Preseason Projection: Florida State, Alabama among four to qualify for College Football Playoff

Stanford head coach David Shaw hopes to get his Cardinal into the playoff. (Photo: SportsSouthwest.com)

Stanford head coach David Shaw hopes to get his Cardinal into the playoff. (Photo: SportsSouthwest.com)

Daniel Evans has ranked among f the nation’s top bracketologists in predicting which 68 teams will make the NCAA Tournament over the last decade, and now he’s trying his hand at projecting the college football playoff. 

With the college football season kicking off tomorrow, below is my best guess at the four teams that will qualify for the college football playoff.

Each week I will have change my predictions as upsets occur and unexpected teams rise to the top.

Florida State: The Seminoles will likely be compared to their 2013 season when a soft schedule allowed the nation’s best team to win every regular season game by 14 points or more. The 2014 schedule isn’t  much tougher, but at least it provides potential out of conference tests  against Oklahoma State and a much healthier Florida. A road game at Louisville on the eve of Halloween is also a tad spooky, as well as a home contest against Notre Dame, who figures to improve on last season’s mediocre campaign. I see Florida State losing a game but winning the ACC and making the playoff anyways.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide will get more benefit of the doubt than any team in the country when it comes to forgiving a regular season loss. If you don’t believe me, take a look at how last season ended. Alabama lost its last two games of the season and moved up in the rankings from the final poll of 2013 to the preseason poll of 2014. Oklahoma, a team that gave Alabama fits in the Sugar Bowl, is even ranked behind the Crimson Tide. I’m okay with that, because it’s what happens when a team has as much talent and has won as many national titles as Alabama has under Nick Saban, but I think it’s important to keep in mind as the season plays out. I think Alabama has to lose twice to not make the playoff, or an extenuating circumstance has to take place like four other teams going undefeated or the Crimson Tide losing to a team it shouldn’t.

Oklahoma: Although many are, I’m still not on the Trevor Knight bandwagon and won’t be unless he can back up his performance in the Sugar Bowl last year. However, Oklahoma’s schedule is too manageable to ignore. The Sooners only road games are at Tulsa, at TCU, at Iowa State and at Texas Tech. Texas is still not expected to be a title contender and Oklahoma State and Tennssee are expected  to be down. If Oklahoma can win against Baylor in Stillwater in early November, I like the Sooners chances of being in the playoff.

Stanford: The schedule does not set up well for the Cardinal so this prediction is more about believing in what Jim Harbaugh and now David Shaw have built at Stanford. In order to win the Pac 12, Stanford will have to navigate a schedule that includes road games at Washington, at Notre Dame, at Arizona State, at Oregon, at California and at UCLA. Plus, the Cardinal play USC and Oregon State at home. The Pac 12 is going to be tough, but somebody from the conference is likely to maneuver their way through with one loss or less. Oregon is a good pick for this spot and so is Michigan State, but one of those teams will be all but out of the running after week two when they play each other in Eugene.

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National Title Picture: Florida State, Oklahoma State are intriguing darkhorses

ajmccarron590x250We are now three weeks into the college football season, meaning there’s too many games to go to start previewing potential national championship games. ESPN.com has already written an article based around an Alabama vs. Oregon championship game, referencing it as the game all college football fans want to see.

Maybe it is. Perhaps its the game we are going to see, but let’s calm down a little bit.

Instead of looking at one potential matchup, let’s look at the frontrunners to play in the national title game.  The BCS standings won’t come out for over a month from now, but that doesn’t mean the national championship race isn’t clearing up a little bit. After Alabama’s win against Texas A&M, it is clear once again that Alabama is the team everyone is chasing.

Let’s take a look at how the picture is coming into focus (albeit slowly):

 

The two teams to beat

Alabama Crimson Tide (2-0): Obviously, Alabama is the team to beat. The Crimson Tide have already survived arguably their toughest test of the season, although Alabama did give up 628 yards to Texas A&M. Can LSU beat Alabama on in Tuscaloosa Sept. 9? If not, can Ole Miss upset the Tide in Tuscaloosa? Or can Auburn pull the upset to end the season at Jordan Hare Stadium? Isn’t it hard to see Tennessee, Arkansas or Mississippi State pulling the upset?

Three toughest tests remaining:vs.  No. 21 Ole Miss (Sept. 28), vs. No. 9 LSU (Nov. 9), at Auburn (Nov. 30)

Oregon Ducks (3-0): There was a small group of people out there who felt Oregon’s run was over when Chip Kelly departed for the NFL. Too bad. The Ducks rolled Tennessee on Saturday and probably could’ve scored 75 points if they’d really wanted to. Maybe 100. Like Alabama’s, it’s hard to find too many teams that can challenge the Ducks. Can California or Colorado pull the upset the next two weeks? It’s probably unlikely. Washington, UCLA, and Stanford seem like the toughest teams left on the schedule.

Three toughest tests remaining:at Washington (Oct. 12), vs. UCLA (October 26), at Stanford (Nov. 7)

 

Next in line

Ohio State Buckeyes (3-0): If Ohio State can beat California like a drum without Braxton Miller, imagine what the Buckeyes might do to the rest of the Big Ten? You know, the conference that saw Nebraska blow an 18 point lead at home and get routed, saw Wisconsin lose at Arizona State, Penn State fall to UCF, and Michigan State — perhaps the conference’s second best team — couldn’t score points on Texas A&M’s defense.

Clemson Tigers (2-0): It’s almost unfair how the media, including myself are treating the Tigers. In sports, it’s like watching the Dallas Cowboys with a trip to the playoffs on the line. Tony Romo has looked so good the entire game, heck the entire season, but you know the Cowboys are probably going to screw it up somewhere. It all changes in an instant too. The Tigers knocked off Georgia to raise expectations to an unbelievable level in Death Valley, but nobody is brave enough to declare the Tigers as a team to beat because  we’re all expecting a train wreck performance against North Carolina State, Maryland or some other team the Tigers should roll over.
Untested, but on the right track

Stanford Cardinal (2-0): Obviously, the Cardinal isn’t going to get style points for the way they’ve won against San Jose State and Army, but along with Alabama, Stanford has been the most consistent program in the country over the last four years. This week a trip to Arizona State should show everyone just how ready Stanford is to take the next step as a program. We’ve all ranked the Cardinal high. Everyone is buying the hype, but yet Stanford hasn’t impressed me at all this year so far.

Louisville Cardinals (3-0): If the Cardinals play for the national championship, I feel like many people won’t watch it. That’s no disrespect to Louisville head coach Charlie Strong, who I am a big fan of, but the Cardinals play a middle school schedule this season. The American Athletic Conference is about as tough as a group of the nearest eight junior varsity teams in your proximity. It’s a joke. That isn’t Louisville’s fault, but the Cardinals non-conference schedule is the Cardinals fault and in the end they will be punished for it. If Louisville goes 12-0, let’s put the Cardinals in a BCS game and congratulate them on the best year in school history, but let’s not throw into a championship game designed for teams that have proven they are worthy to be there.

LSU Tigers (3-0): Starting this week, we get to start finding out how good LSU actually is. A win against TCU looked nice, but the Horned Frogs do not appear to be anything more than a Big 12 also-ran this season. Still, we should pat the Tigers on the back for taking that game. LSU takes on Auburn this week, followed by a huge game against Georgia, who is already past its annual “screw up somewhere early” part of its schedule and is in the homeward stretch.

 

The darkhorses

Florida State (2-0): The Seminoles are my top darkhorse to play for the national title, because there is a ton of upside here. Florida State has Jameis Winston at quarterback, who still has a lot of growing to do as a passer. Imagine how good the Seminoles might be in five or six weeks when Winston starts to figure it out and continues to run the ball effectively. Before a game at Clemson Oct. 19, it is really hard to see anyone even challenging the ‘Noles.

UCLA (2-0): Saturday’s win in Lincoln confirmed what many football fans — including myself — already knew. Brett Hundley is really good. He has thrown for 568 yards and five touchdowns, while also running for two scores in the Bruins two games this season. There’s a reason why he’s my darkhorse Heisman pick. The problem with a potential Cinderella national title run for the Bruins is that UCLA plays Stanford and Oregon on the road in back to back weeks. Ouch! I don’t like UCLA’s chances, but they still make a great darkhorse pick, with Hundley at quarterback and an improving defense. Plus, not many teams could come back from 18 down at Nebraska and still win in a rout.

Oklahoma State: I’m starting to see a very manageable schedule for the Cowboys. Texas is softer than my pillow wrapped in bird feathers and a silk sheet. Kansas State has already lost to North Dakota State. Texas Tech isn’t scoring like Texas Tech. TCU couldn’t beat Texas Tech. West Virginia couldn’t win against an Oklahoma team that acts like finding the endzone is as trying as solving the riddle on “Whodunnit?“. Baylor can score, but can the Bears gets enough stops to beat good teams? Have I called out the entire Big 12 yet? The Cowboys schedule is very open to an undefeated run. They’ll be favored in every single game the rest of the way and the more I write about it, the more I like it. You read it here first, the Cowboys are very dangerous.

 

The one loss teams still in the picture

Georgia (1-1): The Bulldogs are officially out of their initial first game swoon, where they all but eliminate themselves from serious national title discussion before nearly winning out to get everyone excited and wondering what might’ve been. Next week’s game against LSU is huge. If Georgia wins it, the Bulldogs bandwagon will fill up very quickly.

Texas A&M Aggies (2-1): Isn’t it scary to think about how good Johnny Manziel’s team would be if they had a defense? Wow. But the Aggies don’t and won’t have a great defense this year, so as fun as it is, that discussion is really pointless. Can Manziel outscore everyone the rest of the season and then catch a few breaks from many other contenders? If they can, maybe they can get a rematch with Alabama for the title game (one I think even SEC haters would welcome) or win the SEC West off of a tiebreaker.

South Carolina Gamecocks (2-1): South Carolina is in the same shape as Texas A&M, except the Gamecocks defense isn’t as good and the offense doesn’t have Johnny Manziel or anyone on the same planet as him. A lot of help is needed, but SEC teams have shown that they can overcome a loss and still play for the national championship if all the pieces fall correctly down the stretch.

Florida Gators (1-1): With Florida’s offense, I wouldn’t hold my breathe, but there is a lot of season to go. The Gators may have the nation’s best defense.

 

Others deserving mention

Oklahoma, Miami (FL), Michigan

Point After Touchdown: Murray Shuts Up Critics, Texas Embarrassed

The Point After Touchdown for this week breaks down Georgia and Miami (FL)’s big win and looks at whether it’s time for Texas head coach Mack Brown to step aside.

WHO’S HATING NOW: Georgia’s Aaron Murray has heard it all in his career. He’s been unable to consistently win against top 10 teams and going into Saturday he still had not won against South Carolina in his career. Plus, the Bulldogs were coming off of an opening loss to Clemson and hoping to avoid an 0-2 start that would end their national championship hopes before they could even get started.

Following Georgia 41-30 victory over South Carolina Saturday, Murray’s critics will probably be hard to find. Not only has he played extremely well through two weeks, but he’s also shown Georgia’s SEC East rivals that they are the class of the division.

HURRICANE REVIVAL: Speaking of those rivals, Florida dominated Miami (FL) in every aspect of the game on Saturday but on the scoreboard. The Gators got into the redzone seven times, but only scored two touchdowns. Jeff Driskel made two of the most bonehead throws you will ever see a junior make, considering Driskel has played in nearly every game since his freshman year.

The ‘Canes deserve a lot of credit for coming up big in the redzone and Miami’s crowd was as loud as I’ve ever it. Good for them. Those fans haven’t had anything major to cheer about in quite a while, so they should celebrate.

Head coach Al Golden has clearly turned the program around and Miami will jump into the top 25 this weekend.

UNDER THE LIGHTS: Michigan pulled away from Notre Dame 41-30 to win the rivalry’s last scheduled game in the Big House. Devin Gardner threw four touchdown passes and ran for a fifth score as the Wolverines showed they warrant a top 10 ranking.

Michigan’s schedule looks very underwhelming at this point too. The Wolverines play Akron, at Connecticut, Minnesota, at Penn State, Indiana, at Michigan, vs. Nebraska, at Northwestern, and at Iowa. In other words, they’ll be favored to win every game down the stretch before they meet Braxton Miller and Ohio State.

BYU ran through, around, and over Texas in a 40-21 romp on Saturday night. (Picture: VictoriaAdvocate.com)

BYU ran through, around, and over Texas in a 40-21 romp on Saturday night. (Picture: VictoriaAdvocate.com)

SHOULD BROWN GO?: I’ve been one Texas head coach Mack Brown’s biggest supporters the last few seasons as the Longhorns attempt to rebuild themselves into a national championship contender, but Saturday night reached my breaking point. I think it’s time for him to step down and let someone else attempt to revive the program.

I say that because I have no explanation for Texas’ 40-21 loss to a BYU team that lost to Virginia last week. The Cougars ran for 550 yards. That’s not a typo. 550 yards. How does that happen when Texas has better and bigger athletes? That should never happen. Hell, Wisconsin shouldn’t even be able to run for 550 yards on Tennessee Tech. And they didn’t. The Badgers went for 387 yards. Even Baylor in a 70-13 romp over Buffalo only ran for 329 yards, despite 55 attempts. Texas should be ashamed of its loss – not because they lost, but because they showed a lack of effort.

I NEVER THOUGHT I’D SEE THE DAY: Mike Leach’s Washington State Cougars pulled one of the nation’s biggest upsets Saturday, beating offensively challenged USC 10-7. Here’s the kicker: The Cougars did it without scoring an offensive touchdown. There was a time when even Leach’s biggest fans would tell you that his defense would stop him from getting a team to the national title game, but now that side of the ball is clearly carrying a team that cannot score points. Good for the Cougars.

On the other side, Lane Kiffin’s seat is so hot that he might as well just get out of the car. Kiffin has proven that he can’t field a consistently great team at USC, which is what fans demand. He can point to the NCAA probation and restriction of scholarships if he wants, but Leach had a tougher rebuilding job at Washington State than Kiffin had at USC. Although it isn’t by much, it’s already clear that the Cougars are better than the Trojans. How can that be possible? It’s time for Kiffin to go.

IT’S TIME TO WORRY: Oklahoma’s offense is among the national relevant teams struggling to score points. The Sooners won 16-7 over West Virginia,  although the Sooners failed to put points on the board most of the night. Quarterback Trevor Knight was awful, going 10 of 20 for 119 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.

Michigan State is in the same boat. The Spartans could only score 21 points against a South Florida team that gave up 53 points to McNeese State last weekend. Out of Michigan State’s six touchdowns this season, the defense has scored four of them. At Notre Dame in two weeks, the Spartans will likely need to put points on the board with their offense to win.

Weekend Picks: Michigan Will Defeat Notre Dame

Saturday’s Picks:

Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner gets sacked by a Notre Dame defender during last season's Notre Dame-Michigan game. (Picture: Zimbio.com)

Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner gets sacked by a Notre Dame defender during last season’s Notre Dame-Michigan game. (Picture: Zimbio.com)

No. 14 Notre Dame at No. 17 Michigan
Anyone that doesn’t believe this is a rivalry should be forced to sit in a chair and watch how the last few matchups have gone. Games between the Irish and Wolverines always seem to come down to the final play. This year’s game will likely be no different. Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees was impressive against Temple and the Irish defense was able to keep the Owls from doing a lot of damage on the scoreboard. Meanwhile, Devin Gardner at Michigan didn’t have to do much in the Wolverines big win over Central Michigan.

I’m going to be honest — Devin Gardner scares the heck out of me in this game. He is an improved passer over Denard Robinson, but so are 99.9% of college quarterbacks. Gardner seems to have a tendency to turn the football over, but in all honesty he’s only thrown interceptions on 6% of his attempts in his career. A closer look at the numbers also reveals that on third and long (3 & 6 or longer) he was 10 of 17 last season for 187 yards, six touchdowns and one interception.

So what scares me?

He doesn’t play as well in the fourth quarter as he does in other parts of the game. Last season, Gardner threw nine touchdowns and two interceptions in quarters 1-3, but int he fourth quarter he turned it over more than he threw touchdowns (2 TDs, 3 INTs). He also saw his running averages drop off significantly, although his sacks didn’t go up in the final quarter.

Even despite all that, I’m taking the Wolverines to win. Not only is Michigan at home, but they also are more talented than Notre Dame. Gardner is the one player on the field that can change the game at any point. Rees is capable of making big throws and senior receiver T. J. Jones and junior DaVaris Daniels can make plays in the passing game, but it won’t be enough Saturday night.

The pick: Michigan 31, Notre Dame 27

 

No. 12 Florida at Miami (FL)
The Hurricanes have had the Gators number for years, although Florida won the last matchup over an overmatched Miami team coached by Randy Shannon. This is Al Golden’s shot to prove Miami is back on the national stage and it wouldn’t surprise me if Duke Johnson finds open running lanes to give the ‘Canes an early lead. However, Florida is the type of team that gives Miami fits. They have a veteran running back in Matt Jones, who finally sounds healthy after missing the Gators opener, a smart quarterback in Jeff Driskel who typically doesn’t turn the ball over and an offensive line that should win the battle against Miami’s defensive line.

The pick: Florida 27, Miami 23

 

No. 2 Oregon at Virginia
As impressive as Virginia’s opening win against BYU was, the truth is that the Cougars probably outplayed the Cavaliers in that game. BYU outgained Virginia 362 yards to 223.  Unfortunately for BYU, they don’t have DeAnthony Thomas and Marcus Mariota. Fortunately for Oregon, they do. If the Cavaliers gave up 175 passing yards to Cougars sophomore quarterback Taysom Hill, imagine what they might allow to Mariota. Ouch.

The pick: Oregon 58, Virginia 12

 

No. 6 South Carolina at No. 11 Georgia
Anyone bashing Georgia for losing to Clemson last week should check their team’s schedule to see who they played. Nobody played a tougher first week opponent than Georgia, considering they had to travel to Death Valley and take on a Tigers team itching for its second straight win over a SEC team. Bulldogs fans should cheer up. We’ve seen Georgia lose games early in seasons before, only to be discounted and find its way back into the national title discussion. I’ve gone back and forth a thousand times on this game, but eventually good sense hit me. South Carolina is talented and Jadeveon Clowney is scary, but Georgia is more talented and at home. I’ll even forgive Aaron Murray for the goose eggs he lays against top 10 teams if the Bulldogs find a way to make this prediction right.

Georgia 27, South Carolina 21

 

Other Predictions for Saturday:
Cincinnati 52, Illinois 31
No. 19 Northwestern 31, Syracuse 28
No. 16 Oklahoma 45, West Virginia 10
No. 3 Ohio State 48, San Diego State 7
Oregon State 31, Hawaii 10

Big Board: Geno Smith Quickly Rising On Draft Boards

Below is Daniel Evans big board for the 2012 NFL Draft. Matt Barkley is still No. 1, but the story is West Virginia’s Geno Smith. Smith has jumped from off the board in the preseason to nearly the top of it.

1. QB Matt Barkley

Barkley has not had the senior season that many expected thus far, but he still makes NFL scouts drool. He has a big arm, has played in a NFL offense, and is going to be taken early in the 2013 NFL Draft.

2. QB Geno Smith

Geno Smith isn’t this high on most draft boards yet, but he is clearly a big arm guy that is starting to entice scouts. He may end up winning the Heisman Trophy and then going in the top ten of the NFL Draft (or higher).

3. LB Jarvis Jones

Jones has been so impressive early in this college football season that many publications are listing him as a Heisman Trophy candidate.

 4. CB DeMarcus Milliner

Alabama’s top cornerback is flying up draft boards right now. He was very impressive against Ole Miss on Saturday night.

5. DE Barkevious Mingo

Mingo has not done anything to slide down draft boards this season. Right now he looks like the top defensive end prospect for the 2013 NFL Draft.

6. LB Manti Te’o

T’eo has had a tough season off the field, but has been instrumental for the Irish defense. 

7. DT Johnathan Hankins

Hankins is a gigantic defensive tackle that could become the run stopper that NFL scouts dream about finding in the draft.        

8. CB Johnathan Banks

I think at this point Banks is the player that most NFL scouts are underrating. He makes big plays when he gets his hands on the football and he seems to always be near the ball. 

9. DE Bjoern Werner

Werner is leading the nation in sacks five weeks in. He has been one of the most impressive players in the country and is flying up draft boards.

10. DT Johnathan Jenkins

Like his counterpart, Hankins from Ohio State, Jenkins is a massive body that can shut down an opponent’s entire running game.

11. DE Sam Montgomery

LSU’s other defensive end is rated slightly lower than Mingo, but still figures to be a top 15 pick in the draft. Teams see him as a guy that can work in any defense.

12. DT Star Lotulelei

Scouts rave about Lotulelei because he is super impressive on video tape. His biggest challenge might be the other three defensive tackles in this draft. All have the talent to be top five picks.

13. OT Luke Joeckel

Joeckel is the first offensive tackle on the big board, although this position is typically where you see quick risers. Joeckel is described by most as a guy with great technique.        

14. C/G Barrett Jones

I feel like eventually scouts will wake up and realize that Jones’ versatility to play three offensive line positions with hardly any issues is a huge plus. NFL lineman are moved around constantly due to injuries.          

15. WR Justin Hunter

Before the season, I had Hunter on my big board. He isn’t 100% back from his ACL injury, but his potential is through the roof.

16. CB David Amerson

Amerson was picked on by Tyler Bray in N. C. State’s opening game, but his talent shines through one underwhelming performance.

17. G Chance Warmack

Warmack is one of the best offensive lineman in the country. He is looking more and more like a first round pick.

18. WR Keenan Allen

Some scouts believe Allen is the top receiver prospect in the draft. I’ll take Hunter, who has bigger upside, although Allen has better collegiate production so far.

19. DE Corey Lemonier

Auburn has been terrible this season, but Corey Lemonier has been one of the bright spots. He is a fantastic speed rusher that has a skillset that translates well at the NFL level.         

20. DE Alex Okafor

Okafor already has four sacks this season on a Texas defense that has been relatively underwhelming thus far.

21. DT Kawaan Short

Short has looked like a first round pick since midway through 2011 and he has continued to impress this year. He played really well against Notre Dame.

22. WR Robert Woods

Woods has all the talent in the world, although his teammate Marquise Lee is the better pro prospect.

23. S Eric Reid

Reid continues to look like the top safety prospect for the draft.

24. RB Marcus Lattimore

The South Carolina running back is fully back from his ACL injury. No other running back available runs with the power he does. He can truly carry a workload.

25. RB Le’Veon Bell

Bell is a lot like Lattimore, except he is carrying an entire offense right now. Bell does not have a passing game to take pressure off of him like Lattimore does at times with Connor Shaw.