2014 midseason Crystal Ball: Picks for the playoff, Heisman, much more
Seven weeks of the 2014 college football season are in the books, and everything fans thought they knew entering the fall has been turned on its head. Mississippi State, unranked in August, sits at No. 1 in the AP Poll. UCLA, a preseason College Football Playoff favorite, is currently 4-2. Surprises have come early and often, and more are sure to present themselves as the second half unfolds.
So, what storylines should fans keep an eye on? SI.com’s team of writers and analysts offers its predictions for the second half. For more coverage, check out our full expert playoff projections and the Midseason All-America Team.
Andy Staples: Mississippi State. The Bulldogs look like the most complete team in the country right now. They have a dual-threat quarterback (Dak Prescott), a stout offensive line, a physical receiving corps, a deep defensive line and an All-America-caliber linebacker (Benardrick McKinney). If they can survive the SEC West, they can win the whole thing.
Martin Rickman: Florida State. The Seminoles seem to be dealing with one thing after another in 2014, and although they haven’t looked as dominant as they did last season, that team is still in there hibernating. Get past Notre Dame, and Florida State can hit the snooze button until the ACC title game.
Zac Ellis: Oregon. The return of left tackle Jake Fisher revitalized Oregon’s offensive line in a 42-30 win over UCLA. Of course, nothing is guaranteed in remaining games against Stanford (Nov. 1) and Utah (Nov. 8). If the Ducks can protect Marcus Mariota, they might be the most dangerous team in the country.
Lindsay Schnell: Auburn. It’s OK to lose in mid-October, especially when you have a veteran coach who has played for, and won, a national championship before. Trust that Gus Malzahn will right the ship.
Brian Hamilton: Oregon. We made our preseason predictions. They have been obliterated. The only reasonable conclusion? The season folds on itself and what was logical at the start is somehow logical at the end. So, it's Oregon beating Florida State for the title. And I am sure to be horrifyingly wrong about this.
Ben Glicksman: Auburn. The schedule is daunting, as five of the Tigers' six remaining opponents are in the top 35 of Football Outsiders’ S&P+ ratings. But Malzahn’s team has the talent to successfully navigate that stretch. While last fall’s group had firepower but lacked balance -- it ranked eighth nationally in yards per play, but 95th in yards per play allowed -- this year’s crew can be dominant on both sides of the ball. Look for a huge second half out of wide receiver Duke Williams.
Colin Becht: Mississippi State. I’m not convinced the Bulldogs are an all-time great team, and I doubt they’ll make it through the entire season unscathed. Still, in a year in which no team seems perfect, Dan Mullen’s squad might be closest.
Gabriel Baumgaertner: Georgia. I refuse to back down from my preseason pick, even with the uncertainty surrounding Todd Gurley. Here’s why: Outside of its Nov. 15 game against Auburn, Georgia has one of the easiest remaining schedules of any SEC team. Trap games exist at Arkansas and against Georgia Tech, but the Bulldogs boast a litany of offensive weapons and a defense that shut out Missouri. If Mark Richt's team can get to the SEC title game, then it has a 50-50 shot to reach to the playoff. If Gurley returns, then Georgia -- which has scored at least 34 points in every game -- maintains the balance to win it all.
Second-half surprise team
Staples: Kansas State. The Wildcats were a few missed field goals away from beating Auburn on Sept. 18, and they have a quarterback athletic enough to escape pressure (Jake Waters), a dynamic receiver/return man (Tyler Lockett) and another big-play threat at receiver (Curry Sexton). More importantly, they have a defense that doesn’t freelance, which is critical against the wide-open offenses they face in the Big 12. We’ll probably know by this weekend whether this prediction was correct. Kansas State plays at Oklahoma on Saturday.
Rickman: Washington. First-year coaches don’t always fare so well, but Chris Petersen inherited enough defensive talent to make the Huskies a dangerous team in a Pac-12 in which no program has jumped to the forefront.
Ellis: Nebraska. Tailback Ameer Abdullah and defensive end Randy Gregory are two of the best players in the country at their positions. That goes a long way in a Big Ten that lacks depth. The Cornhuskers should have no problem reaching the league title game if they get by Wisconsin (Nov. 15) and Iowa (Nov. 28).
Schnell: Kansas State. The Wildcats are sneaky good, with talent at three crucial positions: quarterback (Waters), defensive end (Ryan Mueller) and receiver (Lockett). Bonus points to Lockett for being a terrific return man.
Hamilton: Arizona State. Todd Graham and company plunged off the radar when a flawed UCLA team ground the Sun Devils into dust on Sept. 25. But quarterback Taylor Kelly didn't play that night. If he's healthy for Stanford on Saturday, Arizona State could have its triggerman back to make noise in a second half that also features games with Notre Dame (Nov. 8), Utah (Nov. 1) and Arizona (Nov. 28).
Glicksman: Stanford. It feels like the same script every year: Stanford flies under the radar before rallying to capture the Pac-12 title. Despite dropping two early heartbreakers, against USC and at Notre Dame, the Cardinal will rebound in the second half. They lead the FBS in yards per play allowed (3.64) and could cause Oregon’s offensive line lots of problems during their visit to Eugene on Nov. 1.
Becht: Louisville. The Cardinals’ offense has been inconsistent, gaining just 546 combined yards in losses to Virginia and Clemson. But Louisville’s defense (third nationally in defensive S&P+; second in yards per play allowed) gives it a chance in any game it plays. The Cards will take down either Florida State or Notre Dame.
Baumgaertner: West Virginia. In the preseason, I thought coach Dana Holgorsen was on a particularly warm seat. Not any longer. West Virginia has lost only two games this fall -- to Alabama and Oklahoma -- and was competitive in both. Now, the Mountaineers enter an exciting three-week stretch that brings Baylor (Oct. 18) and TCU (Nov. 1) to Morgantown and includes a visit to Oklahoma State (Oct. 25). Holgorsen has the offense to keep pace with each of these teams. Quarterback Clint Trickett has thrown for over 300 yards with a touchdown in every game.
Second-half flop team
Staples: Oklahoma. The Sooners can prove two of my picks wrong on Saturday, but the past two weeks haven’t inspired much confidence. They lost to TCU and squeaked by a Texas team that shouldn’t have been able to stay on the field with a national title contender. Maybe it was just a brief lull, but if Oklahoma has dropped off, Kansas State -- fresh off a bye -- should be able to expose any weaknesses.
Rickman: Oklahoma. Quarterback Trevor Knight and the offense haven’t made the jump Oklahoma needed them to for the Sooners to be an elite team. That defense is still rock solid, but there’s another loss or two left on this schedule.
Ellis: Alabama. An improved Crimson Tide offense has slowed considerably since September. Alabama has averaged 4.9 yards per play and two turnovers in its last two games, scoring no more than 17 points after averaging 42 during a 4-0 start. Nick Saban’s crew might be the fourth-best team in the SEC West.
Schnell: Stanford. I want to believe the Cardinal’s red-zone woes -- they’ve scored on just 19 of 28 trips so far -- will get better as the season wears on. But man, that offense is ugly. Despite Stanford’s terrific defense, I’m losing faith.
Hamilton: Baylor. One can't dismiss Bryce Petty and the Bears eradicating a three-score deficit to squeeze by TCU. But they were down 21 points at home and were helped by a horrendous pass interference call. Now comes a stretch in which four of six games -- at West Virginia (Oct. 18), at Oklahoma (Nov. 8), against Oklahoma State (Nov. 22) and against Kansas State (Dec. 6) -- are losable. Even splitting those games takes the air out of the College Football Playoff balloon.
Glicksman: Ohio State. The Buckeyes have quietly crept to the fringe of the top 10 behind freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett, who has thrown for 17 touchdowns with only five interceptions. But Ohio State has yet to face the majority of its toughest tests. Look for the young passer to struggle once the team hits the teeth of its Big Ten slate, particularly in a game at Michigan State on Nov. 8.
Becht: Oklahoma State. The Cowboys’ 5-1 mark, with the lone loss coming against Florida State, looks impressive until you consider the teams Oklahoma State beat. Coach Mike Gundy’s group defeated four 2-4 FBS foes (UTSA, Texas Tech, Iowa State and Kansas) and a 3-3 FCS opponent (Missouri State). The Cowboys don’t protect well (103rd in the FBS in sacks allowed), don’t run well (103rd in yards per carry) and have a negative turnover margin. They’ll fall when the meat of their schedule hits.
Baumgaertner: Baylor. The Bears look like a team of destiny after their comeback win over TCU, but Baylor benefited from a phantom pass interference call that set up the game-winning field goal, and it picked apart the Horned Frogs’ 73rd-ranked pass defense. As talented as Petty is, the Bears won’t fly past more disciplined defenses like Oklahoma or Kansas State. Baylor will also get locked into some shootouts against comparably fast offenses, like West Virginia and Oklahoma State. The Bears are an exciting bunch, but they won’t go unscathed.
Heisman Trophy winner
Staples: Marcus Mariota, Oregon. Mississippi State’s Prescott boasts a better supporting cast, but Mariota is the guy I would choose if I had the No. 1 pick in a draft to build college football teams. Mariota’s problem could be the players around him. If offensive tackle Fisher goes out with another injury, Mariota might not have the blocking to properly utilize all his tools.
Rickman: Dak Prescott, Mississippi State. The Heisman winner tends to have a few magical moments, and while the surgical precision of Mariota can’t be ignored, Prescott seems destined to win a whole bunch of awards.
Ellis: Mariota. Oregon’s effort at UCLA showed what’s to come for this Ducks’ offense. Mariota is still the quintessential dual-threat quarterback and hasn’t thrown an interception this year. Plus, Oregon already disposed of Bruins star Brett Hundley, Mariota’s biggest West Coast Heisman threat.
Schnell: Mariota. Maybe you have to watch him in person to truly appreciate his brilliance, but there is no doubt in my mind that Mariota is the best player in the country. He can carry the Ducks to the playoff.
Hamilton: Mariota. The world is spellbound by Prescott and Mississippi State, and he should retain the Heisman lead through mid-November. However, Mariota's total offense numbers are just about the same -- 1,911 yards to Prescott's 2,054 -- and the Ducks quarterback has thrown 17 touchdowns against zero interceptions. Zero. Mariota vaults on to the dais in New York, trophy in hand.
Glicksman: Mariota. Despite missing out on a playoff berth, Mariota’s season will be too good to ignore. He has accounted for at least three scores in each of his first six games, and, as many of my colleagues have mentioned, he has attempted 155 passes this fall without throwing an interception. The Ducks have flaws, but Mariota always seems in complete control of the offense -- even when he’s not.
Becht: Mariota. Prescott would be my pick if the race ended today, but he is too erratic to hang on to the lead. He had two interceptions in the Bulldogs’ 38-23 win over Auburn, and while he went 20-of-26 with no picks against Texas A&M, he made several unforced errors on which a better defense would have capitalized. Mariota, with his nearly flawless accuracy, has the consistency to win the award, so long as his offensive line stays healthy.
Baumgaertner: Mariota. If the Ducks can adequately protect their star signal-caller, then Mariota should put up staggering numbers the rest of the way. Left tackle Fisher’s return should ease the pressure on Mariota, who had little room to operate in the Ducks’ 31-24 loss to Arizona on Oct. 2. The redshirt junior has yet to play his annual bout with Stanford or face a physical challenge from Utah, but he faces some otherwise lackluster defenses in the second half. Prescott will receive serious consideration, but Mariota is college football’s best player.
Next to fall of out Heisman race
Staples: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin. It’s tough enough for a tailback to win this award, but it’s almost impossible for a tailback on an average team to win.
Rickman: Amari Cooper, Alabama. Wide receivers already have a tough time shouting above the noise in the Heisman conversation. With Alabama’s offense sputtering, Cooper will exit the room entirely. He’ll still finish the year with big numbers, but he won’t earn a trip to New York.
Ellis: Nick Marshall, Auburn. The Tigers quarterback probably won’t linger in Heisman conversations as long as Ole Miss and Mississippi State remain atop the SEC West. Plus, Marshall already lost to fellow Heisman contender Prescott.
Schnell: Gurley. I’m predicting this just because I think Gurley will be sidelined for a while amid this NCAA investigation. The side effects could include Georgia losing, and people falling in love with other guys who are playing every week.
Hamilton: Marshall. Marshall's numbers are a bit wanting; 10 touchdown passes against three interceptions, an efficiency rating (138.4) that ranks 49th nationally. He has been uneven rushing the ball against top foes, posting 100 yards against Mississippi State but only 46 against Kansas State. The Tigers still must face Ole Miss (Nov. 1), Georgia (Nov. 15) and Alabama (Nov. 29) on the road. Odds are against Marshall hanging in the conversation for the duration.
Glicksman: Gurley. His ability is not in question. His eligibility is. Although he played like the most dynamic back in the country through his first five games in 2014, he’d be hard-pressed to win if he’s forced to miss significant time.
Becht: Everett Golson, Notre Dame. Golson is immensely talented, but he also can be sloppy. Notre Dame’s quarterback has turned the ball over nine times in the Fighting Irish’s last three games. That they’ve won all of those is a credit to his ability, but it’s also unsustainable, especially in Tallahassee on Saturday.
Baumgaertner: Bryce Petty, Baylor. Petty must prepare for better defenses (Oklahoma, Kansas State) even if he’ll put up gaudy numbers against inferior ones (Kansas, Texas Tech). Petty’s performance against TCU was the type of Heisman moment that’s relived in a postseason video tribute, but it’ll only take one defense to put a hitch in the Bears’ aerial attack and tire out their defense. Petty is great, but not as complete as other quarterbacks (Mariota, Prescott) in the Heisman race.
Coach of the year
Staples: Dan Mullen, Mississippi State. Urban Meyer’s former offensive coordinator built his program from the ground up, plucking recruits from relative obscurity in the Magnolia State. Now, Mullen has a team capable of winning the SEC and the national title.
Rickman: Mullen. How can it be anyone else? Mullen operates with fewer dollars than most of his contemporaries, but he is leading one of the most confident teams in the nation. Mississippi State’s coach needed a big year, and he's getting one.
Ellis: Mullen. Ahead of Mullen’s sixth season in Starkville, most cowbell-ringing fans expected the Bulldogs to finally take a big step forward. Mullen has delivered. Mississippi State is the top team in college football, a testament to Mullen’s ability to develop two- and three-star recruiting talent. The question now is whether Mullen would emerge as a candidate at Florida if Will Muschamp were canned.
Schnell: Mullen. No one could have anticipated Mississippi State’s rise except for the sixth-year head coach, who told insiders from the beginning that the Bulldogs could win in a loaded SEC. All he did this season was prove it -- emphatically.
Hamilton: Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss. This inevitably comes down to checking on the preseason polls and picking a coach whose team made a leap. Freeze started with a top-20 outfit by that measure, and he won't win the award if it's Mississippi State representing the SEC West in the league title game and the playoff. But it says here Ole Miss survives the rest of the way, in which case the choice will be clear.
Glicksman: Mullen. It may seem like a long time ago, but Mullen was arguably on the hot seat after the Bulldogs limped to a 4-6 start in 2013. What a difference a year makes. Following last Saturday’s win over Auburn, Mullen has led Mississippi State to the top of the polls and the forefront of playoff contention. The rest of the way won’t be easy, but neither was the climb that Mullen already made.
Becht: Mullen. Barring a second-half collapse, there’s no other choice. Mullen took a program that hasn’t won a conference title since 1941 -- and hasn’t even finished above .500 in the SEC since ’99 -- and has it on track for that and more.
Baumgaertner: Mullen. Even if Mississippi State loses three games by the end of the year, Mullen deserves an honor for transforming a historically downtrodden program into the No. 1 team in the nation -- no matter how long that ranking lasts. Given how many fan bases are frustrated with their team’s head coaches, Mullen reminds the public that program building takes time. He’s in his sixth season in Starkville, and there were calls for his ouster during a difficult 2013 campaign. Now, he’s one of the most respected coaches in the nation. He deserves it.
Coach on the hottest seat
Staples: Brady Hoke, Michigan. The way athletic director Dave Brandon hung Hoke out to dry during the week following the Shane Morris concussion fiasco spoke volumes. Barring a miracle run, Hoke is probably already done.
Rickman: Hoke. Hoke is in his very own Cathy comic strip this season. You start to wonder if even he wants it to be over. Michigan is not Michigan right now, and there are plenty of people to blame, but Hoke is the easiest target.
Ellis: Hoke. Hoke’s days are numbered. The Wolverines aren’t close to being a Big Ten threat, and the Morris situation didn’t help Hoke from a public relations perspective. Plus, AD Brandon hasn’t given Hoke much support. Michigan will be shopping for a new coach this winter.
Schnell: Hoke. I’m not sure this even counts, because we all know Hoke is losing his job. Still, I’m curious how bad things must get at Michigan for him to be fired during the season. Any chance it happens?
Hamilton: Hoke. It would seem Hoke is so far gone already that it's better to discuss others with fates up in the air. The battered Wolverines face war-hammer beatdowns on the road at Michigan State (Oct. 25) and Ohio State (Nov. 29). If they get crushed, it won't matter what occurred against Indiana, Northwestern and Maryland. The program will be on the hunt for a new leader come December.
Glicksman: Tim Beckman, Illinois. Hoke and Florida's Muschamp may be the more high-profile choices, but Beckman’s tenure has been every bit as disastrous. He has gone 1-18 in Big Ten play since taking over before the 2012 season, and his teams have beaten just six FBS programs (Western Michigan, Cincinnati, Miami (Ohio), Purdue, Western Kentucky and Texas State) since he arrived on campus. This sums up the general feeling of the Fighting Illini fan base.
Becht: Will Muschamp, Florida. Hoke’s seat isn’t hot; it has already been pulled out from under him. With Michigan apparently content to tolerate a lost season and fire Hoke at the end of the year, Muschamp is the coach most likely to lose his job soonest. Losses to Missouri and Georgia in the Gators’ next two games might do it.
Baumgaertner: Muschamp. Hoke isn’t on a hot seat anymore. He’s a lame duck. Muschamp could feasibly save his job and almost took a step in that direction last Saturday against LSU. But, like so many losses during his tenure, bad decisions on offense and listless third-down defense cost Muschamp the kind of win that could keep him in Gainesville. If Florida doesn’t win one high-profile game before the end of the season, Muschamp will be out.
Biggest playoff-related controversy
Staples: Two Power Five leagues will get shut out, which will happen whenever two teams from the same conference make the field. As angry fans bombard commissioners with questions about why their league isn’t competing for the title, those commissioners will realize a four-team set-up was a mistake. They should have gone with eight and guaranteed their leagues a place in the playoff.
Rickman: Pac-12 parity keeps that league out of playoff. There are lots of good teams out west. Too many, unfortunately. And the Hail Marys and missed field goals aren’t helping anybody. With no dominant team, we might see most of the Pac-12’s contenders with two losses on their résumés by the end of the season.
Ellis: People will demand to know the ballots of individual selection committee members, but won’t find those out. Instead, chair Jeff Long will explain each week’s rankings on ESPN. In a system that aims for transparency, many fans will cry of widespread bias among those hidden ballots.
Schnell: A two-loss SEC team will get into the semis. East Coast bias is real. So is favoritism. Ditto for TV ratings. And let’s not forget this is the best league in the country, top heavy or not, and if you can emerge from the SEC West with only two losses you likely deserve a prize. This year, it’ll come in the form of a playoff bid.
Hamilton: Florida State loses to Notre Dame but still makes the playoff, squeezing out one-loss SEC teams. At some point the Seminoles will lose again. If the Irish eliminate offensive mistakes, they can cause enough havoc on defense to make that happen. But Florida State has ample time to recover and get the benefit of the doubt for being a conference champ. Cue the outrage from the SEC runners-up.
Glicksman: One-loss Florida State will be left out of the field. It’s nearly impossible for a program to win every game in consecutive seasons. The Seminoles will fall only once, against Notre Dame on Saturday, but it will be enough for the selection committee to slot a pair of one-loss teams ahead of them. The decision will go over about as well in Tallahassee as the time King Joffrey ordered his Kingsguard to kill an entire angry mob in Game of Thrones.
Becht: The playoff winds up very closely resembling the BCS. First, there was the news that the selection committee will not use any metric to analyze strength of schedule. Now, with the latest update that neither margin of victory nor any other statistic beyond the 26 categories listed on each team’s sheet will be allowed in the discussion, the selection committee’s process is looking more and more like an only slightly humanized version of the BCS.
Baumgaertner: No Pac-12 or Big Ten team will make the playoff. UCLA is one of the first half’s biggest disappointments and is out of contention. Oregon has lost once in league play and another would keep them out. Michigan State missed its best chance to pad its résumé at Oregon. By the end of the season, the committee will have to address conference cannibalization and a weak Power Five league.
Staples: Both Mississippi schools are for real, and both make the playoff. This wouldn’t necessarily require both to be unbeaten entering the Egg Bowl. The way things are going, it’s entirely possible at least one two-loss team will make the playoff. Two-loss teams in the SEC West will get the greatest benefit of the doubt.
Rickman: Washington's Shaq Thompson will be a Heisman finalist. He is a one-man wrecking crew. Put him on offense, and he’ll pick up yards. Put him on defense, and he’ll make a play. The junior is skilled enough to do just about anything, and he’s picking up buzz after scoring four defensive touchdowns.
Ellis: Michigan State will win the Big Ten title, but it will be left out of the playoff. Even with a strong loss at Oregon, the Spartans’ body of work won’t be enough to convince committee members of their playoff worth.
Schnell: Muschamp will still be Florida’s coach come February. Sorry, Gators. I know you’re ready for someone else -- like maybe my coach of the year pick -- but I think Muschamp wins just enough games to earn another season. Look at it this way: It’s fun to go to games when you don’t know the outcome ahead of time!
Hamilton: Notre Dame's Brian Kelly leaves for an NFL job after the season. Kelly will be fed up with being hung out to dry by administrators during an academic fraud investigation into five players -- how is it possible the head coach at Notre Dame is telling reporters he has no info on this? -- and he'll bolt for a challenge at football’s highest level. Yes, the school stood by Kelly during controversies that landed more directly at his feet. But that won't come into play. He'll be a hot commodity after nine or 10 wins, or more, and he'll go.
Glicksman: Two more late-night Pac-12 games will be decided by final-second Hail Marys. Embrace the chaos.
Becht: Two one-loss conference champions get shut out of the playoff. Call this the biggest playoff-related controversy, part two. Oregon, despite losing only to Arizona, and Michigan State, despite losing only to Oregon, will be cast aside when the committee ultimately reveals its final four. A second one-loss SEC team will be chosen instead. Maybe this isn’t so bold, after all.
Baumgaertner: Picking Georgia to win the national title is pretty bold, right?