Best- and Worst-Case 2014 Scenarios for Each Top 25 College Football Team

Brian PedersenFeatured ColumnistMay 29, 2014

Best- and Worst-Case 2014 Scenarios for Each Top 25 College Football Team

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    Florida State's best-case scenario for the 2014 season would be a repeat of this scene from the end of last year. But what's the worst-case scenario for the defending national champions?
    Florida State's best-case scenario for the 2014 season would be a repeat of this scene from the end of last year. But what's the worst-case scenario for the defending national champions?USA TODAY Sports

    We live in a world of extremes. Things are either the best ever or the worst thing possible; middle ground is overlooked.

    Often, we don't give much consideration to the very likely scenario that something will end up falling somewhere in between these two extremes.

    This is how many of us treat sports too. It's why we either expect nothing short of an undefeated record from our favorite team or just assume it will go winless and finish in last place.

    We're nothing if not accommodating here at Bleacher Report, so we've put together some best- and worst-case scenarios for the 2014 season for every team in our most recent preseason Top 25 poll.

25. Clemson Tigers

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    The best

    True freshman Deshaun Watson steps right in and continues the great play Clemson had the past three seasons from Tajh Boyd, resulting in the Tigers once again contending for the ACC's Atlantic Division title.

    However, even with great contributions from the new offensive stars as well as another solid effort from top-flight defenders like Vic Beasley, there's still the matter of that schedule. Clemson plays at Georgia and Florida State in the first four weeks of the season, but after that, it gets much easier. The best-case scenario for the Tigers is another 10-win campaign with an outside chance at a College Football Playoff side bowl invite.

     

    The worst

    Clemson's offense takes a major step back, despite still having Chad Morris' great system in place. With less explosiveness on that end, more pressure is put on the defense, which will be tested greatly in those early trips to Athens and Tallahassee. Starting 1-2 could set the tone for a down year, though the rest of the Tigers' schedule isn't that daunting.

    If things don't go well, the Tigers could lose four or five games and end up getting shipped out to El Paso for the Sun Bowl.

24. Texas Tech Red Raiders

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The best

    No quarterback depth? No problem! Davis Webb won't need a backup of any significance, because he'll carry the momentum from last year's Holiday Bowl performance into 2014 and challenge the 5,000-yard mark for passing.

    And though Webb is only a sophomore, coach Kliff Kingsbury is already planning on losing him in the near future because of his pro potential.

    "I think he’s one of those top-5 pick talents with his arm strength and his mind and his size, and how athletic he is for being 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds," Kingsbury told FoxSports.com's Bruce Feldman.

    But Texas Tech's offense can only carry the team so far; to really succeed, the Red Raiders will need to stop some people. The defense will be improved from last year, but even we can't project a scenario where that unit becomes a lockdown group that keeps points to a minimum.

    Tech's schedule isn't as backloaded as last year, so a similar late-season slide won't happen. Nine wins is very doable.

     

    The worst

    With no experienced backup to sub in for Webb, coach Kliff Kingsbury will be forced to leave his lone quarterback in the game even after things get out of hand. That's a plausible scenario in early games against Central Arkansas and UTEP—and possibly Arkansas.

    But bad things can happen to star players when they stay in too long, and Webb could be ripe for a late-game injury. If that happens, the Raiders would be forced to throw true freshman Patrick Mahomes into the fire. Sure, Webb was a true freshman last season, but he also struggled with inconsistency until the bowl game.

    A soft nonconference slate and a handful of manageable Big 12 games should prevent even the most downtrodden Tech team from not becoming bowl-eligible. 

23. Mississippi Rebels

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The best

    The Grove isn't the easiest place in the country to play, but this year, it becomes downright difficult to win in Oxford. Ole Miss gets to host Alabama, Auburn and the Egg Bowl at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, and with the Rebels motivated by past near-misses, they'll take two of those three contests.

    But nothing's easy in the SEC, and Ole Miss also has to face LSU and Texas A&M. Road upsets are a rarity in this league, so it's most plausible to figure it gets its wins away from home at Arkansas and Vanderbilt, as well as over Boise State in the neutral site opener in Georgia.

    Add in laughers with Memphis and FCS Presbyterian, and eight or nine wins will look quite nice next to Ole Miss' name in the standings.

     

    The worst

    As noted before, there's nothing easy about the SEC, and because of that, Ole Miss' schedule almost looks like a nonstop series of losable games. Getting 'Bama and Auburn in Oxford is great, but that doesn't guarantee victory, nor should it be a given the Rebels can win in Nashville or Fayetteville.

    Boise always plays up for its big games against power programs, and new coach Bryan Harsin will be wanting to make a splash in his debut with the Broncos. Throw in a visit from a dangerous Louisiana-Lafayette team, and Ole Miss could be in the same scenario rival Mississippi State was during last year's Egg Bowl: win or sit out the bowl season.

22. Texas A&M Aggies

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    The best

    Johnny Manziel may be creating a media storm in Cleveland instead of College Station, but that doesn't mean Texas A&M's next quarterback won't be just as interesting to watch. With the path cleared for true freshman Kyle Allen to start, the Aggies will perform just as well as they did with Manziel thanks to Kevin Sumlin's system, and as a result, they'll be a player in the SEC West.

    The made-for-the-SEC-Network opener at South Carolina is a perfect place for a coming-out party, similar to Jameis Winston's nationally televised debut at Pittsburgh last season. Allen gets off to a great start and, win or lose, the game serves as a springboard for A&M.

    The rough road of hitting Alabama and Auburn in a 21-day span will stop even the best of teams, but the Aggies might have the firepower to get past one of those challenges. In the end, 10 wins and a shot at a College Football Playoff spot can happen.

     

    The worst

    Can Johnny come back? Please?

    Whether it's Allen or Kenny Hill, A&M struggles on offense early as it tries to assimilate Sumlin's own players into the system. Meanwhile, the defense that needed to show improvement isn't getting the job done, but instead of losing shootouts 49-42, the Aggies are falling 45-30.

    Meanwhile, the ongoing construction at Kyle Field saps some of the life and energy out of the raucous stadium, and as a result, A&M drops at least one home game, likely late in the year to Missouri or LSU. The year produces more wins than losses but will still be considered a major letdown, and questions will arise about whether the program can sustain success.

21. Kansas State Wildcats

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    The best

    Jake Waters and Tyler Lockett become the nation's top pass-catching combination, with both having career years. That's really saying something for Lockett, since he was nearly unguardable at the end of the 2013 season, and with his big numbers, he moves into first place on Kansas State's all-time list in nearly every offensive category he qualifies for.

    The Wildcats open with another FCS team, but unlike last year's setback to North Dakota State, there's no similar result against Stephen F. Austin. Then, after a solid win at Iowa State, the stage is set for a national audience to watch K-State take down Auburn on a Thursday night.

    After that, it's mostly smoothing sailing, with only the trips to Oklahoma and Baylor getting in the way. We're not expecting either of those to go K-State's way, but even 10 wins would be a major result.

     

    The worst

    The departure of Daniel Sams gets felt far too often, as his playmaking ability and elusiveness is absent from K-State's offense. Too much pressure is put on Lockett to do all of the work, and the Wildcats' attack proves stagnant.

    This could lead to a bad early loss at Iowa State, especially if K-State is looking ahead to Auburn's visit. Auburn will be ready and unleash Nick Marshall for a Heisman-like performance on the Wildcats defense.

    The Big 12 schedule doesn't have many breaks, other than maybe Kansas, and K-State has to play at West Virginia, which isn't a gimme. After the late surge in 2013, a fall back to 6-6 or 7-5 is very possible.

20. Missouri Tigers

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    L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

    The best

    The promise Maty Mauk showed during his fill-in for James Franklin last year doesn't prove to be a fluke, as the sophomore quarterback uses both his arms and his legs to keep Missouri competitive in the SEC yet again. Though Dorial Green-Beckham's absence takes away a major weapon, others step up to keep the Tigers dangerous when they have the ball.

    Mizzou's defense looks almost as good as its 2013 unit, even without Kony Ealy and Michael Sam charging off the edges. The rest of the unit steps up to fill those holes, and the Auburn performance remains an anomaly.

    Faurot Field won't be where the Tigers' season is determined, as most of their toughest SEC games are on the road. From the lot of South Carolina, Florida and Texas A&M, this group is good enough to win at least one, and possibly two, of those contests. Throw in Georgia at home, and another SEC East title is doable.

     

    The worst

    The greatness that was 2013 turns out to be an aberration, as Mizzou falls way back to the pack with a much less efficient offense and a defense that can't make the big plays like it did most of last year. Not having Green-Beckham proves far more of a problem than hoped for, as Mauk struggles to establish a rapport with his other receivers.

    Mizzou's schedule is full of traps, whether it be the early visit to Toledo or the visit from a Central Florida team that will be out to prove its big 2013 wasn't a quirk. And the aforementioned SEC road games will lead to one too many difficult trips, making even the visit to Tennessee a rough Saturday.

    The Tigers won't regress to 2012 SEC-debut levels, but seven or eight wins is more the range for this backslide.

19. Nebraska Cornhuskers

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    Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    The best

    Somehow, a season will go by in Lincoln without any sort of major controversy. Bo Pelini's personality won't ruffle any feathers, and no performance abnormalities during the nonconference season will prompt the media to check the temperature underneath the Cornhuskers coach.

    Nebraska's quarterback situation will be devoid of drama, as Tommy Armstrong will turn into a game manager and let Ameer Abdullah do his thing as often as necessary. Combine that with a defense that won't succumb to its usual lapses in ability—thanks mostly to Randy Gregory's personal push to become the first defensive player taken in the 2015 NFL draft—and you'll see Nebraska fighting for the Big Ten's West Division title.

    But that will require having to go through Iowa and Wisconsin, both of which are on the road. So, too, is an early league trip to Michigan State. Nebraska doesn't have the talent to beat the Spartans, but it can win in Iowa City and Madison and will do so in at least one locale to get a rematch with MSU in the Big Ten title game.

    That'll result in another loss, but at 11-2 and with both losses to the Spartans, the 'Huskers (and its happy-to-travel fanbase) will be a very enticing team for the College Football Playoff's side bowls.

     

    The worst

    Drama and intrigue off the field will continue to cloud what Nebraska does on the field, though uncertainty at quarterback and a lack of consistency on defense will certainly contribute to the calamity.

    The 'Huskers play a late-night game in Fresno a week before hosting Miami (Fla.), and the combination of the travel and the different opponents is going to lead to at least one loss, most likely on the back end. Losing at home always riles up the fans, and that's when it gets even crazier in Lincoln.

    Having to play at Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa will be too much to overcome, and Nebraska will enter the final few weeks just trying to lock up a decent bowl instead of getting into the conference final.

18. Georgia Bulldogs

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    Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press

    The best

    The Todd Gurley everyone has projected shows up, both in terms of health and all-out performance, and Georgia rides that wave all the way to the SEC title game.

    With Gurley churning out mass amounts of yardage, Hutson Mason doesn't have to take risks at quarterback, and he's able to play within the system and help the Bulldogs offense run smoothly and efficiently. This is first seen in a convincing season-opening win over Clemson and continues in a season-defining victory at South Carolina.

    Both of those games also show off the new-and-improved Jeremy Pruitt version of Georgia's defense. And while it won't set any records, that unit won't be the reason for many losses, either.

    “If you play good fundamental football and you get everybody running to the ball and you’re not giving up big plays, you’ve got a chance to play good defense," Georgia coach Mark Richt told Chris Gay of the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle.

    The Bulldogs' schedule sets up nicely for a possible 12-0 run, especially with the three-game homestand to end the regular season that features Auburn and the rivalry game with Georgia Tech. Follow that up with the SEC final down the road in Atlanta, and all the stars could align for a national title run.

     

    The worst

    Different year, same issues. Some of the personnel may be changed, and the coordinator is an upgrade, but Georgia's defense still can't slow down anyone in the SEC and also has trouble with a revamped Clemson.

    The early trip to South Carolina will be a loss, putting the Bulldogs once again behind the eight ball when it comes to the division race. They'll also have to go to Missouri and, as was the case with Vanderbilt last season, could be the program-defining scalp for an upstart Kentucky team to claim in early November.

    Gurley's injury issues once again resurface, causing him to miss a game or two along the way. This allows highly touted freshman Nick Chubb to get onto the field, but he doesn't prove ready for the big stage yet.

17. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    The Star-Ledger-USA TODAY Sports

    The best

    Facing a schedule that can make or break a program, Notre Dame rises to the occasion and gets itself into the inaugural College Football Playoff. With 10 games against bowl teams from a year ago, the Fighting Irish won't struggle in the schedule strength department.

    Everett Golson will hold off Malik Zaire for the starting quarterback spot, and he'll use the energy from that fierce competition to turn back the clock and tap into some of his magic from the 2012 undefeated regular-season run. He'll be a little shaky at first, but not having to play a true road game until mid-October—Notre Dame plays four home games as well as against Purdue in Indianapolis and Syracuse in New Jersey—will help ease Golson back into form.

    That will line up an epic throwback game Oct. 18 in Tallahassee, with Notre Dame visiting defending national champ Florida State. The Irish will fall short but will play the Seminoles closer than anyone other than Auburn has in the past two seasons.

    The Irish will then split a pair of trips out west against Arizona State and USC and at 10-2 will get a trip to the Orange Bowl as a reward for their effort.

     

    The worst

    The Golson of old isn't able to emerge early enough in training camp, and coach Brian Kelly makes the bold move to go with Zaire as his guy. And it will be a bumpy ride with the redshirt freshman.

    That long stretch without a road game to start the year isn't really that easy, especially the back-to-back visits from Stanford and North Carolina, the latter of which might be one of the most underrated in the country. The Irish tend to drop one at home in most years, but they could drop both of these contests.

    That's not the kind of momentum they'll want heading to FSU, but it won't really matter: The Seminoles will roll, which will put Notre Dame in a situation where it can't afford any other losses if it wants to get selected to a major bowl.

    The rest of the schedule is loaded with potential pitfalls, including a dangerous Navy team in Baltimore. In the end, Notre Dame finishes no better than 8-4.

16. North Carolina Tar Heels

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    The best

    The North Carolina team we saw surge to a 6-1 finish last season comes out firing to start the 2014 campaign, throwing itself into the ring as a clear challenger to Florida State in the ACC.

    The Tar Heels, behind redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky, assert themselves quickly as a national player by winning at Clemson in late September. A narrow loss at Notre Dame a few weeks later doesn't sour the vibe around this team, which just keeps on winning in the league by dispatching Miami (Fla.) and Duke on the road as well.

    Ryan Switzer, who came out of nowhere to tie the FBS record for punt return touchdowns in a season last year as a freshman, becomes a national sensation. Every time he lines up for a return, ESPN and other networks cut in to see if he can get closer to the career mark of eight TDs.

    UNC ultimately falls to Florida State in the ACC title game, despite the home-heavy crowd in Charlotte, yet it still earns a high-level bowl game and puts coach Larry Fedora on the shortlist for potential openings at more prestigious programs.

     

    The worst

    Remember that 1-5 start the Tar Heels had to 2013? Yeah, it's back. After opening 2-0 (but just barely, as a scrappy San Diego State team will come into Chapel Hill and play UNC tight), it's back-to-back road games against East Carolina and Clemson. Both result in losses, setting the tone for a rough year on the road.

    UNC also falls at Notre Dame, Miami and Duke, and instead of cruising into a bowl game like last year, it's more a case of sputtering to the finish.

    Trubisky and Marquise Williams split time at quarterback, neither able to do the job effectively enough to win it outright, which contributes to the season's uneven play.

    And Switzer, with far more attention than should be lumped on one player, is either kicked away from or tries to do too much. At least three of his returns result in lost fumbles, his gunslinger approach gone awry.

15. Arizona State Sun Devils

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The best

    Playing in the desert will be far from a tropical paradise for Arizona State's top opponents, most of whom have to visit Tempe while it's still pretty darn hot out. And they'll get scorched by the combination of quarterback Taylor Kelly and receiver Jaelen Strong, a potential first-round pick who will prove to be one of the hardest wideouts to shut down in FBS this fall.

    Todd Graham hasn't had to worry about how good his own recruits have been over the years, as most of his jobs have lasted only one or two seasons. But in his third year at ASU, he's assembled a sleeping giant, one that will unleash aggressive defenders from all points of the field while also producing points in some of the most creative ways imaginable.

    The Sun Devils host UCLA, Stanford and Notre Dame and should topple at least two of those foes. The road slate's top challenge is a visit to USC, along with the rivalry game at Arizona to end the season. ASU will go into that last game needing a victory to once again win the Pac-12 South and will come out with its third straight triumph over the Wildcats.

     

    The worst

    The key players from last season, Marion Grice on the offensive side and the duo of Will Sutton and Carl Bradford on defense, don't walk through the doors at Sun Devil Stadium. Instead, the younger players that Graham has brought in himself don't prove to be as effective.

    ASU's heat-related advantage doesn't come to fruition, mostly because its biggest home games end up getting played at night for TV purposes. And the teams they'll be facing in those night games thrive under the national lights, resulting in at least two home losses.

    The road schedule is harder than originally thought, with trips to Seattle and Corvallis providing just as much drama as the season-ender in Tucson. After getting to the Pac-12 title game last season, ASU takes a step back and has to settle for one of the bowl games that 7-5 teams end up in. 

14. LSU Tigers

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The best

    The start of the Leonard Fournette era will mark one of the greatest individual seasons in FBS history, with the highly touted freshman running back establishing himself as a legitimate Heisman candidate from his first touch in the Aug. 30 opener against Wisconsin in Houston.

    It will be the kind of debut that helps Fournette set in motion goals he's already established for himself, telling Ben Glicksman of SI.com that "Heisman candidate, All-American, national title" are what he expects to accomplish with the Tigers.

    From there, all eyes will be on Fournette and LSU, which, other than back-to-back games at Auburn and Florida, looks to have a schedule that can be worked with. The SEC West will have its usual three players in Alabama, Auburn and LSU, but this is the year the Bayou Bengals come out ahead in that grouping.

    Brandon Jennings rights his own ship and proves to be a pretty effective quarterback, needing only to do just enough to get by thanks to Fournette. The defense, restocked like it never lost anyone to the NFL, plays harder and is more stout than in recent years.

    In the end, LSU emerges from the West and knocks off either Georgia, Missouri or South Carolina en route to a slot in the Sugar Bowl as one of the College Football Playoff semifinalists.

     

    The worst

    Fournette turns out to be good, but not great. At least in his first year, he doesn't prove to be the greatest running back in college football history, which means LSU's offense still needs to be diverse. But neither Jennings nor Brandon Harris, who eventually takes over the quarterback job, is able to play well enough to keep Les Miles from throwing his hat on a regular basis.

    The Mad Hatter himself has an off year, with most of his trick plays and wild gambles not paying off. This starts with a loss to Wisconsin, then, after some easy home wins, results in him trying to go for the big play too soon at Auburn and having it blow up.

    When the year is all done, LSU still has eight or nine wins but is far from being a contender for anything more than the Belk Bowl.

13. South Carolina Gamecocks

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    RAINIER EHRHARDT/Associated Press

    The best

    South Carolina's 2014 schedule is broken into two halves: the challenging early slate that's mostly in Columbia, and the rough finish that takes the Gamecocks on the road more often. Mike Davis and his mates will rip through the first half and be steeled to handle the rigors of the back end.

    The head ball coach, Steve Spurrier, will pilot his best team yet at South Carolina, christening the new SEC Network with a dominant opening performance over Texas A&M that will get the Gamecocks to rocket up the early polls. Equally solid wins over mid-major power East Carolina and East Division rival Georgia will further the cause, and as many eyes will be focused on Columbia as other cities in the SEC.

    By the time the late October trip to Auburn comes, South Carolina will be in such firm hold of the East lead that a loss won't hurt, at least in terms of SEC championship hopes. The Gamecocks represent their division against either Auburn or Alabama, but even a Heisman-worthy year from Mike Davis and senior leadership from Dylan Thompson won't be enough to win the conference.

    It will, however, get South Carolina into yet another New Year's Day bowl game, which is starting to resemble a birthright for this program.

     

    The worst

    Davis wore down in 2013, and the same will happen this season. As a result, Thompson will try to improvise and will find himself face-to-face with Spurrier's contempt for imperfect quarterbacks. This will rear its ugly head in a series of disappointing performances, including a home loss to Georgia that all but ends the division title hopes.

    South Carolina stubbed its toe on the road at Tennessee last year, but this time around it's in Gainesville, a game that's far more important to Will Muschamp's long-term vitality than Spurrier's.

    No playmakers step up anywhere close to the level that was produced by Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles on defense, and South Carolina finds itself even more susceptible to the pass than to the run. The result is eight wins, which is a huge letdown for South Carolina fans. 

12. USC Trojans

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The best

    The choice to go with Steve Sarkisian is as successful as anyone could expect in his first year, with the new coach conjuring up memories of Pete Carroll's heyday by winning the Pac-12 and getting the Trojans a prime spot in the new College Football Playoff.

    Cody Kessler plays like the veteran he should have been regarded as rather than the untested rookie who had to win his job back in the spring. Kessler takes out his frustration on unsuspecting secondaries throughout the year, at least when he's not handing off to the Trojans' treasure trove of running backs.

    On defense, USC gets award-winning efforts from Leonard Williams, Su'a Cravens and pretty much everyone else, including the newcomers. The early challenge at Stanford proves tough, but USC finds a way to come out on top and uses that triumph as a pacesetter for the remainder of the season.

    USC is 10-0 entering the final two games of the season, a visit to UCLA and the annual clash with Notre Dame. Despite the expansive attention placed on both games, the Trojans emerge unscathed and shrug off the past few years of struggles to head into the national semifinals.

     

    The worst

    Turns out, Lane Kiffin wasn't the problem. It was the players.

    Not just the ones that USC's former coach recruited, but the ones Sarkisian has brought in since. The idea that playing for USC means playing for the Hollywood scene infects the approach of every star, and too much time mugging for the camera leads to poor results.

    This group isn't ready to head to Stanford so early in the season and suffers a humbling loss. The Pac-12 South is still in play at this point, though, so all is not lost...until a mid-October trip to Tucson ends in another bad loss and the Trojans begin to spiral downward.

    What started out as a promising year ends with at least four losses and a banishment to either El Paso, Las Vegas or San Francisco for a bowl game.

11. Baylor Bears

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    The best

    Winning one Big 12 title isn't enough for Baylor. The Bears want to go back-to-back.

    Bryce Petty came back for a reason—and not just to work on skills. He was unhappy with the Fiesta Bowl loss and the lack of a perfect record in the conference, so there are goals to achieve. And the schedule is conducive to achieving these goals, with only the trips to Austin and Norman getting in the way of perfection.

    Baylor won't go 12-0, but another 11-1 season can happen thanks to the bevy of weapons on offense and a defense that keeps finding ways to be involved without looking that flashy. Freakish defensive end Shawn Oakman becomes a breakout star on the Bears' defensive line, and Art Briles keeps moving up the ladder of Texas football royalty.

    Shock Linwood lives up to his name with explosive moves and big yards, and Baylor gets into a College Football Playoff game. It won't be a semifinal, though, because of the loss at Oklahoma and a lack of schedule strength.

     

    The worst

    The swanky new McLane Stadium is a beautiful new football facility, but the quality of play on the field doesn't match the venue's amenities. Petty regresses as a senior, trying too hard to improve on what he did in 2013.

    Baylor only loses once at home, but it's a critical December setback to Kansas State, a game that knocks the Bears down a rung on the bowl order. They won't be in contention for the Big 12 title, though, having lost at both Oklahoma and Texas before that.

    Having studied what Oklahoma State and Central Florida did to the Bears, several teams have their way with Baylor's defense. While the Bears offense can match points in most weeks, it can't do it all and loses a few shootouts that make most of the 2014 season feel like being on the losing end of the 2011 Alamo Bowl against Washington.

10. Wisconsin Badgers

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    The best

    Melvin Gordon's decision to return for another year goes down in college football annals as one of the wisest moves ever, and combined with Gary Andersen's move to a more wide-open offense, Wisconsin blows through the Big Ten and into the College Football Playoff.

    The year gets started with a bang in Houston, a convincing win over LSU setting the pace for a title-worthy season. It also helps that the Badgers avoid any of the Big Ten's East Division heavyweights, instead getting newcomers Maryland and Rutgers for the crossover games.

    Wisconsin doesn't need Joel Stave to do much at quarterback, but the veteran takes the lack of respect he gets from teams personally and has a breakout season. That, combined with Gordon, helps the Badgers defense get into sync and become a cohesive unit heading into Wisconsin's top road challenge in late November at Iowa.

    The schedule doesn't prepare Wisconsin for who it will face in the Big Ten title game, which, as with Ohio State last year, will result in the Badgers' first loss. But at 12-1 and with a win over SEC power LSU, the Badgers get into the College Football Playoff semifinals.

     

    The worst

    No one could have predicted how impactful Jared Abbrederis and Jacob Pedersen were to Wisconsin's offense, but without them in 2014, there's only Gordon to rely on. And opponents know that, keying on the run defense and forcing Stave to do too much.

    He won't be able to get the job done, and Andersen will turn to former safety Tanner McEvoy for a spark. It will change things up, but not enough to make much difference.

    As noted before, Wisconsin's schedule isn't particularly tough through its middle, yet an early November trip to Rutgers helps put that new Big Ten program on the map.

    In the end, the Badgers finish with eight or nine wins, but it feels like a 5-7 campaign.

9. Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    The best

    Ohio State's lack of competition on the schedule was a major knock in 2013, but you can't say that this time around. Instead, critics will be raving at how the Buckeyes dispatched Navy, Virginia Tech and Cincinnati (teams that had a combined 25 wins last season) even before the Big Ten season.

    But winning in the conference is all that really matters, and after an easy start, things get real in the form of trips to Penn State, Michigan State and Minnesota in a four-game span. To expect all of those to be wins is unrealistic, even for a team that's gone unbeaten in the last two regular seasons, but two out of three isn't unthinkable.

    Through tiebreakers and the lot, Ohio State makes it into the Big Ten title game against either Nebraska or Wisconsin, and this time it doesn't slip and fall with the world as its stage. That gets the Buckeyes into a big-time bowl, most likely one of the semifinals, where the run will end to an SEC school.

     

    The worst

    Braxton Miller came back because he needed to get better before he could be an NFL quarterback, but the offseason surgery he had leads to some complacency and a slow start. As a result, OSU drops its opener to Navy, and that's a hard fall to overcome.

    As the year goes along, the 2014 season starts to resemble what Urban Meyer went through in 2010 with Florida: too many challenges to win them all, but also not enough talent to beat anybody.

    The defense is strong up front, though thin due to the recent dismissal of Jamal Marcus, and Miller can't do it all on the other side of the ball. The young running backs will be good, but not as good as Carlos Hyde was in 2013.

8. UCLA Bruins

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The best

    The Bruins rocket as high up the charts as they've been in more than a decade in 2014.

    It's fair to say the best of the West will get determined in the Rose Bowl—and not just in the postseason. UCLA will host Oregon, USC and Stanford, the last two in back-to-back weeks to end the regular season. And the road games are mostly manageable, other than the early trips to Texas and Arizona State.

    In the end, 10 wins isn't going to be hard to achieve for UCLA, especially with Brett Hundley treating each and every snap like a tryout for his professional career. Each play will be a chance for Hundley to improve his draft stock, and he's not going to squander that chance.

     

    The worst

    Just because Hundley came back doesn't mean he'll have a great year, and in UCLA's worst moments, it will come down to mistakes that the quarterback makes.

    Trying to do too much as an unofficial audition for the NFL, Hundley will cause more problems than he solves. And that will lead to an early hole for UCLA, starting with a loss at Texas and then another at Arizona State. The rest of the tough games are at home, but no team struggling with consistency can manage to hold off all of those foes.

7. Stanford Cardinal

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    It's another year of trying to fill major holes for Stanford, and it just isn't possible for that to happen, right?

    Isn't that what people said about the Cardinal after losing Andrew Luck a few years ago? It's the same thing they'll be saying about the departure of workhorse running back Tyler Gaffney and defensive stalwarts like Shayne Skov.

    Yet Stanford just keeps on winning, no matter how many personnel changes—or, in this case, also some staff changes—happen. That means at least another 10 wins and constant consideration for both the Pac-12 title and a College Football Playoff spot.

    The Cardinal will need to do it on the road to make this a special year, though, as the best matchups are on the road at Notre Dame, Arizona State, Oregon and UCLA. A 2-2 split will be a great result, and that's what Stanford should expect. It might not end up in a championship run, but considering the schedule and talent losses, this should still be considered a success.

     

    The worst

    The bottom has to fall out as some point, and Stanford's schedule says this is the year. All of those tough road games will come back to bite even the best of teams, and the Cardinal are very likely to go 1-3 against those foes.

    Most of the home schedule is very manageable, save for the early visit from USC. That one could be a pseudo-elimination match for a pair of Pac-12 teams.

    Kevin Hogan has been very good during his time as the Cardinal's starter, but now he's going to have to do a lot more on his own with Gaffney. He won't be as good without that security blanket.

6. Oklahoma Sooners

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    Big Game Bob Stoops took the goodwill that came from the Sugar Bowl win and invested into a season full of positive results for Oklahoma, which will get back into the national title picture after a few years on the edge of the spotlight.

    The Sooners might have the "easiest" schedule of all the top contenders, as two of their toughest opponents have to visit Norman: Baylor and Oklahoma State. On the road, the biggest challenge is a mid-November journey to Lubbock. Texas Tech has given Oklahoma fits in the past, but who knows what the Red Raiders will look like at that point in the season.

    Trevor Knight, the breakout star of the Sooners' Sugar Bowl win, will keep that momentum going throughout the 2014 season and be Oklahoma's latest quarterback to vie for a Heisman trophy. He'll be aided heavily by freshman phenom Joe Mixon, who will overshadow some other more high-profile first-year players with his great blend of speed and agility.

    And Mike Stoops, blessed with one of his best groups of defenders ever, will once again become a hot head coaching candidate as Oklahoma runs the table and reaches the semifinals with a perfect record.

     

    The worst

    With a schedule that just screams being able to go undefeated, Oklahoma finds a way to underachieve a couple of times. A lot of that is due to Trevor Knight not being as good as that early January performance would indicate, and with Blake Bell rusty from his tight end reps, there's no viable replacement to step in.

    The early schedule won't be too tough, but the blemishes will start to show during the Red River Shootout with Texas and then pop out much worse when Baylor comes into Norman and does much of the same as it did in 2013.

    And to add insult to injury, Oklahoma State exacts revenge on last year's Bedlam loss by winning this year's rivalry, relegating the Sooners to a second-tier bowl game.

5. Oregon Ducks

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    Last season's second-half struggles don't signal a trend—that Mark Helfrich can't maintain what Chip Kelly did at Oregon. The Ducks will be in the mix all year for the College Football Playoff, and the ghosts of past shortcomings won't get in the way.

    Marcus Mariota will play Heisman-level football all season, putting himself at the front of the race with a stellar performance against Michigan State in early September. That victory will keep the Ducks near the top of the rankings, needing only losses from other teams to move up.

    But where Oregon will really get momentum on its side is when Stanford comes to Eugene on Nov. 1, a chance to avenge last year's loss that turned a promising season into a letdown. The Ducks will vanquish those demons, playing shutdown defense and also dominating the Cardinal with their spread attack that will turn Thomas Tyner into a star.

    With a 12-0 mark, Oregon will host whoever the Pac-12 sends from the South Division, likely the same UCLA team it beat in Los Angeles in October. A win there sets up a Rose Bowl appearance in the national semifinals, which will springboard the Ducks into the first-ever College Football Playoff national title game.

     

    The worst

    The Big Ten/Pac-12 clash at Oregon on Sept. 13 goes in favor of Michigan State, and the Oregon holdovers who let up after last year's first loss start looking ahead to professional careers.

    The Ducks haven't lost more than three games since 2007, but that's where this year is heading once the first loss happens. The trip to UCLA isn't given enough attention, and the Ducks get run out of the Rose Bowl like they did in 2013 against Arizona. Any motivation to beat Stanford will be mitigated by the lack of a shot to make the playoffs.

    The nail in the season's coffin will be a season-ending loss at Oregon State, a win that will make the Beavers' season and also define the Ducks' campaign. 

4. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    All anyone has to do is look at recent history to see how Alabama responds following a season with two or more losses. In 2009, after a 12-2 season, the Crimson Tide won the national championship. Then, after going 10-3 in the 2011 campaign, it claimed back-to-back titles.

    Alabama lost twice last year and enters this season on a two-game losing streak—and that's just unacceptable in Tuscaloosa. Because of that, Nick Saban will be on a mission to ensure the Tide return to the top of the college football world, and all teams in his path will feel the pain.

    Poor West Virginia is just the start of this rampage, which continues with dominant road wins over Tennessee and LSU and is completed with a revenge victory over Auburn in the Iron Bowl. If Saban were to somehow orchestrate the Tide's own version of the kick-six, he would.

    Add in an SEC championship victory, and Alabama will claim the No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff semifinals. The Sugar Bowl will be a great venue to exorcise last year's demons, and then the national championship game victory will lock Saban into the top spot on the list of greatest college football coaches of all time. 

     

    The worst

    The Jacob Coker experiment proves to be a massive failure, which, in Alabama terms, could mean he's just not as good as AJ McCarron or Greg McElroy. But it also means there will be two or more losses on the Tide's ledger when the season ends, as just having a strong run game and a great defense won't be enough.

    Either Ole Miss or LSU will put together a win against Alabama, feeding off past losses to spark the victory. And while a lot of energy will be focused on avenging last year's loss to Auburn, there's just not enough there on defense to stop Auburn's run game.

    With neither an SEC nor a national title in the realm of possibility, another lackluster bowl effort will end one of the most disappointing seasons in Alabama history.

3. Michigan State Spartans

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    Even after its blazing performance in 2013, Michigan State somehow will enter this fall as an underdog. That's how it will be when the Spartans head to Oregon, but the tide will turn after they win in Eugene.

    That paves the path for a perfect regular season, with the most likely hiccup coming at the end when MSU visits Penn State. But considering that the Spartans bring back a ton of the key contributors from last year's Rose Bowl team, a big situation like a November trip to Happy Valley won't deter this team from achieving its goals.

    Connor Cook and Jeremy Langford will continue their roles as lunch pail offensive stars, while Shilique Calhoun will establish himself as a first-round-worthy pass-rusher. All of that will translate into a Big Ten title and a spot in the national semifinals—and very likely a national championship appearance.

     

    The worst

    As great as 2013 was, it doesn't guarantee future success. Nor does it mean it can take down another big-time Pac-12 foe.

    MSU falls to the Ducks but will still be in the running for the Big Ten East Division title. That is, until Michigan, Nebraska or, most likely, Ohio State comes in to East Lansing and reminds the Spartans that last year is over and reality sets in.

    Where MSU will struggle the most is on pass defense, where the loss of Darqueze Dennard will be felt every time it sees a long touchdown pass thrown on it.

2. Auburn Tigers

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    Auburn was 13 seconds away from winning a second national title in four years last season. With a nearly flawless offensive system and a much-improved defense, the Tigers find those lost ticks on the clock and turn it into a national title.

    Nick Marshall will unleash a passing prowess that didn't get many chances to shine in 2013, and that, combined with Auburn's unstoppable run game, will somehow make last year's great offensive numbers seem paltry. Big losses on defense won't be that hard to overcome, as the replacements prove just as good.

    The early season trip to Kansas State is a great way to show that Auburn is just as good as it was the year before and will establish the tone for the Tigers' games at home against LSU, South Carolina and Texas A&M. Trips to Georgia and Alabama in the final three weeks of the regular season will ultimately decide what happens, but both result in wins that aren't reliant on luck but instead on execution. 

    War Eagle will reign supreme in the SEC title game, in the semifinals at the Sugar Bowl and then in the championship.

     

    The worst

    All good things come to an end, and when it comes to Auburn, that means the mystique of Gus Malzahn's system. The Tigers will still do great on offense, but it won't be the earth-shattering numbers from 2013, and without all of that offensive potency, it will be tough to match last year's run.

    Marshall will try to throw far more than the system allows, and the overabundance of great defensive backs in the SEC will feast on those tendencies. And as much as the offseason emphasis on improving the defense was talked about, that won't translate into shutting down opponents.

    It will all come crashing down early, with the visit to Kansas State resulting in a humbling loss, but it won't be the only one Auburn suffers in 2014. LSU or South Carolina could come in to Jordan-Hare Stadium and win, and it's very possible the Tigers could lose at both Georgia and Alabama and be in a bowl game far before New Year's Eve.

1. Florida State Seminoles

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    One thing people won't be able to say about Florida State in 2014: Its second straight national title was the result of a weak schedule.

    The Seminoles will have plenty of challenges this fall, starting with the opener against Oklahoma State in Arlington and continuing with visits from Clemson and Notre Dame and trips to Louisville and Miami (Fla.). The pressure to be a back-to-back champion—and with perfect records both times—will be immense, but Jimbo Fisher and his players are up to the challenge.

    The way they'll do it is by treating the season like what it is: a completely new season, not a continuation of last year that requires further justification for past performance.

    "We're not defending anything,'' FSU coach Jimbo Fisher told Bleacher Report's Bob Ferrante. ''I don't want us to think in those terms. What I'm looking for is another group of hungry guys who are willing to pay the same price they did last year when they didn't know they were real good."

    That mentality will be seen especially in the newcomers, with running back Dalvin Cook, receiver Ermon Lane and other blue-chip recruits quickly establishing themselves as the next set of great Seminoles.

    And for all the off-field issues that Jameis Winston has dealt with since last January, he'll convert that into on-field performance, somehow making last year's numbers look paltry as he wins another Heisman. New studs on offense and defense will make last year's stars become easily forgotten as FSU establishes a dynasty.

     

    The worst

    Winston will not win another Heisman, nor will he come close to what he did in 2013. The constant scrutiny that comes with being college football's most popular player will begin to weigh on the quarterback, who midway through the season will start moving his focus toward his impending professional career, and it will show in his numbers.

    FSU will win at least 11 games in 2014, but 11 would be a major letdown for the defending national champs. The late-October trip to Louisville, on a Thursday night, is the kind of atmosphere where an undefeated run can end, but even if that doesn't happen, at least one of the Seminoles' opponents will come out on top during the year.

     

    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP