Last Monday, Ohio State came out of the #4 seed in the first ever College Football Playoff to win the national championship. It was total validation for the new process, which slotted the national champion as the last team in. The Buckeyes had to roll through the two "best teams in the nation" in a star-studded field.
I'm sure that's a good consolation prize for those fine folks in the Dallas Metroplex area. Texas Christian was the last team out because of the committee, and I'm sure fans of the Horned Frogs weren't mad at all that they were forced to destroy Ole Miss and watch Ohio State hoist what could've (and maybe should've) been their national championship trophy.
That said, the CFP was a rousing success in its first year and as football's offseason gets ready to go, it boils down to one thing: the new year. And as Ohio State prepares to defend its national championship, we take a way-too-early look at the national rankings and who could be battling for it all when next season's final game rolls around:
1) Ohio State Buckeyes (14-1, 8-0 Big Ten, W-CFP National Championship)
The Buckeyes return all three of their quarterbacks as of right now: Braxton Miller hasn't announced he's going anywhere yet, JT Barrett should be healthy, and Cardale Jones already announced he's coming back. They return 14 starters, which all but means they'll be a factor. And Ezekiel Elliott is back—he's a bad, bad man.
I put Ohio State as the #1 team because they're loaded as defending national champions. In keeping with what I said about Florida State, though, after the Seminoles returned everyone, I'll say this: they're #1 until someone beats them or until they start beating themselves. FSU started beating themselves in the court of public opinion, and even though they won football games, they started playing poorly. They played down to opponents. If Ohio State can't keep their compete level up, they'll start dropping. Having too many cooks in the offense isn't necessarily a good thing either, especially with a new offensive coordinator on the horizon.
2) TCU Horned Frogs (12-1, 8-1 Big 12, W-Peach Bowl)
Trevone Boykin is going to be back, and he's improved to the point where I think he's better than all three options at Ohio State. In the modern college football era, having a QB that elite is good enough to get you undefeated and in the national title picture. They also could conceivably be starting an entire senior offense, which means they'll feel the pressure to win now and not later.
The other side of TCU, though, is that they'll crush teams just to get back into the college football picture, and at the same time, the committee won't let them slip out knowing now what they didn't know when they released the four-team playoff. The Horned Frogs will have the committee favoring them out of fear for screwing a team two years in a row. That said, they don't want to end up like Florida State—a paper 13-0 team built up on a house of cards. They have to stay more driven to win, since their schedule is cream puff enough to not let them have an off day.
3) USC Trojans (9-4, 6-3 Pac-12, W-Holiday Bowl)
Steve Sarkisian has a full deck of cards and recruits now that USC is fully past the sanctions left over from the post-Pete Carroll era. They'll return 15 starters from this year's team, including early Heisman Trophy front-runner Cody Kessler. Kessler will be playing his senior year behind a retooled offensive line, one that struggled at times this year but one that returns virtually everybody in '15.
If there's something to worry about, it's that Kessler might lack a true deep threat to contend at the national level. But he's a pro style quarterback, and as long as teams are forced to play Trojan-style football, nobody's going to stop the out of the Pac-12. The third seed allows them to lose to a team like an Oregon, but with Marcus Mariota gone, there's likely a void that the ultra-talented Trojans will be able to step up into.
4) Michigan State Spartans (11-2, 7-1 Big Ten, W-Cotton Bowl)
With Ohio State winning the national championship, there's a massive void left for a conference with a media bias. The SEC, quite simply, isn't as good as it was during its run of dominance, and the CFP is doing its best to prove that theory. People tend to go out of their way to prove there's no "east coast bias," so the Pac-12 gets love, but the league itself really isn't that good. The ACC is never getting that love, and the Big XII is a bad league with some elite teams at the top.
That leaves the Big Ten. The Big Ten did just well enough at key junctures in the postseason to make people really take notice. With Jim Harbaugh heading for Michigan, the Big Ten East has at least three teams, if not four (Penn State) the media will really fall in love with. That means the media will fall in love with it much like it did in 2012 when the SEC West had three top-five teams.
Michigan State is very, very good, but they'll benefit from the bump given by the committee and the media. They'll be able to play out their year and conceivably not make the conference championship game, then make the CFP because of a lack of other contenders. This is especially true if the ACC falters and the Big XII remains a poor league. Remember the SEC is going to be down next year, too. That's not to say Michigan State isn't a contender, but expect them in with substantial discussion.
5) Georgia Bulldogs (10-3, 6-2 SEC, W-Belk Bowl)
Georgia returns the bulk of its running game, including Nick Chubb's 1,500 yards and an offensive line that plowed the road for him. Even with the loss of both Hutson Mason and Michael Bennett, that's enough for the Dawgs to be able to rip apart some of the teams in a very-much weakened SEC. They'll have the benefit from a weaker schedule, playing only two true road games in the first two months of the season.
The SEC is going to be down next year, and the vacuum at the top should open the door for a new team. Georgia's forever been able to knock at the door, but they haven't been able to push it in. They'll push it in now, but with the shift of power from the south to the north, the league champion will be on the outside looking in for the first time in years.
6) Baylor Bears (11-2, 8-1 Big 12, L-Cotton Bowl)
I don't think they should be in the College Football Playoff.
Shawn Oakman says I should think otherwise.
I think Baylor should be in the College Football Playoff.
Look, if you don't win the Big 12, you're not getting in. That's the fact of how the committee thinks. Beat TCU, and you're in. I don't think they're going to beat TCU. It's that simple.
7) UCLA Bruins (10-3, 6-3 Pac-12, W-Alamo Bowl)
UCLA has to replace its quarterback, which is going to keep the Bruins from getting past USC this year. But they were a team built primarily on young guys last year. They're going to be loaded. The problem is that the Trojans are going to be more loaded, which means the Bruins won't make the Pac-12 Championship Game. I don't think a team not making the league title game makes it, save for the Big Ten, which is going to be the new media darling league.
8) Clemson Tigers (10-3, 6-2 ACC, W-Russell Athletic Bowl)
Clemson absolutely destroyed Oklahoma in the RAB, and they're the front runners to step into the void left by a weakened Florida State team that lost virtually every major part after the last two seasons. If Deshaun Watson is healthy enough to return to full strength, the Tiger ceiling is even higher than this. But I think Watson takes a step back after injuring his ACL, and he's going to have receivers everywhere (Artavis Scott and Mike Williams).
The defense is going to be gutted, which also causes a problem and makes Clemson likely to drop. Also throw in that the Tigers usually lose a couple of coronation-type games and there's no way they're in the CFP. Clemson is the ultimate transition team until someone else is ready to take the national championship mantle Florida State departed.
9) Ole Miss Rebels (9-4, 5-3 SEC, L-Peach Bowl)
Ole Miss opened up 2014 as one of the hottest teams in the nation, and it seemed like everyone wanted them to win to a) keep the SEC's dominance going and b) give us someone other than Alabama. Then they flatlined, fell apart, and got absolutely destroyed by TCU in the Peach Bowl.
The Rebels bring back 18 very talented players from last year's team as starters, even though Bo Wallace is gone from under center. The biggest issue for Ole Miss is that they don't have anyone else; they're either turning to a fifth year transfer or a redshirt freshman. That type of question mark is something with a zero margin for error. If they take a step back, they're really screwed. That said, I don't think they take as big of a step back. There's enough talent for a freshman to succeed enough.
Ole Miss starts out the reverse of last year and opened like 1-3 before ripping off a bunch of games and winning a bowl game.
10) Oregon Ducks (13-2, 8-1 Pac-12, L-CFP National Championship)
I've been saying it for years: there's a blueprint to beating Oregon. You have to keep the offense off the field and take away the short, quick plays. If the offense cannot go, go, go, go, go, they can't win. Ohio State did that perfectly in the national championship, and it's why I picked the Ducks to fall in that game.
In addition to losing a Heisman Trophy winner in Marcus Mariota, the Ducks lose three starting offensive linemen. For a team keyed off the fast-paced offense, they'll need to either have guys learn really quickly or they're in deep trouble. Oregon's going to take a step back, but they're good enough where it's not a huge step back.
11) Notre Dame Fighting Irish (8-5, W-Music City Bowl)
Because why not? Everyone has to have the Irish woefully overrated before they tank.
Notre Dame returns 19 guys from a team that'll play a schedule weak enough to win 10 games. They should pick up wins over Virginia, UMass, Navy, Temple, Pittsburgh, Wake Forest, Texas, and Boston College. In order to win 10 games, they'll need to pick up two wins from their remaining four games: Clemson, Georgia Tech, USC, and Stanford.
I've always thought the Irish were good enough to win games as long as they didn't have a brutal schedule. They play Stanford the week after the Cal Game, and they play both Georgia Tech and Clemson a week after weak teams (Virginia and UMass, respectively). They'll win two extra games and win 10 with their roster. They're a top ten team with 10 wins because they're Notre Dame. At least maybe this means they get into a New Year's Six game and get positively crushed.
12) Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (11-3, 6-2 ACC, W-Orange Bowl)
Georgia Tech brings back eight players on defense and five from an offense that can overcome losing pretty much anybody. Justin Thomas is the perfect fit to run the triple-option offense, and he has an arm capable of throwing 1,700 yards. His biggest asset, though, is that he only threw six picks last year.
The Jackets are as automatic as anyone can get in the wide-open ACC Coastal. They play a weak divisional schedule and will host Clemson in their protected crossover game. Given their strength, their reliable coaching scheme, and the fact that the only real tough games on the schedule are Notre Dame, Georgia, and Clemson, and it's a pretty easy fit for this slot.
13) Arizona State Sun Devils (10-3, 6-3 Pac-12, W-Sun Bowl)
Consider this: the only two losses besides the Oregon State loss for the Sun Devils last year were to Arizona (Pac-12 South champions and in-state rivals) and UCLA (who scored 62 points on them a week in their first true test of the year). As the year progressed, Arizona State got mentally tougher, resulting in a pounding win over Notre Dame that embarrassed the Irish and other quality wins.
That mental toughness should carry over on a team returning 16 starters, including nine on defense. The ASU defense is sneaky good—despite getting murdered by UCLA, they rallied and held Standford, Washington, and Utah to a combined 36 points. Duke moved the ball on them in the Sun Bowl, and the game was tighter than most thought it would be, but ASU also pulled away from the Blue Devils in the third quarter a little too much.
Since Arizona State returns so many parts, there's reason to believe they'll just get better. They'll probably be the team left out in the cold of the fact that the Pac-12 South is loaded—someone has to finish third.
14) LSU Tigers (8-5, 4-4 SEC, L-Music City Bowl)
I'm of the opinion that there are only so many ways LSU can be kept down in a given year. They were GUTTED last year, losing Odell Beckham, Alfred Blue, Jeremy Hill, Zach Mettenberger, Tre Turner, Jarvis Landry, and Ego Ferguson. That the Tigers only dropped to 8-5 and still beat Wisconsin in the season's opening game means they're likely to rise back up. They could've had 10 wins if they didn't screw up the Mississippi State and Alabama games and lose them both.
That doesn't mean LSU is going to be a national contender this year, though. They would have to go through Ole Miss and Georgia to get there, and that's not happening. But I think a ten-win season is likely and can all but be guaranteed. In a couple of years, they're going to be up in that top tier again. And watch this name this year: Jamal Adams. He's one of the best rated DBs in the nation, and he's going to be a freshman in the Bayou next year.
15) Wisconsin Badgers (11-3, 7-1 Big Ten, W-Outback Bowl)
Bad news: three starting offensive linemen, your starting all-everything running back, and your head coach.
Good news: The Big Ten West is so bad, you're probably going undefeated every year so you can get waxed in the Big Ten, 59-0, again.
16) Alabama Crimson Tide (12-2, 7-1 SEC, L-Sugar Bowl)
Good news: seven defensive starters return to a team known for using its defense win games, plus the whole conference is down so there's a chance you're still able to sneak into the SEC Championship Game from a weak western division.
Bad news: Two returning offensive starters and an offensive coordinator who hasn't lasted more than two years anywhere since he started coaching as an assistant in 1997. Wait, that's not true. He started his third year at USC before he got fired. The line on Lane Kiffin's soul getting devoured by Nick Saban is October 3rd.
17) Arizona Wildcats (10-4, 7-2 Pac-12, L-Fiesta Bowl)
Arizona returns enough pieces to be extremely relevant in a Pac-12 South that's going to be pretty filthy good next year. Scooby Wright III is back on defense, and all he did was win the Bronco Nagurski and Chuck Bednarik Awards in his first year as a starting linebacker. Both Anu Soloman and Nick Wilson should be able to build on solid freshman campaigns, but this team is still a work in progress. Combine that with the fact they play in a division with USC, UCLA, Arizona State, and Utah, and they're still going to lose some games at some point.
That said, both the Pac-12 Championship and the Fiesta Bowl exposed Arizona's faults on defense, and those are pretty fatal against solid teams. They're going to struggle in conference with games against Stanford and Washington, although they should be able to pick up wins. Problem is that of Stanford, Washington, USC, UCLA, and Arizona State, only one game (UCLA) is at home. That means they're likely to lose three or four games at some point.
18) Auburn Tigers (8-5, 4-4 SEC, L-Outback Bowl)
It's incredibly hard to remember that Auburn actually opened last year as the #6 team in the nation, the defending national runner-up. When they played Mississippi State, they were the #2 team in the nation, and even after losing, they remained a top four team because they beat Ole Miss. Then they got shelled in four of their last five games, culminating in a loss in the Outback Bowl to Wisconsin.
Auburn's problem down the stretch was that they simply stunk on defense. After beating LSU to go to #2 in the nation in mid-October, they surrendered 30-plus points in seven out of eight games. Even when they were winning, they needed to score 40 points in order to do it. The result was the firing of their defensive coordinator and the hiring of—wait for it—Will Muschamp.
The problem for Auburn is that their secondary is going to be conceivably worse this year because in addition to being beatable, they're going to be young. That means they'll only go as far as the defensive front seven will take them. That works to score some upsets, but as BC fans know well and pure, a bad, young secondary in need of coaching up is going to get burned bad at times. Luckily, they play enough good teams to keep themselves ranked with the wins they'll get.
19) Boise State Broncos (12-2, 7-1 Mountain West, W-Fiesta Bowl)
Boise State has it made to get into the New Year's Six games. They're good enough to beat good teams, and they're guaranteed enough bad teams on their schedule in the MWC to essentially run through a cream-puff, Notre Dame-like schedule. They return pretty much everyone who just did it, and they have the formula to do it again. WIth the new format, they simply have to be better than all the other Group of Five schools, which isn't that hard to do since the MWC is probably the best low level conference in the FBS.
Oh come on, like you're worried about Boise State losing to Connecticut?
20) Florida State Seminoles (13-1, 8-0 ACC, L-Rose Bowl)
The Seminole team we watched against Oregon fell apart at the seams, came unglued, and ultimately showed a lack of mental toughness. It could be that they were like that all along, or it could be that they just ran out of steam. The ride was over, and it was maybe met with a sigh of relief at the end.
That said, FSU is going to have a plethora of talent; it's just going to be inexperienced, and it'll make mistakes. Sean Maguire needs to develop his awareness while scrambling more, but he's going to be a good pocket passer in the offensive set. The defense, meanwhile, returns enough pieces to be very good, and they're going to win football games. It's hard to imagine, though, Clemson losing to the Seminoles next year, and more importantly, it's hard to imagine them not taking their foot off the accelerator. They've waited a long time to POUND this team.
Likewise, I don't think FSU is going to match up well with Louisville, and Boston College has been a thorn in their side for two years. That's easily three losses for the Seminoles if they make enough mistakes.
That said, they're going to be ranked because of their name recognition and because even a 5-3 conference record is an easy path to nine wins. They play four non-conference games against mighty powerhouses like Texas State, Chattanooga, and South Florida. Florida is still a tire fire. Really stretching yourself thin with that schedule, Jimbo Fisher.
Got any thoughts on the poll? Think anyone belongs that doesn't? Sound off in the comments!