The College Football Playoff makes its debut this season, a three-game series in January to improve upon the Bowl Championship Series. Most of the talk this pre-season has been on the front-runners to be named as one of the four teams. It’s been a consistent mention of the usual suspects — Alabama, Florida State, Oregon, Oklahoma, Auburn, South Carolina, Georgia, Michigan State, Ohio State, among a few others.
Predictable names, for sure, and ones probably most likely to be included. But who had Auburn vs. Florida State in the title game last year before the season started? How about Missouri winning the SEC East? Duke to the ACC Championship Game?
Every season has its surprises, and this one will be no exception. So here’s a stab at five teams who might be one of those that make the playoff; ones you may not be thinking about.
Florida: The Gators had very little impact on the SEC race in 2013 after going to a BCS bowl the year before. Auburn was the team that bounced back nicely last year; Florida could do the same this season. The bottom line is this – Florida has no recruiting classes over the last five years ranked worse than 12th by rivals.com. Plus the Gators have turned over the offense to Kurt Roper, who led Duke to 32.8 points-pre-game last year. And Florida plays in the weaker SEC East, yet South Carolina and Georgia loom as quality foes.
Mississippi State: What? A team out of the SEC West not named Alabama, Auburn or LSU as a dark horse to make the College Football Playoff? Yep. Two reasons: 1. The SEC West is relatively wide open, despite the recent success at Alabama and Auburn. 2. The main reason it’s wide open is the number of new quarterbacks in the league. But MSU might have the best one in the league with Dak Prescott. He’s a senior and should improve off numbers of 1,940 yards passing and 829 yards rushing in 2013. Plus the Bulldogs have some good pieces around him, including receiver Jameon Lewis, who caught 64 balls last year for 923 yards and five scores. MSU gets LSU early and hosts Texas A&M and Auburn. They do have to go to Alabama late in the year, but if the cards fall right, the Bulldogs might be on a roll by then.
Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish fell somewhat off the map in 2013, going 9-4 after appearing in the title game the previous year. The main reason I list them as a dark horse is the return of Everett Golson at quarterback, who was suspended last fall for academic reasons. He played a big role in the Irish’s 12-0 regular season two years ago. They lose a couple of key cogs on offense (new Cowboy OL Zack Martin is one), but the entire running back corps are back, and Notre Dame has some quality young players on defense. The biggest obstacle – Notre Dame’s schedule, facing Stanford, Michigan and Louisville, as well as road trips to Florida State and Arizona State. But that obstacle is also a positive, for the Irish will get some serious strength-of-schedule points if they are able to win some of those games.
UCLA: Most people think of Oregon and Stanford when listing off the best teams in the Pac-12, even USC. But UCLA coach Jim Mora has hed things rolling over the last couple of years in recruiting and it is starting to show. The Bruins get Oregon, Stanford and USC at home this year, and get running back Jordon James back from injury. But UCLA’s biggest positive is quarterback Brett Hundley, who will surely be in the Heisman Trophy conversation.
Wisconsin: The key to the Badgers’ hopes is clearly their schedule. Wisconsin plays a young LSU team in Houston to start the year, and miss Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan on the regular season schedule. They even get Nebraska and Minnesota at home. The Badgers have always had good offensive lines, and have four-of-five starters returning this year. Combine that with returning quarterback Joel Stave and running backs Melvin Gordon & Corey Clement. The bad news – Wisconsin’s defense, where it must replace seven starters. But beat LSU in week one and the Badgers have a pretty decent path.
Not all five of these teams will make a run, but don’t be surprised if you hear some of them as candidates as the season rolls along. Every season brings surprises. Who’s it gunna be?