It’s easy to pick Florida State, Alabama or Oregon when discussing potential national championship contenders as we approach the 2014 college football season.
When does college football ever go according to plan, though?
With that in mind, let’s take a look at three teams fans should not overlook when it comes to the national title race.
The Big Ten may not be the SEC, but it is better than it gets credit for on a national level. However, don’t look at Wisconsin’s strength of schedule if you want to make a convincing case for the conference’s strength.
The Badgers miss Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan on this year’s slate and get Nebraska at home. The winner of that contest will have an inside track for the West Division crown.
Wisconsin could very well be favored in every single game it plays except the opener, which means plenty of wins. That opener comes against LSU, but don’t automatically assume the Tigers will walk away with a win.
Who wins the Big Ten?
The Badgers will rely heavily on their superstar running back in Melvin Gordon. Gordon ran for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns a year ago, and he could see even more carries now that James White is no longer on campus.
One of Wisconsin’s concerns heading into the season could also turn into a strength. The Badgers lost the majority of their front seven on defense, including Chris Borland, but this is a unit that finished fifth in the country against the run and sixth in scoring defense a year ago. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is one of the best in the country and will have his unit among the nation's best yet again.
If that defense and Gordon find a way to get past LSU, it will be time to start buying stock in the Badgers.
Much like Wisconsin, South Carolina is partially on this list because it has a favorable schedule to go along with talent.
The Gamecocks avoid Alabama, LSU and what could be a dangerous Mississippi team but still have to play Clemson, Auburn and Georgia. It’s not like that is a walk-in-the-park schedule, but it is easier to navigate than others in the SEC.
South Carolina finished in the top 10 the last three years and was the only squad in the country to beat three teams that finished in the AP Top 10 last year. It has consistently finished among the nation’s best under Steve Spurrier but simply needs to take the one final step to win the SEC championship if it hopes to reach the College Football Playoff.
The contest with Georgia will go a long way toward determining who wins the conference’s East division, and this year’s matchup is in South Carolina, where the Gamecocks have won 18 in a row at home.
If they can extend that streak and reach the SEC title game, they would be one game away from reaching the CFP because the SEC champion is definitely going to receive the benefit of the doubt from the selection committee.
Chris Low of ESPN.com thinks South Carolina will get to the conference title game:
The Head Ball Coach has a veteran offensive line, marquee running back and depth in the defensive line and at linebacker. While we're not ready to pick the Gamecocks to win the SEC championship game, we are picking them to get there and win 10 or more games for the fourth straight season.
A healthy Mike Davis is a Heisman candidate at running back, especially behind this offensive line. If he can propel his team to a couple of critical victories this season (Georgia, the SEC title game and Clemson), a national title is not out of the question.
You would be forgiven if you left Ohio State for dead after Braxton Miller hurt his shoulder. After all, we are talking about a Heisman candidate and the two-time defending Big Ten Player of the Year who makes defenders look absolutely silly in the open field.
However, Urban Meyer has accumulated plenty of talent as he enters his third year in Columbus, and it will be up to redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett to find those playmakers in Miller’s absence.
The one positive about Miller’s injury is that he missed spring practice and most of fall training, so Barrett has taken plenty of first-team snaps. Familiarity with the offense will be critical because the Buckeyes plan on unleashing a high-octane attack, as offensive coordinator Tom Herman told Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated:
“If used properly and effectively, tempo should help our cause from the standpoint of not needing the ridiculous dynamism that Braxton Miller provided.”
Barrett earned the nickname “the distributor” because of his ability to simply get the ball out to the offensive weapons and get out of the way. That’s exactly why the Buckeyes are still a threat in the national picture. They have so much speed and athleticism on the field that defenses won’t be able to lock in on just one or two guys.
Who starts the 2015 opener at quarterback for Ohio State?
Ezekiel Elliott, Rod Smith and Bri’onte Dunn give Meyer a three-headed attack at running back, but freshman Curtis Samuel and sophomore Dontre Wilson will see plenty of action from the slot and backfield. Samuel and Wilson are the speedsters who will give opposing defensive coordinators fits all year.
Throw in a receiving corps that features veterans Evan Spencer and Devin Smith, youngsters Jalin Marshall and Corey Smith, and Barrett's underrated rushing ability, and Ohio State’s offense will still be dynamic without Miller.
Bleacher Report’s Adam Kramer certainly thinks so:
(Psst. Ohio State is still immensely talented and can make the CFB Playoff despite that fire you are lighting.)— Adam Kramer (@KegsnEggs) August 19, 2014
Perhaps the most encouraging thing about Ohio State’s 2014 prospects is the fact that the defense should be improved under new coordinator Chris Ash. The Buckeyes will utilize more of a 4-3 base that presses up on wide receivers, which will ideally eliminate the gaping holes that Sammy Watkins exploited in the Orange Bowl.
With a stronger defense and weapons all over the field, count the Buckeyes out at your own peril.
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