At long last a new season dawns, and with it comes the inaugural College Football Playoff. Now, for the first time in the history of the sport, programs across the nation will compete for a spot in the four-team field. At least one major-conference champion will be left on the outside looking in.
So, which teams are poised to succeed? Which could fall short of expectations? The College Football Playoff era is here -- will it prove any less controversial than that of the oft-maligned BCS?
As the first weekend of games approaches, Sports Illustrated unveils its preseason Top 25, including its four playoff-bound selections. For more college football preview content, be sure check out SI's Preseason All-America Team, 2014 schedule guide, TV media roundtable and much more.
If Notre Dame earns a playoff berth, Everett Golson will have a say in it. But it’s what the quarterback says that will be crucial. The 6‐foot senior endured his season-long suspension for cheating on a test in part by honing his football IQ with quarterback guru George Whitfield last year, and he is prepared to embrace the intricacies of coach Brian Kelly’s offense instead of running a remedial version of it, as he did in 2012. He’ll first have to fend off 6‐foot sophomore Malik Zaire in what Kelly insists isn’t “artificial competition.” Expect the cannon‐armed Golson to start and to far surpass his '12 numbers (58.8% completion percentage and 12 TDs).
Saying LSU’s roster is young is like calling "Breaking Bad" intense or Kanye West outspoken. The Tigers have relied on freshmen and sophomores in each of the past few seasons, and the pattern will continue since seven underclassmen entered the 2014 draft. The latest recruiting class features dual-threat passer Brandon Harris, rangy wideout Malachi Dupre and, most notably, running back Leonard Fournette, whom coach Les Miles, at SEC media days, compared with Michael Jordan. LSU needs more than just strong performances from its newest arrivals, though. The defensive players who started to break out in 2013 have to emerge as stars.
With signal-caller Tajh Boyd and receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant off to the NFL, the Tigers will have to amp up their defense to reach double-digit wins for the fourth consecutive season. The good news is that consensus All-America defensive end Vic Beasley chose to return for his senior year. The 6'2", 235‑pound Beasley had 23 tackles for loss a year ago and needs eight sacks to break the Clemson career mark of 28. “Maybe some of the names everybody’s heard are more on the defensive side now instead of on the offensive side,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said, “and maybe that’s OK.”
Not all Trojans boosters were happy with the hiring of former Pete Carroll assistant Steve Sarkisian, but the first-year USC coach inherits a talent-rich roster, which is always a good starting point. Quarterback Cody Kessler, receiver Nelson Agholor and tailback Javorius Allen, all juniors, are back and should play well in Sarkisian’s up-tempo, no-huddle style. The 6'1", 210-pound Kessler struggled with consistency last season. Junior defensive end Leonard Williams anchors one of the best lines in the country, but USC will be learning its third scheme in three seasons. The secondary has question marks, and don’t be surprised if true freshman Adoree’ Jackson gets reps at corner -- and at receiver.
Ole Miss had one of the SEC’s best attacks at times last season, averaging 6.0 yards per play and a league-leading 78.3 plays per game, but execution was often a problem. The Rebels ended the year next to last in the conference in red zone efficiency (73.9%). That inability to finish kept Ole Miss from contending in the SEC West last season. Senior Bo Wallace holds the keys to coach Hugh Freeze’s up-tempo offense. Sophomore receiver Laquon Treadwell and sophomore tight end Evan Engram should give Wallace plenty to work with through the air, while tailbacks I’Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton, who combined for almost 1,100 rushing yards last year, will man the backfield.
Arizona State will score a lot. Coach Todd Graham’s high-octane offense is led by school-record-breaking quarterback Taylor Kelly, who enters his third season as a starter. Kelly has a slew of weapons, including NFL-ready redshirt junior wide receiver Jaelen Strong and do-everything junior running back D.J. Foster. “This,” Graham says, “is going to be the best football team we’ve had.”
Health and leadership were critical to Missouri’s unexpected rise in the SEC East last year. They figure to play an equally essential role in the Tigers’ quest to defend their division crown. After an injury-riddled 2012 campaign that saw Mizzou miss the postseason, coach Gary Pinkel’s team went 12-2, capped by a 41-31 win over Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl. Pinkel attributes the success to conditioning, limiting contact in practice and playing a lot of guys. He hopes the latter keeps his team from regressing without quarterback James Franklin, defensive linemen Kony Ealy and Michael Sam and running back Henry Josey, who all left for NFL.
Oregon State needs to establish some balance offensively. A year after passing for a Pac-12 record 4,662 yards, quarterback Sean Mannion returns with a group of unproven receivers and a banged-up offensive line. Junior center Isaac Seumalo, one of the only four-star recruits to ever pick the Beavers, is still recovering from a broken foot suffered in last season’s Hawaii Bowl win over Boise State. Seumalo and a handful of other experienced linemen missed time this spring, prompting coach Mike Riley to admit in July, “I’m worried about our offensive line."
For Marshall to have a chance at making the College Football Playoff, it must go undefeated. That would require a Heisman-caliber season out of Rakeem Cato, who enters this fall with 10,176 career passing yards. Last year the Thundering Herd won double-digit games for the first time since 2002, and with 15 returning starters the potential for a special season is there. They averaged more than 42 points a game in 2013, constantly putting pressure on foes to match the Herd strike for strike.