North Carolina (11-2)
The Tar Heels have a chance to be this year's Duke—only better.
With a star in the making in Marquise Williams at quarterback, talented young running backs in T.J. Logan and Elijah Hood and a deep group of wide receivers, this offense should be really hard to stop.
The schedule looks decent, too. Getting Clemson in the ACC opener is a huge boost, as the young Tigers are likely to improve throughout the season after replacing so many offensive weapons but struggle early. Without Florida State on the docket, an 11-2 finish is entirely plausible.
Like Duke in 2013, however, UNC's luck will run out against the Seminoles in the ACC Championship Game.
Three departed Auburn players—running back Tre Mason, offensive tackle Greg Robinson and defensive end Dee Ford—are among the top handful of prospects at their position in May's NFL draft, but the Tigers return almost every other piece of import from last year's national runner-up and should be just as good, if not better, in 2014.
The schedule, however, is not as favorable. In this prediction, a 9-0 start to the season is derailed with losses in Auburn's final two FBS games of the regular season—at Georgia on on Nov. 15 and at Alabama in the Iron Bowl on Nov. 29.
Without the magic of Jordan-Hare Stadium, both of those opponents should be due for a reversal of karma.
Michigan State (10-2)
Even with some good pieces returning on defense—chief among them coordinator Pat Narduzzi—a unit that loses Darqueze Dennard, Denicos Allen, Max Bullough, Isaiah Lewis and both of its defensive tackles will be hard-pressed not to take a step backward in 2014.
Sparty will be forgiven for losing at Oregon in non-conference play. It's hard to imagine a more difficult early-season game than one at Autzen Stadium. The projected home loss to Ohio State, however, will be impossible for this team to overcome.
Oregon will finally beat a reloading David Shaw Stanford team in 2014, and it should be enough to propel the Ducks to another Pac-12 North title. In the championship game, they will find a rematch with the only team that has beaten them: the UCLA Bruins.
Heavily favored to avenge that loss, however, Oregon will instead drop again at the hands of Jim Mora Jr.'s team. At least in this prediction, next will be another season that follows the close-but-no-cigar mantra in Eugene.
Even sans Aaron Murray, Georgia returns enough skill position players to excel on offense with Hutson Mason under center. Defensively, the addition of coordinator Jeremy Pruitt should be enough to coax a competent unit out of ubertalented young players, which will yield an 11-1 regular season with an early loss at South Carolina.
In the SEC Championship Game, Mark Richt's team will find itself in a familiar position: playing Alabama with the season on the line. This time, however, the lack of Murray will make all the difference, and UGA will find the same result as it did in 2012.
There are four spots in the College Football Playoff but five power conference champions. You mustn't be a math major to deduce from those numbers a conclusion: One power conference champion will be left out.
In this scenario, Oklahoma draws the short straw. The Sooners should be very good next year, especially on defense, but the Big 12 has a way of cannibalizing itself in the regular season.
Without a conference title game to salvage things, OU's losses on neutral fields against Texas and Texas Tech will be enough to keep it out of the first final four.