Ranking College Football Conferences Based on 2015 Playoff Potential

Jeff Bell@@JrayBellCorrespondent IFebruary 6, 2015

Ranking College Football Conferences Based on 2015 Playoff Potential

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    Ohio State coach Urban Meyer
    Ohio State coach Urban MeyerAssociated Press

    There may not be unanimous agreement on the level of success the College Football Playoff had in Year 1, but it's safe to say that the formula worked and the best team in the country took home the trophy.

    One thing we shouldn't do, however, is assume that the 2015 season will play out in similar fashion with regard to the committee, because college football can look completely different year to year. We have a good idea of what criteria are valued, but with new teams at the top and different games to judge, the route to the Final Four won't look the same.

    What we have here is a twist on power ranking the college football conferences. While the Power Five will be ranked, the depth of each conference won't matter as much because the subject is how likely each conference is to be represented in the playoff. Even if you think the SEC is the deepest conference, the teams that finish 11th and 12th cannot make the playoff, so it doesn't matter how good they are.

    The Group of Five conferences are not taken into consideration because from what we've seen out of the selection committee, it almost seems impossible that a team from that level will make it into the Final Four. The schedules just aren't tough enough unless a conference happens to have an all-time great year led by a dominating team that wins several out-of-conference matchups against top competition.

    Outside of BYU, Notre Dame and potentially Boise State, teams that don't belong to a Power Five conference have little to no shot of making the playoff in the current format.

    Here are the conferences rankings for 2015 based on playoff potential.

5) ACC

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    Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher
    Florida State coach Jimbo FisherMark J. Terrill/Associated Press/Associated Press

    Bringing up last place in our twist on conference rankings is the ACC, which will have the toughest time of anyone in placing a team in the College Football Playoff in 2015.

    The first step in this exercise is to look at which team could conceivably put together a run worthy of inclusion in the Final Four, and that list is small. Start with Florida State, which will once again be loaded with talent on both sides of the ball. Then there's Clemson, fresh off an excellent recruiting class with returning quarterback Deshaun Watson poised for a breakout year.

    After that, you could make a case for Georgia Tech and maybe Louisville, although both the Yellow Jackets and Cardinals have major questions.

    While we pointed out that using the 2014 process to figure out how 2015 might shake out isn't foolproof, we do know a couple of things based on how the committee viewed Florida State. To begin, the conference isn't going to take five steps forward in a single year, and given how the Seminoles fell to No. 3 in the playoff rankings despite maintaining an undefeated record, we can safely assume a one-loss team from the ACC will have a difficult time reaching the playoff.

    The committee must view each year must on its own, which is a big reason why Florida State's win streak wasn't taken into account outside of 2014. But what we learned is that being undefeated may not be as important as how you play and who you beat. The difference between one loss and zero losses can be overcome if a team puts out a consistently better product and proves its might against strong competition.

    Perhaps more important than attempting to figure out how things will play out is looking at the team's strengths and weaknesses. Florida State loses Jameis Winston, and it's hard to imagine the 'Noles having someone better right away. The running game will be strong, but the defense will have question marks with an exodus along the defensive line and in the secondary.

    Clemson feels like the dark-horse team that could make a push toward the top, but the Tigers still play Florida State as well as Louisville, Miami and South Carolina on the road.

    If the ACC gets better play from top to bottom, Georgia Tech stays in or near the Top 10 and Clemson takes a step forward, this conference will have more than a fair argument for a spot in the playoff. But with notable players leaving and no real preseason juggernauts as far as we can tell, the ACC will have the toughest time putting a team in the Final Four.

4) Big 12

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    QB Trevone Boykin
    QB Trevone BoykinMike Stewart/Associated Press

    The next two spots in our conference rankings could honestly go either way, and you could make a great case for the Big 12 jumping ahead to the No. 3 spot.

    Here it sits in the No. 4 spot for several reasons, but first let's look at the strengths. The first one is obviously the emergence of TCU as a team to watch out for. Any preseason rankings worth your time will have the Horned Frogs in the top two or three heading into the 2015 regular season.

    Trevone Boykin will be at or near the top of everyone's Heisman list after a sensational year and bowl-game effort against a stout Ole Miss defense. The defense should continue to shine under Gary Patterson, and the team will have some big-game experience as well. The Horned Frogs are a safe bet to make the playoff, which in turns make the Big 12 a likely candidate to be involved as well.

    After TCU, you naturally turn your head to Baylor, which may not be too far behind. The Bears lose quarterback Bryce Petty and wide receivers Antwan Goodley and Levi Norwood, but K.D. Cannon established himself as one of the top freshman players in the country, and backup signal-caller Seth Russell has the entire package and played well in the few opportunities he had.

    Baylor seems like more of a question mark considering it has to replace leaders on offense, plays at TCU and has a nonconference schedule that is once again softer than two-ply toilet paper. If the defense takes another step forward, however, the Bears should be in the hunt throughout the year.

    What hurts the Big 12 is that Oklahoma, Texas and Oklahoma State are down, and Kansas State should take a couple steps back after losing its quarterback and top three pass-catchers.

    Again, we can hearken back to 2014 when the Big 12 had a pair of one-loss teams in TCU and Baylor yet neither reached the playoff. Now, if you've done the math and don't expect two teams from the same conference to reach the playoff, you'll see that these rankings put the Big 12 in the mix. And it certainly will be with an elite team in TCU and what we expect to be a great Baylor team.

    But this is a look at playoff potential, and while that exists for the Big 12, it's a little more evident in the next three conferences.

3) Big Ten

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    QB Connor Cook
    QB Connor CookBrandon Wade/Associated Press

    Just so we're not beating around the bush here, the debate between the Big 12 and Big Ten basically comes down to Ohio State and Michigan State versus TCU and Baylor.

    A conference's playoff potential all depends on the top teams in the conference that are actually good enough to make the CFP, and there is no more promising team than the Ohio State Buckeyes. This was supposed to be the year Urban Meyer's team used to build for a run in 2015.

    Instead, it not only won the whole thing but got contributions from young players on defense and found two quarterbacks even better than Braxton Miller. The Buckeyes will enter 2015 as the most promising team in years, and anything less than 11-1 in the regular season would be downright shocking.

    Then you look at a Michigan State team that received a huge boost with Connor Cook announcing his return for one more year. He is an experienced pocket passer with a big arm, and though the skill positions around him will take a hit, the offense shouldn't take a step back.

    The biggest difference between the 2014 Spartans and the version we'll see in seven months will be on defense, where the maturation of Malik McDowell and the return of Shilique Calhoun should make the unit as formidable as any.

    Like the Big 12, there's a drop-off after the top two teams. Wisconsin, Minnesota and Penn State should all be Top 25-caliber programs, and teams like Nebraska and Penn State are essentially wild cards. Within that group, no one is going to contend for a spot in the playoff, but you could see a few upsets.

    In the future, Michigan will be an important part of the conversation, but that isn't going to happen in Year 1 of the Harbaugh era.

    With one bad loss, Ohio State beat out both TCU and Baylor for a spot in the College Football Playoff in 2014. What does that mean for next season? Probably nothing, but the Big Ten has revitalized its image, and folks understand that from top to bottom, this is a much different league than two years ago. There are more quality wins to be had, and ultimately the combination of Ohio State and Michigan State appears slightly stronger than TCU and Baylor, giving the conference more potential to be involved in the playoff.

2) Pac-12

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    Coach Steve Sarkisian
    Coach Steve SarkisianAssociated Press

    The Pac-12 comes in at No. 2 because of the sheer number of teams with playoff potential. There might not be a preseason juggernaut at the level of Ohio State or TCU, but four or five teams have the chance to be special.

    Start with Oregon, which loses Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota at quarterback as well as some key pieces in the secondary. However, the rest of the offense is going to be as nasty as ever, and if the new signal-caller can play within the system, the Ducks aren't going to lose often.

    UCLA returns a number of key pieces on both sides as well and really only suffers the loss of Brett Hundley. If incoming quarterback Josh Rosen can pick up the offense quickly, the Bruins won't take a step back and could even take a couple forward.

    USC is going to be the trendy pick despite losing its top wideout, running back and defensive lineman. But the talent level is nearly back to where it was in the mid-2000s, and if Steve Sarkisian can figure out some of the magic created by Pete Carroll's teams, the Trojans are an obvious choice to break into the playoff.

    If Stanford gets strong play from Kevin Hogan, the Cardinal will continue to present a difficult test. Arizona State has a chance to hang around the Top 15, and Arizona will be no worse than the team that reached the Fiesta Bowl in 2014.

    That doesn't mean the six aforementioned teams can make the playoff, but it does mean that the winner of the Pac-12 probably won't be left out. That team will have survived a tough gauntlet, especially if it comes from the South Division.

    One downside to having so many great teams in one conference is that the winner of the Pac-12 championship could easily have two losses. But the committee values a strong resume more than a strong record, and that's unlikely to change.

    An undefeated or one-loss team from the Pac-12 is going to make the playoff in 2015. A two-loss team might have some trouble, but if it won the league, it will be part of the conversation. All of that means the Pac-12 has more playoff potential than every other conference except one.

1) SEC

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    Coach Nick Saban
    Coach Nick SabanChris Graythen/Getty Images

    Take all the reasons the Pac-12 is ranked so high on the list, and they're basically the same for the SEC. No single team stands out quite like Ohio State or TCU, but plenty of strong SEC programs will compete for a spot in the playoff in 2015.

    If Alabama gets strong quarterback play from Jacob Coker or someone else, it'll be in the hunt. Auburn's offense isn't slowing down anytime soon. If Ole Miss can shore up a few problems that led to late-season struggles, the Rebels will be involved. Mississippi State has a few more questions than its rival but also has quarterback Dak Prescott.

    That's four teams, and we're really only getting started. Barring health problems, Georgia, LSU, Missouri and Texas A&M should all present challenges. Heck, even Arkansas has the potential to win eight or nine games with the physical identity Bret Bielema has built in Fayetteville.

    That's nine teams right there, and not every one has the potential to make playoff, but with the right bounces and good health, at least six or seven are probably good enough.

    Remember that we're looking at rosters on paper, so the SEC obviously isn't going to have seven teams in the Top 15. It might not have seven in the Top 25. Some teams don't develop talent properly in the offseason; others have injury woes, and sometimes guys just don't play as well as we expect them too.

    That's the beauty of college football: it's unpredictable.

    But simply based on the number of teams that are expected to be good, the SEC has the best chance to be represented in the playoff.

    The final question you have to ask yourself is this: Can you really envision a scenario where the winner of the SEC isn't involved? Unless that team inexplicably has three losses or more, it just isn't going to happen with the current state of the conference.


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