SI's college football writers makes their picks for the College Football Playoff, Heisman Trophy and more.
With the 2015 college football season nearly upon us, those questions you’ve been thinking about for months will soon have answers: Can Ohio State defend its national title? Which conference or conferences will get shut out of the second College Football Playoff? Is the Pac-12 South a better division than the SEC West? Will another quarterback win the Heisman Trophy?
We compiled our own list of important questions for a panel of SI.com writers, getting their prediction for the playoff, Heisman, hot seat and more. For more preview coverage, check out our preseason bowl projections, All-America Team, Top 25 and more.
|writer||Orange Bowl Semi||Cotton Bowl Semi||National champ. game||NATIONAL champ|
|Gabriel Baumgaertner||Ohio State vs. Stanford||LSU vs. TCU||Ohio State vs. LSU||Ohio State|
|Colin Becht||Baylor vs. Auburn||Ohio State vs. Michigan State||Ohio State vs. Baylor||Ohio State|
|Zac Ellis||Auburn vs. Michigan State||TCU vs. UCLA||Auburn vs. TCU||Auburn|
|Ben Glicksman||Ohio State vs. UCLA||Baylor vs. Auburn||Ohio State vs. Baylor||Ohio State|
|Brian Hamilton||Ohio State vs. Auburn||Baylor vs. Arizona State||Baylor vs. Ohio State||Baylor|
|Chris Johnson||UCLA vs. Ohio State||Baylor vs. Clemson||Ohio State vs. Baylor||Ohio State|
|Lindsay Schnell||Baylor vs. Michigan State||Ohio State vs. Auburn||Auburn vs. Baylor||Auburn|
|Andy Staples||Alabama vs. Baylor||Ohio State vs. UCLA||Ohio State vs. Alabama||Ohio State|
|Pete Thamel||Ohio State vs. Notre Dame||Arizona State vs. Georgia||Ohio State vs. Georgia||Ohio State|
|writer||Peach Bowl||Fiesta Bowl||Rose bowl||sugar bowl|
|Gabriel Baumgaertner||Florida State vs. Cincinnati||Georgia vs. Clemson||Michigan State vs. Oregon||Baylor vs. Texas A&M|
|Colin Becht||Georgia vs. Clemson||Stanford vs. Boise State||Wisconsin vs. Oregon||Oklahoma vs. Alabama|
|Zac Ellis||Clemson vs. Boise State||Georgia vs. Notre Dame||Ohio State vs. Oregon||Baylor vs. Alabama|
|Ben Glicksman||Oregon vs. Boise State||Florida State vs. Georgia||Michigan State vs. Stanford||Oklahoma vs. Alabama|
|Brian Hamilton||Florida State vs. Alabama||Notre Dame vs. Boise State||Michigan State vs. USC||TCU vs. Georgia|
|Chris Johnson||Florida State vs. Alabama||Boise State vs. Stanford||Michigan State vs. Oregon||TCU vs. Auburn|
|Lindsay Schnell||Florida State vs. Boise State||Notre Dame vs. Virginia Tech||Oregon vs. Wisconsin||TCU vs. Alabama|
|Andy Staples||Clemson vs. Auburn||Cincinnati vs. Notre Dame||Michigan State vs. Oregon||TCU vs. Georgia|
|Pete Thamel||Clemson vs. Auburn||Boise State vs. Oregon||Michigan State vs. Stanford||Baylor vs. Alabama|
Gabriel Baumgaertner: Ohio State. Boring? Absolutely. The reality is that no team is really in the same orbit as Ohio State at the moment. There will probably be some drop-off due to the departure of Devin Smith at receiver, but the Buckeyes return four starters on a mammoth offensive line, the best defensive lineman in the country in Joey Bosa, and potential Heisman winners in quarterback J.T. Barrett and running back Ezekiel Elliott. Their offense is fast enough to keep pace in shootouts and their defense is staunch enough to withstand slower, more physical opposing offenses. Potential upsets loom against Penn State and Michigan, but right now, the Buckeyes are a class above the rest.
Colin Becht: Ohio State. Defending champions aren’t supposed to return so many pieces. Yet Ohio State enters 2015 seemingly loaded across the board, whether it’s the multiple star quarterbacks (Barrett and Cardale Jones), the dynamic running back (Elliott), the veteran offensive line, the top pass-rusher in the country (Bosa), the playmaking linebackers or the talented secondary. Just try to find a weakness. Oh, and a schedule that won’t tax the Buckeyes too much helps, too.
Zac Ellis: Auburn. Will Muschamp won’t need to construct a top-10 defense for Auburn to win the SEC. With the talent on the Tigers’ offense, Muchamp just needs a halfway competent unit on his side of the ball. Expect Auburn to take advantage of a down year for Alabama in the SEC West, as the Tide search for stability on offense.
Ben Glicksman: Ohio State. I considered going against the grain here, but then I remembered the Buckeyes bring back a small army of potential first-round NFL draft selections. The offense should thrive behind Elliott and a veteran line. The defense features a surplus of strengths and very few weaknesses. Is this a boring pick? Sure. But betting against Urban Meyer’s crew is an iffy proposition at best.
Brian Hamilton: Baylor. A year after the Big 12 is shut out of the College Football Playoff, one of its teams takes home the trophy. This is a tenuous choice, because it assumes the Bears will go undefeated, as their strength of schedule won’t permit playoff participation otherwise. It should come down to beating Oklahoma at home and TCU on the road. An offensive line with five starters back including SI.com preseason second-team All-America Spencer Drango, a glut of skill position talent, a defense returning nine starters including first team defensive end Shawn Oakman…It might be a lot to ask any team to go unbeaten, but Baylor is equipped to do it.
Chris Johnson: Ohio State. Picking the consensus preseason number one team to win it all feels like a really bad idea. But the Buckeyes truly do seem capable of repeating as national champs. They’re loaded on both sides of the ball and their schedule is manageable after a tricky season opener at Virginia Tech.
Lindsay Schnell: Auburn. After two years in disarray, the college football world will return to its regularly scheduled programming by crowning an SEC school as national champion. Who’d have thought the difference would be Muschamp? Seven starters return on offense, and Jeremy Johnson is a star in the making.
Andy Staples: Ohio State. Yes, it's tough to repeat. But teams with great chemistry can handle the pressures that come with being the defending champ. These Buckeyes have excellent chemistry. They also have better players.
Pete Thamel: Ohio State. It’s Ohio State or the field. Smart money is on the Buckeyes. But it’ll look different than you expect, as this Buckeyes will rely on a gritty offensive line and stout defense to carry them.
Baumgaertner: Stanford. If David Shaw is comfortable allowing four-year starting quarterback Kevin Hogan throw the ball, the Cardinal will have their most daunting offense since Andrew Luck left the program after the 2011 season. Running back Christian McCaffrey can be deployed all over the field, and tight end Austin Hooper is one of the nation’s most underrated players. The defense will be inexperienced, but outside linebacker Peter Kalambayi is a star in waiting.
Becht: Texas A&M. The blind comparison of Texas A&M to Auburn has become a cliché because the off-season is long and because it’s, well, accurate. With Kyle Allen quarterbacking a Kevin Sumlin offense that boasts the best receivers in the SEC, the Aggies should be able to keep pace with anyone. Their schedule sets up nicely for a surprise run as both Alabama and Auburn have to come to College Station. If John Chavis can make the defense merely average—standout defensive end Myles Garrett should help with that—Texas A&M could contend in the SEC West until late in the season.
Ellis: Virginia Tech. The Hokies return sixteen starters, including quarterback Michael Brewer and the bulk of last year’s defensive line. The offense must improve from 2014 (12th in the ACC in total offense) but Virginia Tech avoids facing Clemson or Florida State in conference play. We’ll know if Frank Beamer’s squad can truly surprise after its home opener against Ohio State.
Glicksman: UCLA. While conventional wisdom says it’s unwise to expect big things out of a true freshman quarterback, Josh Rosen has the pedigree to succeed from day one. The bigger reason to believe in the Bruins: 18 starters return, including do-it-all linebacker Myles Jack and 1,575-yard tailback Paul Perkins. If UCLA can navigate a brutal early stretch (BYU, at Arizona, Arizona State, at Stanford), watch out.
Hamilton: Arizona State. Surprise is relative for a program that has won 10 games in consecutive seasons. But the Sun Devils seem to linger on the second tier of the Pac-12 title discussion, and I’m not sure why that’s the case. They have a proven quarterback (Mike Bercovici), a proven go-to playmaker (D.J. Foster) and a defense that has good depth in the back seven. They’ll face a young starting quarterback in the opener (Texas A&M’s Allen) and USC, Oregon and Arizona all visit Tempe. As playoff teams go, that checks a lot of boxes.
Johnson: Oklahoma State. The Cowboys won’t make a run at a playoff bid, but they could win a few more games than they did last season (7). The schedule is favorable, Mason Rudolph showed promise at quarterback last season and Emmanuel Ogbah is one of the nation’s top pass rushers.
Schnell: Arkansas. I’m drinking the Kool-Aid Hogs coach Bret Bielema is passing out, and looking forward to a slow, methodical offense led by big, burly offensive linemen. Hey, they are the most quotable players. The SEC West, much like the Pac-12 South, will be a bloodbath but I expect Arkansas to emerge with only a few wounds.
Staples: Oklahoma. We're falling into the same trap we did last year with the Sooners—only in reverse. We anointed them national title contenders based on their Sugar Bowl win against Alabama after the 2013 season, and they proceeded to go 8-5 the next season. In December, Oklahoma got thumped by Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl and now we’re forgetting about the Sooners. This is a better team with a new offense that faces Baylor and TCU in consecutive weeks in November. Oklahoma will help decide the Big 12 title.
Thamel: Mississippi State. The Bulldogs won’t finish last, as projected, in the SEC West. They likely won’t reclaim the No. 1 spot in the rankings, either. But with Dak Prescott at quarterback and veterans filling in at starting spots, they’ll be just fine. Expect Fred Ross to have a breakout season at slot receiver.
Baumgaertner: Auburn. Gus Malzahn is one of the finest offensive architects in the nation, but he meets an equal in Bobby Petrino to open the season and one of the nation’s most athletic defenses (LSU) two weeks later. The (Auburn) Tigers are a trendy national title pick, but unless quarterback Jeremy Johnson lives up to his incredible hype, they look most susceptible to suffer in the brutal SEC West.
Becht: TCU. It’s hard to go from 4–8 to 12–1 without some regression the next year. The Horned Frogs got too much luck on turnovers—a national-leading 6.34 points per game of it—and lose too much on defense, particularly linebacker Paul Dawson, defensive tackle Chucky Hunter and safety Chris Hackett, to match last season’s success. They’re still highly talented and should remain in the top tier of the Big 12, but expect at least two or three losses.
Ellis: USC. USC must prove it’s actually back as a Pac-12 contender. Cody Kessler is a talented quarterback, but his stats were padded against non-bowl teams in 2014. The defense also must get much better this year. With a schedule that includes road games against Arizona State, Notre Dame and Oregon—and a home meeting with UCLA, which has won three straight in the cross-town rivalry—the Trojans are not a playoff team yet.
Glicksman: TCU. It isn’t that I think TCU will have a bad season. It’s that I think the Horned Frogs will be 10-2 or 9-3 good, not unbeaten and in the College Football Playoff good. Boykin is a star, and wideout Kolby Listenbee (who runs a 10.09-second 100 meter dash) should have a monster year. But the Frogs lose lots of key defenders and weren’t as consistently dominant in 2014 as their Peach Bowl rout of Ole Miss would suggest. They’ll be a Big 12 contender, just not the No. 2 team in the nation.
Hamilton: Clemson. The pillowy ACC offers some cushion against free falls. But the offensive line protecting Deshaun Watson is a question, and the defense has been ravaged by graduation and unexpected departures. A taxing Louisville-Notre Dame-Georgia Tech corridor early on could precipitate a spiral—especially considering a depth-starved team has no bye week after Oct. 3.
Johnson: USC. The Trojans have been a trendy pick to “return to glory” seemingly every year since they finished 10-2 in 2011 under Lane Kiffin. This season they won’t even be the best team in Los Angeles. Though it returns a talented quarterback and several standouts at the skill positions, USC will falter against a tough schedule.
Schnell: UCLA. I’ll believe it when I see it, UCLA. I do not care that you return 18 starters or have one of the best freshmen (Rosen) in the country. I bought into the hype last year and learned my lesson. Also, we know who runs LA and that team’s name is Utah.
Staples: USC. The preseason projections for the Trojans don't take into account how much they have to replace on their front seven. They also don't take into account the fact that USC has lost to UCLA three consecutive seasons, and the division rival Bruins might be better than they were last year.
Thamel: TCU. There’s a feeling among Big 12 coaches that the Horned Frogs lost so much on defense that it will be difficult for them to live up to expectations. Dawson did so much for TCU defensively, I’m skeptical he can be seamlessly replaced. Losing Hackett is a huge blow to the secondary.
Heisman Trophy winner
Baumgaertner: Leonard Fournette. RB, LSU. It’s become harder and harder for running backs to win the Heisman Trophy, but Fournette will continue the dominance he showed over the second half of last year into this season. With a trove of talented receivers to offset his workload, Fournette should shine in his second season in Baton Rouge.
Becht: Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State. It’s so hard for a running back to win the Heisman. If they’re the unquestioned star of their offense—like Nick Chubb and Fournette this year—they luckily suffer a few rough games when good defenses stack the box and force the Heisman contender’s team to win through the air. If they’re balanced by a high-caliber quarterback, the passer often steals the spotlight. Luckily for Elliott, he gets the protection of Ohio State’s balance while remaining the clear star of an offense that will likely use two different QBs.
Ellis: Trevone Boykin, QB, TCU. Five of the last seven Heisman-winning quarterbacks have been dual-threat passers who amassed at least 2,500 passing yards and 600 rushing yards. Last season, when Boykin set eight TCU records, he threw for almost 4,000 yards and rushed for more than 700 yards. If he does that again on a playoff-bound Horned Frogs team, the Heisman will be his.
Glicksman: Seth Russell, QB, Baylor. Predicting the Heisman winner in the first week of September is an almost impossible task, but I’ll go with the beneficiary of an offense that churns out prolific passers. Over the past four seasons, Bears quarterbacks have thrown for 3,855, 4,200, 4,309 and 4,293 yards, respectively. Given Baylor’s schedule and the abundance of talent around Russell, I’d be stunned if he didn’t top 4,000 this fall.
Hamilton: Boykin. I’d love to say a quarterback won’t win it…but a quarterback will win it. If the Horned Frogs are in the playoff chase deep into November, and Boykin’s numbers look anything like they did in 2014 (4,608 total yards, responsible for 42 touchdowns), the senior signal-caller will be atop many a ballot. It might be a stat battle between Boykin and Baylor’s Russell.
Johnson: Jeremy Johnson, QB, Auburn. No, Johnson hasn’t really proven anything at the FBS level (78 total pass attempts over two seasons). And no, he’s not Cam Newton. But picking the quarterback of a team that could compete for a playoff berth and should boast one of the nation’s most prolific offenses is probably a good move.
Schnell: Boykin. I’m a big believer, and a big fan, of Boykin, who plays with terrific swagger. I expect him to improve on his numbers from last year, which were impressive: 3,901 passing yards, 707 rushing yards and 42 total touchdowns.
Staples: Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson. If that prediction above of the Tigers winning the ACC is going to be correct, it will be because Watson dominated.
Thamel: Mike Bercovici, QB, Arizona State. Let’s go with a long shot here. He’s already shown he can put up a ton of yards. Plus, Todd Graham isn’t shy about hanging big numbers on opponents. The weapons are there, and so is a porous defense that will force him to keep scoring. A bet on Bercovici is also a bet on Arizona State coming out of the Pac-12 South.
First player out of the Heisman race
Baumgaertner: Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State. Cook certainly looks the part at 6’4”, 218 pounds, but the Michigan State quarterback no longer has the dependable Jeremy Langford in the backfield or Tony Lippett on the flank. He’ll enjoy a good season on one of the nation’s top teams, but he’ll quickly be outpaced by TCU’s Boykin and Cal’s Jared Goff at QB.
Becht: Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State. Prescott could play just as well as he did last year or even better, but the score line won’t reflect it and neither will his stats nor his Heisman stock. As one of just four returning starters in the Bulldogs’ offense, Prescott won’t have time to pass or holes to run through. Plus, he loses running back Josh Robinson to help shoulder the load.
Ellis: Prescott. Prescott, who finished eighth in Heisman voting last season, probably missed his window for New York. The Bulldogs return one of the least experienced rosters in the SEC, which is probably why they’re picked last in the West. A loss in a Week 2 matchup with LSU in Starkville spells early doom for Prescott’s Heisman shot.
Glicksman: Braxton Miller, H-back, Ohio State. I fully expect Miller to make a smooth transition to H-back, and the Buckeyes should find plenty of creative ways to get him the ball. But he’ll be the third headliner on an offense that boasts more weapons than it knows what to do with. Miller will have his share of head-turning highlights, but look for Elliott and whoever starts at quarterback to attract more Heisman buzz.
Hamilton: Fournette. This may not be Fournette’s fault, entirely, but back-to-back Tigers losses to Mississippi State and Auburn in Weeks 2 and 3 would nudge him to the fringe of the discussion. And Fournette might not be able to get anyone’s attention again until November, given the weak middle portion of LSU’s schedule.
Johnson: Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia. Chubb may be the best running back in the country, but it seems unlikely he’ll be able to put up the stats necessary to stay in the race. The Bulldogs’ quarterback situation remains unsettled, and unless they can develop a competent passing game, opposing defenses will stack the box to stop Chubb.
Schnell: Cardale Jones, QB, Ohio State; J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State; Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State. Take your pick. Whoever wins the Heisman this year, I’m confident it won’t be one of them because each player’s star power will cancel out the others. That’s OK, though, because they’ll still be fun to watch.
Staples: Chubb. The Bulldogs are too loaded in the backfield for one guy to get enough run to last long in the Heisman race.
Thamel: Barrett or Jones. Whatever Buckeyes quarterback is standing on the sidelines on Monday night against Virginia Tech falls out of the race immediately.
Baumgaertner: Adoree’ Jackson, CB-WR-RET, USC. Reports have surfaced out of USC camp that the two-way super-athlete is having some of the best practices since Reggie Bush was on campus. With offensive coordinator Clay Helton in charge of calling plays, look for Jackson to line up all over the offense. Perhaps he’ll snag some interceptions on defense or return kickoffs for touchdowns, too. By the end of the year, he may be known as the nation’s most electric player.
Becht: Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA. Rosen takes over the best possible scenario for a true freshman quarterback: a star-studded offense that returns starters at every other spot but his. He can rely on Perkins to lead the offense while he gets up to speed and then distribute the ball to talented, proven receivers like Jordan Payton once he is comfortable. Since his winter enrollment, Rosen has completed an entire academic year of classes, and after going through winter, spring and summer workouts, he has the same amount of practice experience as a redshirt freshman who got hurt in the fall. He’s hardly your typical true freshman and can lead UCLA to a Pac-12 South title.
Ellis: Corey Clement, RB, Wisconsin. Yes, Clement nearly posted a 1,000-yard season last year, but that came in backup duty to Heisman runner-up Melvin Gordon. Now Clement is the top dog in new coach Paul Chryst’s offense. Given the Badgers’ recent history of backs like Gordon and Montee Ball, that’s great news for Clement, who should be one of the best rushers in the Big Ten.
Glicksman: Kalen Ballage, RB, Arizona State. Judging by Todd Graham’s comments about Ballage after spring ball—he called him the team’s MVP—and at Pac-12 media days—he told reporters, “We’re going to get our money’s worth out of him”—I’d say it’s a safe bet the 6’ 3”, 230-pound sophomore will be a critical cog in the Sun Devils’ 2015 plans. Ballage’s emergence at tailback helped facilitate D.J. Foster’s move to receiver, and he should also see some defensive snaps in pivotal pass-rushing situations.
Hamilton: Malik McDowell, DL, Michigan State. The former five-star recruit from Detroit played in 13 games as a true freshman, recording 15 tackles, 4.5 of which were for a loss. Between a full cycle of conditioning and an increased role, the Spartans should have a 6’6”, 275-pound emergent beast along their front line.
Johnson: Christian McCaffery, RB, Stanford. The son of former NFL wide receiver Ed McCaffery, Christian recorded only 42 carries and 17 receptions as a true freshman last year after arriving in Palo Alto as the No. 3 all purpose back in the country, according to Rivals.com. He’ll shine when given more opportunities to showcase his talent this season.
Schnell: Vernon Adams, QB, Oregon. He’s known for his escapability and making plays with his feet, but give him time in the pocket and he’ll dice defenses apart with his accuracy. Probably not a Heisman candidate, but a great story and an explosive playmaker.
Staples: Seth Russell, QB, Baylor. The Bears bring back almost everything around Russell, meaning he's going to put up ridiculous numbers.
Thamel: McCaffrey. The Stanford coaches are positively giddy about the potential of McCaffrey. He can run between the tackles, slide out to the slot and has bulked up enough to pass protect. He’ll get a lot of touches in a lot of ways.
Coach on the hottest seat
Baumgaertner: Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech. OK, maybe he isn’t on the hottest seat—that belongs squarely to Al Golden—but Kingsbury may be the hip new project that Tech needs to abandon. The Red Raiders lost a promising QB (Baker Mayfield) to a conference rival after Kingsbury’s first season, and they had a stunning regression in Kingsbury’s second season. Texas Tech didn’t just have a bad defense, it had an uncompetitive one. If Cal takes a third-year leap under Sonny Dykes, look for Tech to consider luring the son of legendary head coach Spike Dykes back to Lubbock.
Becht: Al Golden, Miami. We’ve already seen once coach fired this season. How long until the second? My guess is sometime in the middle of the season. Despite a squad of talented players—at least in the eyes of NFL scouts—Golden hasn’t shown he can mold that talent into a team that wins at the level expected of Miami. Faced with a rebuilt offensive line and ground game, the Hurricanes hardly look poised to break out this year. I don’t think Golden survives Miami’s challenging mid-season stretch of Nebraska, at Cincinnati, at Florida State, Virginia Tech and Clemson. If he does, it’ll likely be in name only.
Ellis: Golden. Miami is floating in mediocrity right now. Since starting 2013 with a 7–0 record, the Hurricanes are 8–11 with two straight bowl losses. Golden is also 16-16 in ACC play during his Miami tenure. He at least brings back quarterback Brad Kaaya, but not much else. If the Hurricanes can’t show major improvement in 2015, Golden will be looking for work.
Glicksman: Golden. It’s no secret, but Golden’s 8-11 record over Miami’s last 19 games isn’t cutting it. If the Hurricanes struggle again in 2015, Golden will likely be out of a job. Another issue: While Miami tends to start fast in each recruiting cycle, many of its top-rated commitments have flipped to rival schools before Signing Day. “If I’m a recruit, I’m looking at 100,000 people at a game in Alabama, and 30,000 at a game here,” Sedrick Irvin, the coach of Westminster Christian (Fla.) School, told the Miami Herald in February. “And there’s not an on-campus facility here.”
Hamilton: Golden. The 46-year-old Golden took over a sanction-riddled program, yes. But he just hasn’t been the best fit—you wonder if both sides recognize it—and now he’s coming off a 6-7 season and consecutive losses in middling bowl games. A significant uptick (nine wins? 10?) is needed to salvage this.
Johnson: Mike London, Virginia. London was a popular name on hot seat lists entering last season, and the Cavaliers posted a 5-7 record to fall short of bowl eligibility. Virginia will have a hard time matching—much less improving on—that win total in 2015. Its nonconference schedule includes games against UCLA, Notre Dame and Boise State.
Schnell: Golden. Did you know that when you type the words “Al Golden, Miami” into Google’s search engine one of the first options to pop up is “buyout”? He’s 28-22 in four years, but that’s not good enough at a place that used to be a powerhouse.
Staples: Golden. We all had Tim Beckman here originally, but Golden seems to be in a division title-or-bust season.
Thamel: Golden. It’s really hard to envision Golden back at Miami next year. The buzz out of Canes camps that the departure of marquee talent will be compensated by “better chemistry” is an ominous one.
Coach who will fare best in year one
Baumgaertner: Pat Narduzzi, Pittsburgh. Narduzzi has captivated a lifeless program and has a star player (wide receiver Tyler Boyd) who can elevate the team. Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst inherits the best team of any new coach, but Narduzzi brings the most life of any new hire.
Becht: Paul Chryst, Wisconsin. Coaching changes don’t get much better than the situation Chyrst inherits. He takes over a Wisconsin program that went 11–3 last year, draws a very favorable conference schedule and is built in much the same framework as the Badgers teams he worked with as offensive coordinator. Sure, the debut against Alabama is a bit of a challenge, but Wisconsin could be favored in every regular season game after that.Chryst should get a division title in year one.
Ellis: Chryst. Chryst inherits a well-oiled machine at Wisconsin. In the last six seasons, the Badgers have capped four double-digit win campaigns under two different head coaches. Chryst, who spent eight total seasons as an assistant in Madison, walks into a favorable schedule, as well: Meetings with Alabama and Nebraska are the primary obstacles in the way of another 10-win season.
Glicksman: Narduzzi. The ACC Coastal Division is wide open. Narduzzi brings instant credibility to a defense—his Michigan State units ranked 22nd, 3rd, 9th and 10th, respectively, in scoring defense over the last four seasons—while Pitt returns two of the nation’s premier offensive playmakers in tailback James Conner and Boyd. That has the makings of an impressive debut, especially considering the Panthers avoid both Florida State and Clemson in conference play.
Hamilton: Chryst. This isn’t to say the coach who went 19-19 at Pittsburgh will bring multiple championships to Madison. But Chryst enjoys uncommon continuity for a first-year guy: He has the personnel to run what he wants, he retained defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and, after Alabama in Week 1, there’s not a game in which the Badgers will be a decided underdog.
Johnson: Narduzzi. Narduzzi took his first head coaching job this offseason after orchestrating a string of fearsome defenses at Michigan State. He should upgrade Pitt’s prospects on that side of the ball right away, and the Panthers return some talent on offense, including Conner and Boyd.
Schnell: Mike Bobo, Colorado State. Life’s good—and playcalling much easier—when Rashard Higgins is on your team. The last two years, the receiver has caught 164 passes for 2,587 yards and 23 touchdowns. The last SEC coordinator (now Florida coach Jim McElwain) did well in Fort Collins, and Bobo will continue the streak.
Staples: Narduzzi. If Golden doesn't win that Coastal Division title, Narduzzi just might. Even if he only has the Panthers in the hunt, that's a great year one.
Thamel: Chad Morris, SMU. Morris has the best chance to pull off a decisive turnaround. He inherited the debris from a 1-11 program and things can only get better. Morris is a great fit at SMU and he’ll start maximizing the potential there by showing marked improvement this season.
Biggest playoff controversy this year
Baumgaertner: None. If Baylor finds itself frozen out again, then it should blame itself for another laughable non-conference schedule.
Becht: I’ll double-down and pick two. First, with fewer than four teams with one loss or loss, the playoff committee will be forced to pick a two-loss team, ensuring every other two-loss team cries foul. Making matters worse, the committee must then weigh a one-loss Michigan State team who didn’t win the Big Ten but whose only loss is to undefeated Ohio State against other two-loss conference champions. Sorry, Jeff Long.
Ellis: Notre Dame will seriously flirt with a playoff spot. A number of coaches have already called on the Irish to join a conference before being allowed in the playoff. This season coach Brian Kelly’s team will be built to contend against a difficult schedule. But if that means two Power Five leagues could miss the playoff, expect more coaches to criticize Notre Dame’s lack of a conference title.
Glicksman: Only three Power Five teams will finish the regular season with one loss or fewer, meaning the committee will be tasked with picking the fourth participant from a crowded group of two-loss contenders. Is a team’s best win more important than its worst loss? Which league deserves the benefit of the doubt? The race for the final playoff spot will always be the subject of debate, but a bunch of squads with similar résumés will only make that discussion more polarizing come December.
Hamilton: Preseason camps hadn’t even opened and Notre Dame’s lack of a 13th game was causing agita everywhere. I think it might be a moot issue, because I think the Irish go 10-2. But if they’re at 11-1 after a season-ending trip to Stanford, and that loss isn’t fatally embarrassing, they very much will be a playoff contender. And if a similarly worthy Pac-12 or Big Ten or SEC team misses a playoff spot because of a league championship-game result? The outrage will blacken the skies and turn rivers into gushing torrents of flame.
Johnson: What if Boise State enters the playoff discussion? It’d have to go undefeated, and potential Power Five candidates would need to finish the season with weak résumés. If that happens, expect fans to argue that the Broncos don’t deserve to get in because they’re a member of the Mountain West and play a soft schedule.
Schnell: Two Power Fives get left out, chaos ensues. The cries for an 8-team playoff get louder as the Pac-12 and ACC lick their wounds, Notre Dame wonders if it should stop being an independent and Jim Delany smiles smugly.
Staples: A Power Five team not from the Big 12 will get left out, and once again Power Five commissioners will look at one another and try to figure out how on earth they sat in the same room for so many hours and came up with a system that automatically leaves out one of them. Then they'll try to figure out how quickly they can pull off the playoff expansion that they'll swear they're not doing right up until the moment they approve it.
Thamel: I’ll plagiarize myself here. If Notre Dame reaches the playoff, it will be a key trigger to the playoff eventually expanding. Also, if the Big 12 gets left out again that’ll get folks nervous. Five leagues will never fit neatly into four spots.
A bold prediction
Baumgaertner: Well, I already have Stanford in the playoff and LSU in the title game. Another one? Fine. If LSU doesn’t win the SEC West, then Texas A&M will.
Becht: I’m not predicting an SEC team to win the national championship, but the conference will still manage to prove it’s the best in the country. Two SEC teams will win New Year’s Six bowls, and the conference will claim a sizeable majority of all of its postseason games.
Ellis: South Carolina struggles in the SEC for the second straight year with an unstable quarterback situation and a soft defense. After bowl season, Steve Spurrier decides he doesn’t want to face more off-season questions about his future. Thus, the Head Ball Coach announces he will retire after the 2016 season, allowing for a transition period in which the Gamecocks tab a suitable replacement.
Glicksman: Behind NFL darling Jared Goff and a high-flying offense, Cal will open the year 5-0 with wins at Texas and at Washington. The Bears’ quest for perfection won’t last—they play five teams ranked in the preseason AP Poll from Oct. 22-Nov. 28—but Sonny Dykes’s squad will upset a few Pac-12 powers en route to a 8-4 finish.
Hamilton: Jim Harbaugh makes non-generic comments about a specific Michigan player’s ability or performance by the end of the season.
Johnson: The SEC will get shut out of the playoff. The conference features a number of very good teams—but no great ones. All of the SEC’s playoff contenders will be tripped up at least once during league play, while several squads from other Power Five conferences will emerge as strong candidates. Paul Finebaum will have taken a screenshot of this blurb by the time you read it.
Schnell: The ex-Baylor soccer player raped last fall by football transfer Sam Ukwuachu takes BU to court, wins a landmark case and coaches everywhere adopt the policy that if you have a violent history off the field, you’re not playing for them. As a result, campuses across the country become safer for young women. Hey, I can dream.
Staples: Two defensive players will be finalists for the Heisman Trophy. One of them will be Ohio State linebacker Darron Lee.
Thamel: If Jones wins Ohio State’s starting quarterback job, Elliott wins the Heisman Trophy. The Buckeyes offense would be less reliant on a quarterback running for yards, meaning that Elliott would carry a bigger load.