Projecting College Football's Final Four for 2014 Season
The first season of the College Football Playoff era kicks off in 143 days, and the event itself doesn't kick off until 127 days after that, which means I will change my predictions on which four teams will play in the single-elimination tournament roughly 347,035 times between now and its beginning.
However, this insane bit of prophesy is the only thing that might keep me sane between now and then, because as long as I can picture and delude about the 2014 college football season—about a December sans the BCS standings—I can remind myself of its realness.
Remind myself that it's coming.
So yes, these predictions are apropos of nothing. Nothing other than a way to get through the tedium of early April. If you don't want to read them because it's way too early to guess any of this, that is fair. Click away. Don't read them. Spare us all.
Otherwise, here is my admittedly way-too-early guess at what the first CFP might look like. On the heels of the 2013 season—a year when Michigan State and Auburn both would have (likely) made the final four despite finishing 10-15 combined in 2012—I was tempted to call more upsets than I did. For now, I am a wuss and calling chalk.
But who knows what I'll predict this time tomorrow?
It is, after all, only April.
Just Missed the Cut
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.
The Final Seedings
4. UCLA (12-1)
The Bruins get their hardest opponents—Oregon, Stanford and USC—at home, so if they can hold serve at the Rose Bowl and avoid losing multiple games against plucky opponents such as Texas, Arizona State, Arizona and Washington, there is a plausible scenario where they host the Pac-12 title game with a one-loss record.
If that is indeed the case, a rematch with Oregon will loom. UCLA held the Ducks in check for the first half at Autzen Stadium in 2013 before fading and getting blown out, but this year's team should be stronger both physically and mentally.
If Eddie Vanderdoes (sidelined for the spring with a broken foot), Kenny Clark and Ellis McCarthy all play to their potential along the defensive line, Jim Mora's defense could give Oregon's offense troubles the same way Stanford has the past few seasons. This team, my friends, is not gonna be a fluke.
3. Ohio State (12-1)
Senior quarterback Braxton Miller returns in 2014 and should be one of the most important players in college football—especially in what should be a a low-scoring slugfest in East Lansing. Even after a surprise projected loss at Penn State earlier in the season, that victory will give OSU the tiebreaker and put it in the Big Ten title game.
From there, the season-long improvement of the Buckeyes' front seven should stymie either Wisconsin's or Nebraska's running game, leading Urban Meyer's team back to the throne of the conference and giving it a spot in the final four.
2. Florida State (12-1)
The more I think about it, the more I find it unlikely that Florida State goes undefeated next season. If it did, it would enter the CFP on a 29-game winning streak—the longest since Miami's 24 almost a decade before it. And while certainly very talented, this team is not quite transcendent.
Whether it be against Oklahoma State, Clemson, Notre Dame, Louisville, Miami or (my actual prediction) Florida, the Seminoles will find a place to trip up along the way to a one-loss regular season.
But after beating UNC in the ACC title game, they will still be a higher seed in one of the first ever playoff games, so crisis in Tallahassee will be averted.
1. Alabama (12-1)
No AJ McCarron? No problem. Alabama's offense will be just fine, no matter who assumes the starting quarterback position. That holds doubly true if the "who" is Florida State transfer Jacob Coker, who has the highest ceiling of anybody in the pack.
Either way, a backfield with two potential All-Americans (T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry), another deep group of pass-catchers and a defense that should reload at positions of loss and also returns Trey DePriest, Landon Collins and A'Shawn Robinson should still be good enough to be...well, Alabama.
Let's give the Tide one loss at LSU—because it's LSU, on the road and Alabama always loses at least one game in the regular season—a surprisingly comfortable 14-point win over Auburn in the Iron Bowl, a close win over Georgia in the conference title game and the No. 1 overall seed in the inaugural CFP.
That sounds about right.
National Semifinal: No. 1 vs. No. 4
Matchup: (4) UCLA vs. (1) Alabama
UCLA does many of the things Alabama struggles with. It is capable of running an uptempo offense with a mobile quarterback who doubles as a first-round NFL prospect in Brett Hundley. That makes the Bruins a decent analogue for Texas A&M these past two seasons.
Defensively, UCLA also has a front seven capable of giving Alabama's running game some issues. Eddie Vanderdoes and Ellis McCarthy are former 5-star recruits playing the defensive end position in a 3-4 scheme, inside linebacker Eric Kendricks might be the most efficient tackler in college football (10.2 tackles per game since 2012) and outside linebacker Myles Jack was perhaps the best true freshman in America in 2013.
The Bruins secondary would thus be the key to this game. It struggled in spots last season but returns all four starters in 2014 and is being counted on as a strength of the unit. If it can keep tabs on Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White and tight end O.J. Howard, UCLA can hang with Alabama for all four quarters—which is exactly what I think will happen.
But in the end, I think it will still fall a little bit short.
Result: Alabama 27, UCLA 21
National Semifinal: No. 2 vs. No. 3
Matchup: (3) Ohio State vs. (2) Florida State
The hubbub leading up to this game would be all about Braxton Miller and Jameis Winston—two of the best quarterbacks in country, both of whom will likely be playing to extend their college careers by one game before leaving to join the NFL.
However, in truth, this matchup would be all about line play. Specifically, whether or not Ohio State's dangerous defensive line, which is led by a pair of youngsters in Joey Bosa and Noah Spence, can find a way to get though Florida State's experienced offensive line, which returns an embarrassment of riches from a unit that already might have been the best in the country.
No matter how much the Buckeyes secondary improves—if at all—with a talented group of youngsters arriving and due to the fact that it will be year one with Chris Ash running the defense, there is almost no way it will be able to hold the FSU passing game at bay should Winston be afforded time. Pressure would be the name of the game.
As much as I've gushed about OSU's line (Bosa in particular), I do not think anyone in the country is winning a dogfight against the likes of Cameron Erving and Tre' Jackson in the trenches.
Florida State keeps Miller in large part on the sideline, moving the chains and controlling the clock en route to a fairly comfortable win.
Result: Florida State 34, Ohio State 20
Matchup: (2) Florida State vs. (1) Alabama
If you're a member of the CFP selection committee or an executive at Fox, this is the ideal scenario. Not only would you get a final widely hailed as the "two best teams," you might also get the self-manufactured storyline of Jacob Coker against his old team and the quarterback who beat him out for the starting job in 2013, along with the redemption angle of Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.
But Coker and Jameis Winston wouldn't be the keys to this game, necessarily. Florida State's secondary will be the strength of its defense in 2014, and Alabama should dial back the passes after opening up the playbook a bit last year. This would be about FSU's front seven against Alabama's ability to run.
It hardly seems fair to have two potential All-Americans in one backfield. Alabama is no stranger to this accommodation, however, and neither is Kiffin, who guided Reggie Bush and LenDale White to a combined total of 3,739 scrimmage yards and 44 touchdowns at USC in 2005. He knows how to manage such weapons.
A cynical mind might point to the title game in 2006, when Texas beat USC on the last play in the Rose Bowl. An astute mind would counter that point, however, with a reminder that USC scored 38 points in that game and that Henry is eons more talented than White.
The comparison is obviously not direct and doesn't account for offensive line and quarterback, but something tells me Kiffin was the perfect person to coach this very particular 'Bama offense.
And something tells me it will lead to a championship.
Result: Alabama 31, Florida State 27