The calendar has flipped to October and we have seen five weeks of college football played. There is still so much football to be played and the story of the 2014 season can take a quick turn at any time, but we are starting to see a slight divide between the contenders and the pretenders. Just as some get upset by polls in the early weeks of the season, I have rolled my eyes at a number of projections telling us who is in or out of the College Football Playoff. In the first year of the new playoff format, nobody knows a thing about how this is all going to play out. That said, taking a guess at how it will unfold is what everyone appears to be doing in various ways. Just this week I participated in the first power ranking poll organized by Athlon Sports, for example.
My stance on the College Football Playoff is pretty simple and striaghtforward: Nobody is in, but a number of teams are out. UConn and SMU and Iowa State are out, but nobody has guaranteed a spot at the playoff table at the end of the season. Nobody. Not Alabama, not Florida State, not Oklahoma, not Oregon, not UCLA etc. Fair enough?
With that said, I was waiting for the start of October to get started with my in-season playoff projection. I intend to update this on a weekly basis from now through the end of the season.
This projection may differ from some others you will see, because I am going to attempt to stick closer to what I feel will happen as opposed to being influenced entirely by what has happened. A projection, to me, takes into account everything I expect to see develop as the season progresses, so a loss may not necessarily rule a team out. This will be important to remember because my initial batch of College Football Playoff projections for the 2014 season is probably going to make you raise an eyebrow.
Here is how I see the playoff field for now.
Dare I say Alabama has gotten better each week this season? The concerns about the offense have been nit-picked, but I feel they have been overblown. The Crimson Tide average 42 points per game, 258.5 rushing yards per game, and 335.5 passing yards per game. Alabama may not have been the most challenged team to this point, but a win over West Virginia could look better as the season plays out. So coudl a win over Florida (maybe), but the real meat of Alabama’s playoff argument is going to be grilled in division play. That starts this weekend on the road against Ole Miss. I expect Alabama to send Ole Miss back to earth a little bit this weekend and then hold off an improved Arkansas team on the road next week. Do that and Alabama will be a fine looking 6-0 team.
Then take a look at the second half of the season. It is no walkthrough either, but one I feel Alabama is capable of getting through just fine. Road games at Tennessee and LSU will be tough. By then a home game against Mississippi State will be the final test before a home game against Auburn. Alabama was my pick at the beginning of the season out of the SEC and I am not wavering on that at this time. I see Alabama getting through the season with one loss at the most, and that gets them in the playoffs in my book. One loss likely will not reward Alabama with the number one seed, but I have Alabama in the top four without question.
I see one of two teams winning the Pac-12 at this point; Oregon or UCLA. I leave Stanford out because I feel Orgeon gets out of the Pac-12 North ahead of the Cardinal. Oregon also has one of the most impressive wins on the year, a home win against Michigan State. Oregon may have to beat UCLA twice to win the Pac-12 as well. The Ducks host Arizona on Thursday night this week (which I assume they win with a revenge factor at play), and travel to UCLA next week. That is a huge game for the Bruins, but for now I’m sticking with Oregon to win.
Oregon has dodged a couple of bullets already this season, at home against Michigan State and on the road at Washington State. I believe there will be a few more scares along the way, but as long as Marcus Mariota is healthy, I like the Ducks and their chances in the Pac-12. I think a one-loss PAc-12 champion is far from a lock for a playoff spot, but Oregon may be able to pull it off if their lone loss comes in regular seaosn play at UCLA or hoem against Stanford. Those are the only two games I think Oregon will be vulnerable in the rest of the season.
3. Florida State
Some folks are being scared off by Florida State’s close calls against Clemson and North Carolina State. Not me. I’m still all in on Florida State making its way to the playoff to represent the ACC. I don’t think Florida State loses a game the rest of the way. The only game that would concern me if I was Florida State would be a Thursday night trip to Louisville. Before that though the Seminoles will host Notre Dame, a game that will either be hyped to the extreme if the Irish manage to beat Stanford this weekend or will be overhyped because the Irish lose to Stanford this weekend. Virginia is looking a bit more troublesom than predicted at the start of the season, but can you pick out a game that should scare Florida State the rest of the year? I don’t see it. Not with so much riding on the line.
While I feel Florida State has the best chance to go undefeated, I am putting them no higher than third place right now purely based on the level of competition the Seminoles have and will face. By the end of the year it is possible Florida State will have played just two top 25 teams (Clemson and Notre Dame), and it may even be possible there is no top 25 team on Florida State’s schedule based on the regular season rankings at the end of the year (Clemson has a shot to wiggle back in but ends the season against South Carolina, and Notre Dame has Stanford, FSU, @ Arizona State, Louisville and @ USC to get through). The good news is the ACC has racked up style points, but if overall body of work is taken into consideration, there could be a case not to give an undefeated Florida State team the number one seed ahead of a potential one-loss champion form the SEC and/or the Pac-12. Not that it will ultimately matter, as long as Florida State is in the mix. Just don’t tell #FSUTwitter that.
4. Michigan State
So you wnated to write off the Big Ten, did you? The Spartans may have you second-guessing that early narrative. I believe Michigan State to be the best team in the Big Ten, and I would have them favored in every game the rest of the season, including games this weekend against Nebraska and later on at home against Michigan, Ohio State and on the road at Penn State. Throw in a Big Ten championship game victory over Wisconsin, and the Spartans would have a very solid case to be included in the playoff field. The only loss suffered came on the road at Oregon, and we would get a rematch in the semifinal between the Spartans and Ducks in the Rose Bowl.
Others To Watch
Oklahoma and Baylor: How does a Big Ten team get in aheda of the Big 12? The Big 12 has three wins against Big Ten teams this season, but the rest of the Big 12’s performance this season has been less than inspiring. Using my experimental McGuire Metric to weigh non-conference results by conference, the Big 12 missed on some huge opportunities, while the Big Ten kept clawing away and finished a bit stronger in non-conference play. The Big 12 will very likely come down to the winner of the Oklahoma-Baylor game this season, which I believe sees the Sooners prevail. But can Oklahoam stay undefeated by avoiding an upset elsewhere? I have a hard time placing a one-loss Big 12 champion ahead of a potentially 12-1 Michigan State for now.
UCLA: As I said above, UCLA is the team with the best chance to win the Pac-12 outside of Oregon. Winning at Arizona State sure looked impressive but the Bruins still have to prove they can get by Oregon and Stanford. The good news for UCLA is they get Orgeon and Stanford at home this season. They get USC at home too, which could also be huge.
Auburn: If it is not going to be Alabama out of the crowded SEC West, and thus the SEC, I believe it will be Auburn. That would require winning winning at Alabama, which I do not see happening but am reluctant to rule out.