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Preseason Top 25: College Football Playoff Predictions from Amway Coaches Poll

Greg WallaceFeatured ColumnistAugust 1, 2014

Preseason Top 25: College Football Playoff Predictions from Amway Coaches Poll

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    Jameis Winston and Florida State are strong favorites to earn a spot in the first College Football Playoff.
    Jameis Winston and Florida State are strong favorites to earn a spot in the first College Football Playoff.David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    When the preseason top 25 Amway Coaches Poll was released Thursday afternoon, it generated significant conversation in the college football world, and with good reason: It signals the beginning of college football season and the march to the first College Football Playoff, which will pit the nation's top four teams against one another for the national title.

    Multiple teams in the top 25 will begin preseason practice Friday, with scores more joining them by the day in preparation for the last weekend of August, when teams across the nation will take the gridiron for the first games of the season that truly matter.

    If 2013 is any indication, we’re in for a wild ride. In January, Florida State and Auburn faced off in the final BCS National Championship Game, a classic decided in the final seconds with Jameis Winston’s touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin giving the Seminoles their first national title since 2000.

    Where were the Seminoles and Tigers in August 2013? Barely on the national title radar.

    Florida State was No. 11 in the coaches’ poll, and Auburn wasn’t ranked. Coming off a 3-9 season, Gus Malzahn’s bunch didn’t even receive a single vote.

    Yet, there they were in Pasadena, slugging it out for the national championship.

    We'll take a very early look at the teams which will compete for that championship in January, but first, here's the top 25 to begin the season:

    1. Florida State

    2. Alabama

    3. Oklahoma

    4. Oregon

    5. Auburn

    6. Ohio State

    7. UCLA

    8. Michigan State

    9. South Carolina

    10. Baylor

    11. Stanford

    12. Georgia

    13. LSU

    14. Wisconsin

    15. USC

    16. Clemson

    17. Notre Dame

    18. Arizona State

    19. Ole Miss

    20. Texas A&M

    21. Kansas State

    22. Nebraska

    23. North Carolina

    24. Texas

    25. Washington

Just Missed the Cut

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    Gus Malzahn and Auburn will make another strong run at national glory this fall.
    Gus Malzahn and Auburn will make another strong run at national glory this fall.Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    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.

     

    Auburn

    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

    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.

     

    UCLA

    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.

No.1 Florida State

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    Jimbo Fisher enjoyed a breakthough season as Florida State's coach last fall.
    Jimbo Fisher enjoyed a breakthough season as Florida State's coach last fall.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The Seminoles carry a 16-game winning streak into 2014, and it is hard to see that streak ending anytime in the near future. Jimbo Fisher’s group returns 15 starters from a team that surprised many nationally by capturing the final BCS National Championship, led by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston. Corey Clark of USA Today claimed FSU must fill its leadership void from a year ago.

    Fisher said at ACC Media Days that his team isn’t resting on its laurels, according to ASAP Sports.

    I think you have to prove it every day.  When good enough becomes good enough, you have a problem.  If you don't ever keep that attitude of domination, that hunger to be great, somebody is going to pass you up.  It's too competitive in our business, there's too many good players and too many good coaches out there to not stay on top, and I think that's always your goal.  If you don't have that, you should get out of it.  If your goal is not to be that way and put the time and effort and the planning into that‑‑ that's why we're at Florida State, that's why I want to coach at Florida State, and that's our attitude, and it's going to be our attitude as long as I'm there.

    Winston should be a year better this fall, and he’ll work behind an offensive line that returns four starters from a year ago. FSU loses NFL first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin from its wide receiver corps but returns senior Rashad Greene, who has led the Seminoles in receiving yards in each of the last three seasons, as well as senior tight end Nick O’Leary, who averaged 16.9 yards per reception last fall (tops among tight ends nationally).

    FSU’s top two tailbacks from a year ago are gone but senior Karlos Williams (730 yards in 2013) should fill the lead role capably, and Mario Pender, Ryan Green and Dalvin Cook will be capable, too.

    Six returning defensive starters are led by junior defensive end Mario Edwards, junior linebacker Terrance Smith and sophomore safety Jalen Ramsey. Three starters return in the secondary, and while replacing All-America safety Lamarcus Joyner and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan won’t be easy, the Seminoles have recruited well and shouldn’t see much of a dropoff.

    The schedule is also favorable. The season opens with a neutral-site game against a rebuilding Oklahoma State team, and Clemson, the 'Noles’ top ACC challenger, visits Sept. 20. The toughest road games are at Louisville and Miami in a three-week stretch spanning October and November, and Notre Dame’s visit Oct. 18 also raises eyebrows.

    Still, if the Seminoles are motivated in the right way, it’s hard to see them being left out of the first College Football Playoff.

No. 2 Alabama

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    Following last season's disappointing ending, Alabama and Nick Saban should be as driven as ever this fall.
    Following last season's disappointing ending, Alabama and Nick Saban should be as driven as ever this fall.Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Alabama enters 2014 on a very sour note. The Crimson Tide entered the final week of the 2013 regular season in excellent position to compete for its third consecutive national championship, but following the infamous “Kick Six” at Auburn and a Sugar Bowl mauling at Oklahoma’s hands, Nick Saban’s bunch enters the season riding a two-game losing streak.

    The last time that happened was 2009, and the Tide finished that season holding the first crystal football of the Saban era aloft. Saban sees a very different team this fall, he said at SEC Media Days, per ASAP Sports.

    Our situation as a team is a lot different this year than it's been the last couple years when we were coming off of successful seasons, championship seasons.  The challenges were so much different in terms of trying to deal with success and complacency.  Having lost our last two games last year, I think it's a little bit different mindset with our players. We have to reestablish our identity as a team at Alabama.  It's going to take every player to have a tremendous amount of buy‑in for us to be able to do that.

    The Crimson Tide enters 2014 with questions. Alabama returns nine starters from a year ago and must replace quarterback AJ McCarron, who led two national title runs. McCarron’s backup, senior Blake Sims, ended spring as the leader of a crowded quarterback derby but Florida State transfer Jacob Coker enters fall as the favorite to win the job.

    Whoever wins the job will have some talent around him. Junior tailback T.J. Yeldon and sophomore Derrick Henry form what could be one of the nation’s top backfields, and junior Amari Cooper and seniors Christion Jones and DeAndrew White are very talented receiving targets.

    Only three defensive starters return, highlighted by standout junior safety Landon Collins. However, sophomore A’Shawn Robinson (5.5 sacks as a freshman) should anchor a rebuilt defensive line that also features senior nose guard Brandon Ivory. There are questions in the linebacker corps, but if those are answered, the Tide should have a typically nasty Kirby Smart defense.

    Alabama’s schedule is favorable: The Tide doesn’t play a true road game until October, when it travels to Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU in a five-game stretch (with the only home game against Texas A&M). Auburn visits for the Iron Bowl Nov. 29 in what could be a College Football Playoff play-in game. The SEC is always a meat-grinder, but it’s tough to bet against Saban and Co. Given how 2013 ended, the motivation will be there.

No. 3 Oklahoma

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    If Trevor Knight can build on last season's strong finish, Oklahoma could secure a College Football Playoff berth.
    If Trevor Knight can build on last season's strong finish, Oklahoma could secure a College Football Playoff berth.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    Oklahoma broke through in a big way last fall, finishing 11-2, winning the Big 12 title and punctuating the season with a Sugar Bowl whipping of Alabama. Expectations are high in Norman, and with good reason: Bob Stoops returns 16 starters from that team.

    They’re led by sophomore quarterback Trevor Knight, who had a coming-out party in New Orleans, going for 348 yards and four touchdowns against a good Alabama defense. Three starting offensive linemen return, as does steady junior receiver Sterling Shepard. In the backfield, Alex Ross and Keith Ford must prove themselves worthy, especially without highly touted freshman tailback Joe Mixon, who has been suspended from the team while an alleged off-campus assault is investigated.

    Nine starters return on defense. They’re led by returning Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year Dominique Alexander and first-team All-Big 12 junior defensive end Charles Tapper, who had 5.5 sacks a year ago. Junior Eric Striker leads a talented linebacker corps: He had 6.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss a year ago. Sophomore corner Zack Sanchez is a returning Freshman All-American. Oklahoma’s schedule is very favorable, with Big 12 contenders Kansas State and Baylor, and rival Oklahoma State all visiting Norman.

    Knight must prove himself more consistent, but if the offensive pieces can come together, the Sooners’ boom will continue with a College Football Playoff berth.

No. 4 Oregon

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    Quarterback Marcus Mariota is one of college football's top returning players this fall.
    Quarterback Marcus Mariota is one of college football's top returning players this fall.Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Many expected Oregon to be part of the final BCS National Championship Game last fall, but an early-November loss to Stanford, followed closely by a blowout loss at Arizona dashed those hopes. Still, the Ducks finished 11-2 and return 14 starters, led by junior quarterback Marcus Mariota, who turned down the NFL for at least one more season in Eugene.

    Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said at Pac-12 Media Days that his team learned from last fall’s disappointments, per ASAP Sports.

    Looking back to last year, it's a great thing for our players to kind of slap ourselves in the face and go back to process, go back to culture.  Go back to taking care of our own.  You know, you look around the country, and there is a fine line of being in that discussion months from now.  It might as well be right now.

    There are questions about Oregon’s receivers after the top four pass-catchers from 2013 departed, but the Ducks return eight offensive starters, including the entire offensive line and junior tailback Byron Marshall, the Pac-12’s top returning rusher.

    Senior cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olumu leads five returning starters on defense; they’ll be guided by new defensive coordinator Don Pellum. Pellum is looking to improve Oregon’s fundamentals and discipline, and he must return three starters in the secondary and two on the defensive line.

    Oregon has two of its three toughest games (Michigan State and Stanford) at home, with an Oct. 11 trip to UCLA looming as the toughest road game.

    If the Ducks can keep up last season’s offensive production (45.5 points per game, tied for No. 3 nationally) and find a few more answers on defense, there’s no reason to doubt their candidacy for the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Predictions

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    It is very difficult to pick against Florida State to win a second consecutive national title.
    It is very difficult to pick against Florida State to win a second consecutive national title.Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    Now that you've seen our playoff picks, here's the really fun part: predictions.
    This year, the College Football Playoff will use two established bowls, the Rose and Sugar, as semifinal games, with the top seed matching up against the No. 4 seed and the No. 2 and No. 3 teams facing off. The winners will square off on Jan. 12, 2015 at AT&T Stadium in north Texas.

    In this scenario, No. 1 Florida State will match up against No. 4 Oregon. The Ducks will be high-powered again this fall, but expect the Seminoles' revamped-but-still-nasty defense to make a statement, with quarterback Jameis Winston leading a potent offense to a semifinal victory.

    The other semifinal is a rematch: No. 2 Alabama against No. 3 Oklahoma. If there's one thing that drives Nick Saban, it is losing, and the Crimson Tide has surely heard plenty about the Sugar Bowl debacle from a year ago. Starting quarterback Jacob Coker leads an efficient pro-style offense to success against Oklahoma's defense, and the Tide's defense forces OU quarterback Trevor Knight into multiple turnovers. The Tide and Saban advance for a teacher vs. student title game.

    In that game, Winston struggles at first against Alabama's tough, rebuilt defense, but he finds enough success in the second half to overcome a halftime deficit. The Crimson Tide's Achilles' heel, special teams, bites them in the end as Winston and Jimbo Fisher raise the first College Football Playoff trophy high.

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