at Notre Dame which will not count against its conference record. It will sneak into the ACC Championship Game and be one win away from making the College Football Playoff.
But much like Duke in 2013, it won't stand a chance against Florida State.
At least one power-conference champion will need to be left out of the national semifinals each season, and in 2014, the Big 12 will draw the short straw.
Much like 2013, the conference will lack one truly dominant team and, for the most part, cannibalize itself during league play. Trevor Knight looked like a Heisman candidate for four quarters in the Sugar Bowl last season, but that doesn't mean he's ready to lead an offense from week to week for an entire season.
The schedule is favorable, but anyone who saw what Baylor did to the Sooners in 2013 won't be surprised to see a repeat performance in Norman this year. Nor will anyone who watched the Red River Shootout be surprised to see Texas beat the Sooners at next season's State Fair.
Close, but no cigar.
4. UCLA (12-1)
UCLA returns more talent than any team in the Pac-12. According to ESPN insider Phil Steele (subscription required), the Bruins bring back five of their top six receivers, all four of their top pass-rushers and 93 career starts along the offensive line (though the one blocker they lost, Xavier Su'a-Filo, was a very good one).
They also return Heisman candidate and future first-round draft pick Brett Hundley at quarterback. With another year of tutelage under Jim Mora Jr. and the rest of the offensive coaching staff, his game should feature less peaks and valleys than it did in 2013, leveling off at a consistent standard of excellence.
UCLA plays Texas in Arlington, along with true road games at Arizona State and Washington. One of those three will result in a loss, but if it can protect home turf against Oregon, USC and again in the Pac-12 Championship Game, that lone slip-up will not be enough to keep UCLA from advancing to the national semis.
3. Ohio State (12-1)
A close regular-season win at Michigan State will prevent a media firestorm in Columbus, where papers will have likened the Buckeyes' shortcomings against MSU to Oregon's against Stanford.
Instead, the Buckeyes will climb over the hump and advance to the conference championship game, despite a surprise misstep at Penn State, which is seeking revenge for the ugly dismantling at the hands of OSU in 2013.
The Big Ten title game against Wisconsin will pit two fairly even opponents against one another, and it will likely be a one-score game, just as it was at Ohio State last season.
But the Buckeyes should have just enough to stave off the spoiler, advancing to the playoff as a No. 3 seed.
2. Alabama (12-1)
Alabama will have its typical campaign, beating most opponents into painful submission, dropping one game it was favored to win along the way and finishing the regular season with an 11-1 record.
In 2013, that blueprint, which had always seemed to work for Nick Saban in Tuscaloosa, came up wanting because of Auburn's success and head-to-head triumph. In 2014, however, a projected loss at LSU will not be the end of the world, since the Tigers will finish with two or three conference losses themselves.
No matter who wins the starting quarterback job, he will have enough experience and strong enough support from the running game to beat Georgia in the SEC title game—a win that would fulfill Saban's belief that you "shouldn't be able to sneak your way in(to)" the college football playoff, according to Mark Schlabach of ESPN.com.
And from there, despite not being the No. 1 seed, Alabama is the team that opponents will most desperately want to avoid.
1. Florida State (13-0)
After an offseason that can only be described as "Johnny Manziel-esque," Jameis Winston will return to Tallahassee with the same unnecessary chip on his shoulder, reminding traffic-thirsty Internet bloggers that he hasn't lost his focus, he does still care about football and that...well...he's really, really good at what he does.
The Seminoles lose some important pieces from last year's national-championship outfit, but they return enough, and then some, to survive in style. Especially after Cameron Erving's decision to forgo the NFL draft and a great, balanced recruiting class, this team should (at the very least) be nearly as good as last year's version.
The schedule helps, too. Assuming FSU can handle a Week 1 neutral-field showdown against Oklahoma State, the only remaining pitfalls appear to be at Louisville and at Miami—two teams breaking in new starting quarterbacks.
Another 13-0 season might be on the horizon.
Matchup: (4) UCLA vs. (1) Florida State
In this scenario, Florida State enters the national semis on a 29-game winning streak that dates all the way back to 2012. That would be the longest streak since Miami won 34 straight games more than a decade before it, and FSU would be on the verge of making serious history.
Which is to say: All of the pressure would be off UCLA. The Bruins can come out reckless, playing with almost nothing to lose, and it will probably allow them to hang around for all four quarters.
Brett Hundley is one of the few quarterbacks in college football who can go toe-to-toe with Jameis Winston, and Florida State's offense did look out of sync, at times, on the biggest stage against Auburn in last season's BCS National Championship Game.
UCLA's defense in 2014 should be much stronger than Auburn's in 2013, especially along the front seven, where it might be able to throw off FSU's running game and force it into unfavorable passing downs.
Almost 41 years (to the day) after Notre Dame upset the UCLA men's basketball team, ending a record 88-game winning streak, UCLA's football team will spoil the hopes of the Florida State Seminoles.
And this is why the playoff will be awesome.
Prediction: UCLA 31, Florida State 27
Matchup: (3) Ohio State vs. (2) Alabama
We've heard this story before.
Ohio State physically dominates the Big Ten. Ohio State draws an SEC team in a game with national-title implications. Ohio State claims that this year's team is different, that it won't be mauled and made to look like second-class players against a team from the country's best conference.
Ohio State gets mauled and looks like second-class players against a team from the country's best conference.
Is there any reason to expect something different? The Buckeyes will spend the runup to the game talking about redemption, about how they got over the hump after losing two straight to Michigan State and how they plan to get over another hump against a team from the big, bad SEC. They'll also tout the experience advantage of Braxton Miller over whomever Alabama's quarterback might be.
Then, as it always does, the whistle will blow, the talk will subside, the game will be played and the Buckeyes will be outmuscled for 60 thorough, unrelenting minutes. Doak Walker winner (and Heisman finalist) Derrick Henry will be too much for Ohio State's front seven to handle, especially with a little lightning from T.J. Yeldon sprinkled in.
Urban Meyer has had much more success against the SEC than Jim Tressel did, but Alabama is still Alabama and Ohio State is still Ohio State. Expect this to look more like Alabama-Notre Dame than Auburn-Florida State.
Prediction: Alabama 31, Ohio State 13
Matchup: (4) UCLA vs. (2) Alabama
It's the old guard versus the new.
The basketball powerhouse versus the football juggernaut.
The former NFL head coach who found success in college versus the other former NFL head coach who found success in college.
This game would not lack for storylines, chief among them the potential for UCLA—which wasn't given a chance to play for a national title during the BCS era—to beat Alabama and Florida State in back-to-back games and become the undisputed champion.
In order to do so, the Bruins run defense would need to come up even bigger than it did in the Sugar Bowl, as Alabama should have the best rushing attack in America next season. Guys like Eric Kendricks, Myles Jack, Ellis McCarthy and (especially) Eddie Vanderdoes will have to play well the entire season for UCLA to get this far—and they'd all need to play their best game of the year to beat the Tide.
That's a tall order to ask of anyone, as Nick Saban, if he's proved anything, is the best national-championship game-planner of the modern college football era.
Even with a young and inexperienced quarterback, he will put his offense and defense in a position to succeed and hoist the crystal football whatever new trophy the CFP comes up with. AJ McCarron, after all, won the national title in his first year as a starter.
It's not like this would be unprecedented.
Prediction: Alabama 27, UCLA 17