That itch for actual football is finally about to be scratched.
After months of waiting for competitive football, the college season is nearly here. While spring football and the lead-up in camp are fun, nothing beats the real action on the field when the best programs hit the gridiron.
This year, the national championship will be decided in a completely different manner. Instead of just two teams competing for the title, four programs will have a chance to stake their claim as the best in college football in the first-ever College Football Playoff.
Before the season officially gets underway, here are the four teams that will ultimately make the College Football Playoff at the end of the year.
This one might be the obvious choice, but it's one that almost goes without saying.
Florida State comes into the season as the defending champion and looks the part yet again. While players like Devonta Freeman and Kelvin Benjamin have moved on to the NFL, Jameis Winston is the quarterback and the defense is still stacked.
Everyone knows about last year's Heisman winner by this point, but he comes into this season even more comfortable after no battle for the starting position. How comfortable, exactly? He was even working on a new position, per Natalie Pierre of the Tallahassee Democrat:
Besides the offense, which still has a plethora of weapons outside of Winston, the defense will be loaded yet again. In 2013, the team ranked second in points scored (51.6) and first in points allowed (12.1) and return an immensely talented defense.
Of those, Mario Edwards Jr. is a player who comes in with plenty to prove after recording 3.5 sacks last season. Head coach Jimbo Fisher believes otherwise for the defensive end, per Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated.
“Sacks don’t equate to greatness,” Fisher said. “You’d better go watch that film. You watch that film? That guy’s a heck of a football player. You watch when the draft comes around where he’s at.”
As simple as it is to criticize a player for their statistics, Edwards makes a difference in several different ways. With his impressive play on the line and an all-around game that limits nearly any team, expect FSU to be in the running again.
Of the four programs listed, Alabama has the toughest road ahead.
In a stacked SEC that includes the likes of Auburn, LSU, South Carolina and Georgia, the Crimson Tide will have to find a way out of the conference. Luckily, they face only LSU and Auburn in the regular season and must play the likes of Tennessee and Ole Miss.
Having won three of the last five titles, Nick Saban has his team ready to contend yet again. As for the consistency under Saban, College GameDay provides a look at just how great the Tide have been over that stretch:
Oregon, Alabama, Nebraska and LSU are the only teams that have won at least nine games in each of the past five seasons. #16DaysToGameDay— College GameDay (@CollegeGameDay) August 14, 2014
The one question looming for the Tide is who will lead them under center.
Of course, the two candidates are senior Blake Sims and Florida State transfer Jacob Coker. But with the season fast approaching, neither has been named the starter for the opener against West Virginia.
Saban remained close-lipped about the situation heading into Saturday's scrimmage. The coach referenced the battle during an ESPN "All-Access" interview, per Andrew Gribble of AL.com:
Nothing (different). Nothing. I mean, I don't know. What do you want me to say?. They're both going to take an equal number of snaps, just like they did last week. And if you keep asking questions about it, we probably won't give you their stats again.
... We want to get an equal amount of play to where both sides get an opportunity to be evaluated and the players on both sides get an opportunity to be evaluated
Regardless of who eventually takes over, Alabama has plenty of time to round into form. After West Virginia in Atlanta, the Tide will face Florida Atlantic and Southern Miss at home. By the time Florida rolls into Tuscaloosa, Saban will have his quarterback and full control of his team.
Though it is always a dangerous team, Alabama has the makings of an undefeated season coming up. If it can survive tough games against the two Tigers of LSU and Auburn, an SEC and national championship might be in the future for Saban.
OK, now we're breaking slightly away from the mold.
Florida State and Alabama are the last two champions, but Michigan State comes into the season with confidence. Claiming both the Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl victory, Mark Dantonio's team was outstanding.
Oh, and it also returns Connor Cook, the Rose Bowl and Big Ten Championship Game MVP. Coming into the year, Cook is the No. 6 quarterback in the country, according to Brock Huard of ESPN Insider (subscription necessary):
Cook, like many on this list, spent time away from campus honing his fundamentals and technique. By all accounts, he has returned to East Lansing bigger, stronger, smarter and more determined than ever to prove he belongs in the top tier among his peers. While Cook will never put up the numbers of other spread QBs in stat-hungry systems, his rating of 135.5 (61st in FBS in '13) will have to improve for Sparty to repeat as Big Ten and Rose Bowl champs.
Needless to say, Cook finished the season strong. If he can put up similar numbers throughout 2014, the junior could emerge as a dark-horse Heisman candidate.
Rather than resting on his laurels, the signal-caller has been hard at work this offseason. Chris Vannini of 247Sports shared Cook's comments about his effort over the summer:
Connor Cook on BTN: “I’ve never worked harder than I did this summer, working with the receivers.” #MSU— Chris Vannini (@ChrisVannini) August 12, 2014
Cook isn't the only strength of the team, especially with a defense that comes in after allowing just 13.2 points last season. The loss of Darqueze Dennard and others will hurt, but talent on the line with Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush will wreak havoc in the pass rush.
The Spartans still have a hurdle in getting past Ohio State in the Big Ten but will be a stout team all season. If all goes right for Sparty, they will be contending for a title at the end of the year.
The Pac-12 has two potential NFL quarterbacks looking to make their mark. Outside of just racing for the Heisman, both might also be contending for a chance to make the first College Football Playoff.
Marcus Mariota and Oregon are the trendy pick for both the Heisman and Pac-12, but it might not be that simple. Brett Hundley and UCLA will also be in the running for both, and the quarterback will lead his program to new heights in 2014.
ESPN College Football provides a look at just how well Hundley performed last season:
Which team has the best chance of winning the national title?
Though Mariota and Winston will likely get more attention throughout the year, Hundley deserves some attention for his efforts. In fact, NFL.com ranks him as the No. 13 college player, with Daniel Jeremiah providing his thoughts on the quarterback:
"He has a strong arm and he can extend plays with his athleticism," Jeremiah said. "He deserves a lot of credit for the turnaround in Westwood."
Along with Mariota, Myles Jack will look to explode again this season as a two-way player. His talents on offense make him explosive, but he's also stout as a linebacker for the Bruins.
With an offense and defense that can get the job done in the Pac-12, the Bruins will need to prove themselves against top competition. If they can survive huge matchups with Arizona State, Oregon, USC and Stanford, the Bruins have a shot at competing for the title.
As for that Heisman, ripping it from the hands of Winston will be easier said than done throughout the season. But hoisting the national championship trophy at the end of the season might be even sweeter for Jim Mora and his squad.
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