Ding dong, the BCS is dead…and that means that the first season in the College Football Playoff era is upon us.
Well, in about 200 days it is.
Though there are many intriguing angles to the new scheme, what’s most interesting is predicting which teams will fill the first-ever mini-bracket.
Teams which can earn “first-ever” status will have to come into the season with a serious resume: Recent success, a boat load of talent, a throng of returning starters, a winnable conference and a cooperative schedule.
These stringent requirements whittle the list of potential national champions down considerably, from the 128 FBS teams in 2014 to only eight. That’s only six percent of the field.
The programs that fit the bill are ranked—for your convenience—in order of probability.
Statistics courtesy of College Football Statistics and Sports Reference College Football. Returning starter data courtesy of Phil Steele. Recruiting rankings courtesy of Rivals. Schedule information courtesy of FB Schedules.
Where some first-year head coaches walk into a buzz saw in their first season, USC’s Steve Sarkisian takes over with a full cupboard in 2014.
Even though the Trojans won’t be up to full-scholarship levels until 2015, Sarkisian and his staff will welcome back 14 starters this season, giving them the fourth most in the Pac-12.
What’s key to remember about USC’s title chances is that the Trojans have recruited well enough to stay relevant no matter what happens. In other words, yes they have significant holes to fill, but they’ll be filling them with some of the most talented players in the nation.
To illustrate, the Trojans’ worst recruiting effort in the past four tries came in 2013 when they dipped down to a No. 13-ranked signing class, according to Rivals. USC’s average class ranking since 2011—8.75—is the sixth best in the nation.
Though USC didn’t light the world on fire last season, it did win 10 games and finished strong with a No. 19 ranking in the AP.
To make the first-ever Playoff, the Trojans need to improve their inconsistent offense and continue to build on their No. 16 rank in scoring defense from last season.
A gauge of how “for real” USC is in 2014 will come in its Week 2 showdown at Stanford. If the Trojans can win this one, then look for them to roll.
With eight starters back on offense—four to the offensive line—and six back on defense, South Carolina may finally be ready to put Steve Spurrier back in the SEC championship.
Yes, Clowney and Shaw are out of the picture, but don’t think for a minute that this team doesn’t have everything it needs to go a long, long way. Remember, the Gamecocks have consistently signed Top 20-ranked classes, a prerequisite to any legitimate title run.
The Gamecocks finished 2013 ranked No. 12 in scoring defense and with back-to-back wins over No. 6 Clemson and No. 19 Wisconsin, were ranked No. 4 in the final AP poll.
What you’ve really got to like about South Carolina’s chances moving forward is the state of the SEC East:
Georgia returns only five starters back to the offense this season and must find some traction defensively to be for real. Florida’s No. 113-ranked scoring offense from a year ago creates no sense of confidence that the Gators will be a real threat. Last year’s surprise team, Mizzou, returns only nine starters, giving it the least in the SEC, which was also No. 122 in the FBS.
With the SEC East winnable, the SEC title game and the College Football Playoff are certainly within reach for South Carolina in 2014.
What could derail the Gamecocks, or propel them to the top of everyone’s bracket is if they can make a run, is their schedule. The 2014 slate includes a home-opener with Texas A&M and road trips to Auburn, Florida and Clemson.
If they get to the Promised Land, they’ll have earned it.
Coming into 2014 off its thrilling 45-31 win over No. 3 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, the sky is the limit for Oklahoma.
No team has a better launch pad into the new season—other than Florida State—than the Sooners.
Stoops and company—a young team in 2013—return 14 starters this season, five to the offense and nine to the defense.
Again, there are significant holes to fill, but there are few coaches in the country who are better than Stoops at “dancing with who brung you”.
And like all the other programs on this list, he’ll be doing the job with some of the top-ranked recruits in the nation. To quantify, Oklahoma’s worst effort since 2011 came this year when they dropped to a No. 15 signing class ranking, according to Rivals.
With Texas as an unknown and Oklahoma State and Baylor suffering massive personnel turnover (both programs rank No. 122 in the FBS in returning starters), the Sooners should be favored to win the Big 12 in 2014.
And they should be the favorite to represent the conference in the first-ever College Football Playoff.
Oklahoma’s schedule sets up well for a run: The only non-conference hurdle will be a Week 3 home stand with Tennessee and the only true road games are at West Virginia, at TCU, at Iowa State and at Texas Tech.
The whole thing may come down to Stoops’ first-ever meeting with Charlie Strong and Texas on Sat., October 11th in Dallas, Texas.
After finishing the 2013 season with two-consecutive losses—the only in the short history of the Urban Meyer era at Ohio State—it’s tempting to downgrade the Buckeyes’ chances to win it all in 2014.
But, the truth is that this is a program that couldn’t be more primed for a national title run.
And this is the case despite the Buckeyes rank No. 11 in returning starters in their own conference.
Here’s the deal: Ohio State has recruited better than any other program in the nation since 2011 with only one exception—Alabama.
In fact, the Buckeyes’ average recruiting ranking in that time period is No. 5. This means that nobody—except the Tide—have more talent at their disposal than does Ohio State.
What the 2014 season will likely come down to is whether the Buckeyes can improve on a pass defense which finished last year ranked a scary No. 112 in the nation.
This is a task that will be made easier with another manageable schedule. Non-conference highlights are Virginia Tech and Cincinnati, both at home. In Big Ten play, the Buckeyes get Michigan in Columbus but do have to travel to both Penn State and Michigan State.
Wisconsin and Nebraska are both off the table, but new dishes Rutgers and Maryland are both set to be served up.
Overall, there is no reason to think that Ohio State won’t still be in the conversation when the committee is charged with filling out the first-ever bracket.
Last year’s runner-up to the big enchilada, Auburn won’t shock the world in 2014, but it will be in the mix to represent the SEC in the Playoff scheme.
The Tigers bring back 14 starters in 2014—eight on offense and six on defense—including four to the offensive line and four to the defensive front seven.
Despite a couple of turbulent years between title runs, Auburn‘s recruiting has been lights out, a fact that makes it a national championship contender regardless of any other factors.
The Tigers’ average recruiting ranking since 2011 is 8.75, which ties them with USC and puts them in the top six in the nation.
The key for Auburn in 2014 will be diversifying itself on both sides of the ball. In other words, the Tigers need to improve on their No. 108 ranking in pass offense (versus a No. 1 rank in rushing offense) and their No. 102 rank in pass defense (versus a No. 63 rank in rushing defense).
This seems a realistic goal since Gus Malzahn and his staff will only be in their second year in command.
Unlike Ohio State and Oklahoma, Auburn will have to survive a schedule filled with potential hazards: The Tigers have road games at K-State (never underestimate Bill Snyder), Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama.
Besides drawing the Bulldogs from the East, the Tigers also have a game with South Carolina, but at least that’s at home at Jordan-Hare.
Like the Gamecocks, if Auburn gets to the Playoff, it will have earned the trip.
Coming into their Nov. 30th home game versus Auburn last season, the Crimson Tide were a shoe-in to win the SEC and capture another BCS national championship.
Who could have predicted that first Auburn would win on a thrilling missed field goal attempt and then the Tide would go on to get whipped—in un-Tide like fashion—to a young Oklahoma team in the Sugar Bowl?
What does it all mean? Is the great reign of Alabama over? Is Saban’s victorious march through college football done?
If not for their SEC West affiliation and that they need a new quarterback, the Crimson Tide would be No. 1 on this list.
First up, according to Rivals, Alabama has signed the No. 1-ranked recruiting class in the nation every single year since 2011.
This means that while yes, they return only 12 starters (not a horrible number, but it ranks No. 87 in the FBS), they will fill those slots with the best talent—bar none—in the nation.
And the Tide are welcoming their recruits into a system that won 11 games last season on the backs of the No. 17-ranked scoring offense and the No. 7-ranked scoring defense in the land. And these numbers were earned against SEC opponents.
This is an express train that is still charging across the nation at full speed.
What adds to the probability of another national title picture featuring Saban’s face is the Tide’s schedule. The only non-conference concern is the opener against a struggling West Virginia program in Atlanta and the Tide draws Florida and Tennessee from the East, leaving Georgia and South Carolina off the slate.
Road trips are at Ole Miss, at Arkansas, at Tennessee and, yes, at LSU, where the West might be won or lost once again.
The big kicker with Alabama is that though the two late losses were hard to stomach, they may put the fire back in the belly of a program that has experienced enough success to dim down desire.
After dropping two of its last four regular-season games in 2013, Oregon is another team which comes into this season with a big question mark.
Will they be the Ducks which destroyed No. 12 UCLA 42-14, or instead, will they be the Ducks which got destroyed 42-16 at unranked Arizona?
Here’s what we know for sure: Oregon brings back 15 starters (the second most in the Pac-12) in 2014, six to the No. 13-ranked scoring defense from a year ago and a whopping nine to the No. 3-ranked scoring offense.
This includes the entire offensive line and four of the defensive front seven.
This represents the most complete return of a team on this list, and, again, this is a team that won 11 games and finished No. 9 in the final AP poll.
What separates Oregon from other contenders is that its recruiting numbers have fallen off. To illustrate, according to Rivals the Ducks pulled in the No. 9-ranked class in 2011, fell off to No. 16 in 2012, No. 21 in 2013 and then No. 26 in 2014.
Though this doesn’t spell disaster for this season, it does put Oregon in jeopardy moving forward.
This is the season for the Ducks to win it all, and their schedule is set-up to cooperate.
Oregon does play Michigan State in Week 2, a home game for the Ducks, but this game may be a sheep in wolves clothing as the Spartans return only four starters to their stellar defense from a year ago.
If Oregon wins, and they should, the win will look better on paper than it was in reality.
The Ducks don’t play USC or Arizona State from the South, but do have to travel to UCLA in October. They have Stanford at home in Eugene and additional road trips are limited to Washington State, Cal, Utah and Oregon State.
The defending national champions are set to return 13 starters in 2014, seven on offense and six on defense. This number looks even better when you consider that four members of the O-line are back, as are three from a stellar D-line.
What makes Florida State a real threat to repeat is its solid foundation with recruiting. Like Alabama, Auburn, Ohio State and USC, the Seminoles have top-tier talent coupled with recent success.
To illustrate, take a look at Florida State’s class recruiting rankings since 2011, according to Rivals: No. 2, No. 6, No. 10 and No. 4.
This equals an average ranking of No. 5.5, only Alabama (No. 1 average) and Ohio State (No. 5 average) have been more successful.
Though the Seminoles’ ACC schedule gives them the edge over Pac-12, SEC and even Big 12 teams, 2014 represents a new challenge in non-conference play.
Where Florida State squared off with Nevada, FCS Bethune-Cookman, Idaho and Florida last season, this year it will face Oklahoma State, FCS The Citadel, Notre Dame and Florida.
That’s two more significant opportunities to drop a game.
That said, the Seminoles are so stacked, so complete and now are gifted with the belief that they CAN win the big one—it’s impossible not to count them among the top contenders.