Post-National Signing Day College Football Playoff Predictions
The next College Football Playoff field is still about 10 months away from being finalized. Is predicting said field post-national signing day looking too far ahead?
Not when you're playing with house money—or, Internet immunity, as I like to call it. Plus, spring practices have yet to kick off en masse. We have to fill the void somehow.
It's also the rare time of year when things are generally perfect. Every team is undefeated, there are no serious injuries and incoming freshmen are still batting 1.000 on eligibility.
With all of those things in mind, plus key games and returning starters and coaches, let's peek ahead to what the next four-team playoff field could look like.
We'll all have one big laugh later about it anyway.
No. 1 Ohio State
The defending national champions are a no-brainer for this way-too-early list. The Buckeyes return far too much star power, especially at quarterback, for them not to be.
Ohio State's QB battle will be bar none the most watched of any position or team this offseason. It's not your garden variety quarterback controversy, either. Actually, it isn't even a controversy as much as it is a Hollywood thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat until the ending is revealed.
(Spoiler alert: Bruce Willis was dead the whole time.)
Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones could all lead Ohio State to another playoff appearance and scoop up some individual accolades along the way. The supporting cast around them is rock solid too: an intact offensive line, running back Ezekiel Elliott, defensive end Joey Bosa and linebacker Darron Lee.
Ohio State's '15 signing class was excellent, finishing sixth in the country, according to 247Sports' composite rankings. However, the way the depth chart figures to shake out, few of those players will likely be asked to contribute heavily right away. The biggest question mark is which player steps up as the No. 1 wide receiver.
The Buckeyes start the season with a chance for redemption at Virginia Tech but have few tests until late in the year. In all, everything sets up for Ohio State to start fast and finish strong.
No. 2 TCU
If there was one team that had a legitimate beef with the selection committee last year, it was TCU. That's not to say the Horned Frogs got "robbed" of a playoff spot, but it's understandable that they have a few questions for the folks who dropped them three spots in one week—after a convincing win against Iowa State, no less—to end the season.
The Frogs are possibly an intriguing playoff team in 2015 for one big reason: Schedule-wise, almost nothing changes from the year before. TCU still plays the round-robin, nine-game Big 12 slate; the only major difference is that this time around, Gary Patterson's team will travel to Minnesota for its key nonconference game.
So why would TCU get the benefit now? For one, the Frogs won't be sneaking up on anyone. Quite the contrary, don't be surprised if this team is the Big 12 preseason favorite. Last year's final four was full of brand-name programs. If TCU enters late November with double-digit wins, it'll show it has some staying power.
That leads to another point: The Nov. 27 game at home against Baylor has Big 12 game of the year written all over it. It's an opportunity for TCU to finish strong since it doesn't have a game in the first weekend in December.
The Frogs return practically their entire offense—an offense that averaged 46.5 points per game in '14, mind you. It's the defense, of all things, that presents TCU with its biggest question mark. In addition to key losses at all three levels, David Ubben of Fox Sports Southwest reported that defensive coordinator Dick Bumpas, who has been alongside Patterson a long time, is retiring.
TCU should be one of the most exciting teams to watch. Can it get through its schedule unblemished?
No. 3 Auburn
Here's the thing about finding a "surprise" playoff team: It still has to fit a certain mold. So-called "playoff busters" like Boise State or BYU have such an uphill road to climb. And while sexy preseason playoff teams have certain pieces in place, like a returning quarterback, a surprise team comes out of nowhere with emerging stars.
Auburn checks off a lot of those boxes, which is why the Tigers have a legitimate shot to make a playoff run coming off of an 8-5 season.
The Tigers lose three main pieces from their offense: quarterback Nick Marshall, running back Cameron Artis-Payne and receiver Sammie Coates. But is there anyone really worried about head coach Gus Malzahn's ability to replace those guys? Jeremy Johnson looked slick in limited time as Marshall's backup and will be the cornerstone of a more pass-friendly attack.
"We're definitely going to emphasize the pass game more," Auburn co-offensive coordinator Dameyune Craig told Brandon Marcello of AL.com. "That means the ball will be spread out a little bit more than it has in the past. I think the receivers will prosper from Jeremy Johnson's emergence as quarterback next year. I'm excited about it, the receivers are excited about it and I think the fans are excited about this new era in Auburn football."
The X-factor is the defense, led by new coordinator Will Muschamp. The former Florida head coach already put in work on signing day by getting guys like 5-star defensive end Byron Cowart who could provide immediate help. Can Muschamp transform a defense that ranked ninth or lower in the SEC in every major category? The good news is that, for as good as Auburn's offense can be, Muschamp doesn't have to work miracles right away.
With Alabama replacing so much on offense, the SEC West has a more wide-open feel to it in 2015. That seems like a good time for the Tigers to make a move.
No. 4 Oregon
Yes, Oregon gets back to the playoff without star quarterback Marcus Mariota. Why? Hello, grad transfer Vernon Adams.
The former Eastern Washington quarterback makes a rare, significant jump up to the Football Bowl Subdivision level. But don't let his small-school resume (and small frame) deter you. As George Schroeder of USA Today tweets, Adams can straight-up play.
In his three seasons at Eastern Washington, Adams threw for 10,438 yards and 110 touchdowns. He also rushed for another 1,232 yards and 11 touchdowns. While he may not have been guaranteed the starting job, he should enter the '15 season with a strong case to grab it.
Replacing Mariota isn't an easy task, but Adams could be that plug-in piece the Ducks need to make another playoff run. If Oregon can get a key road win at Michigan State on Sept. 12, it will have an important nonconference victory to add to the playoff resume.
The one area that isn't getting as much attention is the attrition along the offensive line, which loses three seniors, per OurLads.com. Playing the Spartans with a new quarterback and fairly new O-line will be a huge test right off the bat.
Orange Bowl: Ohio State vs. Oregon
Hey, you like rematches, right? Well, even if you don't, the Orange Bowl would be a rematch of last season's national championship between Ohio State and Oregon.
Unfortunately for the Ducks, a new year doesn't equal new outcomes.
Nightmares of Ezekiel Elliott rushing for 246 yards come back to haunt Oregon again, as Elliott puts up 190 yards and three touchdowns. Meanwhile, Adams is corralled enough by Buckeyes defensive end Joey Bosa and linebacker Darron Lee.
Adams' athleticism does extend several Oregon drives, and that leads to some more points. In the end, though, it's not enough. Ohio State outmuscles Oregon again to head back to the national championship.
Final Score Prediction: Ohio State 45, Oregon 35
Cotton Bowl: TCU vs. Auburn
Holy touchdowns, Batman.
This last season's Cotton Bowl between Michigan State and Baylor was wildly entertaining, as the Spartans rallied from 20 points down to beat Baylor 42-41. The Cotton Bowl as a semifinal game could match that excitement, if not exceed it.
TCU and Auburn are two teams with a lot of similarities: potent offenses with defenses under new coordinators. Put them on a fast track indoors with time to prepare and creative minds will rule the day. Trick plays, chunk yardage—the Cotton Bowl should have it all.
Even though the Frogs have to replace a lot of key names on defense—defensive tackle Chucky Hunter and safety Chris Hackett among them—head coach Gary Patterson has shown he can implement a next-guy-up strategy successfully.
Offensive fireworks dominate the first half, and a little more defense controls the second. In the end, TCU makes one more stop than Auburn.
Final Score Prediction: TCU 42, Auburn 38
National Championship: Ohio State vs. TCU
Let's get one thing straight: It's hard—super hard—to win back-to-back championship games. Only Alabama did so (in 2011 and '12) in the BCS era.
If Ohio State were to repeat as playoff champs, it would put the Buckeyes in elite company. That said, Urban Meyer has the team (and program) to do it. Had it not been for a postseason ban in 2012, Meyer could, theoretically, already have two national titles under his belt.
The question for TCU will be whether it can do what Oregon could not: stop Ezekiel Elliott in the ground game. The Frogs have led the Big 12 in yards per rush allowed each of the three years the team has been in the conference.
This is where having multiple game-changing quarterbacks could be huge for Ohio State. Perhaps the Frogs could match up with J.T. Barrett and the speed of Braxton Miller—but could they handle the power of Cardale Jones in some package situations?
This isn't to suggest Ohio State would play quarterback roulette, but TCU could have a lot more to prepare for than it anticipates.
Final Score Prediction: Ohio State 35, TCU 26