College Football Playoff: The Contenders
Florida State OT Cameron Erving
Florida State OT Cameron Erving
Posted Jul 30, 2014

Preview 2014 - The 25 real contenders for the inaugural College Football Playoff are ...?

College Football Playoff

The Preseason Contenders

By Richard Cirminiello  

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While the FBS has swelled to 128 programs, only a tiny fraction of that crowd will begin 2014 with a realistic shot of participating in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Sure, everyone is technically in the running, and a school or two is bound to emerge in October as an improbable. See Auburn just a year ago. But the population of legitimate threats to appear in a semifinal game is around 15-20 programs; maybe a little more since an expanded postseason means perfection may no longer be a prerequisite.

So, who has the best shot of appearing in either Pasadena or New Orleans on New Year’s Day? For this exercise, teams are ranked by their likelihood of reaching the final four, so schedules—as well as talent pool—have been factored into the analysis.

25. Michigan
They’ve got a shot because … there’s a sense of urgency in Ann Arbor and enough playmakers to reverse the decline of the past two seasons under Brady Hoke. The Wolverines will be improved on both sides of the ball, thanks to an abundance of talent on D and to new coordinator Doug Nussmeier’s offensive makeover. Michigan’s roster is much better than last year’s 7-6 mark.
They’ll fall short because … you don’t get better up front by losing both starting tackles, including first-round pick Taylor Lewan. And the Wolverines must do an about-face in the trenches to make strides in the standings. With a trip to East Lansing and Columbus, Michigan probably doesn’t win the Big Ten East, let alone qualify for the playoffs.

24. Kansas State
They’ve got a shot because … every few years Bill Snyder can be counted on to deliver a team that defies odds and blows past forecasts. This could be that kind of a squad in 2014. The Wildcats have momentum from last year’s 6-1 finish, an evolving quarterback in Jake Waters and foundational linemen on both sides of the ball.
They’ll fall short because … the schedule is littered with landmines. Kansas State will no doubt be tough this fall, but there are too many holes for a team that hosts Auburn in September, travels to Norman in October and closes the regular season with a trip to Waco. At best, this is a two-loss season, which will be one too many for a Big 12 member.

23. Nebraska
They’ve got a shot because … the backfield and the defensive front seven are deep enough to finally lead Bo Pelini out of the four-loss rut. With Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross playing ball-control on the ground, and DE Randy Gregory helping control the line of scrimmage, the Huskers have the ingredients of an old-school team that would make Bob Devaney proud.
They’ll fall short because … it’s hard being road warriors with an unproven quarterback under center. Sure, Tommy Armstrong played some last year, but he’s not even close to being ready to navigate a schedule that includes trips to Fresno State, Michigan State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa. And then if all goes well, there’s the Big Ten title game.

22. Iowa
They’ve got a shot because … the schedule is tailor-made for a fast start. Do not be shocked if the Hawkeyes are 10-0 and ranked in the top 5 when Wisconsin and Nebraska visit Kinnick Stadium to close out the regular season. Kirk Ferentz has this team trending in the right direction, led for a change by an offense that’s going to strong-arm opponents.
They’ll fall short because … the Hawkeyes lack the elite talent, LT Brandon Scherff and DT Carl Davis aside, to stack up with Ohio State and Michigan State out of the Big Ten East. While Iowa can absolutely win the West this year, convincing the committee this is one of the four best teams in America will be a very difficult sell.

21. Missouri
They’ve got a shot because … the offensive backfield is going to be very good. The Tigers ought to be just as explosive as they were in 2013 now that QB Maty Mauk is at the controls, and Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy will spearhead the running game. This program turned the corner by winning the SEC East a year ago.
They’ll fall short because … too many key cogs have graduated for the 2014 edition to duplicate the magic of last year’s squad. Mizzou can’t possibly be as prolific as it was in 2013, especially on defense, with a roster undergoing so many personnel changes. Eight D starters are gone, which is a challenging way to enter a season as a member of the SEC East.

20. Ole Miss
They’ve got a shot because … all of last year’s budding stars are now an important year older. After using a bunch of really good rookies in 2013, the Rebels won’t be so inconsistent this fall. Ole Miss gets Bama and Auburn in Oxford, and with LSU and Texas A&M facing lots of turnover, the Rebs are positioned to make a move up the SEC West ladder.
They’ll fall short because … there are too many powerhouse SEC programs ahead of the Rebels. Ole Miss is on the rise, sure, but it remains behind at least four or five teams within its own league. Plus, playing in a conference known for fearsome front sevens, the Rebs’ lack of O-line depth will become a bigger issue as the season unfolds.

19. Clemson
They’ve got a shot because … the defense, especially up front, is capable of carrying this program a long way. Brent Venables’ D will challenge Florida State as the best unit in the ACC. The offense? It remains in the capable hands of coordinator Chad Morris, one of the most inventive and successful offensive teachers at the college level.
They’ll fall short because … beating Florida State and South Carolina won’t happen with an unproven quarterback under center. Senior Cole Stoudt is no slouch, and he’s going to catch a lot of people off guard in 2014. But the Tigers struggled to solve the Noles and the Gamecocks in recent years, and that was when Tajh Boyd was the commander of the attack.

18. Florida
They’ve got a shot because … like Texas, the caliber of players in Gainesville trumps last year’s results on the field. The Gators will again have a championship-caliber D that’s fueled by DE Dante Fowler, LB Antonio Morrison and CB Vernon Hargreaves III. The offense is getting a shot in the arm from the return to health of QB Jeff Driskel and the hiring of coordinator Kurt Roper.
They’ll fall short because … mere improvement on offense won’t be enough to contend for titles. Florida has been downright anemic with the ball in recent years, which won’t be solved by a tweak here and an adjustment there. And as long as this remains an incomplete team, road trips to Alabama and Florida State are going to wind up in the loss column.

17. Texas
They’ve got a shot because … it’s Texas. For all the problems that beset Mack Brown in his final few years, attracting blue-chippers to Austin was not one of them. Now, all of that talent will be in the hands of Charlie Strong, who’s capable of maximizing it in a hurry. The toughness issues that plagued recent Longhorn teams will not be a concern now that Strong is in charge.
They’ll fall short because … the most important player on the roster—QB David Ash—is also one of the most fragile players on the roster. Ash is one of the Horns holding the key to unlocking the team’s ceiling, but recurring concussion concerns will surface every time he absorbs a big hit. New staff plus vulnerable quarterback equals subdued expectations in 2014.

16. Notre Dame
They’ve got a shot because … the quarterback situation is in infinitely better shape than it was in 2013. Everett Golson has served his academic suspension, and Malik Zaire performed this offseason like an emerging star. At long last, the Irish are poised to become a more balanced squad that can win games with something other than just its physical defense.
They’ll fall short because … there are too many new starters to make a playoff push. Yeah, there are a lot of talented players on the Irish roster, thanks to Brian Kelly’s recruiting efforts. But there won’t be enough time to getting everyone acclimated to their roles, especially with a schedule that includes Michigan, Stanford, North Carolina, Florida State, Arizona State, Louisville and USC.

15. USC
They’ve got a shot because … the inherited personnel can carry out rookie head coach Steve Sarkisian’s wish to play a physical brand of football. The Trojans’ deep backfield and star-studded defense will allow the team to outmuscle many opponents. The D, in particular, has a next-level performer at each level, such as DE Leonard Williams, LB Hayes Pullard and CB Josh Shaw.
They’ll fall short because … depth problems remain in effect, especially along a tenuous offensive line. Yeah, Troy is finally out of the NCAA paddy wagon, but recent scholarship limitations will still impact the 2014 team. The schedule presents at least one landmine each month, which will test the Trojans as the bumps and bruises start to accumulate down the stretch.

14. Wisconsin
They’ve got a shot because … the Badgers always have a shot when they can run the ball with some of the best teams in the country. And with Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement running behind yet another bruising veteran line, chunk yards will be commonplace. The Badgers miss Ohio State and Michigan State this year, while Nebraska must travel to Camp Randall.
They’ll fall short because … the defense has too many holes, namely a front seven that needs to be completely rebuilt. Oh, and the middling passing game will really miss WR Jared Abbrederis. The relatively soft schedule means Wisconsin might need to be perfect to earn a playoff bid, and perfection could end quickly with the opener versus LSU.

13. LSU
They’ve got a shot because … the talent is there. The talent is always there in Baton Rouge. Few schools recruit better than LSU, or boast a staff better suited to carry out the next-man-in credo. The Tigers will have a good base to lean on up front and in the secondary as the rest of the team adapts to its new roles.
They’ll fall short because … there’s only so much attrition a school—even LSU—can endure. The Tigers are rebuilding in a number of areas, most notably at quarterback, where Zach Mettenberger leaves a big hole. And rebuilding in the face of a schedule that includes Wisconsin, Mississippi State, Auburn, Florida, Ole Miss, Alabama and Texas A&M means at least two losses.

12. Stanford
They’ve got a shot because … the Cardinal continues to prove, year-after-year, that changes in personnel doesn’t equal a change in expectations. Stanford has won back-to-back Pac-12 titles with outstanding coaching and a proven formula of physicality on both sides of the line. If there’s any drop-off in production or execution on the Farm in 2014, it’ll be undetectable.
They’ll fall short because … the losses to graduation were substantial. Yes, the Cardinal will reload, but it’s tough to replace in one offseason the leadership and know-how of four starting O-linemen and six all-league defenders. Stanford will get no sympathy from a schedule that’s sending it to Seattle, South Bend, Tempe, Eugene and Pasadena for demanding road games.

11. Baylor
They’ve got a shot because … the offense will amass points—and style points—much the way it did a year ago. Art Briles is still in Waco. So, too, are QB Bryce Petty, RB Shock Linwood and one of the best collections of wide receivers in America. Baylor is flush with a head of steam, the likes of which this program has never enjoyed during its long history.
They’ll fall short because … an underrated defense, which was so instrumental to the team’s 2013 Big 12 title, must replace most of last year’s starters. And the secondary endured the biggest hit. Playing in a league not bashful about filling the air with balls, Baylor must now replace All-American S Ahmad Dixon and its three best cornerbacks.

10. Michigan State
They’ve got a shot because … defense still wins championships. And the Spartans will again harbor one of the best defenses in the game. But this is no longer a one-dimensional program. Michigan State returns some of its best offensive personnel in years, led by QB Connor Cook and RB Jeremy Langford, and Ohio State must visit East Lansing on Nov. 8.
They’ll fall short because … the dream is liable to end in Week 2. Autzen Stadium is no ordinary trip for an opponent, especially one that last traveled to Oregon in 1998. On some level, the Spartans will get credit for scheduling the Ducks on the road, but that equity disappears if they’re unable to control Oregon’s speed.

9. South Carolina
They’ve got a shot because … Steve Spurrier has found the groove in Columbia, winning 11 games in each of the last three seasons. The Gamecocks are in the zone, flourishing behind a tough running game and an even tougher defense. Mike Davis is one of the premier backs in the country, and coordinator Lorenzo Ward has shown a knack for retooling defenses on the fly.
They’ll fall short because … the defections are not insignificant. South Carolina will miss standouts like Jadeveon Clowney, Kelcy Quarles, Bruce Ellington and especially QB Connor Shaw. When the committee is really zeroing in on contenders in the second half of the season, the Gamecocks must take road trips to Auburn, Florida and Clemson.

They’ve got a shot because … the program is peaking under Jim Mora. Mora enters his third season in Westwood having completely changed the culture and dramatically upgraded the roster. QB Brett Hundley is eyeing a breakout junior season, and the defense has stockpiled as much skill and talent as any other Pac-12 squad.
They’ll fall short because … both lines still have a lot to prove, and they’ll need to deliver in the face of one of the league’s toughest schedules. The Bruins must travel to Texas on Sept. 13 to play the Horns, while drawing the Pac-12 North’s three best teams, Oregon, Stanford and Washington. UCLA finishes the regular season with the Cardinal and USC within a six-day span.

7. Georgia
They’ve got a shot because … the offense is healthy, and the D is far more experienced than it was a year ago. Even with a few off-field headaches in the secondary, coordinator Jeremy Pruitt’s defense will be among the best in the SEC this fall. And now that playmakers Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall and Malcolm Mitchell are back, the new quarterback is going to greatly benefit.
They’ll fall short because … it’s never easy winning championships with a first-time starting quarterback. Hutson Mason is a solid senior, who benefitted from being forced into action late last year. But he’s not Aaron Murray in terms of experience or ability, which will allow some of the better defenses on the schedule to stack the line to stop Gurley and Marshall.

6. Auburn
They’ve got a shot because … Gus Malzahn plus Nick Marshall will again equal plenty of frustrated opposing defenses. The Tigers will be every bit as potent as they were in 2013, when 40 points per game was the norm. If Marshall makes any strides as a passer, with help from Sammie Coates and D’haquille Williams, Auburn could once again rule the SEC.
They’ll fall short because … DE Dee Ford and CB Chris Davis are going to be tough to replace. Auburn won’t be a great defensive team, a reality exacerbated by the offseason ACL tear suffered by DE Carl Lawson. And the unit better grow up fast, because LSU, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama comprise a wicked final two months of the year.

5. Oklahoma
They’ve got a shot because … the defense is going to be fantastic, maybe even nasty enough to slow down Baylor and Oklahoma State, which visit Norman. A lot of the offseason attention has been on emerging QB Trevor Knight, whose development is exciting. But the Sooners will begin 2014 as the class of the Big 12 because of a defense that will be oppressive at the line of scrimmage.
They’ll fall short because … even the winner of the Big 12 could have a difficult time finishing in the final four. Some Power 5 champ, maybe two, will be on the outside looking in come early December. It could be the Sooners, whose manageable schedule provides little margin for error, and not enough chances to blow away the committee.

4. Oregon
They’ve got a shot because … a healthy Marcus Mariota means the offense will once again be unstoppable. When Mariota tweaked his knee in the second half of 2013, it affected his mobility, which changed the personality and pop of the entire offense. Michigan State and arch-nemesis Stanford must come to Eugene, the latter without Derek Mason, the architect of the Cardinal’s stifling defenses.
They’ll fall short because … the defense is undergoing too many changes. The D-line is being revamped, and the defensive backfield will break in three new starters around CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. But even more important is the retirement of defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, who helped lead and energize the unit for the past 15 years.

3. Ohio State
They’ve got a shot because … the schedule screams perfect season. So does the roster in Columbus. The Buckeyes don’t figure to be an underdog in more than one game this year, the Nov. 8 trip to Michigan State. Ohio State is home to the Big Ten’s best quarterback—Braxton Miller—and best head coach—Urban Meyer—who’ll form the foundation of a championship team.
They’ll fall short because … the Spartans dominated last year’s meeting, and one loss will doom Ohio State’s national title bid. What’s changed from last Dec. 7 in Indianapolis? If anything, Michigan State might be in even better shape, since this meeting is in East Lansing, and the Buckeyes won’t be as experienced along the O-line or in the secondary.

2. Alabama
They’ve got a shot because … Nick Saban didn’t bite at offers to coach Texas. As long as Saban is in Tuscaloosa, Bama will be one of the country’s deepest and best coached programs. Few schools reload quicker than the Tide, because few schools amass more blue-chippers each Signing Day. The schedule, by SEC standards, isn’t so hostile, including no road games until the season is in high gear.
They’ll fall short because … the quarterback has never started a game at this level, and the defense will be slightly more vulnerable than in recent years. Jacob Coker possesses a world of potential, but he still has to prove it versus SEC competition. Yeah, new stars are set to emerge, but replacing eight defensive starters will still bring headaches and occasional inconsistency.

1. Florida State
They’ve got a shot because … their roster is littered with more elite talent than any other program, led by Heisman-winner Jameis Winston. The Seminoles rank among the nation’s best at quarterback, O-line and the secondary to create a distinct advantage over every opponent on the schedule. This program is confident, deep and aware of what it takes to win a championship.
They’ll fall short because … it’s always tougher the second time around. Teams rarely repeat because being the defending champ brings all kinds of new hurdles and distractions, such as maintaining the hunger. Plus, FSU isn’t without a two-deep to-do list, like replacing last season’s top three tacklers and bolstering a depleted corps of wide receivers.