The chase for the 2015 College Football Playoff will begin in earnest Thursday when a handful of teams hit the field for the season opener. But of the 128 FBS programs, maybe only a dozen or so realistically may be considered in the hunt for the four playoff spots.
The selection committee gave us a pretty good idea last year on what it’s looking for when it comes to doling out the playoff slots. With that in mind, here’s our forecast of the teams with the best chances of landing in the football version of the Final Four:
Ohio State (14-1 in 2014, No. 1 AP preseason) – The defending national champion is loaded with talent, with 14 starters returning from last year’s title team. As if they need any help, the Buckeyes also are gifted with a soft schedule after a potentially dangerous opener at Virginia Tech.
TCU (12-1, No. 2) – QB Trevone Boykin is back to complete some unfinished business for TCU, which was snubbed of a deserved playoff spot last year and had to settle for a Peach Bowl win and No. 3 final AP ranking. The Frogs will leave nothing to chance and try to run the table this year, with an opportunity to gain revenge on Baylor at home.
Oregon (13-2, No. 7) – It took Eastern Washington graduate transfer Vernon Adams two weeks to win the Ducks’ starting quarterback job and the rest of the Pac-12 should be very concerned. He’s got the ability to replicate what Marcus Mariota has done and put Oregon right back on track for another playoff berth.
Georgia (10-3, No. 9) – While everyone is focused on the ultra-tough SEC West, Georgia looks to have smooth sailing in the SEC East. Thanks to a typical SEC-eque cupcake-filled non-conference schedule, the Bulldogs are well positioned to make a run for not just the conference title – if they can handle Alabama at home.
Alabama (12-2, No. 3) – It’s easy and lazy to peg Alabama as a preseason playoff contender, but have you looked under the hood? The Tide must replace eight starters on offense and once again have an unsettled quarterback position. ‘Bama also has three daunting road games at Georgia, Texas A&M and Auburn. Winning the SEC West is far from a sure thing.
USC (9-4, No. 8) – The Trojans are a chic pick to win the Pac-12 after finally getting unshackled from NCAA sanctions … but then #SarkAfterDark happened. Steve Sarkisian has yet to prove that he’s ready to win big despite an abundance of talent. And even with Heisman favorite QB Cody Kessler, USC still must win at Arizona State, Oregon and Notre Dame (three teams that really don’t suck).
Michigan State (11-2, No. 5) – The Spartans have consistently punched above their weight class in the Mark Dantonio era, winning at least 11 games in four of the past five seasons. But Michigan State just doesn’t have the elite talent necessary to claim a playoff spot even with 14 starters returning.
Notre Dame (8-5, No. 11) – A certain publication has the Irish ranked among the top four, but there’s no legitimacy to such prognostication other than a blatant attempt to sell magazines. Brian Kelly’s team has an unproven quarterback and a defense that gave up nearly 40 points per game in the season’s final eight games. Even with a fairly benign schedule, it’s hard to see this team with any shot at a playoff spot.
Clemson (10-3, No. 12) – Dabo Swinney might finally get over the hump, after having been denied by Florida State a path to the ACC championship in each of the last three years. But there’s reason to believe that #clemoning of some sort is always around the corner to sabotage the season. And in a weak ACC, any conference loss is a #clemsoning.
UCLA (10-3, No. 13) – One rapper went berserk about his kid and crash-landed in the weight room and another rapper’s kid quit before putting on his pads for even one practice. That’s how it went for UCLA’s offseason. Despite all the talk about Jim Mora having rejuvenated the program, the Bruins have yet to win a conference title or play in a major bowl game. Hard to see how 2015 would be any different.
Auburn (8-5, No. 6) – The Tigers are better when they sneak up on people, like in 2004, 2010 and last year. When they are highly ranked in the preseason, they don’t usually fare well. That trend should continue as Gus Malzahn will have to completely retool an offense that needs to replace its quarterback and also the top runner and receiver.
Florida State (13-1, No. 10) – There’s no real reason to expect Florida State to replicate what it’s accomplished in the past three seasons, namely going 39-3 and win a national championship. Besides the huge question mark at quarterback, the Noles also lost half of their starters on both sides of the ball.
LSU (8-5, No. 14) – Make no mistake, Les Miles’ Tigers have grossly underachieved since going to the BCS title game in 2011. LSU has lost to Alabama in their last four encounters and hasn’t come close to winning the SEC West in the past three seasons. Despite an abundance of talent, the Tigers are a longshot to suddenly turn the page.
Baylor (11-2, No. 4) – The Bears’ offeseason has been imploded by the Sam Ukwuachu controversy and Art Briles will have a difficult time to manage this huge perception crisis. Remember, the committee is all about being subjective. Combine this debacle with Baylor’s unabashed patsy-filled non-conference schedule it means short of being picture perfect (in record and form), Baylor would be in danger of being left out of the playoff again.
BYU (8-5, Unranked) – While there’s plenty of talk about Notre Dame, the independent program that might end up crashing the playoff party is BYU. Of course it’s very unlikely, but with a healthy QB Taysom Hill, the Cougars have enough schedule juice to make some noise. If they can run the table with a slate that includes four Power 5 teams and also Boise State, coupled with several conference champions that have multiple losses, there’s a chance …