Bold Projections for College Football's Final 4 for 2015-16 Season

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistApril 6, 2015

Bold Projections for College Football's Final 4 for 2015-16 Season

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Earlier this offseason, I made way-too-early predictions for the 2015-16 College Football Playoff.

    My predictions veered from chalk—how many people have Clemson over Florida State?—but were still, for the most part, conservative. Baylor won the Big 12. Ohio State won the Big Ten. The Buckeyes repeated as national champions, and Auburn, for the second time in three years, became the national runner-up.

    In the following set of projections, I have slightly tweaked the boldness setting. I haven't dialed the meter up to 10—sorry, Indiana fans—but rather to a cool six or seven. These aren't wild, crazy, hell-raising projections; they are bold but realistic scenarios.

    Will they happen? Probably not.

    But can they? You'd better believe it.

    This is still, after all, college football.

No. 4 Seed

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    Tennessee (11-2)

    The best team in the SEC won't necessarily win the SEC. Auburn and Alabama possess more talent than Tennessee, but the Vols boast an advantage they do not: playing in the SEC East. They also boast a proven star quarterback, Joshua Dobbs, while the Crimson Tide and Tigers lose Blake Sims and Nick Marshall, respectively.

    Assuming they lose a road game at Alabama, their only other road games look winnable: at Florida, Kentucky and Missouri. A young roster with astronomical upside can ride Neyland Stadium to wins over Oklahoma, Arkansas, Georgia and South Carolina. At that point, all it would need is one win—60 strong minutes—in the SEC Championship Game to finish 12-1 and secure a playoff berth.

    Even if the Vols drop a second game—as long as it's against anyone but Georgia—an 11-2 SEC champion would sneak into the playoff.

No. 3 Seed

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    Oklahoma State (11-1)

    Oklahoma State lost six games last season, but it appeared to fix its struggles late. According to Bill Connelly of Football Study Hall, the Cowboys ranked No. 114 in the country from Week 9 to 12, but they improved to No. 37 in the three games that followed.

    Ending on a high note, with wins over Oklahoma and Washington, meant a lot for such a young roster. Oklahoma State returns eight starters on each side of the ball, chief among them quarterback Mason Rudolph, who looked like a future star against the Sooners and the Huskies. He played so well, in fact, that Odds Shark lists him among the Top 25 Heisman Trophy favorites.

    Also of note: The Cowboys get Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma—the three best teams in the Big 12—in Stillwater. Holding serve at home, along with road trips to Central Michigan, Texas, West Virginia and Texas Tech, is all that stands between OSU and a 12-0 record.

    Even allowing one slip-up, the schedule bodes well.

No. 2 Seed

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    Tony Ding/Associated Press

    Michigan (12-1)

    Wait. I swear I'm not crazy. Just…just hear me out.

    I know how bad this team looked last season. It finished 5-7 but easily could have lost nine games. It deserved to miss the postseason.

    Know who else deserved to miss the postseason? Auburn in 2012. The Tigers finished 3-9, fired head coach Gene Chizik, hired their No. 1 replacement (Gus Malzahn), watched him work magic on a roster filled with blue-chip recruits, beat their biggest rival/the defending national champion (Alabama) in the regular-season finale, won the SEC Championship Game and played for the national title.

    The Wolverines already fired head coach Brady Hoke and hired their No. 1 replacement (Jim Harbaugh). They boast a roster filled with blue-chip recruits and host their biggest rival/the defending national champion (Ohio State) in the regular-season finale.

    Is it crazy to think Harbaugh can work the same magic as Malzahn? Even Hoke played the Buckeyes close in 2013 and 2014.

    If you laugh this off, you haven't been paying attention.

No. 1 Seed

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    JOE RAYMOND/Associated Press

    Notre Dame (12-0)

    If you got two quarterbacks, you ain't got one.

    False. Notre Dame has two legitimate quarterbacks. Everett Golson has the stronger arm and played like a Heisman candidate for eight weeks last season. Malik Zaire has the stronger legs and played well after Golson became a turnover machine in November.

    Assuming (at least) one QB plays well, Notre Dame is stacked across the board. Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant at running back. Will Fuller and Chris Brown at receiver. Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin on the offensive line. Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones on the defensive line. Jaylon Smith and Jarrett Grace at linebacker. KeiVarae Russell and Max Redfield in the secondary. It's hard to find an area of weakness.

    The only thing that makes this "bold" is the schedule, which includes home games against Texas, Georgia Tech and USC and road games against Virginia, Clemson and Stanford.

    On paper, though, this team can beat anyone.

Cotton Bowl: (2) Michigan vs. (3) Oklahoma State

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    Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

    Harbaugh wasn't the head coach when Oklahoma State beat Stanford in the 2012 Fiesta Bowl, but that Cardinal team, led by former assistant David Shaw, was molded in Harbaugh's image. OSU head coach Mike Gundy knows what it takes to beat a Harbaugh-type opponent.

    In this game, what it takes would include winning the line of scrimmage. Whether Shane Morris or Jake Rudock plays quarterback, Michigan wants to be a run-first team. Offensive coordinator Tim Drevno, Harbaugh's offensive line coach at Stanford and with the San Francisco 49ers, knows how to build a power-running game.

    Assuming Michigan gets this far means assuming Drevno and Harbaugh succeeded. With Ty Isaac (6'3", 240 lbs) and Derrick Green (5'11", 234 lbs) running behind a host of former blue-chip offensive linemen, it's easy to see the running game taking over and Morris or Rudock playing the role of Alex Smith in 2011.

    Does OSU have the bodies to stop that? It won't have faced many power-running games in the Big 12, especially if Lincoln Riley restores the Air Raid at Oklahoma. Defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah, the 2014 Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year, is a pass-rusher more than a run-stuffer—a microcosm of the entire Cowboys D-line.

    Final Score: Michigan 23, Oklahoma State 17

Fiesta Bowl: (1) Notre Dame vs. (4) Tennessee

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    Last year, Tennessee ran an aggressive defense that forced a solid number of turnovers (24) despite allowing occasional big chunks of yardage.

    Next year, with eight returning starters, another year of growth for the underclassmen and a stacked class of incoming freshmen, the Vols can dial back the aggressiveness and play more teams straight up. But they'll still have those aggressive tendencies in their vocabulary.

    Especially if Golson starts at quarterback—which I firmly still believe will happen—the key to beating Notre Dame will be creating pressure and forcing turnovers. We all saw what happened when Florida State, a 13-0 team with turnovers listed as a potential kryptonite, made the CFP last season. It came back to bite them in a big, embarrassing way.

    Defensive end Derek Barnett (10) and outside linebacker Curt Maggitt (11) combined for 21 sacks last season. They both finished inside the national Top 20: Maggitt at No. 12, Barnett at No. 16. With a deeper (and potentially dominant) rotation of defensive tackles beside them, those two will see fewer double-teams in 2015.

    This season, their pressure proves the ultimate difference, forcing a turnover after a late Dobbs touchdown run gives Tennessee a fourth-quarter lead. A pair of first downs on the ensuing possession ices it.

    Final Score: Tennessee 35, Notre Dame 31

CFP Championship Game: (2) Michigan vs. (4) Tennessee

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    Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

    Again, focus falls on the trenches.

    Michigan, we assume, has made it this far on the strength of its downhill running game—the same way Auburn rode Malzahn's uptempo running game to the title game in 2013-14.

    Tennessee, we assume, has made it this far on the strength of its defensive front—a group that, in addition to Barnett and Maggitt on the outside, also boasts two of the biggest incoming freshmen in the country: 5-star defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie (6'3", 354 lbs) and 4-star defensive tackle Shy Tuttle (6'3", 315 lbs).

    But in this case, the deciding battle falls across the line: Michigan's defense vs. Tennessee's offense. The Wolverines, led by Harbaugh, former Florida defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin and retained defensive line coach Greg Mattison, have what it takes to form a strong front seven next season. Otherwise, they wouldn't be here.

    Tennessee's run game, however, would pose an Ohio State-sized threat. The Vols finished No. 32 in adjusted line yards (run blocking) last season, per Football Outsiders, and that was with a crazy young line. Next year, they should finish even higher, which bodes well for blue-chip running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara.

    Odds Shark lists Hurd, the No. 40 overall recruit in 2014, as a Top 30 Heisman candidate. Kamara, an Alabama transfer and the No. 2 JUCO recruit in 2015, has been the early star of spring practice.

    "We know anytime Alvin touches the ball that he can break it," wide receiver Josh Malone said after UT's second spring scrimmage, per Wes Rucker of 247Sports. "As a group of wide receivers, we feel like if we secure the perimeter, he’s gonna have big, big days."

    Last year, Ohio State won the national title in what was billed as a precursor season: a year of supposed talent development, growth and experimentation before a serious national title run in 2015.

    Tennessee enters next year with the exact same expectations.

    Why not the exact same result?

    Final Score: Tennessee 31, Michigan 21

    Note: All recruiting info refers to the 247Sports' composite rankings.

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