Chris Carlson/Associated Press
Gus Malzahn and Auburn will make another strong run at national glory this fall.
The following teams just missed the cut for this College Football Playoff prediction, but given college football's unpredictability, they shouldn't be discounted this fall, by any means.
The Tigers stunned many with a run to the BCS National Championship Game in Gus Malzahn’s first year as head coach, but this fall, they'll be the hunted instead of the hunter.
Nick Marshall, who made Auburn's offense hum like a well-oiled machine in his first season as the starting quarterback, returns. While Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason departed early for the NFL, Cameron Artis-Payne or Corey Grant could make a solid replacement or a dual threat in the backfield. In addition, the offensive line returns four starters.
Defensively, Auburn took a hit when defensive end Carl Lawson underwent ACL surgery, likely sidelining him for much of the season. End Dee Ford and cornerback Chris Davis are also gone, but senior Gabe Wright and up-and-coming sophomore Montravius Adams should bolster a solid defensive line.
The Tigers host LSU and Texas A&M, but must travel to Alabama and Georgia, as well as a tough Thursday night game at Kansas State. In addition, South Carolina comes onto the schedule rotation. Last year was magical, but it wouldn't be surprising to see Auburn slip up somewhere along the way and miss a College Football Playoff berth.
Michigan State enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2013, finishing 13-1 with a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl championship. The Spartans return 12 starters from that group, led by junior quarterback Connor Cook.
Coach Mark Dantonio's group must replace three starting offensive linemen, but they have five players with starting experience returning. Senior Tony Lippett leads a talented receiving corps. Senior tailback Jeremy Langford had 1,422 rushing yards and 18 rushing scores a year ago.
The Spartans must replace both starting defensive tackles, but highly touted freshman Malik McDowell figures to play a big role this fall early on. He’ll be helped by returning talented ends Shilique Calhoun (the reigning Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year) and senior Marcus Rush. With six new starters on the defense, the offense must carry a bigger load early on.
Michigan State has a huge game at Oregon Sept. 6, which will test a revamped defense. The Spartans also host Ohio State Nov. 8 in what will be the Big Ten's Game of the Year. Will a one-loss team from the Big Ten stand up to a one-loss Big 12, Pac-12 or SEC team? We'll see, but it's questionable.
In Jim Mora Jr.'s short tenure, UCLA has emerged as a potential national power. The Bruins won 10 games a year ago and return 16 starters from that group, led by junior dual-threat quarterback Brett Hundley, a Heisman Trophy candidate. Junior Devin Lucien must emerge as a primary option at receiver and tailbacks Jordon James and Paul Perkins need to prove they can handle the backfield load.
Sophomore linebacker Myles Jack returns after being named the Pac 12’s Offensive and Defensive Freshman of the Year, an impressive feat. Departed linebacker Anthony Barr, a first-round NFL draft pick, must be replaced along with his pass-rushing skills, but the Bruins should be just as good if not better defensively this fall.
They host Oregon, Stanford and USC and travel to Arizona State, while playing a "neutral-site" game against Texas at AT&T Stadium in north Texas. The Bruins must take a step forward from a year ago to make the College Football Playoff but running the table against the likes of the Ducks, Cardinal and Trojans, among others, seems like a very difficult task.