This story appears in the August 10, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Sports Illustrated has made some regrettable choices at the top of its preseason college football rankings. In 1985 we picked Washington to win the national title. The Huskies went 7–5. In ’94 we thought most highly of Arizona and its Desert Swarm defense. The Wildcats finished 8–4. In 2001 we identified Oregon State as the national-champ-to-be, even though we were also aware that Miami was fielding a football team. The Beavers lost their opener to Fresno State and stumbled to a 5–6 record. These are the most egregious picks, but misses are not unusual. We’ve correctly identified the national champ only four times since 1985. What can we say? The future performance of large groups of 18-to-22-year-old males is generally tough to predict.
But last year, when we got to pick four playoff teams for the first time and not just one national champion, we acquitted ourselves quite well. We had three playoff participants (Florida State, Alabama and Ohio State) in our preseason top four, and we picked the eventual national champion Buckeyes for the same spot (No. 4) that the Playoff Selection Committee placed them in last December. Batting .750 isn’t bad, especially considering our checkered past.
Unfortunately we’re probably not going to repeat that performance this year. In 2015 no one knows anything.
It’s difficult to remember a season that opened with this much uncertainty. There is one obvious national-title contender: Ohio State remains loaded, and the Buckeyes could be even better than they were last season. Yet even they have a massive question mark standing five yards behind center Jacoby Boren. Who will start at quarterback? Sophomore J.T. Barrett, who in his first 12 games as a starter set the Big Ten record for total touchdowns in a season (45) before going down with a broken ankle? Or will it be junior Cardale Jones, who went 3–0 as a starter in Ohio State’s highest-stakes games—postseason wins against Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon? The decision would have been even tougher had senior Braxton Miller—whose 2014 right-shoulder injury opened the door for Barrett and Jones—not decided to move to H‑back. That’s how weird this season is. The guy who won the 2012 and ’13 Big Ten offensive player of the year award as Ohio State’s quarterback isn’t even in the mix to start at that position in Columbus in 2015.
Who else will compete for playoff spots? Who knows? Baylor and TCU just missed the tournament last year, and each team brings back almost everyone who helped produce 11-win regular seasons. Alabama lost the Sugar Bowl as a No. 1 seed last season and will field the best defensive front seven in college football, but for the second consecutive season the Crimson Tide will open camp with a quarterback competition. Of course, if Auburn’s new starting quarterback, Jeremy Johnson, is as special as coach Gus Malzahn has hinted, and the hiring of coordinator Will Muschamp shores up the Tigers’ defense, Alabama might not even be the best team in its own state. Oregon hasn’t picked a quarterback yet, and one candidate (Eastern Washington graduate transfer Vernon Adams) won’t even be with the Ducks when they start camp, as he finishes up course work on his EWU degree. (He’s expected to arrive three days after practice starts.) The Pac‑12 South could produce a playoff team, but the identity of that team is anyone’s guess. With the exception of Colorado, every team in the division looks capable of beating everyone else and winning that side of the league. Over in the ACC, Clemson has a capable quarterback in sophomore DeShaun Watson, but four members of a ferocious 2014 front seven departed in the NFL draft. Who will replace those guys?
Last month 30-year-old Texas A&M offensive coordinator Jake Spavital said something that suggests he has an old coach’s soul. “A lot of these teams are so close talent-wise,” he said, “it really comes down to chemistry.” Spavital works in the tightest division in the country, the SEC West: A reasonable argument can be made for each of the seven teams to win the division. A reasonable argument can also be made that five of those teams—Alabama and Auburn are the outliers—could finish seventh. The only certainty is this: A coach who makes at least $4 million a year (as every coach in the division does) will finish seventh, and a fan base will ask its athletic director why the school paid so much to finish dead last.
The rest, as Spavital noted, will come down to chemistry. We have a general sense of the (excellent) chemistry at Ohio State, Baylor and TCU because those teams have so many key contributors returning, but other teams remain unknown to us and probably to their coaches. The chemistry on many teams doesn’t become evident until the players face adversity together. That won’t happen until the games begin.
Many teams will be overrated or underrated this preseason because of their bowl performances at the end of last season. SI’s writers and editors fell into this trap in the case of each terrible pick described above. The 1984 Washington team ended its season by beating Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl 28–17. The 1993 Arizona and 2000 Oregon State teams ended their seasons by dominating in the Fiesta Bowl. The only thing less reliable than predicting the future performance of large groups of 18-to-22-year-old males is basing that prediction on the performance of a slightly different group in an exhibition game about which one or both teams may or may not have cared. Tennessee’s 45–28 TaxSlayer Bowl annihilation of Iowa last January could suggest the young Volunteers are ready to compete for an SEC East title…or that they simply had a good day in Jacksonville. Oklahoma, meanwhile, got bashed by Clemson 40–6 in the Russell Athletic Bowl. That doesn’t mean the Sooners and their revamped offense won’t factor into this season’s Big 12 or playoff race, especially considering TCU must play in Norman six days before it hosts Baylor on Black Friday.
So much can happen between now and then, and even at that point in late November, the selection committee may still have no idea which teams will make the playoff. Remember how TCU sat at No. 3, three spots ahead of the Baylor team that had beaten the Horned Frogs, with one week of games remaining? Remember a few days later when the committee finally (correctly) put the winner of the head-to-head matchup in front? Remember when the committee then left both of those teams out of the bracket? That shift caused a brief existential crisis in the championship-game-free Big 12, which might have gotten two teams into the playoff had things broken a little differently on Dec. 6.
The fact is we don’t know who will start at quarterback for Ohio State, what the committee will do, who will make the playoff. That’s what makes this season so damn exciting. It could get crazy. Let’s embrace it.
Check back on Wednesday for Sports Illustrated's preseason Top 25 complete with scouting reports on each team.