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2014 preseason Crystal Ball: SI picks for the playoff, Heisman and more

2014 preseason Crystal Ball: SI picks for the playoff, Heisman and more Photo:

The college football season kicks off this week, and there's no shortage of pressing questions: Will Florida State defend its national title? Which team could surprise like Auburn did in 2013? How will the College Football Playoff unfold?

As excitement builds, our team of writers and analysts offers its predictions for the upcoming 2014 campaign. For more coverage, be sure to check out our full expert playoff projections and complete 2014 preview hub.

STAFF: SI's experts provide their 2014 College Football Playoff picks

National champion

Andy Staples: Florida State. Everyone is picking the Seminoles for a lot of very good reasons. They have nearly the entire offense back from the team that won last year’s national title. They return the defending Heisman Trophy winner in Jameis Winston. They have a deep defensive line, a loaded secondary and a manageable schedule.

Martin Rickman: Florida State. All offseason long Jimbo Fisher trumpeted an “attitude of domination.” It's hard to argue. Florida State is bigger, stronger and faster than everyone else on its schedule. It is loaded at every position but punter. There is no evidence to suggest the ‘Noles can be stopped any time soon.

Zac Ellis: Florida State. The ‘Noles are the easy pick, and a smart one. Florida State remains stocked with talent on both sides of the ball, starting with Winston. Fisher’s program should blitz through the ACC, and it gets three of its toughest games -- Clemson, Notre Dame and Florida -- at home. A dynasty could be brewing in Tallahassee.

Lindsay Schnell: Oregon. The Ducks have the best player in the country in junior quarterback Marcus Mariota. They still need to find a premier receiver, but can you imagine what would happen if explosive playmaker Bralon Addison -- currently sidelined with an ACL tear -- comes back in November? Oregon also has one of the best defensive backs in the country in senior Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.

Brian Hamilton: Oregon. There are questions about the defense, and the Ducks don't come close without a healthy Mariota. Still, the offense should be insane and the schedule is both favorable -- Oregon avoids playing USC and Arizona State, and gets Stanford at home -- and respectable. With a win over Michigan State on Sept. 6, Mark Helfrich's team could be in prime position.

Colin Becht: Florida State. There is simply no reason not to like Florida State. Heisman-winning quarterback? Check. Strong supporting cast? Got it. Physical shutdown defense? Yup. Factor in a light schedule and the Seminoles are the clear favorites to make -- and win -- the first playoff.

Gabriel Baumgaertner: Georgia. Picking a team without a proven quarterback to win a national title is, well, crazy. But Hutson Mason has two of the nation’s best running backs (Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall), three stud receivers and a defense with eight returning starters, including a truly fearsome linebacker in Leonard Floyd. Crazy? Sure. But it’s time for Mark Richt to catch his break.

STAFF: Defending champion Florida State headlines SI preseason Top 25

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Surprise team

Staples: Maryland. I’m not predicting the Terrapins will win the Big Ten -- or even the East Division -- but they won't get steamrolled in their new league. In fact, they should fare quite well in year one. The Big Ten isn’t any more talented than the ACC, and Maryland has the players to compete if the Terps can stay healthy. Receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long are playmakers, and coordinator Brian Stewart’s defense returns nine starters.

Rickman: Kansas State. We didn’t forget about Bill Snyder, did we? The Wildcats finished the 2013 season on a roll. With a bunch of key returning starters, including star wide receiver Tyler Lockett, Kansas State has as much a chance as anyone in a wide-open Big 12.

Ellis: Ole Miss. It's hard not to love the job Hugh Freeze is doing in Oxford. In two seasons at the helm, Freeze has beaten the likes of Texas and LSU, won two bowl games and signed a top-10 recruiting class. Now, the Rebels are primed to take a big step in 2014. Few SEC teams return more experience (14 starters) than Ole Miss, a group that includes veteran quarterback Bo Wallace, talented wideout Laquon Treadwell and All-America-caliber safety Cody Prewitt. Plus, the Rebels get Auburn, Alabama and rival Mississippi State at home.

Schnell: Wisconsin. With Ohio State suddenly beatable, the Big Ten becomes a lot more interesting. Star running back Melvin Gordon will find openings behind an experienced offensive line, making his 2,000-yard goal realistic. The Badgers miss Ohio State and Michigan State and have a chance to wow fans -- and the selection committee -- if they can pull off a Week 1 win over LSU.

Hamilton: Michigan. Its rival weakened by Braxton Miller’s injury, here's betting on new ideas from coordinator Doug Nussmeier, better overall chemistry and a very manageable schedule. The Wolverines will be in contention for a division title.

Becht: Mississippi State. The Bulldogs are the less heralded of the SEC’s two on-the-rise schools from Mississippi. That only means they'll make for the bigger surprise. Quarterback Dak Prescott is a legitimate dark-horse Heisman candidate, and Jameon Lewis might be the conference’s top returning receiver not named Amari Cooper. Mississippi State’s defense has the experience to keep the Bulldogs in the SEC West race.

Baumgaertner: East Carolina. With a vastly underrated quarterback (Shane Carden, who threw for 4,139 yards and 33 touchdowns last season) and an electric playmaker (potential first-round NFL draft pick Justin Hardy), East Carolina may become a media fascination with upsets of any or all of South Carolina, Virginia Tech and North Carolina. This is a team that should win 10 games. Despite its difficult schedule, it could win 12.

HAMILTON: A weekend behind the scenes with Wisconsin's offensive line

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Flop team

Staples: Auburn. The Tigers will still be good, but their schedule is just brutal. Auburn had a lot of good fortune last year. Any bad luck -- and the loss of left guard Alex Kozan for the season before practice even began certainly counts as bad luck -- plus that October-November slog could produce a record that doesn’t accurately reflect the quality of the team.

Rickman: Oklahoma. I think we’re getting carried away with the Sooners' preseason hype after their Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. Oklahoma is a popular playoff pick, but there are too many things -- starting with the inconsistency of quarterback Trevor Knight -- that we can’t just assume will improve.

Ellis: Texas A&M. The Aggies didn’t just lose Johnny Manziel on offense. They also lost leading receiver Mike Evans and dominant left tackle Jake Matthews. While Cedric Ogbuehi should help make up for Matthews’ absence, no one knows what to expect from new starting quarterback Kenny Hill. The defense is experienced, but coming off a season in which it allowed an SEC-worst 32.2 points per game. Oh, and did I mention the schedule, which includes road games at Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State and South Carolina?

Schnell: Oklahoma. Yes, I have the Sooners in the Cotton Bowl. But with all the national championship talk buzzing around Norman, missing the playoff will be considered a severe disappointment. Knight was terrific in last year’s bowl game, but are we really to believe the redshirt sophomore can bring that every single game? True freshman Joe Mixon and transfer Dorial Green-Beckham will both miss the 2014 season. That means Knight has just one proven offensive weapon in junior receiver Sterling Shepard. Yikes.

Hamilton: Oklahoma State. Questions at quarterback are nothing new for the Cowboys, but there are unknowns on the offensive line and all over the defense. Things ease up after facing Florida State in the opener, but closing with five of seven games on the road could result in more scuffling than usual.

Becht: UCLA. Don’t get me wrong, the Bruins are very good. They just may be the third-best team in the Pac-12 and the second-best in the South. Brett Hundley is tremendous, but he struggled in UCLA’s biggest games last fall. The Bruins have a favorable schedule with most of their marquee games coming at home, but a visit to Arizona State could be their downfall.

Baumgaertner: Clemson. The departures of Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins hurt, but don’t forget that Clemson’s other star receiver (Martavis Bryant) isn’t around any more, either. With a brutal opener at Georgia and games at Florida State and against North Carolina soon after, Clemson could start the season 1-3. Even with ferocious pass rusher Vic Beasley, Clemson won’t make an at-large New Year's Six bowl even in the soft ACC.

RICKMAN: The mindset of Dabo Swinney and Clemson entering 2014

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Heisman Trophy winner

Staples: Trevor Knight, QB, Oklahoma. If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that we’re probably not including the winner’s name on most of our preseason watch lists. Winston certainly seems capable of hoisting a second trophy, but repeating is just so hard -- especially with voters always looking for the newest thing. So, let’s guess Knight, who should put up excellent passing and rushing numbers if Oklahoma is as good as everyone seems to expect. If not, well, your guess is as good as mine.

Rickman: Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA. Unfortunately for Winston, winning back-to-back Heismans hasn’t been done since Captain & Tennille were pumping out hits. Enter Hundley, who returned to campus on a mission. He could put it all together to beat out Mariota, Gurley and Baylor's Bryce Petty, among others.

Ellis: Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State. I know, I know … I’m not supposed to pick Winston. History doesn’t bode well for returning Heisman winners. But look at the facts: Florida State returns a stellar offensive line and exceptional talent at the skill positions, such as wide receiver Rashad Greene. The Seminoles should be favored in every game they play. And what does history mean, anyway? Two seasons ago a freshman had never won the Heisman. Look for Winston to repeat.

Schnell: Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon. He was the frontrunner last year before a sprained MCL made him look human, and he still managed to put up eye-popping numbers: 3,665 passing yards with 31 touchdowns and four interceptions to go with 715 rushing yards on 96 attempts (7.4 yards per carry). If Mariota stays healthy all season, those statistics should go up, and defensive coordinators’ headaches will get bigger. Winston will surely garner attention and votes, but it helps that he has a roster full of NFL talent. That Mariota has to do more by himself makes him all the more impressive.

Hamilton: Mariota. It would be terrific if Mariota and Winston dueled for one of the closest Heisman Trophy races ever. But a healthy Mariota can better his 39 total touchdowns from 2013. In that scenario, I'm guessing the inclination against a repeat winner and/or Winston fatigue will settle in on voters.

Becht: Mariota. The Heisman favorite for much of last season, Mariota watched his hopes wither as his play suffered while he struggled through a knee injury. Mariota’s accuracy is unmatched, and he can best Winston if he can stay healthy while steering Oregon through a loaded Pac-12.

Baumgaertner: Mariota. Oregon could lose as many as three games because of a loaded Pac-12 and a nonconference tilt with Michigan State. Still, Mariota is the nation’s preeminent dual-threat quarterback. With the help of two budding stars at running back (Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner), Mariota will be the nation’s most revered player by year’s end.

ELLIS: Heisman winner Desmond Howard shares thoughts on 2014 race

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First to fall out of Heisman race

Staples: Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA. Of the popular preseason Heisman candidates, Hundley has the most opportunities to falter. He’ll probably be in a shootout that certainly isn’t a guaranteed win at Arizona State on Sept. 25. He’ll go head-to-head with Mariota on Oct. 11. Meanwhile, a closing kick of Washington, USC and Stanford means Hundley might have some of his lowest numbers as voters are putting the finishing touches on their ballots.

Rickman: Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn. This pick isn’t about Marshall’s offseason drug citation. It's not about his questionable accuracy -- a 59.4 completion percentage in 2013 -- that should improve this season. It’s about Auburn’s monster of a schedule (the Tigers play seven preseason Top 25 teams) that should wilt Marshall’s chances at a trip to New York.

Ellis: Trevor Knight, QB, Oklahoma. Knight’s breakout performance against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl (348 passing yards, four touchdowns) sparked plenty of Heisman talk. But Knight was hardly a consistent threat in 2013. The Sooners’ signal-caller should be successful, but he might not perform at a high enough caliber to hang around in the Heisman race.

Schnell: Hundley. The junior quarterback is immensely talented, but he hasn’t shown he can play his best in big games. There are plenty of big ones on the Bruins’ 2014 schedule, and UCLA will be home for its most important tests (Oregon, USC and Stanford). The versatile Myles Jack could steal the spotlight.

Hamilton: Bryce Petty, QB, Baylor. It's not that Petty won't put up arcade-like numbers after passing for 4,200 yards with 32 touchdowns in 2013. But tough games against Oklahoma and Kansas State are late. Just one slip-up against a so-so team, even a minor one, and he's an afterthought among top contenders.

Becht: Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia. There’s a reason only one running back has won the Heisman in the last 13 years, and it’s the same reason Gurley won’t be able to keep up with the quarterbacks this fall. Either Georgia uses him as a workhorse, which puts him at risk of injury, or he’s featured among a Bulldogs’ committee and doesn’t produce enough individually.

Baumgaertner: Petty. He’s one heck of a quarterback with an incredible journey to boot. However, even though Petty has a deadly weapon in Antwan Goodley, defensive coordinators will adjust to Art Briles’ aerial attack. The quarterback will put up huge numbers, but more meaningful contributors will grab his headlines.

STAPLES: Baylor's Bryce Petty took long, unlikely journey to stardom

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Breakout star

Staples: Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU. The hype for Winston at this point last year was completely out of control -- and completely correct. It feels the same for Fournette, the true freshman running back who looks like he has been playing in the NFL for three seasons.

Rickman: Brad Kaaya, QB, Miami. At 6-foot-4 with a strong arm, Kaaya has the physical tools to be productive out of the gate. Yet it was his smarts that earned him Miami's starting job. Kaaya picked up the Hurricanes’ offense quickly, and playing alongside tailback Duke Johnson certainly won't hurt.

Ellis: Fournette. LSU’s freshman back is already being compared to Michael Jordan and Adrian Peterson -- and that’s coming from players and coaches within the program. All signs point to the 6-1, 230-pounder morphing into one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the country.

Schnell: Shawn Oakman, DE, Baylor. He’s huge, intimidating and quotable; in this sport, that’s a combination that earns attention. Expect the junior to become one of the biggest playmakers on a defense primed for a breakout season. He recorded just 33 tackles as a reserve in 2013, but that included 12.5 for loss, numbers that netted him All-Big 12 honors. The charismatic 6-9, 280-pounder should cause plenty of problems for offensive linemen in the Big 12 this year.

Hamilton: John O’Korn, QB, Houston. This depends on what you consider a “breakout,” since he passed for 3,117 yards last year. But everyone returns around the sophomore quarterback, who could edge into the Heisman conversation if the Cougars can conjure an undefeated run in 2014.

Becht: Maty Mauk, QB, Missouri. The sophomore quarterback offered a glimpse of what he can do when he filled in for an injured James Franklin last season. He led the Tigers to three SEC wins to keep their surprising season humming. With Franklin departed, Mauk will be Mizzou's leader, and the high school record holder for passing yards and touchdowns has the skills to capitalize.

Baumgaertner: Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama. He has a Heisman-worthy back (T.J. Yeldon) ahead of him, and most of the media is focusing on another young steamroller (Fournette). But Henry is virtually impossible to bring down with one defender and is an excellent downhill runner despite his enormous frame (6-3, 241 pounds). In a banner year for SEC backs, Henry is forgotten. That won’t last.

GLICKSMAN: The youth and promise of LSU's Leonard Fournette

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Coach on the hottest seat

Staples: Will Muschamp, Florida. Muschamp’s Gators must show improvement, or he’ll be gone. What does “show improvement” mean? That’s a great question. Obviously, Muschamp is staying if Florida wins a bunch of games and competes for the SEC East title. But if the Gators go 7-5 or 8-4, then the way they played in their losses might determine whether the coach stays.

Rickman: Mike London, Virginia. Names like Muschamp and Brady Hoke are good choices here, but it’ll take a remarkable turnaround to keep London in Charlottesville beyond this fall. The Cavaliers are coming off a 2-10 campaign and open the season against UCLA. That gives no reprieve for the win-starved, Croakies and pastels-wearing crowd.

Ellis: Muschamp. The Gators had better hope Muschamp’s offensive overhaul -- led by former Duke coordinator Kurt Roper -- works to perfection. Florida’s coach likely has one shot to turn around a program fresh off its worst season since 1979. The good news is quarterback Jeff Driskel is healthy, and there’s a lot of talent on defense. Muschamp must prove last year’s 4-8 record was an anomaly.

Schnell: Muschamp. At many schools, a 22-16 mark over a three-year span would be acceptable, especially when one of those years brought an 11-2 season. But Muschamp is at Florida, where fans expect to compete for national championships. After a disastrous 4-8 campaign in 2013 that included, among other maladies, a loss to FCS Georgia Southern, numerous injuries and two offensive linemen attempting to block each other, Muschamp better right the ship, or he’ll be setting sail for a new destination.

Hamilton: Muschamp. Coaches and athletic directors can scoff at preseason hot seat chatter, when the results aren't in to prove anyone right or wrong. But it's impossible to imagine a program like Florida abiding another mediocre-to-average season after last fall's 4-8 nosedive. A just-above-.500 season might not cut it.

Becht: Ron Turner, FIU. Turner's hire at FIU didn’t make a lot of sense at the time. A year later, it still seems befuddling. Turner’s debut squad went 1-11 -- its lone victory coming over fellow one-win Southern Miss -- and scored just 117 points all of last season. This fall isn’t likely to be much friendlier to the Panthers.

Baumgaertner: Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia. The love affair with Holgorsen, the Red Bull-drinking, scraggly-haired offensive whiz, appears to be waning in Morgantown. The Mountaineers appear to be mired in an irreversible decline since their embarrassing 49-14 thrashing at the hands of Texas Tech in October 2012. The surly Holgo may be an Internet darling, but he faces immense pressure to turn things around on the country roads.

STAPLES: 2014 SEC preview: Can Will Muschamp and Florida rebound?

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Coach who will fare best in year one

Staples: James Franklin, Penn State. The Nittany Lions still face depth issues due to NCAA sanctions that have nothing to do with the current players or coaches. They can’t play for the Big Ten title or go to a bowl game. That said, look for Penn State to play a role in the Big Ten East Division race and watch Franklin and his staff continue to recruit well in advance of a time when they’ll be on level footing with the rest of their Big Ten rivals.

Rickman: Dino Babers, Bowling Green. With former coach Dave Clawson off to Wake Forest, Babers inherited a terrific situation with the defending MAC champion. Quarterback Matt Johnson gets the keys to Babers' offense, a Baylor clone that should be high on big-play potential.

Ellis: Babers. How many coaches take over a program that just won its first conference title in 21 seasons? The Falcons return 10 starters from a roster that dominated the MAC last year, including prolific quarterback Johnson and skilled rusher Travis Greene. Babers’ Eastern Illinois team led the FCS in total scoring offense (48.2 points per game) last fall and ran more plays (1,219) than any other program. Expect Bowling Green to keep rolling.

Schnell: Steve Sarkisian, USC. He’s back home with a loaded roster, a terrific staff and a schedule that doesn’t include Oregon. That could spell a big season for Sark. USC returns quarterback Cody Kessler (2,968 passing yards, 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions) and defensive end Leonard Williams (74 tackles, including 13.5 for loss) and adds talented two-way freshman Adoree’ Jackson. It remains to be seen if Sark can return the Trojans to the promised land, but he should have a solid 2014.

Hamilton: Babers. He has been part of prolific offenses at Baylor (as an assistant) and Eastern Illinois (as head coach). Now, Babers finds an overstocked cupboard of weapons led by quarterback Johnson. Bowling Green's game at Wisconsin on Sept. 20 could be the pivot point to an undefeated run.

Becht: Babers. The former Eastern Illinois leader is the only new coach with a legitimate shot at getting his team to a New Year’s Six bowl. Johnson fits the Baylor-inspired offense perfectly and should join Robert Griffin III and Jimmy Garoppolo on Babers' quarterback resumé. Greene will keep defenses honest as the Falcons pile on points.

Baumgaertner: Chris Petersen, Washington. Petersen inherits a team high on talent, but low on motivation. Sarkisian’s years in Seattle were marked by big early-season wins (USC in 2009 and ‘10, Stanford in ‘12 and Boise State in ‘13) before midseason swoons. Petersen has lost fewer games in eight seasons as a head coach (12) than Sarkisian did in his final three years with the Huskies (16).

HAMILTON: Fueled by James Franklin, Penn State looks to make noise

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How will the playoff go over?

Staples: It will generate more interest and discussion as the season draws to a close. Then, on Jan. 1, the semifinals will do monster ratings. The people in charge will wonder why they didn’t just expand the field to eight teams -- with quarterfinal and semifinal games played at the home field of the higher-seeded team -- in the first place. Then they’ll remember that, for some unknown reason, they’re still partially in the pocket of the bowls even though most of them can afford to buy their own cruises these days.

Rickman: With all the scrutiny surrounding the selection committee, it will still come down to who is left out. Like any Version 1.0, the playoff will require tweaks, but at least it’s here. We can ignore the hemming and hawing.

Ellis: Fans will love the finished product, but the process might hit a nerve or two. Teams will move up and down the selection committee’s rankings in a seemingly arbitrary fashion. I’m no math whiz, but this much is clear: The playoff will feature four teams selected from five power conferences. Someone won’t be happy, so there will clamoring for an eight-team system sooner rather than later.

Schnell: It’ll be plenty controversial, of course, but aren’t we used to that? Whichever conference gets left out of the field (I’m looking at you, Big 12) will throw some sort of public fit, but at least a four-team playoff is a step in the right direction. Expect lots of outcry and accusation of bias when the committee rolls out its weekly rankings. Debate makes everything more fun anyway.

Hamilton: This will be the one and only year that the playoff transpires without historical context; any wailing about selection committee biases will be pretty thin, given that there's no track record. People will complain, but the shiny new toy will probably distract everyone in the end.

Becht: One of two outcomes will occur: Either the committee will follow its own instructions and re-seed teams each week, or the committee will stick too closely to its past rankings. The latter will make the poll no better than the BCS system it replaced, and either option will ignite plenty of controversy.

Baumgaertner: Old habits die hard. The Pac-12, despite being the deepest conference in the nation, will not make the inaugural College Football Playoff. With 10 teams positioned for bowl eligibility, it’s difficult to envision any finishing the season with one loss or fewer. The Big Ten, in a down year, will take the last spot while the SEC gets two and Florida State nabs the top seed.

THAMEL: Where do Group of Five teams fall in the new playoff system?

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Bold prediction

Staples: The SEC will get only one team into the playoff -- despite fear that the league might somehow sneak two or three teams into the bracket. At some point, the SEC's top teams have to beat each other up just enough to drop most out of consideration. With so much unknown in the conference, maybe this is that year.

Rickman: Iowa will win the Big Ten West. The defense played better last season, and the offense wasn’t bad, either. The Hawkeyes avoid Michigan State and Ohio State. Plus, if this happens Kirk Ferentz could get extended through 2085.

Ellis: UCLA’s Hundley will emerge as the Pac-12’s top Heisman threat, not Oregon’s Mariota. That’s because the Bruins host Oregon, Stanford and USC and should handle their neutral-site meeting with Texas. Mariota, meanwhile, will find himself on the outside looking in when his Ducks lose to Michigan State.

Schnell: Only one SEC team will get into the playoff -- and it won’t be Alabama. Deep breath, everyone. Contrary to popular belief, the world will keep spinning. Alabama has had a very nice run, but it’s someone else’s turn … and I’m sure Bama’s in-state rival would be happy to step in and take its place for the second straight year. Don’t forget about the conference out west, which is deep and bursting with quarterback talent. This could very well be the year the Pac-12 takes home the most coveted trophy.

Hamilton: Rutgers' debut Big Ten season will go south. There are class of 2016 recruits the program desperately needs to keep in-state, like top national prospects Rashan Gary and Kareem Walker. So, the Scarlet Knights will bring back Greg Schiano as head coach in the offseason.

Becht: Even with Miller’s injury, Ohio State will finish the season in the top five. J.T. Barrett will guide the Buckeyes through their weak schedule, surviving the season unscathed except for a road loss to playoff-bound Michigan State. At 11-1, Ohio State will earn a bid to a marquee bowl game, and Barrett, then with a full season of experience, will lead the Buckeyes to victory.

Baumgaertner: Sept. 27 will be the early day of reckoning: NC State will stun Florida State (the Seminoles’ only loss of the year), Washington will top Stanford, Iowa State will upset Baylor and Missouri will beat South Carolina. USC, in an attempt to reinsert itself into the Pac-12 title conversation, will confidently drop Oregon State in the upset that most pundits predict.

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